JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

HiHo Drinking Games, 03/17/07: Kimberly and Hannah get wasted to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Kimberly Gets Screwed, 4/16/07: She owes the IRS back taxes from modeling jobs.

Kimberly’s Modeling Horror Story, 2/1/07: She tells how her parents did not intervene to stop professional abuse as a teenage model.

Sperm Bank Encounter, 09/11/07, 2:15 min.: Near the end of the series, Leah considers becoming a single mother and goes to a fertility clinic. Outside, she runs into Eddie, a VanNuysGuy with whom she had a one time affair (Eddie was cheating on Daniella.) That initiated a “missing sex tape” narrative line for several episodes. At the clinic Eddie indicates he just made money by donating sperm, and the pair awkwardly realize that Leah could end up having his donation inseminate her. Leah feigns that this would be fine; but we know she finds the idea disturbing.

Leah Was Looking Hot Today, 09/11/07: VanNuysGuy Eddie describes his encounter with Leah at the sperm bank.

Leah Prays to the Porcelain God, 2/02/07: Leah pukes.

Leah & Brady Come for the Sex Tape, 02/03/07: Leah and Brady arrive at the NoHo house seeking the missing sex tape, that Cara said she had. When they arrive, it is lost again.

Brady Finally Gets It, 02/03/07: Ending her pregnancy scare, Brady finally gets her period.

Leah and Lucy Go to Make Out Mountain, 2/28/07: House visitor Lucy drives Leah to an overlook of Los Angeles. She admits she’s been embezzling from her employer and also comes on to Leah, who had earlier “tried” a first lesbian kiss with Lucy. Leah balks. Lucy kicks her out of the car (“Don’t be such a clit tease!") and drives off.

Ode to My Vibrator, 1/05/07: Leah reads a poem she wrote praising her vibrator.

 

The basic production techniques used in the HoShow episodes are single camera handheld shooting with available or modestly boosted location lighting and on-camera mike audio (or at times with a single boom mike). By shooting interiors in sunny daylight L.A., available light typically suffices, or the characters move outdoors into open shade. Nighttime shots are rare. The house remains the dominant location, which also serves to suppress ambient noise; especially at the start of the series the roommates seem to be videotaping themselves, or each other. But as time went on, an unnamed and usually unacknowledged cameraperson was recording the event. A sequence is typically modestly edited with jump cuts bridging what were probably blown lines and trimming excess dialogue. There is sometimes cross cutting, especially with explanatory flashbacks to previous activities and episodes. This is efficient and inexpensive production, which uses a small crew of perhaps 3 or 4 on location.

The trope of unrelated young people bonding, interacting, and living together is well established in entertainment media. It’s no accident that the HoShows are remarkably like MTV’s The Hills (and earlier Southern California manifestations such as Laguna Beach, The O.C., and before that Beverley Hills 90210). At times this seems like a deliberate and mock copy-catting of plot developments in the cable network series, as with the dilemma of one of the gals having made a sex tape with her then boyfriend which is subsequently lost and which she has to try to track down and find though various minor comic humiliations. What is notable in the mock vlog version is that everything is shortened, compressed, and actually more enjoyable, I’d argue, since you just get the plot high points. The condensed nature of HoShows is especially strong when compared to MTV’s The Hills, which has the same conceit of being a “reality documentary.”[12] [open notes page in new window]

Recent research on The Hills by Amanda Klein and Elizabeth Afuso reveals how the shows are woven into a vast network of the official site, with extras and online repeat viewing, many fan sites, celebrity gossip and paparazzi keyed to entertainment news in print and on air/cable, corporate tie-ins, pop soundtracks (linked to music merchandising), etc.[13] A fair amount of The Hills is shot on standard sets (an “office” at Teen Vogue), nighttime locations (bars, clubs, restaurants, most of which have corporate tie-ins to the production), and in the recent season distant locations (Paris, Colorado Rockies). Understandably given this vastly larger scope, The Hills uses a large technical crew and production staff and consistently exhibits extensive interior lighting work, tripod mounted multiple camera shooting, and repeated takes with extended cross cutting in editing dialogue scenes. While The Hills highlights the clubs and restaurants the characters visit, the HoGirls seldom go to locations, and when they do it is typically a public park or inexpensive food in an unidentified neighborhood place.

