The Hills is Real, Too

Nabokov said that reality is the only word that makes sense only in quotation marks. The reality in Reality TV might need a second pair: one that every instance of reality should have and another for the reality as constructed by the television production. But under all of those inverted commas is a word, and it still means something.

This week on The Hills ("No More Mr. Nice Guy," 22 October), the show had the task of introducing two new characters: Kimberly, a co-worker for Heidi at Bolthouse, the party-planning firm where she works (ok, "works"); and Gavin, a model Lauren meets at a Teen Vogue shoot with whom she goes on a date. The function of these new characters is obviously to facilitate certain storylines for the leads. Heidi needs a frenemy to be in expository scenes in which she talks about her relationships and perhaps to add dRama to the workplace environment now that Elodie, the likable schemer who was pissed that H got the promotion she wanted and so ruined H+S's anniversary dinner by lying to Heidi about having a party covered when really she had quit that day, is gone. Gavin is there to make Brody Jenner jealous and to prompt Lauren to see Brody as an appealing suitor (or at least a friend with benefits), as the LC relationship arc at this point is moving in the direction of L+B.

Because The Hills is both reality and fiction, the viewer has to wonder if the new characters were actually people in the world of the existing characters or if they were cast by the producers to play their roles. But this is a false choice, because even if they were cast by the producers to play roles, their roles intersect with the real lives of the characters. Epistemology in reality TV is more a matter of belief than fact, but as I interpreted the events as I watched them, Gavin and Lauren did meet at a photo shoot, they did see each other again at a barbecue (a staged event, but a barbecue even so), and they did go on a date. Now Gavin has told his story, an account of how the show is produced that is presented as a great unmasking, a demystification. Like, OMG The Hills is fake!

His most important claims:

-The producers set up the situations between him and Lauren and the others, e..g, they told him to ask her out and staged the party where he meets Brody.

-The time sequence represented in the show is false. L+G's date is represented as having ended early, after which Brody calls her and comes over to (not) watch a movie; really G+L stayed out until 2:30ish and the scene between LC and Brody was shot another time (this last bit is implied rather than stated).

-Lauren is boring and all she talks about is herself, her friends and nemeses, her fame, her fashion line, her clubbing, etc. My favorite detail is how, on their date, Lauren takes Gavin to Barnes & Noble to show him a book about the first season of The Hills. (I find it so touching to know that she is proud of her accomplishments, but whatevs.)

-The date didn't go as badly as was represented. The editing makes it seem as though Gavin was insensitive after Lauren told him she doesn't like salmon and he ordered it anyway and put a piece on her place (she makes a face when she tastes it, and this brief sequence tells us everything we need to know). G says he ordered it for himself and she said she wanted to try. Basically, he accuses the show of portraying him as boring, insensitive, and unsuitable as a BF for Lauren when, in "reality"...

Now consider that Gavin expects us to believe his story is real and the MTV version is not. He is the truth, and the show is a sham. But what authority does he bring? For one thing, we have much more evidence to support MTV's version: we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. But never mind that. Both the producers of The Hills and Gavin craft their narratives to achieve certain effects, to further particular interests. In the case of the show's producers, the point of everything is to tell a good story that will engage the audience and make them want to keep watching. But what are Gavin's interests? My interpretation is that he wants to be well-regarded and famous.

The show made him look a little dull and clueless. It cast him in one episode as someone with the potential to be a new beau for the lead, and then quickly tossed him aside. He wishes it had gone down better for him. He doesn't deny that he was interested in Lauren; indeed, he says their date was better than The Hills portrayed. He uses weasel words to minimize his own agency in this sequence of events. At the Teen Vogue shoot: "the next thing I know, a producer’s asking me to ask Lauren for her number, and I’m signing release forms and being shot for The Hills. They wanted me to ask her about the runway show, how long she had worked that day, when would she get off, stuff like that." It sounds here like participating was something that just happened to him, but no one forces you to be a character on a reality TV show. If he's a model, his career is only helped by being on television. It gives him exposure, free publicity. I'm guessing he was stoked at the thought of being a character on MTV's most important program. He should, moreover, be grateful to the producers for their eagerness to play wingman and give him friendly advice as he was making his move. If he didn't want to go on a date with Lauren, he could have just said, no thanks.

