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Treatment of Celebrity in Documentary, And Some Docs to Watch Just Because

Celebrity infatuation is a hardy fixture of the lowbrow. If you’ve been in a grocery checkout line or at the doctor’s office or in a sorority house’s bathroom, you are familiar with the headlines of “OMG LOOK AT THAT SUPER HUNK WALKING HIS DOG JUST LIKE US” or “HOW IN GOD’S NAME DID THE PRETTY GIRL OF TODAY GET THOSE ABS?? SECRETS REVEALED” or, of course, “CHEATING SCANDAL REVEALED!!” These headlines come from the tabloid press and delve deeply and often falsely into the lives of celebrities, exploiting glamor and marital problems with inflammatory language that was previously reserved for such fine publications.

In recent years, however, this same language and content has invaded newspapers (or at least their internet footprint) and other “serious” news publications. Of the “important” news stories of 2014, some of the most shared and discussed included Kim Kardashian’s butt and hacked naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence. On my conglomerate Twitter feed of relatively liberal media from The New York Times to Buzzfeed (a very confusing media company that has intense journalistic investigations but mostly has lists of 17 things you can personally relate to so well), butts and nudes seemed to outnumber the stories on Ebola and ISIS. Naked pictures became fodder for social activism in terms of gender and Internet security, while thousands of West Africans contracted Ebola and died.

So, the line between “tabloid” and “real important news” has blurred to the point of invisibility. News headlines no longer tell us information but convince us to click, much like the tabloid magazine of yesteryear. One (me) might say that reporting and journalism on the whole has devolved to appear to the masses instead of attempting that old-fashion “integrity” thing, and one (me) might argue that celebrity infiltration into “serious” news stories has something to do with said devolution.

One “serious” and (arguably) news-y medium that has been particularly hard-hit by celebrity in recent years is documentary film. We have witnessed a barrage of documentaries on celebrities that lack multiple perspectives. Instead of an investigation, these docs feature fit celebrities in sensational and expensively produced films that highlight the troubles and hardships of the celebrity and celebrate their being. The celebrity has seized his or her life, done nothing wrong, and is a victim, like the rest of us, to this harsh world. All of this despite a completely manufactured image and a product that lacks any attempt at authentic storytelling. These are documentaries made about Celebrity by Celebrity, Inc., with the sole purpose to celebrate the efforts and genius of Celebrity in question.

But, instead of continuing my and many documentary filmmaker’s disappointment with the world that documentary has been trivialized, I want to show how there is hope! Celebrity is a fixture, yes, of the lowbrow, but celebrity as a subject can also be in an educated, artful, and integrity-ridden documentary! Wow! And in documentaries that have come out recently! Double wow! So, to provide you with something other than a rant, with this inaugural Brow Blog, I want to provide you with three celebrity documentaries of varying brows for you to enjoy in the New Year. The key terms here is “to enjoy,” which does not necessarily mean your brain follicles will react similarly or at all to the three “films.”

Like any modern-day, pseudo intellectual plebeian, sometimes (often), one must venture away from the realm of deep thought and sophistication and quench the thirst for brain-dead and sensorial footage that requires limited analysis and after-thought. So, if you are going to watch a documentary of the lowest brow, I recommend Katy Perry’s Part of Me because its SO MUCH FUN!

To watch Part of Me, it is necessary to first find yourself in an emotional rut. Been broken up with? Lost a job? Made a dumb, life-altering decision? Are you slightly intoxicated and can’t exactly focus on your reflection in the mirror? Then, it is time to let Katy Perry take you to a landscape of bubbles, superficial plight, and Hallmark-style American dreams. “If you work hard, you will accomplish anything you want!” Thank you, Katy, I can become a famous media personality! I will be happy one day!

The documentary follows Katy around the globe during her California Dreams Tour. This is an exciting year for her: an international, mega-millions, high-production, whipped-cream-filled tour and the beginning of her marriage with former heroin addict (and famous comedian) Russell Brand. Katy rocks the house in each city, and during her short, three- to four-day breaks, she flies to Russell’s side as the doting wife. Katy is a superstar in her personal and celebrity life. She has overcome so many struggles with her super religious family and music corporations that didn’t let her express her true self, but look at what she has been able to accomplish. Wow! Of course, the curated story shows how the stress of being super famous and being super in love is super hard. Poor Katy! She is crying! And tired! But her Brazilian fans are so loving, and it is so touching!

