For a sobering prophecy of our current cultural predicament--the kitsch triumph of reality TV and reality everything--we need look no further than the films of Andy Warhol. Coming in at the tail end of Hollywood's golden age, Warhol brought the quaint technologies of portraiture to a kind of warts-and-all movie realness: His stark images of junkies, drag queens, and crystal-fueled jabbermouths are as ineffably radiant as they are incredibly brutal. By simply watching these people--by taking fiction out of the equation--Warhol effectively strip-mined their inner lives, creating films that now seem like sadistic trial runs for the court orgies of humiliation that are reality TV's raison d'être.
The Triangle of Cruelty was always Warhol's favorite configuration. In Beauty #2 (1965), for example, the director puts Edie Sedgwick, the Beatrice of the Warhol underworld, "onstage" as the slightly drugged, supernaturally beautiful Subject. Just to the side is Sedgwick's real-life Svengali Chuck Wein, mocking his client's stony frolics in the company of a skinny hustler dude he dragged in off the street. The third side of the triangle is Warhol himself--or rather his whirring camera, the godlike eye that interferes not at all, yet somehow makes the characters' absurdities, failures, and degradations as palpable as the crappy wallpaper on the tenement walls. No script, no plot, not even a Stanislavskian "objective" in sight: just a study of loss in triplicate, a movie as mean as a snake.
Cut to 2002 and Rendez-View, the most entertaining of the current steroid-injected reality programs. A dating show with a viper's vengeance, Rendez-View brings the same dynamic to bear on every date: One partner is more attractive, while the other is drunk, horny, and stumbling all over him- or herself. As in a Warhol flick, the line between genuine embarrassment and camera-conscious grandstanding keeps shifting position. But Rendez-View adds another layer. During the drunks' slurred conversations, VH1-style pop-up bubbles spell out snide predictions of impending doom. And as the date inevitably destructs, our snarky host Greg Proops--a pinhead Warhol, a millennial Paul Lynde--chimes in with his own armchair commentary. Basically, Proops takes Warhol's magisterial silence and fills it with cruddy shtick.
Somewhat more complicated is the new Military Diaries, a political variant of Warhol's more pungent portraits (e.g., Bike Boy, My Hustler), in which the artist pulled hunks from the gutter and paraded them for our covert delectation (and for the sniggers of his Factory workers). Produced with Pentagon cooperation(!), Military Diaries purveys a Warholian leeriness as youths of both genders shoot themselves on digital video describing their experiences in the armed forces. Though the show means to reveal the true-blue heart of America's men and women in fatigues, its self-shot aesthetic--combined with the emphasis on uniforms, bunk beds, and near-illiterate confessions--is the network equivalent of amateur porn. The blankest grunts uttering the emptiest platitudes take on the lovable dumb-lug quality of Warhol's "Who--me?" Adonises. As in Warhol, we're invited not only to love these camouflaged youths for their naiveté, but to lust after them, too.
Anyone who has seen Warhol's three-and-a-half-hour Chelsea Girls (1966) will recognize its formula in the biggest reality hit of the moment, Girls Gone Wild--a direct-marketing masterpiece in which various margarita-soaked young women flash their boobs in exchange for a two-dollar T-shirt and a smidgen of immortality. In Warhol's film, the denizens of the Chelsea Hotel (and a few lucky hangers-on) get their 15 minutes of movie fame--literally 15 minutes--by sitting before the camera and acting as if to obey the injunctions of the faceless Interviewer in Don DeLillo's Valparaiso: "Be funny! Be charming! Be interesting! Be yourself!" But no such personality is required in Girls Gone Wild, save for a generic sort of cleanliness. The makers of the series allow no tattoos, no pierced body parts: Their "wild" girls are the antithesis of the Chelsea Girls. These women need only to be shocked by their own behavior when they pull up their shirts: That shock certifies their uprightness--and hence their desirability.
Girls Gone Wild uses the vicious carrot-and-stick structure of Warhol's movies to opposite ends. Where Warhol somehow validated and glamorized even the freakiest of freaks, Wild sets out to rinse "reality" of its grime, presenting nonactors who are as squeaky clean as a fresh bar of Ivory soap. This is where our reality culture seems to be tilting post-September 11: away from cops chasing crackheads and castaways eating bugs, and toward the bland "regular folks" who bored us silly in their fictional guises, thus necessitating reality TV in the first place.
The next logical step--reality TV about the secret sex lives of movie stars--would have thrilled Warhol to no end. Indeed, why watch Ozzy take out the trash when you can see Julia Roberts cheating on her latest fiancé? To witness an ordinary Joe getting dissed may be entertaining and even revealing. But in the post-Warholian cosmos, to degrade a celebrity is truly blasphemous--and thus divine.