The fact that he was encouraged doesn't tell me that the show is fake, only that the producers are part of the characters' reality. People seem to hold onto a strange assumption that reality TV or any form of documentary media can capture reality as it would transpire if the cameras and sound recorders and crew were absent. Of course it never can. The medium always mediates. Observation affects behavior. But this doesn't make everything we see fake. It's still reality, but reality as shaped by the presence of people monitoring and recording it. The Hills is only interesting because it combines reality and artifice, and I doubt that anyone who watches it is really unaware of this. As Justin perceptively remarks of the show, it encourages us to switch back and forth between suspension of disbelief (i.e., belief) and disbelief, watching and meta-watching.

The detail in Gavin's description that damns him the most is the accusation that Lauren is boring. He says that she's self-centered and her interests are uninteresting. "I honestly had a really hard time talking to her - she’s kind of a conversation killer," he says. "Lots of fascinating discussion about 'the club', Vegas, getting drunk, Heidi is evil, and so on. The lack of depth was actually uncomfortable for me. Like, how can nothing be everything you talk about? OH, I forgot – lots of talk about Lauren’s clothing line. That’s pretty important, right?"
But she's a television star and a tabloid celebrity, and millions of people do find this interesting. So interesting that they watch a show in which she is the main character, buy magazines when she's on the cover, even read blogs with photos of her shopping at Target. And what's so great about G? I think this sounds like the bitter disappointment of a guy who was rejected not only by a pretty girl he liked, a fantastic catch, but by a television show that could have made him famous. He sounds like a jilted whore.

What do we expect from The Hills? I think we want it to be two often incompatible things: a good story and a true story. It's not true that there are no good true stories, but the process of making life into narrative (Hayden White calls it emplotment if you want to be fancy about it) always requires the selection and emphasis of events to suit the ambitions and agendas of the storyteller. This isn't to say that reality doesn't exist, that we're living in the Matrix. The point, rather, is that it pays to be aware of the forces that impinge on those who craft stories out of experiences. In the case of The Hills, the storytellers are obviously active agents not only in crafting a narrative ex post facto, by editing and looping additional dialog to impose meaning, but also in staging the events just so. But this doesn't make the staged events any less real. A barbecue and a date are what they are whether the characters plan them alone or with the help of the production.

What matters more to me than staging and editing, which are features of documentary media across the board, is emotional truth. I am not troubled by fakery in the mechanics of production and narration, but I would be genuinely disturbed by if there were evidence that the characters' most significant relationships were phony. If it came to light that Heidi and Lauren have contrived their friendship, its implosion, and its aftermath, I would feel a kind of betrayal that I do not get from reading Gavin's account. I have little evidence that the characters are really friends and enemies except what MTV has shown me, and yet I have my belief, and in reality TV, as in documentary cinema and photography, belief is what matters most to the beholder. On dating shows, we believe that a couple can really fall in love. On Survivor, we believe that the deceptions and machinations occur in the context of real friendship and rivalry. On the performance shows, we believe that the good contestant has given his or her all to achieve a dream. You can't appreciate these programs in a spirit of total skepticism any more than you can in a spirit of total naïveté. The pleasure is somewhere in the middle, in recognizing that in spite of the beauty of a highly artificial form, there is also a more fundamental appeal in the experience of an underlying reality of universal human needs and desires. I wouldn't want to miss this point in the rush to brand productions as "fake." They certainly are fake, and this should come as no surprise. But Gavin's description of what happened on The Hills also tells me that it's real--that LC and her friends and enemies, on a level deeper than staging and editing, are who MTV presents them to be. I believe that she really does hate Heidi and she really does aspire to be a fashion designer even if her internship is more a matter of providing the show a setting than providing the person a career opportunity. The rhetoric of both the show and the description of its production by this disgruntled model dude lead me to believe that despite of all of this televisual contrivance there is a core of authenticity in The Hills, and this gives the stakes in the show's drama a kind of immediacy and consequence that fiction can scarcely claim.

