In the early episodes of Starz’s The Chair, which debuted OnDemand and on Starz Play today and makes its linear review at 11/10c, neither director making their own versions of the same script are intended to be experts. Anna Martemucci is as much of a first-time director as Shane Dawson (who I spoke with earlier this week), and so the cameras capture lost of the initial uncertainty that comes with stepping behind the camera for the first time for her film, Hollidaysburg.
At the same time, though, Martemucci is also positioned as the insider, whose existing relationship with Zachary Quinto’s production company and her Periods. Films collaboration with her husband Victor Quinaz and brother-in-law Philip Quinaz fit into more traditional models of how independent films get made. Her story is therefore less about shaking an existing professional identity in favor of a more legitimate one, as is the case with Dawson, and focuses more on her self-identification with the role of filmmaker within the context of this rather strange experiment that nonetheless offers a valuable opportunity.
I spoke with Martemucci about what made her take on this experience, how it made her reflect on her place in the industry, and how the series’ narratives fit her conception of her work and her goals as a filmmaker.
Cultural Learnings:When I spoke with Chris Moore he mentioned you had been working with him on some other projects before this came up—what made you ultimately agree to be a part of The Chair instead?
Anna Martemucci: If I remember correctly, I think I had about a month to think about it from the moment that Chris really looked me in the eye and was like “I’m serious, do you want to do this?” And I was like “Oh shit, okay.” [Laughs] I knew it would be an incredible opportunity, but I definitely took my time, and I remember telling my family on a trip—anyone I love and trusted, basically, I ran it by them, and it was funny because they all got the same kind of pained expression on their face when I said “reality show.” And they all said the same thing, which is “Don’t trust Chris Moore.” [Laughs] “He’s going to want to make a TV show and not a good movie, just remember you’re special, and blah blah blah blah blah. Don’t lose your mind and give them a good TV show and in the process ruin your life.” [Laughs]
So it was scary when people you love and trust are giving you stinkeye and being like “Maybe don’t do this,” but at the end of the day it was far too wonderful an opportunity to pass up. And I say it in the show, but I know so many people who have spent many, many years being frustrated in the business and wanting so badly to get their first movie made. And anyone, including people who aren’t trying to be directors like writers trying to get their first screenplay made, it’s not an easy business. So the fact that my creative dream had appeared, and I had the opportunity to make it come true, and the only thing I had to do was allow myself to be filmed? I was like “Well, alright.”
When Starz made two episodes of documentary series The Chair (debuts September 6 at 10/9c) available to critics, I was unaware the series existed. After watching the two episodes, I was aware the show existed, but I still didn’t necessarily understand how it worked.
The Chair, as a television series on Starz, is a documentary about two filmmakers—YouTube personality Shane Dawson and independent filmmaker Anna Martemucci—who are each making a movie in Pittsburgh based on the same initial script. It’s an experiment both in terms of understanding the way a script changes depending on the creative forces bringing it to life on screen, as well as considering the specific contrasts in filmmakers who emerge in wildly different creative environments.
However, in addition to being a documentary, The Chair is also a competition, which is the element that was dramatically unclear in watching the series. Although a $250,000 prize is on the line, there were no specific details on how this prize would be awarded. There was the insinuation it would involve some form of audience voting, but the lack of clear details meant I had a wide range of questions about the series’ structure for Starz’s Summer Press Tour session about the project.
I’ll likely talk more about the series itself as we get closer to its September premiere, but the answers to some of those questions are more pertinent in the leadup to the premiere and the promotional campaign around The Chair. At the core of my question, in truth, is not only how this is going to function as a competition series, but also why it is going to function as a competition series. The answers to both questions were vague, but they speak to a project that shares a rather strange relationship to its stars, its network, and to the communities it seeks to draw interest from.
Thus far, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season has been strikingly “realistic.” It sort of reminds me of the fourth season, in that Buffy spent the first set of episodes battling “real world” forces as much as demonic ones. There, the traditional college experience was framed through the eyes of the Slayer, while here Buffy’s resurrection from heaven is almost being framed as the transition into the adult realities of parenting, home ownership, and everything in between. Whereas Buffy’s role has more often than not been framed in terms of general responsibility, a task that she has always been able to live up to, the show is reframing that role in the context of financial responsibility.
While “After Life” very much focused on the ways in which reality itself has become a burden for Buffy in light of her ordeal, “Flooded” makes reality a bit less philosophical and a bit more…well, real. We could argue the same for the season itself, actually, given how the episode uses a fairly typical Monster-of-the-Week and a number of private conversations to set a pretty clear foundation for the season that follows. It’s too early to pass judgment on The Trio, and on the direction the season seems to be heading in, but the best thing I can say about “Flooded” is that it never gave me pause. Burdened by exposition, the episode nonetheless found a fair deal of poignancy in what could be considered a mundane premise, and created a great deal of interest (and a moderate amount of excitement) for what is to come.