MTV has pioneered what they call “unscripted series” or what I prefer to call “projective drama” which is the dramatic presentation of a situation that the core audience views in anticipation that they will be in a similar situation sometime in the future. Thus the middle school and high school core audience for Real World and Road Rules. These shows prefigure what life will be like when you leave the parental nest and live with others, in college, while working, etc.[14]The demographics of these shows are skewed to a group that’s younger than the people who are on screen. The critically acclaimed MTV show Undressed presented the same thing around becoming sexually active, and was innovative in its time for showing gay/lesbian/bi characters among the breeders.

Yet this type of light weight drama also quickly opens up to critical commentary when the characters seem especially vapid. As Nancy Franklin mentions in a recent New Yorker piece on The Hills,

“We see a lot of Lauren and her friends at clubs and restaurants, talking about relationships, at their apartments talking about relationships, and on the phone talking about relationships. Most of the conversations start with one or another of the girls asking Lauren what she did the night before, and, constant as the questions are, they seem to be asked not out of curiosity but out of obligation, as if the girls were being paid to ask — as, indeed, they are…. For younger viewers — who are the intended audience for the series — it may be a soothing fantasy about coming of age and give them the sense that even after they leave their parent’s house they will still be the center of attention, the way these girls are.”[15]

Why can a mock documentary form work more effectively as entertainment than “real” vlogging? As Alex Juhasz points in discussing her course on YouTube, democratizing the tools of production doesn’t overcome but actually reinforces the strong marked difference between amateur and professional (that is corporate) media texts:

“The place to speak and be heard on YouTube is through video: which easily links sounds, language, and images. However, most newly empowered videomakers on YouTube are not educated or adept in the language of images, and thus depend on the relaying of their recorded words, primarily through the talking-head or rant of the vlog. Meanwhile, professional content on YouTube abounds. ‘Corporate’ videos look good — like mainstream media — because they are made by professionals…”[16]

Amateur work is actually dumbed down by the very structures of the corporate-controlled system it enters. For example, most vlogs are just someone in front of their computer screen talking to a webcam, which is built into their computer. By and large, vlogs are visually dismal and communication is done through oral presentation of verbal material — that is talking, or sometimes singing or lip-synching — not through visual presentation or dramatic narration. In contrast, by using the relatively simple and thrifty visual communication style it pioneered, Iron Sink Media stands above and apart from the amateur work on video sites while still maintaining the “veracity effect” of amateur aesthetics.

With Roommates, Iron Sink had a larger budget and the production values are higher, the episodes are a bit snappier, getting to the point and picking up the pace. The “reality” effect is submerged to the entertainment effect — and narrative development. So to its originators, the HoShows are just a transitional form in New Media. But it could be useful to take a critical look at the form to think about how others might be able to use it. The bonded group of friends is a sitcom staple, often seen in the workplace drama as well as the family-and-neighbors model. HoShows falls at the technically low end of the single friends model, with Sex and the City as the glossiest recent series, and Seinfeld and Friends as more traditionally jokey sitcom examples. Yet HoShows do not have the intensely ratcheted-up dialogue of mainstream sitcoms which are written and rewritten by writing teams to mark every dramatic beat with a laugh line. Based on internal evidence it seems that HoShow episodes are marked out for the major action, but the onscreen talent then improvises on the storyline, and repetitions and false starts are removed in the editing.

