Friday, June 25, 2010

Reality television makes my head hurt.

When the word ‘documentary’ is used, the expectation is that you will be watching something honest and possibly worthwhile. In that perfect theoretical world, this is certainly possible, but where words on paper meet reality, as with most things, honesty doesn’t always survive.

Worthwhile is a matter of opinion of course. I would not want to sit through a biographical movie about The Backstreet Boys, others might. But remaining honest to the context of a story is another matter.

Take the case of Man vs. Wild, a reality survival show with host Bear Grylls, a former special forces soldier and self proclaimed survival expert. This series follows Mr. Grylls as he throws himself, often out of a plane or helicopter, into the wild where he then teaches the viewer what to do if they should find themselves parachuted into wide open spaces, presumably alone.

Granted, in this example we are not talking about a strict documentary. There is a distinction between that and reality television and it is one that I have yet to fully define in my own mind. Perhaps it is the fact that the entire situation is fabricated to begin with that changes the flavour of this sort of program. From the outset, reality programs feel different from a documentary. This certainly isn’t The Nature of Things, and Bear isn’t David Suzuki. He becomes more actor than expert.

My background is full of working and living in the bush, as a boy scout, treeplanter and forest fire fighter. I would never be so presumptuous to claim that I was a survival expert. I can muddle by, however, and have been instructed by true survival gurus, men and women who can claim to be able to live off the land.

There is not the romance one might imagine in doing this. Making a fire while wet and cold is rewarding, but when you consider that my most prized possessions when in the bush is my bug net, flask of scotch and a good book, you get the idea that the true reward is getting away from the bugs which will soon be the only thing distracting you from the boredom of waiting to be rescued. It usually isn’t summer camp.

As a result, a truly honest show about survival would not have nearly the excitement that Bear Grylls seems to provide on a weekly basis.

Most episodes begin with the hero jumping out of a plane or helicopter into a supposed unknown situation. This is not likely for most of us to begin with. Then Mr. Grylls seems to be in a great hurry to get away from where ever he lands. This includes jumping off cliffs, running away from mountain plateaus full of berries and possible helicopter pick up points. Not good advice.

In most survival situations, after whatever has gotten you into that predicament has happened, the greatest problem is dealing with the boredom, because you should rarely ever wander away from where you find yourself initially. If you are good and lost, stay put.

This sadly does not make for good television.

I can imagine the producer looking at the proposal and wondering “how do I make this sexy?” She/he probably already had preconceived ideas about what a survival show should look like. It would have confrontations galore, wether that be weather, wildlife, terrain... there has to be conflict, especially when you consider that it is in the name of the show. As a side note, in most Man versus Wild scenarios in real life, man tends to lose. Man Dealing with Wild is too much of a mouthful though.

The production is certainly exciting. It pulled me in quite quickly. So credit given where credit is due. The image of someone jumping out of a helicopter 8000 feet about a supposedly deserted island is unquestionably compelling footage.

However, it turns out that in search of sexy, Bear Grylls or his producers have told some very serious lies. In fact, they have lied so poorly that the Discovery Channel has been forced to re-edit many of the episodes in an effort to offset that bad reputation the show has received.

Certainly many, including myself, can debate the merits of the advice given as it is often rather dangerous, but the lies are even more flagrant. In one episode he claims to be on a deserted island and it was found out that he was in Hawaii and returning to a hotel each night. Embarrassing.

Worse yet was during a taping in the Rocky Mountains, they could not find a bear. Apparently bear attacks happen all the time in the mountains, and yet somehow I’ve missed every one of them. But it would be good to know what to do, I suppose, and being that the star of the show is named Bear... well the irony is too important for any producer to ignore.

Not finding a bear to chase Bear, they decided to look for a tame one. No luck. Seems the stunt bears are busy guys, always shuffling between movie sets.

The solution? Man in a bear suit.

There is a list on the internet of all of the fraud on this reality series. Amongst many, this show is a joke and some even now watch it ironically. By some, I really mean myself.

This situation illustrates that you should not believe everything you see on television... but to make it all the more tragic, it leads to a loss of trust in any similar production. The word reality becomes irrelevant and is thus confused with documentary and then further to news reporting, both of which ought to have a strict ethical guide to prevent entertainment getting in the way of being truthful.

