What happens to someone’s life when you point a camera at it? Two very different movies tackle the same basic question and, in both cases, the motivation for turning an ordinary life into entertainment is desperation.
"How many chances do guys like you and I get?" Ray Pekurny (Woody Harrelson) asks his brother Ed (Matthew McConaughey) when their family is debating the merits of an unusual job opportunity. Ed’s telegenic amiability has gotten him an offer from cable channel True TV to be the guinea pig in a programming experiment: He’ll be filmed for 24 hours a day and his activities will be broadcast live and uncut. Despite some reservations, the 31-year-old video store clerk – with little money and even fewer prospects – decides to sign on.
Unlike The Truman Show, the main character of Edtv is fully conscious of the camera’s presence, and this makes a huge difference. Whereas Peter Weir’s film dealt with an audience projecting itself into a media-constructed fantasy of white picket fence normality, Edtv comments on the current trend in "reality" television, particularly the airing of dirty laundry as a form of entertainment.
Director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel adapted the 1994 Canadian film Louis XIX: Roi des Ondes (Louis 19: King of the Airwaves) into EDtv, but it’s hard to imagine a more mainstream American entertainment. The trio use this intriguing concept as a backdrop for a budding romance between Ed and his brother’s ignored girlfriend, Shari (Jenna Elfman), instead of making any real commentary on the blurring of the once-clear demarcations between real life and reel life.
So when the filmmakers focus on media commentators discussing the relevance of Ed’s newfound celebrity, they are exactly the sort of self-appointed, know-it-all blowhards that a film like Edtv should be deflating. Instead, they’re treated as the voices of reason, whereas the addicted viewing public – a politically correct cross section of Americans – are simply sheep. In addition, the screenwriters toss in numerous, contrived, Hollywood twists, then have the onscreen television executives continually congratulate themselves on capturing the "unpredictability" of truth that’s stranger than fiction.
Through its own blaring incomprehension of the media upheavals it’s chronicling, Edtv shows exactly why audiences have grown bored with conventional storytelling, which filters complex, contradictory reality until it becomes safe enough for mass consumption.
Struggling actor, frustrated writer and wannabe film director Myles Berkowitz has struck upon an idea for a low-budget movie that might ignite his career and perhaps relieve some of his postdivorce blues. As a commentary on the hazards of dating in fantasyland, he takes a camera crew along with him as he goes on 20 dates in Los Angeles, and uses the footage to make a biting little antiromantic comedy.
Although Berkowitz shot it in a documentary style and "found" the narrative in the editing room – paring down 120 hours of footage to a brisk 88 minutes – 20 Dates isn’t really a documentary. Berkowitz tosses objectivity out the window early on, but he does let the actual events guide the story, even when they contradict his expectations.
As an on-camera personality, Myles Berkowitz possesses all the arrogant bluster of a stereotypical New Yorker – which he is – but tempered by a great deal of self-deprecating humor that makes him seem less the whiny loser and more the lost soul who’s really looking for a way to break through the walls built by self-absorption. In 20 Dates, he comes off as an every-guy who realizes that perhaps he doesn’t deserve to find an amazing woman, but can’t help looking anyway.
So what happens to this anxious outsider, who’s looking for love and filmmaking success? It’s not revealing too much to say that – in the ultimate irony – he finds himself trapped in a classic Hollywood happy ending.
Coming from opposite directions, Edtv and 20 Dates somehow manage to end up in the same place. In each case, when the camera focuses on a person – whether the fictional Ed or the real Myles – their lives become a weird hybrid of fact and fiction. Their reality is heightened and expectations are altered by the fact that someone’s always watching. And that omnipresent voyeur isn’t Big Brother. It’s us.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].