(PS 5/15/08: if you're still here, check out my more recent companion post, "The Hills is Too Real")


NBC's sweeps strategy this November will include a week of programming oriented around an activist campaign, introducing environmental themes across the schedule. It used to be crossovers; now writers for all of its various shows have had to work in a little save-the-earth material. The campaign is called Green is Universal (as of today that link takes you to not much more than a logo and a countdown). And it's not just the net; the NBC U cable channels are in on it too. Universal, get it? All at once we will get confirmation that the media companies are liberal, synergystic, and eager to exploit a good cause if it will help them score ratings. Ka-ching!

The network's court jester, 30 Rock, is being meta as follows (you might consider this description a spoiler):

Thursday, November 8

30 ROCK (8:30-9 p.m.)
SPECIAL GUEST STARS OSCAR AND NOBEL PEACE PRIZE WINNER AL GORE, MEREDITH VIEIRA, AND DAVID SCHWIMMER JOIN IN ON '30 ROCK'S' GREEN INITIATIVE -- As part of a GE-wide green initiative, Jack (Alec Baldwin) has come up with the idea of creating a green mascot for NBC -- a "Phillie Phanatic" -looking character named Greenzo. When Greenzo's eco-friendly preachiness gets obnoxiously out of hand in "The Girlie Show" offices, it's Liz (Tina Fey) who gets fed up the most with the ridiculous character. Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) is planning his annual house party, a boring little soiree where Liz has been the only one who ever shown up in the past. Tracy (Tracy Morgan) wants the party to be a success for Kenneth, so he spreads a few little rumors to get the event hopping. What starts out as simple office gossip, gets out of control. Also stars Jane Krakowski, Lonny Ross, Judah Friedlander, Scott Adsit, Katrina Bowden, and Maulik Pancholy.

Much as I admire 30 Rock, I fear that it functions more as an enabler than a critic. It might make the brass at NBC U feel good about subjecting themselves to this mockery. That might be a little creepy, like frat boys joking about sexism.

While on the topic, here's the video of "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" you've been looking for. And if you can follow along, come with me to this clip from The View of Sherri Shepherd (yes, the same one who said she doesn't know if the earth is round or flat, who plays Tracy's wife) asking James Lipton to talk about his days as a pimp! Awkward!

Alec Baldwin's tour-de-force scene from last night's episode in which he plays Tracy's mother, father, step-father, Tracy himself, and a Mexican neighbor, Mrs. Rodriguez, is all the evidence one would ever need to persuade the snobbiest skeptic that there is art in television. And to think that Baldwin might have left the show because he said something nasty to his daughter last spring. The loss of his talent would have crippled the show.


"Something was going to happen between Angela and Brian Krakow." Hearts will break when they read that line, describing the 2nd season that never existed of My So-Called Life. The speaker is Marshall Herskovitz. The show is coming out again on DVD, this time with commentaries, interviews, etc. Back to Marshall, on casting his star: "in walks Claire Danes. And at 13, you know: From one angle, she’s breathtaking; from another, she’s awkward. We were all terrified of her. She was very quiet and reserved, and half the things she said were utterly brilliant and half the things sounded like a 13-year-old." Sigh.


Fumble! (with notes on the coherence of the TV text and the new season)

I agree with Heather Havrilesky and lots of other people that Friday Night Lights is in trouble. It might have been better for the show to have ended last season. Then we would have had our memories and our State Championship and our righteous anger at the greedy capitalist philistines of NBC. The show would have lived on as a glorious single season and an eternal what-if, a worthy successor in the teen TV before-their-time pantheon to My So-Called Life and Freak and Geeks. But now we may have to endure the pathetic degeneration of a favorite into just another show that we watch because we used to watch it. Woe betide us.

