In his 2009 memoir, My Life Outside the Ring, Hulk Hogan, WWF legend and star of the VH1 reality series Hogan Knows Best (2005-07), recalls watching The Osbournes for the first time and assuming the family “must’ve had cameras in their house 24/7 and camera people following them everywhere they went just waiting for that magic to happen.” Only later did he learn that such series simply aren’t made that way, that, “just like anything else in Hollywood, there are unions and crews and budgets to deal with,” and “a production company…isn’t going to pay the crew overtime and double time just to sit around when nothing’s happening. That’s why reality TV shows are soft-scripted.”1
On the subject of reality television’s putative access to raw reality, I would not wish to impugn Mr. Hogan, who obviously speaks from experience. Yet I balk at his assertion that certain immutable production parameters prevent anyone from sitting around when “nothing’s happening.” Not because this isn’t true, because it almost certainly is. But doesn’t video technology promise precisely this freedom (obviously spurious, but psychologically satisfying nonetheless), to film as much “nothing” as one could possibly want? As a teenage cinephile in the early 2000s, I was dimly aware of the lure such technology held for certain filmmakers, including Robert Rodriguez, who gleefully welcomed the “death of film” throughout the special features on the DVD of his One Upon a Time In Mexico (2003). Having shot the first major Hollywood movie entirely in Digital HD, he celebrated the freedom of never having to call “Action!” or “Cut,” which meant that “you’re always in rehearsal mode…and you get really great performances.”
Surely the apotheosis of this video-enabled freedom—to let the camera fill up with an interminable amount of nothing, until discovering a bit of nothing that might be something—is the paranormal investigation series, in which a team of self-appointed experts stake out various locations for confirmations of supernatural goings-on. Far from a committed fan of series like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventurers, I recommend a recent piece on The Talkhouse that convincingly illuminates their particular aesthetic pleasures, comparable to those of the site-specific films of Andy Warhol. I myself am more interested in recent digital endeavors that wear this mode loosely and provocatively. In at least one such work, the chimera of infinite filmability meshes fruitfully with a bold performance style—a gelid numbness that suggests itself as the only suitable response to the apprehension of the otherworldly via digital technology.
Across four seasons, Comedy Central’s docu-reality series Nathan For You (2013-17) evolved from a smug-but-funny prank show of rarified conceptual integrity into a full-bore Surrealist fantasia. Several late-season episodes—among them “Electronics Store,” “Horseback Riding/Man Zone,” “Smokers Allowed,” and “Chili Shop/Massage Parlor”—contain moments of conceptual genius as visually sublime as anything I have seen on television. Throughout, host/protagonist Nathan Fielder’s terminal unflappability remains essential to the comedy; as this “marketing consultant” hand-holds clients through his variously stupid, impossible, and borderline-illegal schemes, his vacant expression and halting monotone suggest depths of incommunicable sadness even as they callously deflect any consideration of basic human social behavior. “So…is that enough small talk to make you comfortable?” he inquires during a typical introductory bit.
In the second segment of the 2014 episode (s02e01), “Mechanic/Realtor,” Fielder convinces Los Angeles realtor Sue Stanford to distinguish herself from her competitors by “specializing in a currently unrepresented group of homebuyer: the fifty percent of people who believe in ghosts.” This idea—far from the most ludicrous the mockumentarian has foisted upon the unsuspecting—is well-received by the client, who is herself a believer. Soon Fielder and Stanford are exploring houses with professional psychic medium Ron Bard, a gravelly voiced man in a Panama hat who, rather than offer his own qualifications, proudly proclaims that his daughter “just found her first missing child in New York.” (The comic voltage of Fielder’s response, a phlegmatic “okay,” is indescribable.) As the trio potters from room to room, with Bard ruling on the presence of any “entities,” the serendipitous fusing of forms becomes apparent. Fielder’s ability to cede control of a promising situation and keep a straight face as it edges toward insanity finds its ideal context in the video-dependent ghost hunter format, wherein an “expert” sustains suspense across an arbitrary period of time by evaluating the unverifiable according to a set of incommunicable criteria.
The show rides this groove into the sensational closing bit, perhaps the closest the series ever came to taking things “too far,” at least until its surprisingly poignant feature-length 2017 finale, “Finding Frances.” After Bard senses an incubus in the master bedroom (“Well, that sucks for you,” Fielder informs Stanford), contact is made with Brother Carlos Oliveira, an exorcist-for-hire residing in Fresno. Oliveira quickly cleanses the room with a few prayers and splashes of holy water, before turning his attention to Fielder and Stanford, whom he claims could be infected by demons “manifesting as physical ailments.” Fielder baits Oliveira with the claim of a hemorrhoidal problem, Stanford admits she has back trouble, and the exorcist incorporates both of these phrases into an increasingly vigorous and hands-on cleansing ritual that ultimately reduces the realtor to a sobbing mess.
Again, whether received as comedy or horror, the effect on the viewer is a feeling of coming unstuck in time, since the course of events is controlled by a man operating free of any empirical markers of cause-and-effect. That is to say, it’s not over until Brother Carlos says it’s over. As he releases his grip on Fielder’s face, revealing it to be as utterly inexpressive as ever, Stanford delivers the only appropriate punchline: “Wow, you look different!”
If I were required to apply the lesson of “Mechanic/Realtor” to a more conventional cinematic object, it would be Kristin Stewart’s remarkable work in Personal Shopper (2016). In that film, director Olivier Assayas blends the aura of the supernatural and the chill of 21st-century technological dependency within the story of a young woman who may or may not be receiving text messages from the spirit of her recently deceased twin brother. Large chunks of the film are devoted to Stewart texting the “spirit” and silently combing an abandoned house for signs of its presence, and whether her trademark inexpressiveness sinks or carries these scenes has been a matter of great critical contention. I happen to agree with Glenn Kenny when he praises Stewart as “mesmerizing…even while engaged in an activity as ostensibly banal as texting,” but it took something a bit more formally audacious than Assayas’s film to help me understand my own take on her performance. Whether ironic or sincere, these actors’ uncanny blankness seems to me the perfect response to contemporary technology’s purchase on Eternity.
1 Hulk Hogan, with Mark Dagostino. My Life Outside the Ring: A Memoir (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010), 175-6.