Skip to content

Color Light & Space – Alan Kirby

Postmodernism Curbed? Contemporary TV Comedy and the Apparently Real

Miranda Gray, the art school student who is kidnapped by the besotted and asocial Frederick Clegg in John Fowles’s novel The Collector (1963), passes much of her time in her locked room drawing. Ill-educated and uninformed, Clegg judges her work by the only criterion he knows: whether or not it is a “good likeness”. As an adherent of a late modernist aesthetic, Gray responds to his assessments with understandable contempt, but they have the merit of focusing attention on one of the most enduring of artistic puzzles, the relationship between the aesthetic object and the real. Clegg’s assumption that the purpose of art is to achieve an exact reproduction of the real is disdained by Gray, who believes that the role of the artist is to, as it were, personalize the real, to infuse it with a singular vision, a signature style, within which the work’s quality or its absence will inhere. Almost half a century since the publication of The Collector, today’s reader is unlikely to be very sympathetic to either character’s aesthetic doctrines. Postmodernism was to redefine the real as a fiction which artworks rely on but cannot be accessed. The postmodernist real is already swamped by representations, images, fictions themselves; the postmodernist artwork places itself among preceding and competing artworks, seeking neither a “likeness” nor a “vision” of something supposedly located beyond the field of representation. The author, neither the minion of a “real” which s/he slavishly seeks to mimic nor its godlike reinterpreter, becomes a fiction too, ironically signaling his/her position within this kaleidoscope (or Joyce’s “collideoscope”) of pre-existing texts. In J. G. Ballard’s words:

We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the pre-empting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel.

In my book Digimodernism (Continuum, 2009) I argue that one of the signs in the 21st-century cultural landscape of the exhaustion of postmodernism is the retreat of this notion of the necessarily fictive real. In its place, I argue, has come the aesthetic of the apparently real. Owing something to the example of the Dogme 95 filmmakers at the end of the last century, this aesthetic finds its natural home on television, most banally in the genres of the docusoap and reality/interactive TV. It has also spread across television comedy (sometimes spun off into films) in shows like The Office, Jackass, Ali G, and Borat. The real in such texts seems to be unproblematically held out to the viewer: what we see seems to be real, though the naivety of this aesthetic is in fact entirely deceptive.

Within the contemporary TV landscape, such programs stand at the opposite pole to Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy (Fox, 1999-2002, 2005- ), which many critics have hastened to label as “postmodern”. Depthless and affectless, Family Guy alternates broadly between two styles: a foregrounded pseudorealism supposedly and ironically sited relative to the traditional genre of the family sitcom, with its domestic squabbles, petty tensions, learning, and loyal loving; and the cutaway snippets, brazenly antirealist and often alluding to popular culture (ads, other shows, movies, etc.). Though these styles are routinely blurred by the show’s makers, Family Guy recognizably deploys a fictive notion of the real as composed of a miasma of texts, above all The Simpsons, through which one can navigate but beyond which, to paraphrase Derrida, nothing lies. Despite its moments of brilliance, I would argue that Family Guy’s collapse of the postmodernist sophistication of the Simpsons’ aesthetic into a snarky and punkish juvenilia suggests a reductio ad absurdum, a decadent final stage in the decline of an historical style. It’s to the point here, though, that Family Guy relies on a specific use of color, light, and space: clean and even primary colors; logical, structured, and staged framing; brightness and precise illumination. This is the look, of course, of an advertising that glamorizes and simplifies the world it evokes; there is an idealizing crispness and well-lit sheen to Family Guy that suggests a store catalog, though this is immediately played off – with a “subversiveness” which will be wearily familiar to long-term observers of postmodernism – the pervasive ugliness and stupidity of the characters depicted.

At the other extreme to Family Guy, it can be argued, stand Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000- ) and Armando Iannaucci’s The Thick of It (BBC, 2005- ), the latter recently spun off into the movie In the Loop. These are sophisticated examples of the apparently real within the field of the sitcom. Both shows variously deploy a “documentary” aesthetic: hand-held cameras that wobble and shake; natural and uneven lighting and sound; entirely location shooting; underdressed, stark sets; washed-out colors; retroscripted dialogue (where the actors improvise within a known framework, much like “life”); “caught” or “stolen” shots filmed through physical obstructions; distorted angles, wonky framing, or blurring of images as characters “suddenly” shift position; camerawork that, in rapid exchanges, “cannot” keep up with the “unpredictable” switches of speaker; dialogue that is sometimes inarticulate, incoherent, repetitive, awkward, or confused to the point of inaudibility; and so on. The primary effect of these techniques is to make the viewer feel that the events depicted are genuinely happening; moreover, it is to make us feel that we are actually present at them, since our “behavior”, reified by the camerawork and reinforced by the content of the shot, positions us within the process of recording itself.

