A Wider View of Narrowcasting
In the future, narrowcasting gets narrower
Growing up a TV addict, I could ask my classmates "what did you watch last night" and be sure that I would recognize the answer. There were three major networks, plus PBS and Denver's branch of Chicago's WGN. But with the explosion of cable, YouTube, Hulu, and gray-market streaming sites, my choices are now unlimited.
For those of us who pursue creative endeavors, it's good to know that there is an outlet for our work (Electric Spec, anyone?). The down side is that the size of any given audience is proportionally smaller.
Let's take this fact of modern life and make a science-fiction premise. Let's extrapolate into the future and posit a world in which narrowcasting is so narrow that people hire actors directly to interact in our lives. Two of my favorite films from 2012, Holy Motors and Alps, adopted this premise to present a mildly troubling, vaguely futuristic world.
Is Anybody Watching?
Holy Motors stars Denis Lavant as Oscar, an actor-for-hire on a day when he has 9 appointments. He leaves his previous day's appointment as a banker in a limo and is driven to his first job of the new day. He trades his banker's white hair, suit, and tie, for an old crone's nose, hair, scarf and overcoat. Having arrived at his destination, he gets out of the limo in full drag and begs for pennies on a bridge in Paris for some minutes, muttering about life's unfairness. His job complete, he gets back in the limo and changes into his motion-capture suit while his driver takes him to the warehouse where he'll be performing for an unseen voice over the intercom. Through the course of his day he plays a father, a killer, a young woman's dying uncle, and a leprechaun without any self-control.
Though it's relatively quick to "explain" what's going on, Holy Motors is nevertheless a cryptic film that never really explains everything.
For example, never do we see Oscar's clients. We don't know who is paying him to play these roles. Is it a face in the crowd at each performance? Are there cameras we can't see? Or is his employer some sort of cruel master who only cares that Oscar does what he's told, no matter how humiliating. When Oscar procrastinates his last appointment with a sense of dread and resignation, you get the sense that sometimes he absolutely hates his job.
And when you see what his last job is, you might just guess his employer is playing a cruel joke on him. Extend the thought a little bit and maybe it's not an employer, but Fate Itself who is toying with Oscar. Maybe God is pulling our strings, and we've all been hired to live our lives, to play our roles, without really knowing why. We just know we have to do it because it's our job.
Oscar speaks to Celine (Edith Scob), his friend and limo driver, about his lot in life. He says he liked it better when the cameras were bigger. When they got smaller than your head it was like you couldn't see them anymore. Sometimes he isn't sure they still exist, he says. Is Oscar speaking literally about physical cameras? We don't know for sure. But it's interesting to ponder that even he doesn't know whether what he's doing has an audience anymore. When you're not even sure anyone will see your work, it's pretty disheartening to put in a full day's work. That sense of duty and sadness permeates Holy Motors in the most beautiful way.
The Customer is Always Right
Alps, from Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos, takes the idea a step further. Lanthimos directed Dogtooth (which itself is worth looking up for its Truman-Show-esque science-fiction premise, in which the world's most overprotective parents keep their children -- now practically adults -- in their domestic compound, hermetically sealed from the corrupting influences of the outside world).
After a puzzling introduction, we learn that the "Alps" are the actors in a troupe who specialize in replacing lost loved ones. The premise is intriguing, and there are scenes where you think it's not such a crazy idea after all. If an actor can help grieving parents cope, maybe it's a valuable service. If an actor's job is to read the newspaper to "her" already-senile "grandmother," why not provide the texture of a familiar life?
But Lanthimos won't let it be that simple or innocuous. It really is a disturbing idea, and it doesn't take long to see why. After all, replacing a dead child isn't really "coping," it's denial. The kinds of people who hire the Alps tend to have unhealthy psychological needs -- for domination or submission, for conditional love or punishment. It's not a good job for an actor.
The characters in Lanthimos' films tend to be very childlike and immature. It's fun to speculate whether this in response to the political situation in Greece -- a sly comment on nanny-state protectionism -- or whether it's simply part of the directory's psychology, a manifestation of his personal demons. In any case, the idea of incompletely formed adults using their power as consumers to control and mistreat creative artists is jarring and disturbing. Then again, the actors in the Alps troupe aren't exactly the most talented Barrymores in the patch, so what's bad for the artist is also bad for the audience. Lanthimos doesn't have an answer, just a vaguely dystopian vision of the future.
It is probably not necessary to point out the irony that neither of these films is exactly raking in the money at your local multiplex. In order to find them, you'll need to participate in some narrowcasting yourself. So do the artists a favor and let them know you're watching. We're not quite to dystopia yet.