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Reality: What a concept

Ah, reality. So malleable. I've seen a few documentaries and reality shows in my day, and I always enjoy watching how the filmmakers set about shaping "characters" and narratives from carefully chosen bits and pieces of footage, dialog and narration.

Take Susan Boyle, one of the hottest celebrities in the Western World since her appearance on BBC ITV's "Britain's Got Talent" last Saturday -- a performance that has now been seen by untold millions on YouTube. (One clip alone -- several are posted -- registers nearly 14 million views as I write this; a similar one of Paul Potts, the opera-singing mobile phone salesman from 2007, shows nearly 44 million views.)

If you haven't seen it yet, watch this version, which shows how Boyle's audition was set up for the television audience. (Is this show broadcast live, or edited later? How many cameras do they have in that auditorium? Watch how the reaction shots are inserted.) After making a joke about the one thing that's been missing from Glasgow is "talent," the hosts introduce the rather frumpy looking Boyle with comical music and a shot of her taking a big bite out of a sandwich. "Next up is a contestant who says she has what it takes to put Glasgow on the map," they say. The offscreen audience laughs. She's from West Lothian, 47 years old, unemployed but looking, never married ("Never been kissed," she says, "Shame -- but that's not an advert!").

And so, Boyle takes center stage, a nervous but cheeky amateur at the talent show. The judges ooze condescension. The crowd smacks its lips and rolls its eyes, nearly salivating when she says her dream has always been to have a professional singing career like Elaine Paige, England's Betty Buckley. Everybody's ready to take her down -- hard. What fun that will be, right? The music begins ("I Dreamed a Dream" from "Les Miserables," which she pronounces with the "s" at the end). She stands stiffly. And then she lets loose the voice.

It's a great punch line, and she knows exactly how to deliver it. Offstage, the emcees look directly into the camera and one of them wags a finger in our faces: "You didn't expect that, did you? Did you? No!" They (and she) knew it all along, of course, and had cleverly misled us into thinking Boyle was a pathetic nut job with delusions of grandeur. So, now they're proud of having faked us out? Teaching us all a lesson? What lesson?

Anyway, from this point on it's reaction shots galore -- the screen held up as a mirror of viewers' faces at home: Simon Cowell smiling at the way his staff have pulled off this practical joke (he's been had, but his eyes are sparkling with a certain "Ca-ching!"); women welling up with inspiration; men shaking their heads in wonder... Not only do you have the soaring Broadway melody, but the lyrics of Boyle's chosen song become autobiographical and transformative in this moment:

I had a dream my life would be So different from the hell I'm living So different now from what it seemed Now life has killed the dream I dreamed

It's the song we're meant to imagine she could have sung... right up until the moment she started singing. And as she sings it, she steps into the dream, lives it, and brings it alive for her audience. She uses the show to rescue herself from a humdrum existence! The underdog triumphs! The ugly duckling reveals her inner musical swan! It's an unsubtly crafted moment of vintage melodramatic showbiz hokum, manufactured for "reality TV."

And it works splendidly -- because Susan Boyle is not only talented, but skilled. I'm not sure which is more offensive: the way she was regarded before she sang or the way she has been portrayed since. Though treated by the judges and the press as if she were an emotionally and intellectually impaired child from the hinterlands, she is someone to be admired, not pitied or patronized with snidely sanctimonious comments about how "you can't judge a book by its cover." The show relies on the inherent entertainment value of those kinds of preconceptions -- and only reinforces them by occasionally overturning them, just for fun. Boyle is this year's exception that proves the rule and buoys the ratings. Notice how they keep playing the orchestral music after her performance (in the hall itself, or just for the TV audience?), to milk the emotion for all it's worth.

Meanwhile, the pompous moralism of the mainstream media continues to pander and insult. Like this, from a sanctimonious editorial by Colette Douglas Home in The Herald is headlined "The beauty that matters is always on the inside":

Susan Boyle's story is a parable of our age. She is a singer of enormous talent, who cared for her widowed mother until she died two years ago. Susan's is a combination of ability and virtue that deserves congratulation.

So how come she was treated as a laughing stock when she walked on stage for the opening heat of Britain's Got Talent 2009 on Saturday night? [...]

It was rude and cruel and arrogant. Susan Boyle from Blackburn, West Lothian, was presumed to be a buffoon. But why?

Why? Because that's the storyline the makers of "Britain's Got Talent" built around her, that's why. She was discovered at an earlier audition and the producers no doubt knew they had the makings of great TV on their hands if they presented her correctly -- which meant misleading us so that the switcheroo would have maximum emotional impact. Not that Boyle isn't the genuine article and exactly who she appears to be, but the manner in which she and her story have been shaped and presented for television (and YouTube) is at least as important as her story itself. (Anybody remember what the McCain campaign and Fox News did with Joe the Plumber? Unfortunately, for the Republicans, he turned out not to be the "average Joe" for whom he was initially [mis-]taken. Not that that stopped anyone from pretending.)

Collette Douglas Home has her own theory about why the audience was primed to dismiss and ridicule Boyle:

The answer is that only the pretty are expected to achieve. Not only do you have to be physically appealing to deserve fame; it seems you now have to be good-looking to merit everyday common respect. If, like Susan (and like millions more), you are plump, middle-aged and too poor or too unworldly to follow fashion or have a good hairdresser, you are a non-person.

