Belltown Messenger - Documenting Downtown Seattle

Belltown Messenger #77 - March 2010

mondo culture-o - by Gillian G. Gaar

Squicky Reality TV


I hate reality TV. I watched one episode of the first Survivor when that aired to see what all the fuss was about. Instead of being “reality,” it seemed even more tightly edited than a regular TV show. You never really got to see anything happen. There would be about 30 seconds of some kind of action, but constantly intercut with studio interviews from the participants explaining what was happening, as if they felt the viewing audience was too stupid to figure it out for themselves. Hmm, did they have a point there?

I also watched the final episode to see who won. There was Susan Hawk proudly announcing her vote would go to Richard Hatch (making him the winner) over Kelly Wigglesworth, and getting really mean about it. Why, I thought, do you want to show off your most unpleasant side to a nationwide audience?

Clearly, this wasn’t the TV genre for me. But such shows have proliferated like a virus. And they’ve really elevated touchy/feely-ness to a new level. Now, you’re supposed to be comfortable with exposing all of your innermost secrets to the world; if you’re not emoting, you’re not being “real.” You see this on talk shows too, of course. People scrabbling for their 15 minutes by proclaiming such inanities as, “I slept with my mother’s boyfriend — and his son!”

This setting up of instant intimacy has frequently left me feeling uncomfortable. Especially now that people are increasingly picking up cameras to document the drama in their own lives. Is it really necessary to have to share everything about your life? Are there some stories that shouldn’t be told?

All these thoughts kept going through my mind as I watched the documentary Prodigal Sons, which played SIFF last year, and will play SIFF Cinema March 5-7 and 10-11. The film tells quite a story. It recounts director Kimberly Reed’s journey back to her childhood home in Helena, Montana. The first twist would be sufficient for most films: Kimberly used to be Paul, a star quarterback in high school. But Prodigal Sons goes further. Though home movies show then-Paul and his brothers growing up in an all-American setting, it turns out there’s much more going on beneath the surface than one would guess.

Which brings us to the second twist: the film’s main story isn’t about a small-town reaction to a former high school jock’s sex change, but rather Kim’s relationship with her own family, especially her estranged older, adopted brother Marc. Kim is hoping her visit can help the two to reconnect. Though perhaps bringing a camera into the situation isn’t the best idea. I know if an estranged relative wants to mend fences with me, I’m not going to want to be filmed while we “process.”

But that (apparently) isn’t the case here. Marc doesn’t seem to have issues with the camera, because the third twist is that he has his own problems. Clearly always resentful of Paul/Kim’s success with the outside world, his personal abilities to cope have been further hampered by the brain damage he suffered as the result of an accident, and the subsequent operations that have left him with frightening mood swings. When the family gets together, it’s akin to watching a pressure cooker turned up to high: you hold your breath waiting for the explosion.

Naturally those explosive moments come (along with a few more unexpected twists). And that’s what we want to see, isn’t it? It’s boring when the family gets along. We want that conflict. It’s what a good story is made of. But as the tensions spiraled into an ugly violence, I found myself squirming, as if I was eavesdropping on something I wasn’t supposed to see. Kim herself provides the voiceover narration, pulling you into the story immediately, with the result that by the time the fights erupt, I felt as if I’d intruded on what should have been a private moment.

The constant displays of raw emotion left me unsettled, both by the fact that they were being exposed so publicly, and that I had chosen to watch them, making me a willing participant. It’s rare to find a film that’s so provocative, both in its subject matter, and in its push to get you to think. How many films, really, are designed to be more than a passive, complacent viewing experience?

At the film’s conclusion comes the sobering realization that not all wounds can be healed. Even Kim has an uncomfortable moment when Marc shows childhood photos of the family to others, not wanting her own past to be exposed. In the end, she realizes that accepting, not denying, one’s past helps you become a whole person. But the family itself remains fragmented, their secrets out for the world to judge and dissect at its leisure. That’s entertainment.

Belltown Messenger
© 2010 Belltown Messenger