the hills aftershow

August 27, 2007

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during the second season of “the hills,” i watched an episode of the web-only aftershow and found it somewhat charming. mtv came up with a genius concept; instead of being shot in a studio, the show was filmed in the living rooms and the bedrooms of the girls who made up its audience. the host wasn’t that great and the girls weren’t TV ready, but there was an intimacy to it. the stars of “the hills” didn’t visit, they made a phone call and all the girls gathered around the speaker. it was nice, the warm and fuzzy flannel pajamas version of interaction between media and audience.

now the aftershow has gone primetime and everything that made it good is gone, has been steamrolled and glossed over. while the previous season, though hosted on mtv’s overdrive video site, was a close facsimile of actual youtube user-created content (a single camera, a postage stamp sized window, bad lighting, a homey location), this season is a big budget, high production behemoth. mtv tries to have their cake and eat it too vis-a-vis the whole youtube, user-created aesthetic, and that’s where things go down the toilet.

the show opens strong. what seems at first like it could be a normal highlight montage quickly becomes a video mashup, with a sample of whitney saying “red flag” being dropped in rhythmically to footage of audrina and justinbobby and eventually being looped, over and over, to another loop of justinbobby herking and jerking his hair around silently. it’s funny, it’s startling, it’s a great hard open.

(although, edit, i found out trawling youtube that this is not a new thing, that it’s called “the hills: video remix.” the absolute apex of the technique can be seen here:

it’s kind of the anti-emoticlip.)

then there’s the overview of what’s going to happen in the show, done in these solarized flipbooks with cartoon speech bubble captions . it kind of looks like old animated .gifs from 1993. it seems such an awkward attempt at playing with the texture of video; the open already set the viewer up for standard resolution video and then there’s this weird stylization for no apparent reason. the hills is about gorgeous images, beautifully rendered – this doctoring makes a mockery of them and doesn’t gain anything tangible for it. later, one of the hosts draws on the image in what i must see as an attempt at a perez hilton style sight gag, but instead it comes across way more monday night football and, trust me, that is not a nice accessory to be wearing, hills.

the bulk of the show takes place in a carefully dressed auditorium, in front of a live studio audience. the stage is done up as some sort of coldly hip simulacra of a living room, with three brightly patterned couches and a weird modular coffee table, like something out of a bauhaus ikea. the table is covered with brightly colored drinks in oversized martini glasses that nobody ever touches probably because they’re filled with toxic chemicals so they shine brighter.

there are two hosts, a fangirl and a fangay, the both of them awkward and slightly endearing with regards to their awkwardness, but kind of loud and annoying also. on the two other couches are a carefully selected group of nicely dressed, attractive girls and one metro guy. in theory it all fits perfectly, but in practice there’s no charm, no elegance to it.

what’s great about the hills is how to the point it is. it’s so condensed, content packed; there’s no time to meander, to screw around. this is the opposite of that. it’s bulky and awkward and and a half hour and what do you learn from it? the only informational tidbit that has stuck with me from the entire thing is that justinbobby plays drums for a band. great.

halfway through the show, there’s another little video piece, the scene with heidi and spencer cut together into a monster movie parody. it’s good for maybe half a chuckle, but again, it’s not user-created content, it’s a simulation of it, with all the interesting outsider art aspects that define it rounded out by some MTV intern on final cut pro. this is the having the cake and eating it too thing. either go whole hog one way and use actual user created content, like home videos of the show’s viewers or maybe those things on youtube where people put their favorite song behind a homemade montage of the show, or go whole hog and give us well made original content: deleted scenes, raw footage, backstage stuff (like those tours of their apartments that the girls gave online during the first season). this middle ground bears no fruit.

the one sign of life later in the show is the only moment where actual fans are allowed on by webcam, in a four way split screen. they’re yelling and excited and it’s unruly and it’s not really anything like the hills at all, it’s not subtle, but at least is something that feels like something that could be real, all these girls in their homemade tee-shirts, the older ones obviously drunk, the younger ones drunk on the excitement of being on TV.

in the player is my cover of “the modern age” by the strokes. i am going to continue to post strokes covers with some of my hills posts in order to make apparent their aesthetic resonances. for example, the lyrics to this song begin, “up on a hill.” how much more can these things have in common?

also, i just got a myspace and i have 0 friends. it’s sad. if you like the music, please add me.

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at first, i was really disappointed with this third episode of the season. the first scene with heidi and elodie was a clear example of why using dialogue for exposition is bad, especially when it’s rehashing what we’ve just seen thirty seconds prior in the scenes from last week. the scene was just this blah blah motormouth junk; weird cuts, overlapping voices, et cetera. not really appealing at all.

yet there was interest even in the junk, in one of those weird meta-reality moments that gently strokes the fourth wall of the show. like, during this rush of boring dialogue, heidi mentions in passing spencer’s hollywood sign and elodie says “you don’t know he spraypainted on the wall”. she doesn’t say, “didn’t i tell you that he spraypainted on the wall?”, she says “you don’t know?” as if elodie, instead of heidi’s friend, is someone who watches the hills and happened to miss the season premiere, and so has to be caught up.