The problems are greater than just the murder melodrama plot, but this is the biggest issue. Landry was a good character because he was peripheral and he drew our attention away from the football heroes to the ordinary folks. He was not on the football team and not in a relationship with Tyra. His value was as someone looking in from the outside, and the show's greatest virtue was in the way it spread out our interest to so many unusual, marginal characters. But now not only has he become central to the show, he has become more of a type. Defending the honor of the girl he loves, who doesn't love him back, he kills her stalker in a fit of passion and then agrees with the girl to cover up the crime by tossing the corpse off a bridge. Not in my Dillon, Texas!

The show's creative leader, Jason Katims, says that there was no pressure from NBC to have them change the show to make it more likely to score ratings. But we know that there doesn't have to be overt pressure--the makers of FNL know that to stay on the air they need much bigger ratings numbers than they have had, and we also know that they have decided to de-emphasize the football this season in hopes of bringing in a wider audience. This already shows, as the first two episodes of the show have been set before the first game of the Panthers' season. Managing the shift from critical fave to something bigger cannot be easy. My problem with the murder storyline is very basic and simple: it moves the show away from its most central appeal, its tone. It can't manage to dramatize the texture of everyday life while at the same time working in a few beats of a murder melodrama plot each week. And let me be clear: I would love to watch a well-done murder melodrama on television. I'm not judging that genre in any way. I'm just saying that it's incompatible with FNL's tone. If this works, great, but I doubt it will still feel like the same show.

I have other problems. Too many plot developments in the two episodes so far seem lacking in the sense of organic development that would make them dramatically powerful. I have in mind the separation of Coach and Mrs. Coach and the downturn in the relationship of Julie and Matt. In both instances, I feel a strain of implausibility obstructing my attachment to the characters. I have to remind myself why the Taylors are living apart and the rationale doesn't convince me. And Julie's motivation for leaving her boyfriend is even murkier. She talks about not wanting to become her parents, but I don't buy that the character would be possessed of that kind of self-knowledge. The dialog in these scenes has an unfortunate on-the-nose quality that reminds you that the character's words were written for them to say in a script. In this week's second episode, Tami looks for comfort from her temporary replacement in the guidance office, a clueless science teacher named Glenn, and it makes no sense that she would have no other friends in Dillon to turn to. Clearly he is meant to be a substitute for Eric to make us want the married couple to reunite. In both cases, the characters appear to have been engineered into dramatic situations without having taken the plausible steps to get into them. And so it is with Lyla having been born again. I would have liked to see a scene or two that sets this up.

Other aspects of the show are different this season. I don't recall many talk radio voice-overs reasserting the centrality of Panthers football to the people of Dillon. This was another key element of the show's tone: a sense that too much civic pride was being invested in the town's young men, that they had to bear an unreasonable burden. I also get less of a sense of the show's scenes being shot in the loose, improvisatory style that characterized last year's episodes. The performances and camera setups both seem more formal and standard now. I'm still watching because I have an attachment to the characters, but I sense that they're now becoming a vestige of something that doesn't exist any more.

There is a lesson here, I think. Many critics like to compare prime-time serials to novels. Both tell long-form stories in a series of chapters, and many novels have been published in installments. But one difference between television and literature is that television is a more collaborative art that requires a huge network of cooperation, including producers and networks eager to realize a profit. Creative talent comes and goes. Maybe Peter Berg (or someone else) was important to FNL's tone and he (they) is less involved now. Friday Night Lights does not have the luxury of the premium cable shows that can be content with an audience of two or three million. It needs an audience several times that size to be considered a real success. Identifying the intentions of creative people can be tricky, but I don't think it's unfair to wonder if the creators of FNL are trying to boost the show's appeal by playing down some of the things that made people like me adore it and, perhaps, turned off potential viewers last season. I'm not a scholar of the novel, but I find it hard to believe that a book would be as likely to suffer from the shifts in tone, style, and focus of the sort we are seeing in Friday Night Lights. Few people start reading novels with the 23rd chapter, but NBC hopes people will start viewing FNL now, having missed the first season and not caring what it might have been like. Comparing a television series to a novel (or, for that matter, a movie) oversells the coherence of the television text.

