Michael Cleverly: Cleverly or Not
In the 1960s when I was an art student, minimalism ruled the world of painting and sculpture and Andy Warhol began making films. His first, “Sleep,” consisted of five hours of a man sleeping. “Empire” was a single, unmoving camera pointed at the Empire State building for eight hours and five minutes. You could say these films were minimalist.
I was reminded of them after many years while trying to figure out who the hell “John and Kate” are. I had no idea. Are they movie stars; was I really that far out of touch? Athletes? They don’t look like it, but you never know. Captains of industry, dot-com jillionaires? “WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?” They are everywhere; TV, newspapers, and I counted no less than four magazine cover appearances while at the checkout one day. I suppose I could have come to the answer by simply reading a magazine or watching the television report, but I didn’t. I must consider my time more valuable than that. I finally found out that there’s something new and strange called reality television. In the past I’ve heard some people like to watch videos of complete strangers having sex, but reality television seems to be different. To each his own is my motto, and far be it for me to judge those who want to broaden this horizon or that, but clearly there are some things I’ll never understand.
Warhol was making his films during a period when young people were experimenting with something called “drugs.” It seems that these “drugs” had the potential to make the slightest thing immensely interesting. I’m told that with the right kind of fun kit, one actually could sit in a theater and watch the Empire State Building for eight hours and have a pretty darn good time, but what about these John and Kate people? What about reality TV?
I learned that the couple has a show called “John and Kate Plus Eight”. I went sneaking around the listings and discovered that I, indeed, get the show on a station I’ve never visited, The Learning Channel, which speaks to my thirst for knowledge. My research gleaned from peripheral sources indicated that The “Plus Eight” refers to their children, twins and sextuplets, a passel in anyone’s book. The dad, John, is ethnically ambiguous and he must spend a lot of time in a tanning booth; perhaps he thinks that’s what celebrities do. The blond mother has a hairdo that would scare the crap out of the people in Star Wars; my response to it is even more extreme. Maybe that’s the way she thinks celebrities wear their hair. Since I never have, and probably never will see their show, I can’t critique it. If I did, then I’d be just like those conservatives who condemn movies they’ve never seen and books they’ve never read. I can have an opinion on all the attention they’re getting because I can’t avoid it, and the genre.
The simplest and most obvious conclusion I can draw from this whole “reality TV” thing is that it finally lays to rest the “people will do anything for money” argument … they will. As earth-shaking as that news is, at least one can understand it. What’s much more difficult for me to understand is the audience for this sort of thing. Everyone agrees that when you turn on the TV you’re basically offering up your brain to be turned into oatmeal, but this peeping-tom behavior is beyond the pale. It’s obscene but without sex.
What dark part of the human psyche this irrational voyeurism was dug out of I do not know. Whether they approve or not, everyone at least understands why people watch dirty movies. If people ever actually did sit through Andy Warhol’s early films we can attribute it to those “fun kits” they brought into the theater with them, but sitting in your living room watching someone else’s life unfold? One could try to blame it on the unfortunate economic times, desperate escapism, or living someone else’s life vicariously because yours is such crap, but the “reality” trend started long before the economy went down the pooper.I spoke to a close friend in the film industry whose son is a film/video editor and has worked on many reality shows. He explained that these shows, without exception, are hogwash, complete fiction. Thousands and thousands of minutes of video are shot and the plot is essentially written in the editing room. Even without having watched the shows I found this to pretty much go without saying. So people will believe anything and they think this stuff is actually happening – that still doesn’t justify finding it interesting.
Perhaps the whole thing is a high tech/media version of gossip. People can snoop around other people’s lives, real or not, and then talk about it. TV producers have figured out how to provide people with a source of gossip and make a bunch of money out of it. Good for them.
For me, if I’m ever tempted to watch a reality TV show, then I’ll stop, put together a fun kit and rent an old Warhol movie. I guess I’m a minimalist at heart.
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This letter is in response to Maurice Emmer’s latest installment of “Opinions of an entitled right-wing reactionary Republican” in the Nov. 23 Aspen Times.