A week after opening with an unquestionably meta opening, Ryan Murphy did not stray far from that example with “Britney/Brittany”: in the opening scenes, Will expresses how he wants New Directions to know when to show restraint, while Kurt and many other students express their desire to branch out into something more exciting, youthful. It picks up directly where last week’s opening left off, questioning the song choices the series makes, which I’d argue is an interesting question that this season does need to respond to.
Of course, how much you enjoy “Britney/Brittany” depends on both its framework (which has some issues in terms of balancing fantasy and reality) and how Britney Spears’ presence plays out throughout the course of the episode. As someone who admittedly enjoys Spears’ music on the level of cheesy pop fare, I thought choosing Britney was not in and of itself a mistake; however, the show was let down considerably by the way in which her music and its legacy were received by those both within and outside of New Directions.
While musically satisfying, at least for me personally, “Britney/Brittany” suffered from an inelegance which is likely to cause any future themed episodes to raise even more red flags than this hour.
Revisiting Cultural Learnings’ Work of Art Trilogy
August 11th, 2010
Tonight, Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist finishes its first season, but unfortunately I won’t be able to cover the finale as a result of some (exciting) personal events which will have me heading cross-country in the days ahead.
When the show began, I never expected I would be so concerned about not covering the finale: I don’t cover Bravo’s other series, Top Chef, on a regular basis, and I didn’t expect for Work of Art to really break that particular trend. I enjoy reality television on a weekly basis, but there are rarely series where there is reason to write about it each week.
However, what I very quickly realized is that Work of Art is a special breed: as flawed as it is fascinating, the series has endless potential which is forced to fight against a limiting structure and a reductive reality construct which is consistently subverted by the actions of the artists and the very process of art itself. And so, after catching up with the series a few episodes in, I sort of became obsessed with the show, and have turned out a lot more academic(-ish) writing about the show than I thought possible.
And so, if you’re just discovering the show now or want to see why I might be so obsessed with it, I figured I’d collect the Work of Art trilogy together in one place. The three pieces cover the conflict within the series’ application of reality competition artifice onto fine art, the complex performance art which its most recognizable contestant has used to dominate the competition, and one contestant’s decision to “go rogue” by offering her own version of events in each episode on her blog in order to reclaim her personal reputation from Bravo’s editors – I might not recommend the show as reality television for which one shuts off their brain, but I certainly recommend it for those interested in the genre as a whole, and hope these pieces capture why.
What I find so fascinating about Work of Art is that it is both a tremendous success and an absolute failure, a series which is flawed by traditional reality competition standards and yet offers ancillary, and unique, opportunities for viewer connection which the show’s structure isn’t built to really capture. While many contestants aren’t participating in the reality series they’ve been cast on, they are participating in a larger quest for creative fulfillment, and at moments the show successfully invites us into their own little worlds and gives us a legitimately fascinating glimpse into their creative process which overshadows the tired machinations of the Magical Elves.
Miles sits at the heart of this contradiction, in that he seems to be the most talented artist amongst those remaining but is also the one contestant who is unquestionably “playing the game.” Never before has there been a reality television contestant whose behaviour revealed so clearly the slippery notion of “reality” within these series, and without him I strongly believe that Work of Art wouldn’t be half the series it is. Regardless of your opinion of the way he is playing the game, the fact remains that he has managed to be one of the first reality contestants in history who panders to the cameras while simultaneously subverting the artifice of the reality show he’s taking part of.
Jaclyn’s true subversion has taken place after the competition came to a close: frustrated with how she was being portrayed, her personal blog has evolved from an opportunity to celebrate her appearance on the series to an effort to reclaim her personal reputation and her artistic point of view from what she sees as Bravo’s manipulative editing. Investigating that blog offers a glimpse of something we rarely see: a reality contestant confronting their depiction head on, in the process heightening the series’ clear – and likely unintended – willingness to unearth the contradictions and conflicts inherent in reality television as a whole.
Worked Over: Jaclyn Santos’ Online Reclamation of her Work of Art Narrative
August 7th, 2010
In profiling Work of Art contestant Miles Mendenhall, I highlighted how his behavioural multiplicity both serviced and undermined traditional reality show narratives and editing practices; however, at the end of the day, the fact is that even those who find fault in Miles’ behaviour have few issues with his art. The series may have portrayed him as a jerk, but the series never went so far to blur the lines between his actions and his artistic expression.
However, I think artist Jaclyn Santos has a fair case for the fact that the editors were not quite so kind, although it is fairly clear how and why this happened. For better or for worse, Santos’ use of her own image created a direct connection between her behaviour and her artwork, and while this led to some of her most successful pieces it was also a key element in the producers’ efforts to paint her into a box throughout the editing process. If Miles carefully controlled his behaviour to appeal to the basic structure of reality television, Jaclyn purposefully positioned her work as both intensely personal and as a direct subversion of the male gaze, which gave the editors plenty of opportunities to paint her into a corner.
However, Jaclyn’s true subversion has taken place after the competition came to a close: frustrated with how she was being portrayed, her personal blog has evolved from an opportunity to celebrate her appearance on the series to an effort to reclaim her personal reputation and her artistic point of view from what she sees as Bravo’s manipulative editing. Investigating that blog offers a glimpse of something we rarely see: a reality contestant confronting their depiction head on, in the process heightening the series’ clear – and likely unintended – willingness to unearth the contradictions and conflicts inherent in reality television as a whole.
While I’m sympathetic to her frustrations, I think that her post-show efforts to set the record straight has transformed her experience from lemons to lemonade, and furthered the series’ reputation as the most frustrating yet fascinating reality series in recent memory.
When I sat down to watch Masterchef, it was largely out of curiosity: I knew of the format internationally, and was curious to see how Gordon Ramsay was translating it into his television oeuvre. The basic premise of the show, taking “amateur” chefs and turning them into culinary professionals, is not without its merit, and it puts Ramsay in his only tolerable mode for me personally. I loathe Hell’s Kitchen because Ramsay’s antagonism is an end in itself: he yells and screams and swears to manufactured a hyper-competitive environment, and his personality overpowers the show’s potential as a cooking competition (which is underdeveloped, since that’s clearly not why people are watching). However, I find Kitchen Nightmares to be quite watchable because Ramsay’s yelling and swearing, while certainly heightened for the American version, eventually gives way to his effort to actually help people, and work towards some sort of meaningful conclusion.
Masterchef is unquestionably that more meaningful Ramsay, but unfortunately I have to say that the series is thus far a pretty big waste of time. I think there’s probably a show in here somewhere, but this opening episode was so poorly designed that I don’t know if I can tough it out for any amount of time. I actually like many of the elements of the series, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t actually get to see anyone actually cook in this week’s episode, which is so focused on personalities and yet ends up making the actual cooking process seem inert and lifeless in 99% of examples. By focusing on these auditions, to the point where they’re being stretched out over two weeks of episodes, the series kills any momentum it could possibly achieve by failing to define its own personality while trying to lay the groundwork for each of the carefully selected chefs who are being allowed into the competition.
And while I may appreciate a good cooking show, I spent more time laughing at the over-the-top production of the show than I did connecting with any of the contestants, which I would consider a bit of a reality television disaster.
Point of View: Bravo’s Work of Art a (Fascinating) Piece of Work
July 7th, 2010
In the second episode of Bravo’s newest reality series Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, a contestant created a sculpture which derided reality television, a sculpture which led to him being sent home.
Mind you, he wasn’t sent home just because he had little love for the form of television in which he was taking part: the sculpture was lifeless and uninteresting, and relied on an inside baseball art joke that not even the contestants/judges (yet alone the home audience) understood. But the fact remains that he wasn’t here to play a game of any sort, unwilling to engage in any sort of drama and, more importantly, not in a position where he would be willing to step outside of his comfort zone in order to compete in what most would consider a competition. Another contestant, eliminated the following week, went home because she refused to take a challenge seriously because it was a commercial “job,” and she doesn’t make art to appease clients; she, too, ended up making something of limited value (and hadn’t done much interesting previous to that piece), but the fact remains that it was her refusal to “play along” which separated her from other failures.
Reality Competition series require participation, not only in terms of creating strong personalities (and the conflict which arises from them) but also in terms of creating compelling narratives for viewers to follow. What I find so fascinating about Work of Art is that it is both a tremendous success and an absolute failure, a series which is flawed by traditional reality competition standards and yet offers ancillary, and unique, opportunities for viewer connection which the show’s structure isn’t built to really capture. While many contestants aren’t participating in the reality series they’ve been cast on, they are participating in a larger quest for creative fulfillment, and at moments the show successfully invites us into their own little worlds and gives us a legitimately fascinating glimpse into their creative process which overshadows the tired machinations of the Magical Elves.
And allows us to find our own point of view on the competition at hand, even if Bravo isn’t willing to fully embrace this sort of potential.