I believe there is a need to remain as honest as possible in telling a story. That means not leaving out the dirty laundry where it is important for the viewer to realize that what she or he is watching may not be entirely what they believe it is.

But I’ve found myself placing shots out of order, using footage that was shot on a different day, sometimes misleading the audience. Usually this is as innocent as using a wide shot of a location when the action afterwards happened many miles away. Or using a shot of two people talking when the actual conversation is not what was said at that precise moment. I may not have overtly lied, but I certainly did mislead, and even enjoyed doing so. This is the magic of editing, which is often necessary, and sometimes provides a strange rush to video editor. She has made the story work.

So where is the line that divides an honest slight of hand and a reputation destroying lie?

I don’t have a simple answer. Perhaps it is in being true to the story. That, I’m afraid, is a pretty evasive answer itself.

If Man Vs. Wild was a comedy about a survival expert, it would simply be funny. The fact that many take such a series to heart and that there have been a couple of fatalities already attributed to misleading footage taken as advice by weekend warriors, attests to the harm that a simple lie on television can do.

note: In an effort to avoid ironically ignore my own post, the photo below was actually shot at a fire line camp in northern Alberta. Our meals were shipped in daily by helicopter and we not only each had our own tents, but managed to build a water slide and a sauna. Not exactly a survival situation to us, this was closer to summer camp for an Alberta firefighter.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Year of the Carnivore - Sook-Yin Lee's new film.

Amongst the many things in life that annoy me is the attitude the general population has towards Canadian film. While living in Montréal, I was told how the Québec film industry was amazing and alive and well, while the rest of Canada was somehow culturally dead in terms of film.

Of course this is anything but true.

Last night I attended the premier of Sook-Yin Lee's film, Year of the Carnivore, a sweet dramedy about those awkward first steps of sexual exploration. It follows Sammy Smalls, a brilliant name under any circumstances, a grocery store detective, a job I would very much like to apply for. She is a very cute tomboy who uses her job as a reason to wear shapeless outfits, which in turn allows her to largely ignore her own body.

I will not delve too deeply into the intricacies of the plot. The sex scenes are not the stuff of porno, but are instead quite honest and I would say true to life in that they are clumsy. Such life lessons probably never resemble our imaginations, and I love that Sook-Yin went in that direction. If you are searching for passionate romance and long love scenes or even raunchy sex scenes that excite, you will likely be disappointed.

You may find yourself mildly repulsed by scenes involving a pair of new parents who have lost that sexual connection... it ends in a strange clothed sex scene involving a lactating mother... and I'll leave the rest to your imagination. Both humorous and disturbing; my favourite sort of scene.

For a movie about sex, there is surprisingly little nudity and it doesn't seem necessary. Although some scenes are shocking, there is also an innocence about it. I am not sure how much of the writing was fully auto-biographical, though through the oddest skype conversation I have ever been a part of, Sook-Yin explained from the comfort of her kitchen that it was based on her first love with a musician.

If you find other reviews, notably the one from the Globe and Mail, you will perhaps think that this isn't the fine little film I have made it out to be. I can assure you that it is. Some strange need to dismiss Canadian cinema seems to drive not only the canadian public, but also the critics. No one in the theatre last night seemed upset by the film, but the critics aren't happy at all. I will grant them that there were a couple of points where the plot was a touch slow, but if I'm willing to forgive that in most other films I watch, surely it can be overlooked for a director/writer's first feature. I firmly believe that critics owe their readers some perspective. This was a film made for well under 2.5 million and was a rather personal story dealing with sexual awakening. The reality of those times is that it never goes as smoothly as in Hollywood romances and Sook-Yin should be applauded for sticking to the reality of the situation. Perhaps it was too real for some people. Perhaps they would have preferred a slick love scene and some explosions. I suppose The A-Team movie might offer some of that up for the true cinephile.

The film opens today and it should not be forgotten. While I don't think films should ever be defined by the nationality of their creators, it pains me to see so many brilliant Canadian movies disappear into the back of the alternative section of the video store. Perhaps we should prevent this sad fate and ensure that Canada maintains a respectable film industry by actually going to see the damn films.


Thank you for visiting. I live in Vancouver now, but I've lived in other places too. I take photos and make short films about things and people. Please comment and be argumentative. It amuses me.

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