This might sound like I'm saying that literature and cinema are superior, but I am not. They are all different. It might be unreasonable to assume that a television series will form a globally coherent text over the course of its multiple seasons. Assuming this might unfairly impose aesthetic assumptions from other forms and media. It's especially unlikely for a long television series to be coherent in the same fashion as a movie or a novel because it's unlikely to have a television series plotted out in advance of multiple seasons. Everyone in a long series is basically making it up as they go along. Coherence may be imposed top-down by viewers, but it is also a function of design, and network television series are not typically designed for global coherence. Maybe the better analogy would be to a series of novels or films or comics, like a series of mysteries centered on a recurring detective character or a superhero franchise. These are produced by different creative personnel as time passes and their audiences age and change. We don't expect these to have the same kind of textual coherence that a single novel or film would have; they do have coherence, but it's of a different kind.

I have coherence in my head lately as I have been reading Greg M. Smith's new book Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal. Smith argues that that series has a kind of global coherence, but I'm only 1/3 of the way through the book so I'll hold off on commenting further for now except to say that it's weird to be getting reacquainted with Ally--a show I first really loved then really really really hated--after not having thought about it for several years, and that I had forgotten how essential and influential it was in introducing so many wacky comical devices (fantasies, flashbacks, digital effects, musical numbers) later picked up by the single-camera sit-coms.


The new season is a few weeks old, so here's my scorecard:

-I can't live without The Hills, Mad Men, and Tell Me You Love Me. These are the current absolute faves. Tell Me You Love Me has two things you almost never see: therapy scenes where characters learn something about themselves and each other rather than just providing exposition and amping up conflict, and sex scenes that advance the plot and reveal character rather than being merely erotic. I also still love the real estate and design porn. Something has to turn us on if the sex is going to make us feel so uncomfortable.

-Also keeping very close tabs on the good but not great Damages, which is heading for a crescendo ending, and the returning standout 30 Rock. Still never miss episodes of Degrassi, Newport Harbor, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

-Of the new shows Pushing Daisies is the obvious pick of the litter, but the second episode was less flashy with the CGI and other tricks of mise en scene than the pilot and the ultra-quirk might not make for compelling weekly viewing without good serial arcs to hook me. The shows it most reminds us of are Moonlighting (this was Elana's observation, and I like it: the weekly mysteries are exaggerated and bizarre and what you really care about is the will-they-or- won't-they) and Twin Peaks (we both thought of this one independently: basically, both shows are audacious and like nothing you've seen before). I might check in again on Chuck, Reaper, Dirty Sexy Money, and Gossip Girl, but none will be weekly appointments for now. And although I got a big kick out of Back to You and Aliens in America, I don't feel like watching either of them again.

-The surprise show of the fall slate is the vampire thriller Moonlight. I'm not ready to sell it hard yet, but the first two episodes were both dramatic and engaging, with genuinely surprising twists and powerful revelations. It gets points off, though, for indulging in my pet peeve of television clichés: the nefarious graduate student/ teaching assistant. The grad students of America might need to organize an action coalition if this stuff keeps up.


Reflections on MIFF 2007

The Milwaukee International Film Festival, which wrapped up last weekend, has been an occasion for me to think about films and festivals. This entry will be on the films, and someday soon I hope to follow it up with some points about festivals.

I saw six films at MIFF. They were from four continents, made by directors young, old, and in between. I saw one documentary, one undisputed masterpiece, and several by fest circuit "names." I think I chose well from the scores of options, or perhaps I am afflicted by FJSS, (festival judgment-skewing syndrome); either way, I liked everything I saw. I know some people can see six films in 36 hours at Toronto, but I've been trying to teach my class, write my book (and blog), and see my family all the while, and there's a new TV season to keep tabs on, too.

Here's what I saw, in the order of viewing.