The doc is in essence an enjoyable, prolonged music video with a smattering of interviews with Katy and her staff. It features one grand scene with Katy’s out-of-touch grandmother, who clearly gives zero toots about Katy’s pink dress and the camera crew. We meet fans who have transformed their lives with Katy’s musical authenticity. She has saved them by showing them it’s okay to just be themselves. The doc filled me with confidence about myself as I passed out on the couch and woke up the next morning with wine stains on my shirt.

Glitz, glamor, and pop music shape these lowbrow celebrity documentaries, but these characteristics easily described last year’s Academy Award winning documentary feature, 20 Feet From Stardom. So, whether you like it or not, 20 Feet is the middlebrow celebrity documentary selection!

20 Feet From Stardom applies some of the same tropes and glitz from the Katy Perry-tiered documentaries, but it also investigates a topic of celebrity culture much in the shadows…several feet from the stardom, one (me) might say. It focuses on backup singers who have had prolific careers but never quite made it on their own. They sang with big-time names like David Bowie and Tina Turner and The Rolling Stones. The documentary is ridden with celebrity sightings: Sting and Mick Jagger are two interview subjects that appear frequently in the film to offer their wisdom and knowledge on these backup vocalists.

Like Part of Me, 20 Feet does feel like a prolonged music video. But it is a music video of discovery. We meet Merry Clayton, who is the iconic yet unrecognized voice in The Rolling Stones’ hit “Gimme Shelter.” She came into the studio in the middle of night, while pregnant, and wailed, a wail that far exceeded Mr. Jagger’s hopes and dreams. We also follow Darlene Love, who eventually made it into the Rock-n-Roll hall of fame, but was virtually silenced by the famed producer Phil Spector in the 1960s. These women in the film had their dreams squashed, thrown in the trash, compressed in the garbage truck, and hidden in the landfill because they needed to make a living and also follow their passion. Like Part of Me, 20 Feet is sympathetic and celebratory but the stories show how error also led to failure and how living your dream can be a dangerous state of being. It’s interesting. It’s easy. It’s fun.

Finally, I turn to the highbrow celebrity documentary for your viewing thought and pleasure. The film in question harkens to a clearer time when tabloids were tabloids and newspapers were newspapers. In fact, just to be super clear, it is entitled Tabloid, released in 2010. Director Errol Morris, who won the Academy Award—certainly a measure of something—for his documentary The Fog of War, invented a special camera for his documentaries, the awe-inspiring “Interrotron.” It allows the interviewee and the interviewer to look directly into each others’ eyes through the camera lens. So, instead of the off-center-bobble-head-looking-off-screen effect, the subject stares at the viewer.

The story unfolds layer by layer until you are left with unlimited twists and turns that seem almost unreal. You meet Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen, who seems reasonably sane if not slightly manic. In her words, she met a wonderful man named Kirk and fell in love with him. He loved her, too, but was then abducted by the evil Mormon cult and was sent to England for brainwashing. The other side of the story says that Joyce fell in obsession and kidnapped and raped Mormon Kirk during his mission in England. After the affair, Joyce became a tabloid sensation, known to Brits and Americans alike, who followed the melodrama through tabloid magazines and papers. Through her celebrity, more and more tabloid reporters investigated her life and discovered…DUN DUN DUN…so much more than the life of a simple beauty queen. As the interviewees in Tabloid point out, this story had an element for everyone: religion, sex, love, kidnaps, jail, disputes, and, most importantly, bondage.

 Tabloid tells a celebrity drama without the glitz and glam and high profile interview subjects. It also borderlines on “art film” with clever animation and effects that compliment a relatively confusing story. It gets unpacked, which can be hardly said for Part of Me.

So, it’s the New Year. You literally have nothing better to do but lose 1000 pounds, so go watch some celebrity documentaries. They at least encourage one to get in shape.

 

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The Only Way is David Holzman’s Diary (?)

Many a critic has despaired over the reality television takeover of the early-noughts, citing it as proof of the degradation of society and intelligent television programming.

But it didn’t start out that way.

In 1967, Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary made its debut at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival. Starring L.M. “Kit” Carson as the eponymous character, the film claimed to be the story of a young man self-documenting his life after losing his job. Audiences around the world watched as David attempted to make some sense out of life through ventures to the outside world and ambling confessionals, and slowly immersed himself completely in the project. David’s less than philosophical musings struck a chord with a generation being pulled into a war they didn’t support and couldn’t escape. It took home the Grand Prize from Mannheim-Heidelberg.

David Holzman’s Diary plays on the self-absorbed, single camera, “look at how interesting we are” reels being released by New York’s filmmaker community at the time, spinning the genre on its head. Though the “mockumentary” sub-genre would not reach the mainstream film market for a few more decades, the undeniable truth is that it opened the door to docufiction, video diaries, and yes—reality television.

