Tickling and teasing the real: mocking reality TV in the film Series 7.
--Jean-Luc Godard, 2005
Both reality TV and mockumentary film can be regarded as (conscious or unconscious) responses to the dilemma touched on by Godard: the spectacular trumping the documentary aspects of cinema. However, they each respond in different ways. While reality TV tickles the real so as to tantalize its audience with a version of supposedly unscripted, unrehearsed reality, mockumentary teases the real by using familiar cinematic tropes to masquerade as authentic documentary. What does all this filmic tickling and teasing of reality say about what Bill Nichols (2001) refers to as the "sobriety" of nonfiction film? Although both forms play fast and loose with notions of factuality, authenticity, and realism, I argue that reality TV is tickling nonfiction into a giddy, intoxicated state, while mockumentary is doing just the opposite: by way of satire, comedy, and the absurd, mockumentary teases so as to see if we still have our wits about us.
Testing our wits becomes a significant factor in accounting for the current popularity and appeal of mockumentary since this genre situates the audience in a self-reflexive stance. Contemporary viewers of nonfiction film and television approach and digest these established forms of cinematic realism with a greater degree of skepticism than a Griersonian-era audience. Unless we are completely duped into blindly regarding cinematic forms of faux- and quasi-realism as genuine, there is a significant degree of suspicion adopted by the audience. A heightened degree of skepticism towards the realism in mockumentary and realtiy TV likely comes from several sources. As Hight and Roscoe have suggested, the mock-documentary has prompted some of this suspicion towards cinematic realism, serving as "both symptom and cause in the construction of an increasingly reflexive position, for the viewer, in relation to factual discourse" (12). Mark Andrejevic's scholarship on reality TV has similarly hinted that through an increased ability to self-identify with reality TV characters (since they are not actors, but 'ordinary' people) viewers are positioned in a more self-reflexive stance than when viewing fiction (9).
In addition to the self-awareness of the audience, I further argue that two other attributes to mockumentary contribute to the sense of immediacy and import for critiquing aspects of contemporary society: the visual affinity to documentary realism and the cinesthetic memory of our bodily and intellectual responses to watching documentaries.
Reality TV and mockumentary film--while being different forms of visual discourse--both embody and pretend an unusual relationship between sign and referent, and thus create tensions between performance and naturalism, between what is suggested to be factual and what is constructed for the cameras. In doing so, the popularity of each prompts us to consider what is so compelling about these fake and constructed forms of "realistic" media. By examining a mockumentary--not of a documentary film but--of a reality TV program (Daniel Minahan's Series 7: The Contenders, 2000) I explore how this film uses its fake stature as a means to create a biting commentary on reality TV and, more specifically, on how many of these shows fetishize voyeurism, competition, human struggle, and suffering. As such Minahan's film puts forth an implicit commentary on larger sociological issues, such as the crisis in late-capitalism, gender relations, and society's lust for, and blind obedience to, rules.
I am not using the words tickling and teasing only for poetic flair, but because both evoke a very strong corporeal nature to the relationship between the audience and the fake and constructed forms of reality that both mockumentary and reality TV produce. In addition to providing a textual analysis of Series 7, I elaborate on student reactions to viewing the film; as a mockumentary of a reality TV program these viewers expressed experiencing strong visceral responses to the program/film, due to its teasing of the audience's sensibilities. This "experiment"--conducted at two different universities--produced two significant findings: 1) that strong emotional and visceral responses to the film enabled students to (temporarily) suspend their disbelief, and 2) that students felt that viewing this piece of mock reality TV inspired them to adopt a more critical eye towards reality TV programs in general. Prior to elaborating further on Series 7 it is necessary to address what is unique to how reality TV and mockumentary film both play fast and loose with the Real.
THE LOOK AND THE FEEL OF ECSTATIC TRUTH
Do mockumentary films masquerade convincingly as nonfiction because of their look or their feel? That is, by borrowing from the visual tropes of direct cinema, is there only a visual affinity to nonfiction or is something else at work? Mockumentary's close visual kinship with direct cinema produces reactions in the viewer usually associated with viewing a work of nonfiction. Part of the power and appeal of making social criticisms with mockumentary film is that our suspension of disbelief is not as volatile as when viewing fiction. One could argue that other forms of cinematic realism, such as Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, the Danish Dogme 95, and Casavettes' impromptu direction, elicit an equal sense of believability, breaking down the viewer's critical stance with their apparent unrehearsed scenes, raw emotional content, and haphazard camera work. But what distinguishes mockumentary from these other forms of cinematic realism is that these films do not pretend that a profilmic version of what we see on screen even exists. I am not suggesting that audiences are easily duped into "believing" what they see in the mockumentary is real, but rather that our critical stance is continually challenged--and at times breached--due to the pretense that what we are seeing is real. Our critical stance is breached when the film achieves a significant degree of what German filmmaker Werner Herzog refers to as "Ecstatic Truth." (1) Herzog's concept of ecstatic truth is useful for discussing the unique relationship between sign and referent within the mockumentary film. When it comes to the "realism" of mockumentary the ecstatic truth may rest in the very unique visceral and emotional experiences of the audience.
