Feeling More Lost Than Ever

Los Angeles Times By Patrick Goldstein

Albert Brooks, who satirized America’s voyeuristic streak two decades ago, ponders the world of ‘Survivor’ and ‘Millionaire.’

ALBERT BROOKS first feature film, “Real Life,” made 21 years ago, was about a madcap filmmaker who attempts to document the everyday world of a model suburban family of four. But what begins as cinema verite ends up as cinema carnival as the director, played by Brooks, proceeds to pester, manipulate and ultimately destroy their lives. The satire was loosely based on a popular 1970s PBS documentary series “An American Family,” where a filmmaker chronicled the day-to-day life of the Loud family of Santa Barbara.

Not everyone got the joke. Brooks says that Rex Reed lambasted “Real Life,” saying, “Why would a studio give this idiot the money to do this kind of nutty experiment?”

Even then, Brooks knew the answer–that America was a nation of voyeurs and that as soon as the technology became available, films and television shows would be spilling over with mock-reality entertainment. “It’s a subject that’s really just beginning,” he told The Times back in 1979. “There are kids running around today with cameras, filming everything that goes on. . . . Intrusion is really one of the themes of the movie.”

Brooks’ film never found much of an audience, although it has become a cult favorite over the years. But intrusion has become a ratings bonanza. CBS’ “Survivor” is the biggest hit of the summer, a survivalist game show in which contestants allow themselves to be marooned on a tropical island, with the last person standing winning a million-dollar prize. “Survivor II: The Australian Outback” is already on the CBS schedule for early next year. “The Real World,” which spies on the relationships of seven attractive young participants, is in its ninth season on MTV. Soon they’ll be joined by “Big Brother.” Based on a hit show from Holland that sequesters 10 people for as long as three months in a 1,800-square-foot house, with cameras everywhere, including the communal bedrooms and bathrooms, it debuts on CBS on July 5.

What has inspired our unending fascination with real life? It seemed only fair to go to Brooks for an explanation, since he was there first. What follows is a freewheeling conversation about our voyeuristic obsession.

“I was there so long ago that I got the title ‘Real Life,’ ” he said the other day, taking a break from acting in a new drama, “My First Mister.” “No one had even used it. Now, after ‘Real People’ and ‘Real World’ and all the other shows, you can’t even get ‘real’ [anymore].”
Brooks has been watching “Survivor,” although he skipped the third episode, preferring to see Game 4 of the NBA championship series. That’s not to say “Survivor” had begun to bore him. In fact, he has a theory. . . .

“This is a slow progression to the day when we’ll all be watching gladiators, battling and killing each other,” he explains. “By 2006, we’ll be watching people fight to the death. In 10 years the show will be: I can shoot you as soon as I see you. Just watch–it’ll be legal in some country soon. Someone will take a chance on it. Tourism is down, the economy is bad, Fox has a new affiliate: ‘Watch Jack get killed at 9 p.m.!’ ”

Have we become a culture of exhibitionists? Or a culture of voyeurs?

“You can’t have a voyeur without an exhibitionist. It’s the yin and yang of our world. There has to be an even amount, a celestial balance of the watched and the watchers on the planet. If we had 3 million exhibitionists and only one voyeur, nobody could make any money.”

So it’s always been this way. This isn’t something inspired by TV?

“Reality is the original form of entertainment. People are always interested in what’s happening behind that wall over there. It’s how you find out what’s going on with your species. Before TV, it was harder to get a safe distance to watch humans do crazy things. Bullfights are hugely popular because you can sit comfortably with a hot dog and possibly watch a man die. It won’t be me, but I can sit comfortably and watch it.”

It’s a species thing then.

“Cows don’t stroll over and watch other cows. Trust me–I did the great cow experiment. I went into a pasture with nine cows this morning and I painted one of them red. I stayed for an hour and a half and the other eight cows didn’t look at him once. We’re the only species that likes to look at each other.”

Don’t you think people watch “Survivor” because it’s so ridiculous and kitschy?

“People are watching for the jeopardy. It’s still early in the show–people aren’t thinking about the prize money yet. Watching somebody eat a rat is great for now–it’s still a new thing. But next week, it’s ‘What icky, horrible thing will they have to do this week to top eating the rats?’ It’s interesting that the show’s producers thought, ‘We need a little show-business structure. They might sleep all day.’ ”

Wasn’t that the whole point of “Real Life”? That show business actually abhors real reality? That it actually needs to manufacture conflict and tension, or at least a fight for prize money?
“That’s what gets these shows on the air. Take six people to Magic Mountain–no one’s going to bite. The show-biz angle is how much you can make the hamsters run on the treadmill till they collapse.”