The condescension in this paragraph is palpable and distasteful. You'd think from some of the press descriptions of Susan Boyle's appearance that she was the Elephant Woman dressed in rags. Maybe from Home's point of view that makes for a better story:

It was an unglamorous existence. She wasn't the glamorous type -- and being a carer isn't a glamorous life, as the hundreds of thousands who do that most valuable of jobs will testify. Even those who start out with a beauty routine and an interest in clothes find themselves reverting to the practicality of a tracksuit and trainers. Fitness plans get interrupted and then abandoned. Weight creeps on. Carers don't often get invited to sparkling dinner parties or glitzy receptions, so smart clothes rarely make it off the hanger.

Then, when a special occasion comes along, they might reach, as Susan did, for the frock they bought for a nephew's wedding. They might, as she did, compound the felony of choosing a colour at odds with her skin tone and an unflattering shape with home-chopped hair, bushy eyebrows and a face without a hint of make-up. But it is often evidence of a life lived selflessly; of a person so focused on the needs of another that they have lost sight of themselves. Is that a cause for derision or a reason for congratulation? Would her time have been better spent slimming and exercising, plucking and waxing, bleaching and botoxing? Would that have made her voice any sweeter?

Now we get to the heart of the matter. This isn't about Susan Boyle. This is about how people like Colette Douglas Home want to feel about themselves when they look down upon Susan Boyle.

All I know about Boyle is what I've seen and read on the Internets. I wish her all the best in the contest and, although it won't be easy, I hope she can avoid being made into somebody else's object lesson.

That's kind of what happened to Josh Rushing, whom I was delighted to meet -- completely by accident -- when we shared a student-volunteer-driven car from the Denver airport to Boulder for the Conference on World Affairs last week. He was a 14-year Marine and a press officer for Central Command in Dohar during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. He granted an hour-long interview for what he thought was supposed to be a student project, but which wound up as a major part of "Control Room." Rushing first discovered the existence of the documentary by Jehane Noujaim, about Al Jazeera coverage of the war, when it played the Sundance Film Festival the next January and received considerable publicity. The single interview he had given had been edited into a structure for the film, presented as if the views he expressed had evolved over months. I'd seen the movie and been quite impressed by it, but I didn't recognize him from seeing that film five years ago.

So, he became the star of a controversial movie, without even knowing he had participated in the making of a movie. That interview radically changed his life. When the film was released, and Rushing's superiors ordered him not to speak about it, he decided to leave the Marines. He is now a correspondent for Al Jazeera International, covering conflicts around the world. But even when he was at CentCom he believed that Al Jazeera -- the first non-government-run Arabic satellite channel in the region -- was, as he wrote in his book "Mission Al Jazeera: Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World," "our only opportunity to reach the audience we most needed to reach: the Arab people." In "Control Room," as a CentCom spokesman, he explains that the approaches of Al Jazeera and Fox News are essentially the same, selective in what they emphasize to address the interests of their target audiences. In other words, "fair and balanced" means that coverage is skewed to conform to viewers' political prejudices -- although factual information may also be conveyed. Historically, at least, the presentation of a range of views (and non-negotiable facts) has been much rarer in the Arab world than in the United States. (The Al Jazeera producer in the movie says, if he were offered a job with Fox he would take it -- "to turn the Arab nightmare into the American Dream.")

To me, Josh is an example of real courage and integrity, a man who stood up for what he believes and followed his conscience. He's probably doing more good for the American and Iraqi people now than when he was employed by the US government. He also strikes me as just a really cool, decent guy in general, somebody I found it easy and enlightening to talk to about everything from Iraq to gays in the priesthood to "No Country for Old Men." Here he is on The Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M - Th 11p / 10c
Josh Rushing
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Finally, I met somebody else who knows something about how "documentary reality" is manipulated. Completely by accident one night my friend Linda and I wound up at Jax Fish House in Boulder. (I heartily recommend the Tuesday Blue Plate Special, New Zealand Bluenose on coconut rice with green curry.) The executive chef is Hosea Rosenberg, the man who just won "Top Chef" -- the only so-called "reality show" I watch! Like Josh, he was totally cool. When he saw that I recognized him (I pointed my Blackberry camera at him from my seat when I saw him standing in the open kitchen; I didn't want to bother him while he was working), he came over to our table and we talked for five or ten minutes about his life before, during and since the show. I mentioned I didn't like the "Real World" direction the show took this past season when they made a big melodramatic deal out of a kiss he shared with another contestant in the living quarters when they thought they were off-camera. It was distracting, it had nothing to do with the competition, and all it did was drop the show into the gutter and hurt people in their real off-screen lives. Needless to say, he agreed. He said he had just found himself fictionalized in Page Six gossip during a trip to New York. Even though "Top Chef" is over, he's still stuck in some kind of reality show.

Rosenberg had plenty to say -- as have other top chef participants -- about how the show is edited, and the interviews are guided, to create conflicts and emphasize certain aspects of the characters'/contestants' personalities. In fact, that's part of the fun of the show: watching how they do it. The makers of the show face the same challenge as the chefs, taking whatever's in the kitchen and transforming it into a tempting dish that looks good on the screen.

* * * *

UPDATE: This paragraph from a Guardian column by Tanya Gold ("It wasn't singer Susan Boyle who was ugly on Britain's Got Talent so much as our reaction to her") echoes some of my feelings about the self-congratulatory overreaction to Susan Boyle's wonderful performance last Saturday:

Susan will probably win Britain's Got Talent. She will be the little munter that could sing, served up for the British public every Saturday night. Look! It's "ugly"! It sings! And I know that we think that this will make us better people. But Susan Boyle will be the freakish exception that makes the rule. By raising this Susan up, we will forgive ourselves for grinding every other Susan into the dust. It will be a very partial and poisoned redemption.

Also: Boyle's first recording, a sultry 1999 rendition of "Cry Me a River" (think Julie London in "The Girl Can't Help It"), cut for a charity album.

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