A brief mention of Arild Fetveit's discussion on the age-old tension between illustration and evidence regarding photographic and cinematic images enables us to appreciate the ground (although contestable) upon which we can distinguish between fiction and nonfiction: "Inherent in the fabric of photographic images seems to lie an unresolvable tension between the illustrative and the evidential, the iconic and the indexical" (123). This statement implies that nonfiction films privilege evidence over illustration, while tiction films privilege illustration over evidence. With this basic dichotomy established, how then do mockumentary films fiddle with this relationship between illustration and evidence? Here is where Herzog's notion of ecstatic truth can be of service.
During an interview with TimeOut London, Herzog provided the following thoughts on ecstatic truth in film:
I've always postulated, not just in documentaries but in my feature films as well, that reality is a superficial layer and what we should be looking out for is a deep strata of truth. I've always been after what I call an ecstatic truth. It is very strange because this term has caught on and it has spread like wildfire, almost everyone talks about it. The background to all of this is that there is a very real necessity for redefining reality (Werner Herzog, quoted in Aftab).
Films that expose this "deep strata of truth" do not necessarily take a nonfiction form. Mockumentary film produces a different kind of relationship between sign and referent than in fiction: the mockumentary (as sign) pretends to have a closer relationship to the referent due to its adoption of the cinematic tropes of direct cinema. Yet, since there is no referent to index, the referent and the sign become one in the same. What is unique to the mockumentary is this idea of ecstatic truth that Herzog uses to describe his films: the sticky relationship between sign and referent matters less in the service of truthfulness than the primal emotional connection the viewer has with the film. This sense of primal emotional connection has profound potential.
According to German cinematographer and long-time Herzog collaborator Peter Zeitlinger, the raw, documentary-like look of Herzog's films is incorporated so as to get at the raw feel of connecting with something that is true and real: "Now I understand; he [Herzog] doesn't want to have it this way--perfect. He wouldn't care if, in a single scene, there was sun and then not sun! He wants to have it imperfect so that it gets a kick of feeling like a documentary that you somehow couldn't manage to film it better. It makes everything onscreen seem real" (Zeitlinger quoted in the New Yorker, April 24, 2006). Like Herzog's approach to film, the mockumentary filmmaker--by creating an apparently imperfect and raw cinematic look--appears to collapse the distance between sign and referent, and by doing so scratches at this ecstatic truth.
When examining a mockumentary film that is not necessarily masquerading as a form of direct cinema, but more specifically, as a form of reality television, the relationship between sign and referent becomes even more curious.
Elimination-Based Reality TV as Melodramatic Sport
Somewhere between Bill Nichols's claim that all films are documentaries and Trinh Minh-ha's unapologetic exclamation that "There is no such thing as documentary" remains the conundrum of realty-based television. If all films are indeed documentaries (that is, according to Nichols, they are either formal documentaries or serve as indexical documents that reveal something about the culture in which they are produced) then the same logic can be applied to television programs as well, begging the question "What do reality TV shows say about contemporary American society?" By mocking this television genre, Minahan's film proposes some answers: a society obsessed with voyeurism and with watching people suffer for the sake of "real" entertainment.
Survivor, and other elimination-based reality television shows such as Big Brother and The Bachelor, exist as narrative cross-pollinations of professional sport, game shows, and soap operas. As such, they might be more accurately described as melodramatic sport. Like sport, these are real events but take place within controlled environments where rules must be obeyed. And while the general outcome of such events might be predictable (someone always ends up winning) the drama derives from the undetermined ebb and flow of the game. Further, the manner in which such televisual spectacles are presented mines every factoid for accentuating the dramatic. Further, there is an almost sadistic quality to how these shows sensationalize and, thus, dehumanize conflict, emotional suffering (2), and acts of violence for the sake of entertainment.
Murray and Ouellette described reality TV as "an unabashedly commercial genre united less by aesthetic rules or certainties than by the fusion of popular entertainment with self-conscious claim to the discourse of the real" (2). According to Andrejevic, in his book, Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, "The promise of reality TV is not that of access to unmediated reality (the positivist promise) so much as it is the promise of access to the reality of mediation" (215). What is real about reality television is the mediation of what Haralovich and Trosset refer to as "carefully engineered circumstances" (80). For an elimination-based program such as Survivor, these carefully engineered circumstances are a mix of "game and adventure with drama" (76).
In absence of the sense of public service that is typically associated with forms of nonfiction film and television, reality TV--and especially so with gamedocs--exists as pure indulgence (Murray and Ouellette 2-3). In absence of a narrative, the on-screen events are not intended to be justified, questioned, or argued--just consumed. Crafted in this manner, these shows take away the essential elements of social responsibility and reflection associated with documentary film (Nichols). In short, reality TV eliminates the humanity that is required in anything that is truly real.
I must pause to say that in no way do I wish to suggest that reality TV and mockumentary are one in the same, nor to even suggest that mockumentary is of a similar low-brow ilk as reality TV. Even though both pretend to collapse the distance between sign and referent, they do so in different ways in respect to their audience: mockumentary lets us in on the ruse, while reality TV pretends there is no ruse taking place. In fact, with many mockumentaries (such as Bunuel's Land Without Bread, Jacir's Like Twenty Impossibles, Belvaux and Bonzel's Man Bites Dog, Robbins' Bob Roberts, Block's No Lies, Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, and Minahan's Series 7) the 'deception' of realism is employed in order to make social commentary, and therefore implies a far greater sense of public service than reality TV. In short, mockumentaries that offer social critiques creatively and purposefully use deception in a manner that never fully assumes the naivet6 of the audience in the way that reality TV does.