The HoShows’ internal world interweaves characters and story lines. For example, the two HiHo Girls, Hannah and Kimberly, show up in January 07, after the other houses had begun, and it ends 6/6/07 with the pair splitting up. But Hannah goes to NoHo and Kim goes to WeHo, so they continue in the series. Most of the series involves relationship matters, but there are also inconsequential moments such as HiHo Drinking Games, 03/17/07 in which the pair celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. A seemingly serious issue forms a conversation in one episode but never appears again: Kimberley owes the Internal Revenue Service a lot of back taxes because her modeling jobs were freelance and taxes were not automatically deducted from her pay (Kimberley Gets Screwed, 4/16/07). A presumably character-revealing story early on in the series never seems decisive or resolved. In Kimberly’s Modeling Horror Story, she reveals that as a 15 year old she was on a modeling job with a female photographer who cleared the set and then was very provocative to the teen who found it disturbing. She tells her parents, who essentially just tell her to “suck it up” if she wants to be a professional model because the business is like this. The incident seems like it might be autobiographical for the actor since it is rather vivid and clearly still brings forward a strong emotional response. But if we read it for the character, it doesn’t seem to shape future development, except perhaps to provide a clue to her apparent casualness to sex. Or to set up a further story line of parental neglect, if not abuse, à la Lindsay Lohan

After the breakup of the HiHos, Kimberly lives with the WeHos, and an aftermath of the “busted” episode finds her puking and missing her period; another episode taking a home pregnancy test with the housemates reading the results, and her realization that she’s pregnant by Rex. Things continue to become increasingly implausible when she says (1) she has no future with Rex because he’s not good at making love, and she will not tell him about the pregnancy; (2) there is no discussion of ending the pregnancy or why this is not an option for her; (3) that she had unprotected sex with Rex, even though he had self-identified as a gay man and this was a casual first encounter; (4) that she trusted Rex to not get her pregnant because he was a gynecologist (given that Rex looks to be about 22 at most, this seems the most absurd plot device). Finally, she leaves the WeHos and joins up with Hannah, reforming the HiHos, but ending the vlogging. While producer Sakarin might frame these improbable events as part of the “reality farce,” the narrative remains comically and dramatically weak in all directions.

Of course one of the obvious draw backs of the extremely short webisodic format is while some things can be covered over several episodes, none of the episodes allow for any substantial development of thought, character, or action. Thus characters can make a quick reference to what’s happening on American Idol, or the release of The Simpsons Movie, but there’s no actual discussion. WeHo housemate Brady has a pregnancy scare (The Missing Period, 01/29/07) and the father would be a guy she broke up with. Two days later, the episode features her end of a phone call from her father scolding her for having her situation revealed online (Papa Don’t Preach, 01/31/07). Shortly afterward the scare is over (Brady Finally Gets It, 2/03/07), but as with Kimberly, there’s no discussion at all of ending the pregnancy or why that’s not an option for Brady. But to ask for more of the short webisodic format is to subvert its very nature and turn it toward soap opera (with a richer emotional and character development; Quarterlife is an excellent example). Or more development might turn it toward social documentary, perhaps something closer to the PBS-favored long form TV documentary such as An American Love Story (Jennifer Fox, 9 hrs, 50 min. 1999) in which a family is examined during their ups and downs over a period of years.

Fake vlogs, even with modest resources, can easily trump most real vlogs generated by sincere but media naïve makers. But they can never get very far in terms of critical reach. This is compounded by the general slacker image of the males present. Numerous critics have pointed at the common trope of current romantic comedies with a bright, attractive, and compelling woman who gets saddled to an immature child-man (Waitress, Knocked Up, etc.). Many have also remarked on this trope as a generational development, so it is perhaps a “realistic” element of the HoShow narratives. And the female characters don’t demonstrate the ambition, determination, talent, or style that itself attracts interesting men. WeHoGirl “Leah Wagner” is described on her MySpace page as working at a PR firm and making $45,000-60,000 a year, but nothing in her wardrobe, appearance, and manner ever makes this occupation and income plausible.[17] Thus the short webisode and limited budget themselves mark a distinct limit to the HoShow form. It would be a truism as well as a cliché to say HoShows are a transitional form, but it’s useful to remember they came into existence from a convergence of new technologies, new platforms for exhibition, and marketering’s need to reach a target audience with a cost effective format. For a year, HoShows did just that. And the river flowed on allowing for new configurations. This is the basic New Media story: change and flux is the permanent address.

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