Madeinusa (Peru-Spain, 2006, dir. Claudia Llosa) is one of those films where much goes unspoken. The main character is an adolescent girl in an Andean peasant village where Easter is celebrated by a festival of misrule during which God will not be aware of sin. The girl is reaching sexual maturity, and during the festival her father intends to take her virginity but only after she participates in a village ceremony to celebrate nubile maidenhood. Then a handsome man from Lima materializes and he gets there first. At the end she is on her way to the big city instead of him. Her name, the film's title, is pronounced Mah-den-ee-YOO-sa and is supposed to be a common one in her culture, but it was chosen for the character to make possible a joke: when she is kissing the stranger she sees on the label of his shirt, "Made in U.S.A.," and misunderstands this to be her name. This jab at globalization serves to connect the film to an eternal theme of cinema in the developing world: the double-edged effects of modernization at it simultaneously improves and eradicates everyday customs and rites of local populations. The film is shot with a mixture of uncomfortable close-ups and stunning landscape shots of mountains and water, and it captures the feeling of an authentic, remote space. Madeinusa has the humanist, ethnographic texture of a tradition of international art cinema that runs from De Sica to Satyajit Ray to Kiarostami, and with one or two exceptions the actors are non-pros. Nice to know they still do make 'em like that. (The director is the niece of Mario Vargas Llosa, if that means anything to you.)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (UK, 200?, dir. Ken Loach). Technically not a MIFF entry, this one showed during the fest at one of its venues (the UWM union theater) and is a recent Cannes prizewinner, so I consider it part of my MIFF. Cillian Murphy plays an Irishman in the 1920s who is recruited to resist the vicious British Black and Tans. Murphy has a face you can stare at all day and it's easy to make him a sympathetic character, which his certainly is. The film contains some scenes of disgusting violence for something this artsy (one involving fingernails made me queasy), which ups its visceral impact. I admire Loach for sticking to his anti-imperialist principles all these years, and wish there were more politically-motivated filmmakers who are as adept at storytelling as they are at making a point. But I also sometimes think Sam Goldwyn was onto something when he said "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." In this film Loach seems too eager to boil over, making a narrative of occupation and insurgency that not only revisits his own nation's history but also works as an allegory in the age of Bush and Al Qaeda. So my thumb is up for the film's historical agenda, its cinematic qualities, its use of folk music, its performances, and its willingness to be a real downer. I'm not so keen on its larger agenda. Another note: I don't think I understood more than half of the dialogue but in a story this unsubtle it doesn't matter.

Woman on the Beach (S. Korea, 2006, dir. Hong Sang-soo) is a relationship dramedy. I had seen some of Hong's earlier, more formally experimental efforts, and had read that this one would be his most accessible. I guess that's either good because it will help spread the appeal of a major talent, or bad because it means he's sort of selling out. I don't know--I can't see this sort of thing crossing over beyond the fest circuit. The style is still pretty forbidding. Long scenes in which characters are shot from oblique angles, avoiding shot/reverse-shot, sometimes showing the backs of heads in lazy long takes. In many scenes Hong zooms mid-shot in a way that just seems awkward. The camera rests stone still on its tripod for takes of twenty or thirty seconds or more, an art cinema technique that seems just as irritatingly familiar as the current Hollywood technique of keeping the camera moving at every instant. Emotionally the storytelling is pretty cool and distant. The film is set at a seaside resort in the off-season, and the colors are pale and sickly. It tells a gently paced story about a love triangle, then one of the three characters is dispensed with so that the rest of the film can be about a different love triangle. For a comedy it could have been funnier, and for a drama it could have been more dramatic. But I might be a bad critic for this kind of film; the generic material is pretty similar to much of what's on television and I fear that American TV has spoiled me for certain kinds of subtlety. I like a story that hooks me within a minute and offers twists and reversals every five or ten.

I had to see The Boss of it All (Denmark, 2006, dir. Lars von Trier) after reading about its formal experimentation. Von Trier set up a computer program called Automavision to determine where to point the camera and created a game called Lookey to keep viewers from slipping into passivity. Lookey is supposed to insert a number of elements out of context in the film, and if audiences figure out what they are and how they interconnect, they win a prize. I tried to find the out-of-context elements; no dice. And my internet searches have turned up no info on what the solution to the Lookey is. Leave a comment, please, if you have any leads. Anyhow, TBOIA is a ridiculous film about corporate culture, but it has some pretty funny awkward moments. The cowardly boss of a company hires an actor to pretend he's the boss of the company so that the real boss doesn't have to deal with grief from employees, and all this mistaken identity stuff means that hilarity ensues a la Shakespeare and Three's Company. For digs at offices, I also recommend The Office (esp the UK show) and Clockwatchers.