SOCIAL CRITIQUE IN SERIES 7
Mockumentary films use conventions of the nonfiction film in order to "access realms of purpose, relationship, and expectation typically unavailable to narrative filmmakers" (Juhasz and Lerner 8). Adopting this format / genre of fakeness allows mockumentary filmmakers to do something quite out of the ordinary: to pose social questions and criticisms in the guise of nonfiction cinematic discourse that suggests a different sense of purpose and worth than fiction film.
Series 7 utilizes acts of extreme violence in order to critique contemporary American society. The film's violence also serves as a cautionary statement on the direction that elimination-based reality television shows might be headed and how desensitized audiences have become towards human suffering for the sake of entertainment (3). (Interestingly, Minahan wrote the screenplay for Series 7 before such shows as The Bachelor, Survivor and Big Brother aired on American television. Released in 2000, Minahan's film serves as an uncanny prediction of how televised forms of violence, voyeurism, and suffering would later become integral ingredients for these successful reality TV programs.)
Minahan's mockumentary serves as a fictional cultural document that comments upon various facets of contemporary society and our current fascination with gamedoc reality TV. Series 7 exquisitely--at times, convincingly--masquerades as a reality-based television show. The ninety-minute film/ program is broken up into three segments, demarcated with sleek and glossy teasers and graphics, accompanied by a sexy female voice whispering enticing tidbits about what is coming up next in the show. The handheld video and over-edited image sequences could easily fool one into thinking this was an actual network program (4). The scenario is perhaps the one thing that, as of yet (thankfully), gives way to its fictional nature. Within the diegesis of the film, the social security numbers of seven Contenders are chosen by random, which select the individuals whom are then approached by "special operatives" from the show, giving each one a firearm and plainly informing the Contenders that they must play the game. The game? This is where the scenario becomes a bit outlandish: eliminate (as in kill) the other contenders and be the only one to remain alive. However, if successful, the lone Contender does not necessarily win but only advances to the next round. This is the ultimate elimination-based reality TV program, making such shows as Survivor, The Mole, and Big Brother appear like schoolyard frolics. But the film is not just an action packed gore-fest. The film astutely addresses the growing fascination with reality TV, and offers an insightful commentary on the shifting values (and hence, hypocrisy) of American society--through the fake lens of reality TV--towards the institutions of marriage, family, health care, religion, and consumer culture, as well as implicating the audience in regards to its insatiable appetite for voyeurism, violence, and human suffering. What lies at the heart of this complex cultural fable guised as the real however, is a direct commentary on how reality TV shows reinforce patriarchal hegemony.
Mocking the Paternalism of Reality TV
Reality TV shows are noted for their consistent negative portrayal of female characters (Pozner) and how such gendered characterizations are tied to the institution of capitalism (Johnston). Elizabeth Johnston has stated that Reality TV is "invested in defining a monolithic version of femininity best suited to the purposes of capitalism" (122). This monolithic portrayal--so ubiquitous in contemporary reality TV scenarios--continually renders female contestants as either Weepers, Sluts, or Divas (Pozner). As an inversion of this paradigm, Minahan's film posits a female protagonist (Dawn) not fitting neatly into any of these categories. This female anti-hero is a refreshing contrast to the predictable characterizations of women on reality TV programs. Pozner makes an incisive connection between the characterization of women on reality TV shows and their collective impact on the predominantly female audience for such programs: despite claims that these shows are not sexist, since women choose to appear on these shows, "[t]he real concern is the millions of viewers, scores of whom are young girls, who take in these misogynistic spectacles uncritically, learning that only the most stereotypically beautiful, least independent women with the lowest-carb diets will be rewarded with love, financial security and the ultimate prize of male validation." By means of mocking such pat characterizations, the character of Dawn is shown as refusing to play by the rules. In fact, it is both Dawn and Doria who attempt to adjust the parameters of the game, and in doing so, pay a high cost.
As a mockumentary film, we can see how Series 7 utilizes its faux reality TV pretext in order to offer up social commentary, particularly in relation to gender. The film's characterization of its male Contenders takes on the veneer of predictable masculine roles, yet, upon closer analysis, all the male Contenders are suggested to have a significant handicap that threatens their status as viable contestants. By emasculating the male characters, Series 7 suggests how men use violence as a means of asserting their masculinity.
Castrated but Deadly
While the three male characters range in age and characterization, they all have one thing in common: impotence. Jeff (at 28 being the youngest male Contender) lost both of his testicles due to cancer. He is further emasculated by the narrator hinting that he had experimented with homosexuality after high school. In addition, prior to the final "showdown," Jeff is described by the show's narrator as "an ex-gay pacifist." Tony (the forty-something, tough-guy Italian-American) is symbolically rendered impotent, due to the fact that although he is married and lives with three children, none of them are his. During one climactic sequence it is disclosed that the elder boys are from Tony's wife's previous marriage, and--as a surprise to Tony--in a heated argument his wife informs him that their youngest child isn't his either. The family and personal life of Franklyn (the elderly, sixty-something recluse) is hardly touched upon in the film. All we know is that he lives alone in a trailer, rarely venturing out into the light of day. In consideration of his apparent age and single stature, he is long past his virile days, thus rendering him impotent as well. Impotency is not just a common characteristic of the male characters, but underscores an important theme to the film: masculine power and dominance rely not on the ability to procreate, but rather, to do just the opposite--to eliminate. The men in Series 7 substitute virility with violence.
