Sans Taste, Sans Everything: The Hills and Accidental Acting

In Culture on August 17, 2010 at 3:23 pm

“We’re actors.  We’re the opposite of people.”
— The Player, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

-by James DeFord

         The first rule of being filmed is: don’t look at the camera.  The camera, the cameraman, the whole crew — pretend that you don’t even know they’re there. Act natural.  And yet, setting aside the oxymoronic and grammatical awkwardness of that phrase, standing in front of a camera is the least natural thing most people will ever do.  Think about it: a device is aimed at you that specifically directs all attention towards you. Not just the attention of everyone in the same vicinity as you, but also the laserbeam attention of an uncountable number of future people, all watching everything you do, repeating it as many times as they like, forever. This device also, by definition, creates the frame and context in which you will appear; you’re not only the center of attention, you’re the center of an attention that is unnaturally narrowed.  You are not just observed but examined. And so your own attention and consciousness turns violently inward.  You freeze, so obsessed with acting “natural”, so preoccupied with pretending that the camera isn’t the only thing you can think of, that you are incapable of any authentic act.  Incapable, most of all, of being yourself.  

         Except not so much any more.  Look at any home movies or amateur snapshots that are more than ten years old, and find a gallery of people afraid of the camera.  They put their hands over their eyes, grinned with shame and hide their faces.  They pushed their palms at the camera like a prisoner being frog-marched from the courtroom.  Sometimes they just stared into the lens like deer.  What happened?  Every cell phone has a decent still camera in it now; many can shoot video.  Those pictures or clips can be posted seamlessly to Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, a dozen other places.  Now people on film seem casual and self-possessed.  They seem natural.  What changed?  We appear to have finally gotten over our atavistic cultural fear that cameras will steal our souls.  How? Why?

         I had a hunch that the answer was reality TV.  Which is why I decided to sit down and watch the first five seasons of The Hills, all at once.

         If you aren’t familiar with the show, congratulations.  The Hills is an MTV-produced show, a spin-off of one of the network’s earlier reality experiments, Laguna Beach: the Real Orange County.  Where Laguna Beach observed its characters as they went about their obnoxiously privileged high school lives, The Hills tracks a few rich California kids as they figure out what to do with themselves after high school, and is exactly as dull as that sounds.  It sparked the careers of Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, who have successfully done nothing else except humiliate themselves. But as The Real World begat Road Rules, and as those two shows together begat the competitive, broadcast-network-style reality show epitomized by The Bachelor on one hand and Elimidate on the other, so has The Real World spawned Laguna Beach, and so has Laguna Beach spawned The Hills, and The Hills spawned The City and arguably Jersey Shore so on.  It’s worth examining what makes reality TV work, since it’s collected so much of the cultural mind-share by this point.  And The Hills happens to be the (to date) highest evolution of a certain species of reality show — the documentary-style reality show, which asks its actors to ignore the camera.  Reality TV of this type has altered how we engage with each other culturally and regard ourselves personally, so whether or not the show is crap, whether or not it’s boring and listless and mawkish and craven and predicated on a big lie, is irrelevant.  It’s all of those things.  But it’s also important.  And so examining it is also important.

         The Hills stars a variety of young, white women who are referred to by their first names.  The first season revolves around Lauren and Heidi, their apartment in LA, their jobs and their relationships.  Other actors come and go at varying paces.  After four episodes or so it settles into a rhythm of sorts: the two main characters are growing apart, and they go through various disagreements, some of which are resolved but most of which just fester.  Lauren is the more hardworking of the two, and the show clearly presents her as a moral example.  The Hills has no problem identifying both a hero and a villain.  By the end of the season, Lauren has decided to turn down a career-advancing position in order to stay with her high school sweetheart, and Heidi explicitly resolves to do nothing but party, whatever that means.

         Season 2 opens with Lauren having already broken up with her boyfriend.  She and Heidi spends most of the next dozen episodes ticking off the ways they hate each other and spending nauseating amounts of money.  Spencer is introduced, and everyone in both the cast and seemingly the production crew hate him. In fact, everyone who knows or sees him hates him, which makes him a very effective television character. Season 3 is interminable and really focuses the microscope on how shrill and catastrophic Heidi and Spencer are. By season 4 the whole framework of the show has spun itself to pieces — character show up, do one thing, and leave to never be mentioned again; the two main narrative arcs of the show dissociate completely; things happen without context or reference  The show is badly fragmented and aggressive in its disdain for the audience. And in the viewer, a realization slowly dawns.  

         At first The Hills seemed to at least give a head-fake towards its documentary mission.  Sure, there were clues.  It was clear from the way it was edited together that these people weren’t just being followed around with agenda-less cameras.  They were being guided, directed to act a certain way, to do certain things.  It wasn’t clear whether that direction was implicit or explicit.  But as the episodes marched on and on, it took on a different character. Maybe because the show’s production team was forced to put together situations and cut together footage in order to turn something like real life into something like a watchable show (examples: how many times do characters receive surprise phone calls from people who also happen to have a film crew standing next to them? How many conversations, in order to get the camera angles they use on the show, must have been repeated over and over? How do you get someone to record voice-over narration for scenes where they personally got dumped, fired, betrayed?). That’s certainly part of it. But more than that, the actors feel stiff, distant. Their dialogue is clunky and somehow sounds over-rehearsed. The show purports to be real and unscripted; the whole idea is that we, as the viewers, are watching normal people behaving normally, who just happened to be on film. So why do they seem so unnatural?

