Why Reality TV may be Ruining Film

Recently I rewatched the film A Woman Under the Influence in which Gena Rowlands starred and which her longtime partner and iconic filmmaker John Cassavetes directed. I had first seen the film decades ago as part of an assignment in which those of us in the college course we were taking in film were asked as part of our final assignment to select a film we thought we would enjoy and then write a review of it. As I watched the film that first time, I was struck by what an incredible portrait it was of a woman struggling to maintain her mental health amidst an impossible domestic situation in which she was rarely seen by others in her life as the person that she was.

However, it was also a film which at the time felt so iconic, raw, and new simply because it was so unstructured and spontaneous (as nearly all films by Cassavetes do). I fact, when I read later that Cassavetes had actually written a fairly well-defined script, I actually had trouble believing it. For this was the age in which raw, unstructured, spontaneous filmmaking was very much the exception, and not the rule. And when one did encounter this sort of film (for example, The Panic in Needle Park which was directed by Jerry Schatzberg, and which was about heroin addicts on the upper west side of Manhattan) one tended to marvel at its life affirming spontaneity.

Unfortunately, now it seems that when one does encounter such a film, it often appears that a certain amount of the life has been drained out of it simply because we have grown so used to the unstructured yet highly superficial nature of reality television, which of course is unstructured in a similar manner in which many great spontaneous films of the 1970s were, but at the same time possess almost none of the meaningful dramatic content which was part of these earlier films. When I rewatched A Woman Under the Influence, I could barely believe that it was the same movie about which I had been so taken years ago; growing quickly bored by watching Gena Rowlands character Mabel stumble through her life which living on the edge of a complete mental breakdown.

And I began to ask myself why it was that a film which had so previously engaged me years ago now felt very much like it was now stale and robbed of much of its previous life. And then, soon afterwards the answer came to me. It was that I had seen similar unstructured, spontaneous situations on reality TV (although the vast majority of time ones which involved boring, empty people who have little to say to me about life in the world) that I had become so inured to them that I was not able to enter as readily the spontaneous, endlessly fascinating world of films like A Woman Under the Influence or The Panic in Needle Park.

As far as all this, I have one further suggestion. If reality television is going to increasingly become a part of our culture, why not create a program such as something which shows a group of thespians who run a theater company preparing dramatic presentations which reflect situations in their own lives? Now that might be interesting, certainly more interesting than programs having to do with rich housewives endlessly screaming at one another. Bravo used to be a great arts network. What in the world has happened to it? Finally, the best reality TV is now coming to our televisions this summer: The Olympic Games.