The Warhol Effect: From Edie Sedgwick To The Hills
Guest blogger Peter LiCalsi is a screenwriter in Los Angeles who has done work in production design and art direction. You can contact him at peterlicalsi-at-gmail.com.
One of my guilty pleasures is the "reality" show, The Hills, in which a cadre of vapid beautiful people (the millennial Bright Young Things, though not all that bright) are given the skeleton of scenes which loosely resemble events actually unfolding in their own lives, and improvise accordingly. We are meant to believe that the scenes played out are the actual lives of those stars, or personalities. What unfolds can be a banal and trite soap opera, but more often than not the scenes themselves are surreal and voyeuristic. The fourth wall is never broken, yet what remains--or rather, what is allowed to remain--are the awkward pauses, the stuttering, the bizarre locutions and facial gestures, the run-ons, and the fragments that are rife within, yes ... reality.
In film, the vérité technique has been used to great effect to illustrate that a subject needn't be editorialized to be compelling. Much of the most famous vérité work has sought to depict the mundane. The Hills, by contrast, uses a vérité lens to examine traditionally "glamorous" subjects. The young, beautiful, and affluent are seen in all their glory--attending nightclubs, buying expensive clothes, staying at resorts, and jet setting to Vegas one weekend, Cabo the next. Yet they are robbed of an essential element of glamour: grace.
This combination of glamorous subject matter and graceless presentation is derivative of many of the films from Andy Warhol's Factory. Indeed, much of reality television seems to be Warhol's legacy: Warhol's famous “15 minutes of fame” idea is predicated on the notion that fame per se is a cultural commodity, with value independent of any deeper association. The rise of the reality show, the faux-reality show, YouTube, etc.--these owe a great deal to Warhol's insistence that simply focusing the eye toward a subject can imbue it with artistic and commercial value.
Among these, The Hills is quite special. It dispenses with the grace, eloquence, and comportment that are typically granted to attractive, affluent characters in western pop culture. In doing so it confirms, intentionally or not, Warhol's point that beauty validates itself indefinitely. And fame validates beauty eternally. Perhaps we miss the point when we agonize that Lauren, Audrina, Brody, and The Whole Sick Crew probably couldn't master long division, and are thus not worthy of mass adulation. They are works of art to be observed, nothing more--the descendants of the Campbell’s Soup Can.
More pointedly, it’s difficult to watch Warhol's Poor Little Rich Girl, the hour-long film of heiress Edie Sedgwick preparing for a party, musing on about her reckless spending habits, rock and roll, and fur coats, and not recognize some happenstance lineage to The Hills. Warhol expanded upon Keats's "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” making beauty an acceptable tenet of art after the deconstructionism of the previous half-century. The Hills is one of the many chapters in the battleground of glamour and reason, one that says we can have our cake and look at it too.