Around the world, reality TV has taken over; France is currently gripped with their reality sweetheart, Nabilla, who faces jail time after attacking her boyfriend with a kitchen knife. In the US, we’ve had everything from Paris and Nicole’s simple lives to a herd of housewives, and while the UK was close behind with several iterations of similar programming, none have caught my eye quite like The Only Way is Essex.

Yes, you read that correctly.

From 2010, The Only Way is Essex has focused on Essex’s “young elite” in their quest to navigate life, love, success, and everything in between. The first season introduces us to Mark, James “Arg,” Sam, Amy, Kirk, and Lauren, with the constant reminder that these are “real people.” Before each episode, a card flashes on screen confirming the reality of what we are about to watch, but that certain events have been scripted. Watching The Only Way is Essex, it’s hard to believe that we are not watching a completely scripted program, especially as each episode ends with our narrator (Denise Van Outen) gleefully adding, “Anything can happen, because these are real people!”

At the center of the action of The Only Way is Essex is Mark and Lauren’s relationship. When the first season begins, the couple has just split up after a 9½-year on-again-off-again relationship. Though both claim to be ready to move on, it’s obviously neither is ready to give up on their “love,” much to the annoyance of their friends and family. Unfortunately, Mark is also “talking to” at least two other girls, including no-nonsense blonde Sam, and trying to get his heartbroken best friend Arg to adopt his playboy habits. The only people not implicated in Mark’s schemes seem to be wide-eyed beautician Amy and club owner Kirk, whose jealousy comes with problems all their own.

The program is filmed like a soap opera and features heavily stylized lighting and camerawork. Unlike other reality programs, there are no one-camera confessionals. In fact, there is no acknowledgement of cameras, at all. Each half-hour episode was filmed just days before airing, reinforcing the feeling that the entire experience must have been scripted. It’s hard to believe that the crew sifted through hours of footage from six different storylines to fit a 26-minute runtime in just a few days.

No, it seems to me that the majority of the show must follow a script, with few candid moments—in the second season, Kirk famously tells his girlfriend’s bestie that she’s “just an extra.”

Perhaps even more eerie is these “characters”’ exits from the show. After the second season, fan-favorite Amy got a deal for her own show, but is never again mentioned or referenced by anyone on TOWIE, not even her best friend Sam, or cousin Harry. Similarly, when the infamous Mark makes his exit from the show at the end of the third season, his former presence is all but forgotten by everyone, including Arg and ex-fiancée Lauren. It is worth noting that his older sister and even his grandmother Nanny Pat are still featured prominently (never fear, Mark will make his return).

It is as if they never even existed.

This idea of the “living soap opera,” is at once mundane and thought-provoking. In all technicalities, the majority of reality television may fall under this heading, but very few take this approach. Instead of confessing to the camera their innermost thoughts about each other and the community’s current events, the TOWIE cast can only “confide” in each other their true feelings. In a way, this third person approach has surpassed David Holzman’s Diary by attempting to limit the amount of devices that remind the audience that they are outsiders. Though given an omnipresent view, we are not given the chance to be omniscient; we don’t know characters’ thoughts or opinions that are not voiced in the presence of other characters. David Holzman attempts to explain how we should interpret the events through his own eyes, whereas TOWIE presents the events and lets us form alliances based on limited information. No, with TOWIE, we are not outsiders, but the town gossips, collecting pieces of the story to pass on.

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How ‘Reem’ Rejects Bourdieusien Social Judgment

I am a fan of Joey Essex. With his perfectly coiffed hair, bright eyes, and winning smile, it’s kind of hard not to be. However the allure of Joey Essex lies not in his carefully cultivated good looks, but in his rejection of the name brand/designer lifestyle of his neighbors.

Each season of The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE) introduces the audience to new characters—one has a hard time calling them anything but—who shake up the lives of the show’s more established personalities. Some are more successful than others, buying flashy cars and booze before quietly disappearing from the cast.

Which brings us back to Joey Essex.

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Joey Dumptruck

At his first appearance in season 2, Joey Essex didn’t seem that interesting as he tried and continuously struck out with several of Mark’s ex-girlfriends. Sharing drinks with cousin Chloe, he pouted his way through nightclubs and pondered Guy Fawkes’ significance. Everything changed however, once Sam agreed to go on a date with him.