Comedy has always drawn on the kind of embarrassment, humiliation, and pain episodically depicted by David and Iannucci. However, the advent of the aesthetic of the apparently real permits such authors to seemingly insert the viewer as implicated witness into the toe-curling scenes which their plots throw up. In fact, these are not “documentary” techniques, and not only because David and Iannucci unambiguously present their shows as fictions; they are not even “faux-documentaries” in the style of the BBC’s legendary Ghostwatch (1992), since no viewer is likely to be fooled by their ontological status. Instead, the battery of techniques works to mimic the physical movements and perceptions of someone actually there at the time and in the place of filming. To speak, then, of an apparent reality in these shows is to refer to something visceral, something experiential, with no basis in hard fact. This distinguishes them from the 1960s’ cinéma-vérité techniques of The Battle of Algiers or The War Game, which were driven by a desire for naked truth about recent colonial history or the effects of nuclear war; such films, which superficially resemble these shows, believed in and sought to capture and communicate a dogged “likeness” to objective fact. David and Iannucci, by contrast, purvey reality after postmodernism: the fictive real may have disappeared, but there is no motivating belief in the accessibility or desirability of objective truth. They therefore present their work as fiction which is experienced, physically and perceptually, as reality, without extending this to the realm of the objective; that one show involves several famous people playing a version of themselves, and the other alludes to well-known personages and events, does not, paradoxically, enhance their apparent reality. This latter is conveyed and felt, but it has no intellectual or philosophical content.

Yet even on these terms the apparently real is problematic. Why, for instance, should washed-out colors strike us as “real”? Walking down a street or moving through everyday public or private places affords us a plentiful supply of color. The answer, it would seem, is that the techniques of the apparently real are no more than the flipside of Hollywood’s traditional professionalism, with its fixed camera set-ups, well-equipped studios, huge props budgets, hi-tech lenses, crisp dialogue, posed scenes, careful and artificial lighting and sound recording, and so on. This is filmmaking as industrialized and expensive artifice; the systematic negation of these techniques therefore looks to our eyes like spontaneous and cheap “reality”. Yet this is doubly misleading. On one side, these shows depend to a self-evidently high degree on professional expertise: they require experienced actors, deft editors, non-diegetic music, and painstakingly honed scripts (if only in outline) which, far from clinging to a naturalism that may be supposed coterminous with apparent reality, in practice weave artificial and complex webs of coincidence and strategy to arrive at self-consciously far-fetched conclusions. On the other side, unmediated experience does often appear to us, as already noted, as rich in color, visually posed and structured, and well-lit. Hollywood’s vast commercial success has conditioned us to read its techniques as marketing devices, as insincere trickery designed to part us from our cash; in unreflecting reaction we may assume that life as it is directly and authentically lived (should we feel at ease with such thorny and whiskery terms) eschews such promotional devices. It goes without saying, however, that whatever techniques they may employ, David’s and Iannucci’s shows are also commodities in the cultural marketplace; the apparently real is not some post-consumerist nirvana, as David’s own stupendous personal wealth attests.

It is 25 years since Fredric Jameson noted that “aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally”. He claimed that this would spark a culturally dominant aesthetic that was depthless and affectless, that recycled imagery in a blizzard of pastiche and allusion, a postmodernist art, in short, of Family Guy and the fictive real (Warhol, Prince, Sherman, etc.). It might be felt that Jameson assumed too narrowly that art would inevitably mirror or interrogate its own prevailing cultural-historical conditions. Yet when this response grew tired or stale, such conditions might, without losing their force, induce artists to revolt against the supposed necessity of representing or addressing them. Rather than achieve a “likeness” or critique of a “world ruled by fictions”, such artists might then find ways of suspending or circumventing that global tyranny, in particular by seeming to resuscitate that early 60s’ shibboleth, the unmediated real. If so, the apparently real would become merely another visual expression, subsequent to the fictive real, of postmodernism; in this case, it would not signal a decisive move in contemporary art beyond the postmodern.

There is some truth to this point. However, texts such as David’s and Iannucci’s do achieve an important innovation: whereas postmodernist fictions would undermine their own illusion by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the viewer, David and Iannucci suck the viewer experientially into their productions in a way that reinforces their own perceived reality. The flatness of the fiction is not critiqued or undercut in a skeptical, deconstructive manner; instead, it is extended out toward us in a finally spurious but experientially powerful way such that it appears to engulf us. We feel that we participate in such fictions in much the way that we are implicated, potentially or actually, in the haphazard text-making of Web 2.0 platforms. David and Iannucci do not take their own texts apart; they expand them outward in their own production till they seem to encompass their own viewer. Consequently, they have no use for self-conscious fictiveness or the cultural backward gaze; instead, they recuperate a real which, under special and known conditions, is held to be here right now, and which derives its contemporaneity from the multiple and onward authorship of the Internet: a digimodernist real.

For more information about Digimodernism or Alan Kirby follow the links provided.

One Comment

  1. Max Lakner wrote:

    Interesting essay. But I disagree that the “real” aesthetic is only created in response to the Hollywood aesthetic. Rather it imitates what home movies have always looked like. Life may be full of saturated colors, but when untrained people make a video, they do come out washed out.

    The real aesthetic is not copying real experience, it is copying home videos.

    Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 12:25 AM | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *
*
*