Tuesday, May 13, 2008

5 Theses on The Hills

(this post is repurposed from a comment on zigizgger)

Devastated by the end of the Hills mini-season-plus... inspired by the writings of femme feral, zigzigger, dr. television, and of course songs about buildings and food... so: some additional mist for the grill from two perspectives, one (labor history) in which I am actively training, and the other (art criticism) in which I am but a hacky pretender.

Thesis 1: Reality television is, among other things--probably first and foremost-- an accumulation strategy. MTV is part of a large transnational corp; labor costs are among the most nettlesome barriers to increased profitability. Using performers like LC, Lo, and Heidi who apparently style their own hair, do their own makeup, and wear their own clothes, hang out at readymade locations like Hyde and Don Antonio's (not to mention the fake job sites) , and are illuminated by natural light means that a whole raft of unionized professionals are unnecessary. That is, in reality-speak, what it is.

Why I love the Hills despite the dangers its success poses to one of the few remaining one-hundred-percent unionized modes of creative production is that it resists the urge to humiliate the performers it enlists. On The Hills, like on Survivor or Shot of Love with Tila Tequila, the people we watch are working--and unlike actors, their work is undisguised, in service only of its own realization (as such Spencer Pratt is absolutley right that he "works harder" than actors, although apparently he does understand why) and what we watch is their work.

Thesis 2: The difference between LC and your average reality show contestant or personality is that LC retains dignity that others are forced to sacrifice in order to participate. LC is not made to prance around in outfits she hates, smooch scorpions, or dance on bars. The existence of a separate "LC 2" covered in the tabloids is, in fact, a testament to the dignity of her labor. She gets to protect a measure of privacy, interiority, intimacy, experience that we cannot purchase. This is why, the LC sex tape about which Spencer and Heidi compulsively speak has such a vital structural role within the Hills's organzing logic. Not because it would prove that LC is not a "good girl"--an irrelevant claim, at best-- but because it would deprive LC of the rare status she has negotiated, a celebrity whose work does not require the complete demolition of her private subjectivity, the exposure of her anatomy, or compliance with the brutal economy of exhibitionism and attention that has ensnared so many others.

Thesis 3: At the same time, the Hills format is also--intentionally, by design, brilliantly-- a vehicle for all manner of branding, including the continuing branding of what on Laguna Beach was the "OC" lifestyle (no laughing matter--Mike Davis points out that OCs have been popping up in Dubai and suburban India, gated communities with Jamba Juices and Starbucks that apparently make the miseries of neoliberalism outside the gates easier to stomach), and which on the Hills is something like "twentysomething coastal consumer citizenship."

I have a bit to say about this. "Twentysomething coastal consumer citizenship" is structed on deep paradoxes that should make us uneasy... and The Hills does make us uneasy... we sense that this way of life is unstable (how long can a vain and entitled ruling class claim NYC and LA for itself?), parasitic (how much of this is funded by expensive educations, trust funds, connections), in some way deeply anhedonic (even the "fun" careers of music, fashion, and PR seem dull, monotonous, often marked by abusive managers and arbitrary demands). But this lifestyle also articulates a philosophy about public space and the legitimacy of different strategies of profiting off of the commons.

LA has long been the epicenter of "twentysomething coastal consumer citizenship" as neoliberal ideology. Lauren and Lo and the camera crews of the Hills have a social warrant to use the sidewalks and streets of LA to make money. In contrast, the poor cannot even use these same public spaces in order to survive, with the rise of broken windows policing and the virtual criminalization of homelessness. Even the act of inhabiting public space in LA as an identifiably Mexican-American or African-American youngster has been criminalized... the LAPD now considers merely being out of doors as criteria for entering youth into gang databases. And as recent NYPD shootings demonstrate, being outside and African American is grounds enough for murder by the police.

Thesis 4: But merely criticizng the brand that the Hills is selling is ultimately too reductive. The Hills has a character--Spencer Pratt--who embodies this lifestyle brand and its ethic in the manner of a character in a medieval mystery play. In Spencer Pratt we see "twentysomething coastal consumer citizenship" in all of its appalling awfulness. And not only because of Pratt's (disturbingly patchy and unattractive) mustache-twirling and scenery-chewing. I am convinced that he is there as a force of repulsion for LC. She does not hate him for what he has done, she hates him for what he is. She does not want to be him. In the end, she will fail. But that is in the nature of tragedy, and it is clear that the Hills is a quite classic tragedy, resonating especially with the Wharton and Dreiser tragedies of capitalism's excess from the last Gilded Age.

Thesis 5: Finally, I want to say something about form. The Hills is utterly brilliant in its formal integrity. It is also clearly, in my view, a work of high minimalism-- right up there with "Groundhog Day" in the canon of pop takes on this form. The materials used by the Hills's creators are ruthlessly kept to a minimum, and deployed in mathematical permutations: from the shots of street life, to the music cues, to the very conflicts staged by the principals. Like the Ibsen maxim that a gun introduced in Act I will go off in Act V, on the Hills, any element introduced anywhere will be re-used across the matrix of personal relationships. LC ditches a job opportunity for a lame boyfriend? So will Heidi. Not out of a lack of imagination on the part of the creators, but out of a rigid commitment to testing a hypothesis: repetition is interesting.

Repetition is also the symbol of the underside of capitalist pleasure-seeking-- the endless procession of logos and trademarks, the cloned spaces of commercial real estate, the looped grooves of pop music, the constricted language of empty phrases and ambiguous gestures. Here is where I emphatically celebrate the Hills. Has any work of art ever traversed the terrain of blankness, repetition, and redundancy to better effect? I don't think so. If historians of the future are judicious, they will watch the Hills to get a sense of the affective character of turn-of-the-century American capitalism.