Up to this point, we had only witnessed dates drowning in clichés of wine and candlelight. Sam, clearly expecting more of the same, is quite upset when Joey Essex tells her it would be best to wear sneakers for this date. He ambles up her driveway with two bikes, a backpack filled with homemade sandwiches (“Oh! You mean you wanted ham and cheese on one sandwich?!”), smashed strawberries, and cut-off jean shorts.

“I wanted to take you somewhere different,” he explains. “I wanted to show you what’s important to me.” Joey Essex pauses, waiting for Sam’s response.

“Joey…why have you brought me to the dump?”

More than being one of the funniest moments of the season, the date set Joey apart from his cast mates. Later, he takes fellow newcomer Cara (along with Kirk and Billi, their respective BFFs) on a date to a bowling alley, and then Georgina to an arcade. In every case, let’s just say his dates were less than pleased.

Who’s the Reem-est of Them All?

One marker of the TOWIE cast (and as they claim, everyone who lives in Essex) is their flashy dress style. On countless occasions, we accompany the boys as they lay down thousands of pounds on new threads, new cars, and new watches; Joey Essex, strutting around in his thrift store windbreaker, declares himself “reem.” “Reem,” we come to understand is Joey’s word for anything he deems cool, hot, or desirable. Reem, you see, is a way of life.

This is not to say that Joey Essex does not suffer for fashion. Who can forget the scene when he explains to cousin Chloe that he always buys his shoes a size too small so that his feet appear to be more proportionate to his body? His tight clothing—especially his jeans—is the subject of many a joke, as well. While his counterparts drive BMWs, Mercedes, and Range Rovers, Joey plods along in his white smart car.

On a whim, he buys a used guitar to play (badly) and sing (even more badly) on his friends’ terraces. He throws a pool party and shows up dressed as a zebra. Oh, excuse me—a reem zebra.

In short, he’s quote-unquote quirky, in a social setting that doesn’t readily accept the abnormal. And yet, he’s still quite popular amongst his peers. Why? Sure, yes, it does have something to do with his aforementioned looks and the fact that he doesn’t total reject the status quo—he is, after all, a club promoter with a penchant for glamorous ladies—but surely there’s something else going on.

Pierre Bourdieu’s Concept of Social Judgment

In 1973, Pierre Bourdieu and fellow sociologist Jean-Claude Passeron began developing what they called le capital culturel, or cultural capital. This concept embodies the idea that skills, education, and lifestyles are in fact a method of capital exchange in the cultural marketplace. As class dynamics shifted in France after the 1968 student/worker protests, this idea was making more and more of an impact. In his landmark 1979 work, La Distinction, Bourdieu continued to fine tune such ideas. At its core was this idea: taste is performed.

After all, what’s the point in having “good” taste if your social circles are not aware of it?

From here, Bourdieu separated the bourgeoisie–what anglophones may refer to as “old money”–and the petite bourgeoisie (“new money,” or the nouveau riche). While old money characteristically performs intellect, new money performs wealth. What does that mean exactly? Members of the bourgeoisie seek to display how well educated and culturally astute they are, and the petite bourgeoisie seeks to display how much money they have. There are, of course, exceptions, and Bourdieu notes their attempts to mimic the culture of the dominant class in often gaudy, ostentatious displays.

Increasingly filled with TV/film and Internet personalities, new money must perform wealth to secure their new found place in society. Meaning: big houses, flashy cars, expensive clothing, and garish restaurant dinners.

Which brings us back…yet again…to Joey Essex.

The Essex-Bourdieu Society

Pouting at his reflection, Joey Essex finally declares himself reem. He is on his way to a garage sale (wearing orange Ugg boots). There, he will find a reem pair of jeans and mull over some other purchases before returning home.

A few episodes earlier, Kirk Norwood proudly told his dad that he’d just treated himself to an expensive new car. He smiled when his father asked him how much he’d paid for it.

Still, Joey is one of the most liked by his fellow castmates and audience members. This is perhaps because he does admittedly engage in the ostentatious consumer culture in other ways–in the club promoting world, for example, he is known for his “reem parties,” flowing with booze, women, and sometimes even pyrotechnics. This duality allows him to float freely in the world of TOWIE, despite his “quirks.” Another character, Charlie, does so less successfully, and he famously tells a cast member he’ll “never be Essex enough for [her].” Paired with his comparatively demure personality, his rejection of societal norms makes him an outsider rather than an aspiration in their eyes.

Joey dreams of being a real-life Ken doll, but his retro style augmented by thrift store threads, harkens back to Ken dolls of yesteryear (circa 1980, really). As his friends and castmates perform their wealth for the world to see, Joey Essex plods along in his tiny shoes, looking reem.