There was a story in Variety about someone selling a show called “Wanted,” where three teams of runners in three cities have to elude capture by a team of bounty hunters and former law enforcement officers each week. The fugitives have to perform certain tasks to show themselves in public; otherwise, the producers feared they could simply hide in a basement. . . .
“Hey, here’s an idea: Send 12 strangers to prison for a year and anybody who can stay a year, give ’em a million dollars. The task is to keep from being killed. Just think, if they can stay for five years, you’ll make it to syndication. Actually, I like this better: Send 12 people to prison and the person who stays the longest gets the money. Six people leave after six months. Three more last a year. But two people say, ‘I’ve gone this far, I’m sticking it out.’ And one guy stays 25 years. He’s blind, he can’t walk, but when he gets out, he gets the million dollars.”

So these programs are about the drama, not the reality?

“Of course it’s not about reality–it’s about having a good show. You go all the way to a tropical island, and there’s still this guy who’s the host! He’s got a nice tent with air-conditioning, and I bet you $100 he’s got a golf cart. If these people were there and all they could win was a red hat, then you’d say, ‘OK, they’re adventurers. They needed a vacation, to get away from their jobs.’ But if you attach $1 million, then you can rationalize anything. You can say, ‘Gee, these bugs are awful, but hey–it’s a million bucks.’ ”

So what’s the relationship between “Survivor” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”?
“Well, with ‘Millionaire,’ you know nothing will happen to the contestant except that they missed an easy question on national TV and had to face their friends the next day, and you’re happy it’s not you. So the next step was–let’s take advantage of our technology. Cameras don’t weigh 1,000 pounds anymore, so let’s go to a deserted island.

“I’d still like to see ‘Survivor’ minus the planned show-biz parts. You know there’s an ambulance and some offices, so that if some guy eats a bug and doubles over in agony that some doctor will rush out and save him. I’d much rather see the people out there, alone, just with one of them holding a camera, recording everything. That would be the purest form of show business–I want to see someone so hungry that they eat somebody else’s foot.”

These shows somehow seem to be an outgrowth of “The Jerry Springer Show,” where people will expose their worst excesses or frailties, just to be on TV.

” ‘Springer’ is different. A lot of the people who go on there are either actors or wannabe actors. When I watch, I see people appearing to be surprised in bad-acting ways. It’s like two actors get together and say, ‘You wanna do “Springer”? You be the lesbian this time. I’ll break up with you, and you’ll act surprised.’ It’s just like wrestling–it doesn’t look real.”

Now that the technology is increasingly invisible, does that make a show like “Survivor” seem more like reality?

“You should see the original ‘Loud Family’ documentary. They had 75 miles of cable. It was messy, everything was big. I could almost taste the filmmaker’s presence. I kept imagining him, just off screen, saying, ‘Will you guys hurry up and agree on dinner? The lab closes at 5 p.m.’ So I thought the humor would be to include the filmmaker in the movie. After all, he’s there with the family for months on end–how could you possibly hide his presence anyway?”

On “Big Brother,” they ask potential contestants questions like “Have you ever had a restraining order issued against you?” and “Have you ever been to a nude beach and if so, what was it like?” If you were running one of these shows, what would you want to know?

“I think there’s three important questions to ask. No. 1: If we had to kill you, in an emergency, would it be all right? No. 2: Do you mind if your 15 minutes of fame is reduced to two? And No. 3: Do your feet smell?”

What if you were a contestant on “Survivor”? What would you do to be popular enough to stick around and win all the money?

“I’d try to be as funny as I can, but you know, when people are starving, they’re not looking for laughs. They’re looking for someone who’s willing to get up early and build them a toilet. As long as the shows are only about endurance, it discriminates against older people. They kicked that nice 60-year-old nurse off the island right away. But if the task next week is to build a hammock, they’re going to miss her. She would’ve said to them, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I’m the only one here who can knit. You’re going to need me.’ ”

Would you have eaten a rat?
“No.”
What about for $2 million?
“Absolutely not.”
What about $5 million?
“Hmmm. [long pause] Could I fry it? I mean, really deep-fry it?”