but on the whole, the episode seemed so compressed and rushed. the form of the show is obvious if you pay attention – series of establishing shots, scene plays out, overlapping music that hints either lyrically or musically or both at the emotional core of either previous scene or next scene (technique taken from ‘real world’ 101 and refined to aesthetic perfection) over series of establishing shots of next scene, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat…closing shots of hollywood hills. usually the technique is so good that this form becomes near transparent, like shrink wrap around evian. but there were so many short scenes today that the music and arhythmic editing really became overwhelming. the editing didn’t feel like it was, for the most part, being done for continuity or for natural rhythm, but to try to force a quicker rhythm on the scenes than they could accommodate, resulting in things feeling choppy and disjointed.

besides being rushed, the episode focused on the machinations of a minor character (i like audrina, but she’s not there yet) and her boyfriend who nobody gives a shit about besides l.c.. if this was the attempt to set out audrina as a sort of third lead who can carry an episode, on the level of heidi or l.c., sorry, she’s not there yet. there were exactly two great parts to this episode that are things that are exemplary of the things that make the hills better than anything else.

1. two brief shots of lauren’s face at the dinner where justin-bobby is such an asshole. they happen right when he’s making his beery joke about how he really wants to date lauren and is just using audrina to get to her. there’s this pregnant pause and the camera cuts from a medium two shot of justin-bobby and audrina to a close-up of lauren. and her eyes kind of bop over from j.b. to audrina and then bounce back a little from the effort, as if to kind of say “what is this crap, audrina? i told you i was right about him, what an asshole, etc.” so then the camera cuts back to the couple and audrina bursts the bubble of the joke and says like “you’re such an asshole” and he does his “i am greasy but in a slightly attractive kind of way” laugh. the camera cuts back to lauren, same angle as before. and this time, her eyes hold for a second and then fall to the table, as if to say “could anyone seriously love me? what’s my problem?” it’s loneliness, it’s vulnerability, it’s worry about the future, and it’s all in this little movement of her eye.

2. the tiny, incredible scene with heidi painting over the hollywood mural in the apartment. this is the hills following the rules of drama to great effect; using action to define and advance character.

so, after the scene with audrina getting wooed by that incredible line by j.b. as he rocks back and forth on his bar stool like an over-caffeinated twelve year old (“i think truth and time tells all” he says, “so heres to truth and time”, audrina says, smile, cut), the opening notes of “the greatest” by cat power begin to play. the music increases in volume.

shots 1 and 2: cars driving on sunset in the dark, their headlights blowing out into the camera and making little colorful lens flares in the lower right part of the frame, christmas lights twinkling like the high notes on the piano in the song.

shot 3: obligatory opening shot with title card of heidi and spencer’s apartment.

shot 4: close-up of paint roller in tray. the camera tracks up gently, diagonally, along the roller. it feels strange, liquid, like floating, partly because of the music and partly because the camera in the hills is usually static or moving within very short ranges, but this is different, smooth, rising, until we see heidi’s profile. the song has overtaken the scene; we don’t hear the roller squeaking in the tray, we’re in heidi’s head, feeling her emotion via the song.

shot 5: static shot of heidi from the opposite direction, completely breaking the 180 degree rule but the scene benefits from the shock of it. her eyes are all quiet determination, but we’re not even watching her face, we’re seeing her arms move, we’re seeing physical strength, emotion through the movement of the body

shot 6: static shot of the hollywood mural, with the gelatin aquarium to the right

shot 7: the camera, again, floating upwards from heidi’s feet, quickly up to her waist level, then slowing down as it continues to track up to her head. she’s raising the roller up above her head, to its apex, as the song drops just to chan’s voice before the chorus

shot 8: the camera cuts to a wide shot of the wall exactly as the strings rise all around and the drums kick their way into the chorus and heidi, barely visible at the left edge, rolls a streak of triumphant white over the center of the mural.

shot 9: back to heidi’s upper body, where the camera ended up in shot 7, tracking slightly up and down to follow her as she moves the roller along the wall, the music at her back

shot 10: extreme close-up of the wall, white paint now covering the mural as the roller slides through the frame

shot 11: back to shot 7/9, heidi rolling along

shot 12: flipside of heidi, who continues to paint as spencer enters the aparment and ruptures the moment, saying “yo yo”. heidi says it back and smiles and the music has dropped out but it doesn’t matter because it’s inside her and she’s done what she has to do. as he approaches, he’s weak; she’s holding the foreground and he’s stuck in the back.

it’s like some virginia wolff rhapsodic rush thing but better because heidi actually does something instead of just fantasizing about it and then buying a duvet.

in the player is a cover of the song “12:51” by the strokes. i don’t know anything about playing keyboards and i think it shows. even though it’s not hip to like them after the third album, the strokes are still one of my favorite bands and very important to me personally. the music of the strokes is a perfect east coast parallel to the hills: they’re both cool, compressed, highly stylized representations of the decadence of the young privileged class. this is the kind of pop culture that i love, all beautiful surfaces, tiny problems and joys blown up like those brilliant silver balloons you see in old warhol footage. i tried a long time to find the equivalent of this kind of thing in literature, just filthy rich manhattanites blowing their trust funds on expensive thrills and having fun, weightless conversations and stolen scotch and every dated cliche that is so attractive to someone who is southern and middle class down to the underwear. i thought salinger would be it and there are flashes of what i want in “franny and zoey” but he’s way too emo. cheever does it for me sometimes, but he was too old even when he was young. mcinerney, no, bret east ellis i’ve never read but i heard so many bad things.
soon i hope to write about the hills aftershow, which was almost as interesting as the show itself.