True Visions of False Realities

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It doesn't take much, you will have noticed, to become famous these days. Eating a rat or sticking a pig on Survivor is enough to get you talked about around the water cooler the next morning. If someone should ever actually get laid by an insignificant other on Temptation Island 2, that would doubtless do the trick too. We tune in to "reality TV" in hope of seeing one or more of our fellow citizens degrade themselves for (mostly) short money and (very) momentary fame. Watching these shows, we shake our head wryly: What are we coming to? Where will it all end? But there's not much conviction or concern in those questions. We of the demographic elite are all too busy watching The West Wing.

This does not prevent us from fashioning a sociology of America's dumbing down. Nor, as it turns out, does it stay the hands of our satirists. It is not hard for them to imagine a fairly near future--or an alternate contemporary reality--in which the conventionalized perils of Survivor begin to pall, and some TV producer decides to raise the stakes. Give equally dull people real guns and ammo, and set them to stalking one another. The last man or woman alive wins.

Just what they win, Daniel Minahan, writer-director of Series 7, doesn't say. Neither does he say who, exactly, is controlling the lottery by which contestants are chosen. All we know is that once the masked guys from his fictional TV show The Contenders come knocking at your door, you have no choice but to get up and get busy offing the competition.

His clever film, made for less than $1 million in a digital format, consists entirely of "episodes" from The Contenders, complete with tacky titling and an unctuous, booming narrator. The minor miracle of Minahan's work is that it somehow encourages us to form a sympathetic bond with his main character, Dawn, whose ferocity is touched with a poignant longing for a kinder, gentler life by the splendid Brooke Smith. She is pregnant. She is back in the hometown she left in disgrace some years before. One of the people she is supposed to kill is the only boy she ever loved (Glenn Fitzgerald), who is both "ex-gay" and dying of testicular cancer. Among others on her hit list are an E.R. nurse (Marylouise Burke) whose Roman Catholic piety seems somehow to reinforce her talent for murder and a teenage girl (Merritt Wever) whose mom and dad cheer on her depredations as if she were playing soccer and had a shot at a college scholarship.

Everyone's well-played blandness and unquestioning acceptance of the game's rules are this film's sharpest satirical shaft. Of course Minahan is grateful that Survivor has come along, in effect, to validate an idea he's been nursing for five years. But he thinks the show is pretty small potatoes--nothing more than "mean-spirited office politics being played out on TV." Despite that send-up, Minahan, a onetime producer for the MTV tabloid show Buzz, is an avid viewer of reality TV. "It brings out the worst in everyone. It's exploitative, manipulative, it encourages narcissism and exhibitionism, it's antisocial... But I love it." For, he says, those moments when "a little bit of truth peeks through."

Is this guy cool, or what? A hotter approach to filmmaking comes from John Herzfeld, writer-director of 15 Minutes, which takes its title from Andy Warhol's famous formulation about fame in the age of television. Like Minahan, Herzfeld has worked at TV's scuzzier levels (he once made a docudrama about Joey Buttafuoco), and his project was passed around even longer (eight years) before getting a green light. But unlike Minahan, who finds celebrity and greed "not very interesting," he's "fascinated by our culture's most volatile obsessions--celebrity, violence and wealth." His brutal but very well-made film manages to encompass all three topics. And its tone is a lot more outraged than Minahan's.

It offers a pair of Eastern European criminals, a psycho killer (Karel Roden) and a psycho cameraman (Oleg Taktarov) who goofily wants to become an auteur like Frank Capra. Just how his video record of their crime spree, which includes spectacular arson as well as murder, will help him achieve that goal is the great mystery of his derangement. His tapes are of interest to Kelsey Grammer, playing the cynical host of a tabloid TV show, and they may be the key to an insanity plea that will help the pair cash in after they are caught.

Of the two law-enforcement officers pursuing them, Robert De Niro's cop, Eddie Flemming, and Edward Burns' arson investigator, Jody Warsaw, the former is the more interesting. Flemming is a media favorite--a PEOPLE cover boy, always good for a sound bite and, says Herzfeld, based on a real New York City detective. Flemming thinks his celebrity helps him in his work. We may think differently as this bloody story evolves. But he is a novel, disturbing movie character. And his prey, with their fresh, almost innocent, foreigner's insight into how to maneuver the media for their own ends, are too. Best of all is Herzfeld's sense of TV as an environment in which all his characters swim. Almost everywhere they go, television screens, big and small, spew forth bilge. They heed it or not, but the medium's pervasiveness is undeniable.

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