Unreal Reality

Another landmark in my televised memory is the first season of The Real World, on MTV. I remember being pulled in and becoming emotionally involved in the lives of these disparate roommates. One thought kept nagging me so much that I finally voiced it while working on the set of a film school thesis project: “Don’t you think people would put their best and/or hammiest face forward, seeing as how there’s a camera present at all times?” I know (and some of you do, too) from filming numerous weddings and events that when you turn a camera toward the average Joe, he might do a number of odd things. “Funny” faces, turning away in a self-conscious panic, waving and posing for the people in TV land. It’s along the same lines as when you watched America’s Funniest Home Videos and wondered why that person had a video camera on in the first place. Do people really film all the time, or was it an orchestrated fake? I propose that all these reality shows not only tap into this universal “power of the cam” phenomenon, but also exploit it to its entertainment-value extreme.

One teacher during my college career in journalism revealed to us what the talk shows were all about. There’s an actual directory of sorts that the casting directors for these shows can search to find the types of guests they need. If you’re looking for a “jealous boyfriend who can’t stand his girl going out with her coworkers,” I’m sure there are several qualified “guests” to fill the spot. All this leads to the present-day glut of “reality shows.” I’m not sure I can buy into any of them. In some way or another, things must be manipulated so that the highest drama will be extrapolated from any number of prearranged factors. The carefully laid-out casting of the roommates for The Real World will surely result in conflicts galore, simply because they beg to clash. If you have a stereotypical “gay” character and you put him in a house with a stereotypical “evangelical” character (I’m sorry … person) you’ll soon find them with cameras close in on their faces, capturing all the sweat beads and “confession booth” monologues. I fear that we’re losing our view of what true reality looks and feels like.

In real life, there might be days where the drama runs high. However, for the most part, real life is filled with mundane, less-than-stellar moments and hours. It’s here where we part ways with the landscape of “reality TV.” If you showed the “low points” of these character’s lives, uneventful and all, you’d lose the audience. I’m not sure how many are familiar with Andy Warhol’s experiments with reality on film. Warhol made films that were minutes or hours of nothing. He would set up a camera on a tripod and film out of a single window, where you’d see anything from a bird flying by to nothing in particular. Another film chronicled someone sleeping for a night. All in all, they were a visual document of ordinariness. This goes against every grain of our culture that yearns to be entertained with slick and masterful special effects. I can’t say that I’d be an artistic purist and sit enthralled through Andy Warhol’s movies, but maybe that’s the point. Ordinary life isn’t all that exciting. Or is it? Have we become so hung up on big, dramatic moments and constant stimulation that we can’t appreciate sitting still for 15 minutes and watching a bug crawl around on the floor? We’ve lost our sense of wonder.

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Speaking of Warhol, he’s the one who coined the phrase “15 minutes of fame,” which proved to be highly prophetic. This ties into the craze with reality shows. Soon, it seems every man, woman and child in the world will have their own show somewhere on the TV. Everyone will be “famous” for a brief period of time. Who will be watching all these shows? No one will have time to, since they’ll all be filming their own shows. The only ones to watch will be the “stars” themselves, and they’ll just TiVo the episodes anyway. After all this is said and done, what will happen to our psyches once we come down from the wave of fame? Ask any actor who’s achieved recognition, and you’ll find that he’s constantly chasing that “high” of staying relevant. For some, the losing battle ends with suicide. For others, they just fade into “regular life” and attempt to find some meaning outside of celebrity.

What our society needs to discover is that there’s much more to life than being famous. Achieving fame is not the be-all, end-all that it’s cracked up to be. What we don’t see on the screens of our televisions are the lives of people lived when there are no lights, camera or action to prompt the image we’re expecting. Once all glitz and glamour is stripped away, what is left but the ordinary ebb and flow of the lives of little people? I’m starting to think that the only images I’ll trust are the mostly boring ones from a hidden security camera. That is, until something really exciting happens, and it’s caught on tape. But what if it was staged?

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