Women and Agency
The three female Contenders (Lindsay, Dawn, and Connie) can be taken as symbolizing the three mythological stages of womanhood: the virgin, the mother, and the hag. As such, all of these women fall victim to male dominance in one way or another. The characterization of these women directly relates to the notion of reality TV as feminist nightmare. Jennifer Pozner's analysis of female reality TV characters indicated that when these women exercise intelligence they are seen as a threat (2004). In their own way, the women in Series 7 enact feminine agency. In doing so, Minahan's mockumentary reality TV program situates these female characters as blatant contrasts to the kinds of women we see nightly on reality TV shows, particularly in relation to how women are expected to behave.
The character of Dawn embodies the antithesis of the kind of women Pozner identifies as populating most reality TV shows: she is not bitchy, she is not (industry-standard) attractive, and in several instances she challenges the rules of the game by creating alliances with other Contenders: exercising what can be regarded as a feminine backlash against the masculine nature of reality TV.
Dawn, played by Brooke Smith--an actress who played another victim of maniacal masculine perversion as the young woman kidnapped in The Silence of the Lambs--is an unwed pregnant mother in her mid-twenties, disenfranchised and still holding on to a virulent strain of her adolescent angst. At the outset, the show establishes that Dawn has successfully survived two previous rounds of the Contenders, demonstrating her abilities to kill and survive within this twisted male reality TV fantasy. However, Dawn is not a typical female action hero. Her blonde hair is unkempt, she wears frumpy clothes and curses like a sailor. She has neither the looks nor the airs of a Lara Croft or an Emma Peel (though, she is equally resourceful and cunning). In another life she might have been a third, marauding comradina-in-arms to Thelma and Louise, on a rampage against patriarchy. And in the end, like Thelma and Louise, she attempts to escape the game, making up her own rules and opting for an alternate ending. However, she ultimately succumbs to the tight masculine control of the game, falling prey to an angry crowd (the general populace) whose insatiable lust for violence and blind adherence to the rules of the game inhibits a peaceful resolution.
Barely of legal age, Lindsay, the teen blonde, is not only faced with the daunting task of taking lives while her's has hardly begun, but throughout the film she is consistently confronted with masculine attempts to dominate her. Early in the film, the voyeuristic camera is privy to an amorous encounter between Lindsay and her teenage boyfriend, during which Lindsay refuses his advances, saying "I don't feel very sexy right now." Frustrated, her suitor angrily replies, "Fuck all virgins!" Surprisingly, she refuses his advances--not, as we might expect, because there is a cameraman in the room, but--due to a lack of titillation.
At a later point in the film Lindsay misplaces her weapon after unsuccessfully tracking down and eliminating the elderly Franklyn, and returns, untriumphant, to her parents who await her in their car. Her parents (particularly her father) demand that she go back out and retrieve her rifle, in a manner all too familiar of parents urging a child "back on the playing field" after succumbing to a temporary defeat. Lindsay's father adamantly insists that she muster the bravado to face the danger and a yelling match ensues, resulting in Lindsay finally asserting herself. This act of juvenile independence is directed toward her father, whom she stabs with the knife he had given her. Read symbolically, her action can be seen as an inverted form of incest: the emotionally violated daughter exacts revenge by penetrating the father, violently lashing out at him with her hunting knife.
Later, Lindsay becomes the victim of the most brutal "score" in the movie. This is a violently choreographed moment loaded with sexual innuendo and suggestion (old preying on the young, the bludgeoning of a virgin girl by an old man, beaten to death with a phallic device). Her death takes place at a shopping mall (the cultural-architectural choices within the film serve as recurring commentary on consumer culture). Inside the shopping mall Lindsay meets with a surprise attack from Franklyn, who beats her to death with his steel cane. The elderly (and presumably impotent) male asserts his virulence in an act of violence, disturbingly reminiscent of sexual assault. His only potency is in his ability to kill, and with his phallic cane he bludgeons the virgin girl right in front of a group of on-lookers, that includes her parents as well. But no one intervenes since it is all part of the game.
Connie, the middle-aged nurse with devout (although skewed) Catholic convictions is perhaps the slyest player. With her un-married status and short hair, this symbolically rendered asexual middle-aged woman hints that she is attempting to escape patriarchal control by mimicking masculinity. At one point, Connie poisons a fellow Contender helplessly unable to ward her off from his hospital bed. Later, Connie goes to confession, and although she's willing to recount numerous sins from the past week, she does not mention the murder she has committed. As a religious nurse with a questionable conscience, Connie's character provides an additional critique of two supposedly empathic institutions: religion and health care.
In a highly disturbing scene, Dawn busts into Connie's condominium and corners her, but consistent with the dramatic fashion of television, just as she is about to finish off the nurse, Dawn keels over due to the contractions caused by her pregnancy. Dawn is clearly unable to carryout the "score" because she's on the brink of giving birth, and so she pleads with Connie (a nurse) to help her in delivering the child. In an abrupt reversal, Connie has Dawn right where she wants her, but--with one hand on her weapon and the other on the birth canal--Connie gives in to the immediacy of the situation and bitchingly assists in the delivery process. The situation is outrageous and absurd but also quite significant due to the fact that this act of compassion, this temporary suspension of the rules, results in her eventual elimination.
How these women are treated, the situations they are placed in and the entire scenario of the film is totally unbelievable. Yet while watching it, the film plays as realistically as any other reality TV gamedoc. So it is upon reflection that we can appreciate the commentary made in Series 7 and why, as a form of fake reality TV, it gets its message across with maximum effect.
ANALYSIS AND IMPLICATIONS OF SERIES 7
Mockumentaries are complex in structure and intention. As Juhasz and Lerner have pointed out, "No matter the 'subject,' every fake documentary is multivoiced, speaking about its subject, its target text, the moral, social, and historical, and the multiple relations among all of these" (6-7). In this sense, we can see Minahan's film operating as a critique of not only reality TV, but of entertainment as consumption: real human drama is a commodity that audiences are hungry for. Accentuating this commentary on consumer culture, the purposeful choice of locations in the film helps to underscore Minahan's critique: a suburban landscape rife with shopping malls, convenience stores, and McMansions.
As is the case with all reality TV shows, the contestants' actions are restricted according to the prescribed rules of the shows. In Series 7, however, the stakes are much higher than in network gamedocs such as Big Brother and Survivor; in Series 7 there is no alternate way to succeed in the show except for the literal extermination of one's competitors. However, there are instances in the film when quasi-alliances are formed. For example, an alliance is made between the two main protagonists (Dawn and Jeff) who later opt to go against the rules--and hence, the producers of the show--and another moment when one of the Contenders (Tony) makes a futile attempt to escape. Yet, both situations are met with swift, totalitarian enforcement of the rules of the game.
The strict emphasis and demand for adhering to the rules of gamedoc reality TV is situated in Minahan's film as emblematic of upholding masculine control, disavowing female agency. Within the show there is a clear set of rules (implicitly and explicitly extolled) and when these are transgressed there are grave consequences--alternative outcomes are not tolerated. While there can be only one survivor, throughout the game it is the female characters that initiate quasi-alliances: for example, Dawn screams a warning to Lindsay just prior to Franklyn's brutal attack; Connie reluctantly assists in delivering Dawn's baby; and Dawn initiates her and Jeff's flight from the confines of the show and its rules, saying "Fuck them. They're fucking with us" (emphasis added). Particularly for Dawn, the uncharacteristic female protagonist, Series 7 suggests that while a woman's ability to play a man's game is applauded--as Dawn's character indicates--her success meets with a chorus of suspicion that her attempts to be both nurturing and triumphant are somehow contradictory. In light of feminine attempts to test the bounds of the game, we see that all of these scenarios end with the death of each of the female characters. It becomes obvious, then, that Minahan is making a statement about female efforts to exact control and influence to alter the parameters of the "game" as resulting in fatal consequences. Strict adherence to the rules, as in most reality TV shows, plays out as male fantasies of dominance and gamemanship. If there is a parable within Minahan's film it is that masculine desires must be tempered with feminine agency. Otherwise the endgame posits society itself as the real victim.
Near the end of the film Jeff's wife (who is not a Contender) bursts into the movie theatre where Jeff and Dawn contemplate laying down their weapons and thus, breaking from the rules of the game. However, prior to any resolve, Doria shoots Dawn. Later, staring straight into the lens of the camera between prison bars, Doria confronts the audience, adamantly stating, "I am innocent. It's you people who did this." To whom is she speaking? At this point, near the end of the film, she is undoubtedly speaking directly to us, the insatiable viewer. In this one statement she implicates both the faux audience of the television show and the viewers of the film. As Nichols has stated, part of the pleasure of watching reality TV derives from a sense of "participatory involvement" (49). As Series 7 demonstrates on several occasions, when our voyeuristic pleasure for watching people in emotionally volatile situations--for the sake of dramatic entertainment--is confronted, we find ourselves uncomfortably implicated.
STUDENT RESPONSES TO SERIES 7
Through my teaching of courses in nonfiction film and visual anthropology at both Tufts University and Clark University, I have become painfully aware that college students love watching reality television. When I teach units on reality TV, students respond enthusiastically to the idea of studying such shows as Queer Eye or The Bachelor, but come out of this experience (ideally) casting a much more critical eye towards such shows and their pretense of realism. I have also come to find that reality television is more popular with my female students than with the male students; an informal affirmation of the fact that 64% of regular viewers of reality TV are women (Johnston 126). In fact, the majority of the respondents to the questionnaires for my class experiments were female. The following responses by female students were demonstrative of how the film (and reality TV gamedocs) victimize and demonize the female contestants: "Lindsay's brutal murder was exceptionally disturbing"; "the fact that Connie was both a nurse and devout Catholic and yet was so cunning seemed to make her the coldest and ironic character"; "the most disturbing aspect of the film was that Dawn--who was pregnant--was forced to kill, and yet was so successful at it." The fact that Series 7 has a female protagonist and revolves so much around other female characters struck a deep chord with female students, leading them to respond more adamantly than the male students who (generally) regarded the film as "a cool, yet twisted, kind of action film."
A general analysis of student responses indicated that their overall concerns revolved around the fact that students caught themselves laughing at the characters and the absurdity of the situations yet also cringed at the frankness of the violence, and that they found the impartiality and normalized stance of the narrator toward the violence and murders to be off-putting but caused them to question how common it was to have suffering in reality TV to be framed as common. The students offered the following comments, which demonstrate a certain degree of self-reflexive distance to reality TV gamedocs: "Reality TV is an indulgence; it satiates our lust for the forbidden" (Clark student), and "The extreme violence in Series 7--unlike that in most fiction films--is intended to agitate, cause reflection and awe. Whereas, reality TV has drama, action, intrigue, etc. but never with the intent to create a reflective response" (Tufts student). This selection of responses to the film confirm two important issues for this paper: that it evokes strong visceral responses, and it's fakeness invites a self-reflexive stance on the part of the viewer.
In the fall of 2003 at Clark University and in the spring of 2004 at Tufts University, I distributed questionnaires and then conducted interviews with students in reaction to our screenings of Series 7. I handed out questionnaires both before the screening and afterwards. Prior to this the only information given to students was that the film was a work of fiction. Interviews were conducted with some of the students while others took the option to write lengthier, personal responses to the film in the form of a short narrative paper on their reaction to the film.
The film was given a brief introduction before it was screened to the class. Students were informed that the film was indeed a piece of fiction but the scenario of the show and the themes touched upon were not discussed in order to better enable students to formulate their own conclusions as to "what the film was about". The students were handed a questionnaire that was then immediately filled out in class. These were collected prior to the screening without any further elaboration. In addition, students were encouraged to make notations regarding their reactions to the film and to write down any questions or comments that surfaced during the viewing. Following the screening at Tufts one of the students--under previous arrangement--videotaped our class discussion of the film, which lasted for approximately twenty minutes (6).
The results obtained from the questionnaires and student responses to the film have informed my analysis of the text itself. Due to the consistent commentary regarding the feel of the mockumentary film, student responses prompted me to consider how their reactions underscored what I feel to be some of the main concerns of the text itself: their commentary on experiencing visceral reactions to the film prompted me to consider how bodily and cognitive responses build cinesthetic memory.
Pre-Screening Questionnaire Results
The questionnaire included a range of "Yes/No" and open-ended questions, designed to assess student predispositions toward such things as reality television, birth control, the death penalty, violence, and American values. Questionnaire responses produced little degree of variation, and the following two definitions of reality TV were typical of most respondents: "Taking 'real' people and putting them in a situation that will cause conflict, producing entertainment." And another student defined reality TV as a "Capitalistic endeavor to document a simulated reality in order to sell to a market a 'reality' that is much more exciting than the one the typical citizen experiences."
Popularity of such shows was attributed to the simple fact that people are voyeuristic, that watching beautiful people in bizarre situations serves as a coping mechanism for the general public to go on living within, as one student expressed, an "overworked, passion-sucked culture." Many responses provided a variation on voyeurism and television, one that is less cathartic and more empowering where the viewer is placed above the TV personalities: "It is enjoyable to feel superior to the stupidity portrayed on reality TV and fascinating to watch others, especially real people."
The believability, or accuracy, of nonfiction representation in reality TV was expressed by students as generally low. However, it was commonly thought that the characters were in fact real but were made unbelievable by the situations they were put in or that the scenarios themselves were outlandish. Students were also asked what they thought reality TV shows said about American society, and to provide a list of American values that could be deciphered from such shows. The predominant responses indicated that contemporary American culture "accentuated materialism," that it "placed a significant amount of emphasis on beauty and vanity," upheld the notion that "life is a game," and that such shows basically indicated "a sincere lack of values" in American society.
Class discussion following the screening produced significant results. First of all, while most students indicated in questionnaire responses that reality TV shows and characters were "unbelievable", "fake" or "corny'--signaling that students approach and digest reality TV shows with an elevated level of media literacy--although the film was acknowledged as a fabrication, their responses to Series 7 showed that this fictionalized version of reality TV was found to harbor much more social relevance than network reality TV. That is, watching Series 7 served as a means for exposing the artifice of reality TV. Further, a majority of the class felt the film was very effective for raising awareness and concern toward certain sociological themes, such as America's complacency towards violence. In short, as a faux reality TV program, students found the film's social commentary to be both profound and insightful.
Students also expressed that they identified more with the main characters of this fake reality TV show than with characters from network reality TV, indicated by experiencing strong emotional ties to some of the film's main characters. In terms of the feel of Series 7 (i.e., visceral reactions) many of the students commented on their hyper-attentive posture, sitting upright and literally at the edge of their seat during the screening. One student elaborated on her posture, stating, "I felt as though I couldn't rest while watching the film. I was very attentive and anticipative, and by the end, left me rather exhausted." Visceral responses to the film were both immediately affective and resonant. Students expressed experiencing feelings of disgust, moderate levels of anxiety, and one student even left the room following a particularly violent and disturbing scene in the film. Another student, in private after the class, told me that while she could understand why I showed the film, she was nonetheless a bit perturbed with me for "making" her sit through it, due to her reaction to the violent and disturbing death of the young girl in the film; a character and circumstance she found to be "far too realistic."
Responses expressed in student written reactions to the film indicated that the viewing experience produced profound (at least, in the short term) effects on students. One student wrote about how the film changed the way he regarded reality TV shows and that he "couldn't wait to show this film" to his friends and family who watch reality TV on a regular basis, in order to see if the film would similarly alter their predispositions. Another student wrote that he "had trouble sleeping the evening of the screening, due to the general level of anxiety that the film had caused [him] to experience." And another student wrote that she later found herself "referencing the film as a means of supporting [her] position against the death penalty" during a heated conversation with a friend. As these responses indicate, the strong emotional and visceral responses to Minahan's film produce not only a viewing stance but a cinesthetic memory reminiscent of watching actual nonfiction film / TV. Cinesthetic memory has been defined as "corporeal and cognitive resonance existing during and retained after the film viewing process. This concept draws, theoretically and linguistically, from two other terms: kinesthetic memory and synaesthesia" (Anderson). Crossbreeding the synaesthetic with the kinesthetic fuses the etymology and phonetics of "cinema," derived from the Greek, kinema: meaning motion. The Greek kinetikos (of, or resulting from, motion) is the etymological root to the term kinesthetic, i.e., "The sense of muscular effort that accompanies a voluntary motion of the body" (OED). The cinesthetic, therefore, refigures our conception of motion within the cinema: originally pertaining to the movement of photographic images, but applied here, the phenomenon of motion is expanded to also account for the affectivity associated with film viewing--the movement of the audience. The very realistic effects of this mockumentary film involve the kinds of visceral responses that are integral to enabling a 'factual resonance' predicated less on orthodox forms of realism.
IT'S THE BODY, STUPID
Mockumentary films embody "a visible brush with the real" and create a challenge to "its own integrity and that of its originary subject as well" (Juhasz and Lerner 7). From analyzing Minahan's fake reality TV show we can see how the film offers some insight into, not just reality TV programs, but what is distinct about how the mockumentary offers up social commentary. By way of inviting self-reflection, the mockumentary form invites suspicion towards that which it mocks: in this case, direct cinema and how it is employed in creating gamedoc reality TV programs. At its most basic level, mockumentaries mock our gullibility towards realism by collapsing sign and referent. Merely from their visual and thematic similarity to nonfiction film and television fake cinematic reality asks the audience to adopt a critical stance towards documentary claims of authenticity.
Yet, mockumentary does not simply ask us to become pessimistic towards the factuality of documentary film. By collapsing sign and referent, such films also create a more comfortable position, a "self-conscious distance" (Juhasz and Lerner 7) from which we receive social commentary. Situated as such, we become less concerned with hard facts than with the emotional impact of the drama and the ways in which such drama informs our own lives and perspectives on the world we live in. Series 7 creates "alternative platforms for the evaluation of common knowledge" (Hight and Roscoe 184). In doing so, the "onus" for believability is "placed on the viewer" (Hight and Roscoe 183). The imperfections of the mockumentary (e.g. its apparent unscripted nature) perfectly position us to regard what we see as having social import, despite the fact that we indeed do know it to be fake. The significance of an anecdotal comment shared with me by a friend indicates just how involved audiences become while watching mockumentary programs: "I made a spiritual discipline out of watching The Office and refraining from cringing while watching how Ricky Gervais' character continually implicated himself while attempting to cover over his offensive comments." We watch, we know it's fake, and yet our unconscious and bodily reactions suggest that there's something more at stake.
The mockumentary complements our suspicion towards realism in documentary film. From teaching courses on nonfiction and anthropological film at Tufts and Clark I have become keenly aware that students adopt a somewhat nihilistic and untrusting attitude towards institutions of authority (such as nonfiction film). In light of this, we can see reality TV and mockumentary film as current manifestations of the media's response to the growing disenchantment of traditional forms of cinematic realism. In mockumentary film, "the viewer and the text are self-conscious of their lively interplay" (Juhasz and Lerner 2006:9). That is, the audience is not presumed to be "duped" into thinking that what they are seeing is real. Any sense of realism or authenticity, while acknowledged as false by both filmmaker and audience, is nonetheless temporarily and mutually proposed and regarded as worthy of the attention otherwise attributed to the Real. In this sense, the fake documentary, as Juhasz and Lerner have claimed, demands a "knowing viewership" (9). Inevitably, "fake docs either demand an 'educated' viewer or teach their viewers to be smarter" (Juhasz and Lerner 10). The very act of viewing a mockumentary film reminds us that documentary films that make truth claims should be regarded with a certain degree of suspicion; nonfiction films are, in their most basic sense, only a collection of images, and the profilmic (whether or not it exists) is always different from what the filmmaker has chosen to show us.
As Nichols has said, "sometimes bodily experience exceeds intellectual understanding" (76). In viewing film and television, Nichols contends that "visceral reactions occur that are uncontained by the descriptive or explanatory grid utilized by a given film" (76). Even though we are intellectually made aware of the fake nature of the mockumentary our bodies may be reacting in a different way. The appeal and effectiveness of mockumentary may lay in its potential to do two things: to evoke strong visceral responses and to invite its audience to adopt a critical, self-reflexive vantage point. Watching mockumentaries place us in intellectually unstable positions where our minds and bodies react and process the information differently, giving us the intellectual stance of self-reflexivity coupled with the corporeal affectivity of cinematic realism. This kind of mind-body processing / formation of knowledge is exactly the kind of experience Herzog refers to as Ecstatic Truth.
Aftab, Kaleem. "Werner Herzog Q&A." TimeOut London. Feb. 3, 2006. http://www.timeout.com/film/news/901/werner-herzog-q-a.html
Anderson, Kevin. "Cinesthetic Memory: Towards a phenomenological ethnography of film viewing." Media Ecology Association Annual Conference. Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York, 12 June 2004.
Andrejevic, Mark. Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched. Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.
Fetveit, Arild. Reality TV in the Digital Era: A Paradox in Visual Culture? New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 2002.
Godard, Jean Luc. "Occupational Hazards: JLG at work," as told to Frederic Bonnaud. Film Comment, (January-February 2005). 37-41.
Haralovich, Mary Beth and Trosset, Michael. "Expect the Unexpected": Narrative Pleasure and Uncertainty due to Chance in Survivor, Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Murray and Ouellette, eds. New York: New York UP, 2004. 76-95.
Hight, Craig and Roscoe, Jane. Forgotten Silver: A New Zealand Television Hoax and Its Audience. F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth's Undoing. Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner, eds. Minneapolis, MN: U Minnesota P, 2006. 171-186.
Johnston, Elizabeth. How Women Really Are: Disturbing Parallels between Reality Television and 18th Century Fiction. How Real is Reality TV? David S. Escoffery, ed. London: McFarland, 2006. 115-132.
Juhasz, Alexandra and Lerner, Jesse. Introduction. F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth's Undoing. Juhasz and Lerner, eds. Minneapolis, MN: U Minnesota P, 2006. 1-35.
Kinesthetic. Oxford English Dictionary. Second edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.
Murray, Susana and Laurie Ouellette. Introduction, Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Murray and Ouellette, eds. New York: New York UP, 2004. 1-15.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001
--.Blurred Boundaries. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.
Pozner, Jennifer. "The Unreal World: Why women on 'reality TV' have to be hot, desperate and dumb." Ms. Magazine (Fall 2004): 50-53.
Stoller, Paul. The Cinematic Griot: the ethnography of Jean Rouch. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1992.
Trinh T. Minh-ha. "The Totalizing Quest of Meaning." Theorizing Documentary. Ed. Michael Renov. New York: Routledge, 1993. 90-107.
Zalewski, Daniel. "The Ecstatic Truth." The New Yorker (April 24, 2006): 124-139.
Battle Royale. Dir. Kinji Fukasaku. Toei Company, 2000.
Bob Roberts. Dir. Tim Robbins. Miramax Films, 1992.
Land Without Bread. Dir. Luis Bunuel. Kino Video, 1933.
Like Twenty Impossibles. Dir. Annemarie Jacir. Philistine Films, 2003.
Man Bites Dog. Dirs. Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde. Roxie Releasing, 1992.
No Lies. Dir. Mitchell Block. Direct Cinema Limited, 1974.
Series 7: The Contenders. Dir. Daniel Minahan. Good Machine International, 2001.
The Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Orion Pictures Corporation, 1991.
(1) Both Jean Rouch and Herzog have expressed suspicion of the strict categorical distinctions between "fiction" and "nonfiction." Herzog's notion of "ecstatic" truth" has similarities with Rouch's concept of ethnofiction, of which his film Jaguar (1967) is an excellent example. Anthropologist Paul Stoller refered to Rouch's film as a "fiction derived from real events" (138) that said as much about Songhay migratory youth culture as any strict documentary might have.
(2) A "delicious moment" is how host Jeff Probst described the heartbreaking moment in Survivor's first season when a castaway, expecting, a long-awaited videotape communique from her young daughters, found that the tape hand not arrived. Unflinching, Probst summarized this televised intimate moment of emotional pain and distress as "good television" (quoted in Haralovich and Trosset 79).
(3) In consideration of the current CBS show Kid Nation we should step back and ask ourselves how it possibly becomes debatable whether or not profiting from the labors of minors working twenty-four hours a day for forty days is not a form of child exploitation. Further, the tears these kids shed and the emotional duress they suffer (so far) remain on the periphery of contemporary debates regarding the ethics of the program.
(4) In fact, the students I surveyed consistently made reference to the film's scenario as something that was real, despite my initial characterization and explanation of the film as a work of fiction.
(5) Although, there have been exceptions. For example, Haralovich and Trosset noted that during the first season of Survivor the castaways were able to challenge the producers over some aspects of the program's direction and mission. Ultimately the show's producers devised ways for them to maintain control of the program (76).
(6) All students were informed that their answers and responses to the film were intended for research purposes and were allowed not to participate if they were uncomfortable with the process.
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|Author:||Anderson, Kevin Taylor|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|
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