The film's style is pretty odd. Not only do camera angles change for what seem to be arbitrary reasons, cutting faces off by frame lines and decentering action (I wondered if the computer choosing them had actually been programmed) but color temperatures and sound quality are also different from shot to shot. Why? Could be it's just irritating. This would come from LVT's desire to poke fun at "artsy-fartsy culture," as he proclaims in an introductory voice-over, but ultimately I'm not sure who the joke is on. (For more on TBOIA, you gotta read David Bordwell.)

The Super Noble Brothers (USA, 2007, dir. Mark Escribano) is a locally made documentary about a family of artists of one kind or another. Two of the three brothers of the title are record-diggers, enthusiasts who go out in search of old LPs and 45s in garages and attics and storage spaces. They're also DJs and record-store owners. The third Noble does erotic, Haring-style paintings and struggles to subsist. The film was made over a period of eight or so years and this gives it a diachronic quality missing from many documentaries. TSNB is a celebration of unconventional creativity, of art pursued more for passion than fame or riches. And it's also celebration of ordinary people and a kind of vernacular creativity. It is scored with some fairly obscure (I think) funk music that the brothers collect--one describes their record store as "white guys selling black music to white guys"--and this alone makes it worth seeing.

This is the kind of movie for which the Milwaukee festival exists. A regional fest has a mission of showcasing regional talent and encouraging local creativity. At the screening I saw on a Sunday afternoon, the auditorium was sold out and many of the attendees seemed to know the filmmaker or some of his subjects, who were in attendance and answered questions afterwards. The film's setting is our own town, the streets and restaurants and architecture and patterns of speech we know so well. This makes it hard for me to evaluate it; I feel like I occupy its world and this is gratifying to me but perhaps not to someone from out of town. But I really enjoyed TSNB and hope it will be seen and appreciated far and wide.

Finally, at the end of the festival I saw Killer of Sheep (USA, 1977, dir. Charles Burnett), the undisputed masterpiece newly restored in 35mm. This is a film we can admire just because it exists, because it captures an experience of urban black America that might otherwise have gone undocumented in narrative cinema. But it's also an arresting work of art especially because of its lyricism, its wordless scenes conveying depths of emotion as characters' most basic struggles are matched to evocative jazz or blues or soul recordings, connecting them to a history African-American struggles. Two moments in particular that stick with me are the scene of the husband and wife dancing against the background of a bright window, and the final scene in the slaughterhouse where he kills and skins and dismembers animals, both of which are set to Dinah Washington's melancholy "This Bitter Earth."

This Bitter Earth
Yes, can be so cold
Today you're young
Too soon, you're old
But while a voice within me cries
I'm sure someone may answer my call
And this bitter earth
Ooooo may not
Oh be so bitter after all


I have now watched Hotel Chevalier twice, once on a 17 inch computer screen and once on an iPod. Both experiences made me sad not to have seen the movie projected in a theater, and so I really hope that it will eventually be included in screenings of The Darjeeling Limited. Hotel Chevalier is filled with well-observed moments that really work dramatically, like Jason S. frantically cleaning up when he learns that Natalie P. is soon to arrive, and the line Jason S. tells her about never wanting to be her friend, and the substitution of looking out at a view of Paris for lovemaking. I have never had any affection for Anderson's films and their obsessive affectation, but I find this little video is growing on me, and I could see myself changing my mind about his oeuvre. That Peter Starsedt song, "Where Do You Go To My Lovely," is to this film as California Dreamin' is to Chungking Express. It infects your brain even after the film has ended, and you want to play it again just as the character in the film does.

It also occurs to me that HC is very similar in form to a New Yorker short story, and that the format really suits Anderson's approach to visual detail and keen observation. In a short form motifs stand out, and your when your attention isn't strained by a longer narrative you can appreciate little things more. Anderson, like Alice Munro or John Updike, is a storyteller whose smallest details reward attention.