         By the beginning of season 3 The Hills began to feel like abandoned.  The characters weren’t just being deceptively edited, they were being openly mocked.  The production team knew the characters were hateful, and that viewers turned in (in large part) in order to get some cathartic relief by hating them.  And the show wanted us to know it was in on the joke. Heidi and Spencer (and the other characters) lurch blindly from one crisis to the next, never quite finishing anything, never exactly figuring out what happened.  Imagine a sitcom in which the actors hate the writers, and vice versa. Imagine that it’s about to be cancelled. Imagine further that every episode of that sitcom was filmed as 30 minutes long, but only the middle 18 minutes ever make it to air.  That’s The Hills, season 3 and afterwards.

         Of course, reality TV has always been in on the joke. The rise of reality TV in the late ‘90s and early 2000s is simple to explain. Here, I’ll do it in thirteen words: the shows are cheap; cheap shows mean more ad money per rating percentile. And reality shows were never composed in earnest, although they were marketed that way; the winner of Joe Millionaire, the first big network reality TV success, dumped the star immediately after the show wrapped and split the prize money with him. The Bachelor has run for fourteen seasons, at the conclusion of each of which the prenominate bachelor chooses a woman to be in a relationship with, and as of today each of those fourteen relationships has ended. The highest American Idol ratings are always highest for the episodes where the ridiculous, stunty not-a-chance contestants are weeded out. The makers of reality TV know that we watch because we laugh at and mock the people on it. That’s not part of the appeal; it’s the whole appeal. Pity poor Flavor Flav.

         But there’s a truth underneath that one, too. The people on these shows just seem unreal.  Not that they’re self-centered, shallow, greedy, bland.  Who isn’t.  Not even that they seem posed and intended, even while on a show that’s ostensibly about showing them at their most real.  It’s that they don’t seem to realize that they’re posed.  They are actors who don’t know they’re acting.  And, again, it’s not just the editing; they’re living out a thin soap opera plot, seemingly without realizing it, seemingly while thinking that they’re acting like normal people.  That they’re behaving as normal people do.  

         The Hills presents the viewer with an intimate look at a specific kind of person. The cast members of the show, immensely privileged and in their early twenties, have had television and movie actors as personal role models their entire lives. To a greater or lesser extent, we all have. Characters on TV and in movies are, as the cliché would have it, “bigger than life”, mostly because we see less of them than we do of people in our real lives. All we see are their perfect moments, the best possible takes. They take on mythic, totemic significance, in a way that our friends and relatives can’t. And so we integrate the actions of these huge characters into our own personalities and attitudes.

         But actors, when they’re acting, are pretending to be real. An actor’s whole job is to make you believe that she is the person she is pretending to be. She strives to be realistic, to seem natural. There’s nothing natural about acting. Example: an actor, pretending to have a secret, has to signify that to the audience, and so she darts her eyes around, wipes away sweat, stutters her lines. The other actors she’s performing with have to pretend like nothing is unusual about her behavior, but to the viewer it’s obvious; she’s hiding something. Acting isn’t about being real; it’s about giving a certain impression. And the way acting entertains us relies on us, as the viewers, ignoring some oddness and idiosyncrasy.

         That doesn’t make for a great model. When we learn to be people by watching actors, we tend to magnify and exaggerate that oddness rather than understanding that it’s meant to be a theatrical technique and ignoring it. We act like people who are acting like us.

         And so now The Hills, as apotheosis of reality TV, presents us with a television program that stars people pretending to not pretend (they know they’re pretending, as we all know when a camera is pointed at our faces) which they learned to do by watching professional pretenders pretending not to pretend. And we will learn how to pretend not to pretend from them, too, whether we want to or not. Now we can’t even learn how to live authentic lives from each other, because not enough people are actually around, living authentic lives, to model.

         Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that reality TV is bad, that it’s destructive or dangerous.  It is, but that’s not the point.  I’m not even saying that reality TV isn’t real; it isn’t, but that’s not a novel thesis.   It’s not just that reality TV isn’t real — there is no “real” for reality TV to be anymore. Acted TV is an imitation of an imitation of reality. Reality TV is a parody of that imitation. And The Hills manages to be an earnest imitation of that parody while not being aware that it’s parody at all. We have closed the loop of simulation. There no longer is any difference between creation and representation, between making and documenting.  And so when you turn the camera on us now, yes, we act natural.  That’s all we know how to do. We spend our entire lives in character, always remembering not to look at the camera, even when the camera isn’t there, was never there, never will be.  We erased the distinction between the map and the territory, and as a result we aren’t living, anymore; we’re pretending to live.  All of us actors, all the world truly at last a stage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: