Chips Off the Ol' Doc: The Spawn of Candid Camera
By Tom White
Editor’s note: I had a chance to talk with Harrison Engle about that article and the long strange trip from “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera” to “The tribe has spoken.” Following are excerpts from our conversation.
You’ve read the article that you wrote 35 years ago. What can you assess about the trajectory that television has or hasn’t taken, from Candid Camera to Big Brother and Survivor, which one could argue are the offspring of Candid Camera?
ENGLE: They are kind of the offspring. The trajectory, I’m sorry to say, has been a downward spiral since those days. It’s interesting to see that both Survivor and Big Brother are on CBS. CBS, of course, back in the early 1950s was the flagship news, documentary and public affairs network and the home of Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly and See It Now. When I interviewed Allen Funt in the 60s, I thought that he was tapping into some sort of a public interest in a kind of earthy, everyday reality—and indeed, his show was enormously popular—but it did represent a change from the traditions of Friendly and Murrow and the CBS stalwarts at that time. In terms of CBS ending up these days with not only Survivor and Big Brother, but also Howard Stern, I do think that this kind of programming shows a number of things. We all are voyeuristic in one way or another, and some of that is healthy. Some of our voyeurism is the way we learn about the world. Indeed, it reflects our natural curiosity and interest in human beings, and we learn from our voyeurism.
The elements that informed the popularity of Candid Camera back then, one can transform those elements to today. We still have this inclination to peer into the lives of other people, either for self-assurance or humility or wish fulfillment or identification.
All of those we get as feedback for that kind of programming today. Allen Funt was very simple in his set-ups; they were designed to entertain us with a little joke or human foible and give us a chance to see ourselves in another incarnation. Funt, as cynical as he was, tapped into something that people responded to positively. I do think that the modern reality shows are far more cynical and manipulative, and I do think that this represents a danger not only for the average viewer, who has to learn to be wary of the manipulation of these programs, but also for filmmakers.
Might this popularity of reality TV pose an opportunity for documentarians, or might it hinder their aesthetic sensibilities? In your article, you allow that Candid Camera does have some elements of cinema vérité. Is there a grudging give and take between the two sensibilities—the high, aesthetic end and the low, commercial end?
I agree with that premise from back then. I just think that it has changed now because basically there’s kind of a double manipulation, where producers of these programs put these people in a situation—not unlike what Allen Funt used to do—tape their reactions, then play back those reactions for the individuals and retape their reactions to their reactions. It’s an incredibly narcissistic process. Not that it should be taken all that seriously, but you could make an argument that these shows are just cheap, easy products for the networks to produce. In a way, one of the attractions of these programs is they do kind of deconstruct existing forms. They really are inventing forms, and often they say the culture bubbles up from below and not down from the top, and in some ways they are taking old kinds of documentary techniques and other kinds of dramatic programming and rescrambling them in a different configuration—
And adding the dimension of the game show.
And mixing a game show with a documentary with a drama with a nature show, and coming up with some totally new confection. For a while that will hold an audience’s interest, but those programs certainly don’t have the formal artistic values and integrity of purpose that a good documentary has. So I don’t think these programs will be survivors themselves.
You mentioned nature shows as being thrown in to the postmodern mix. Can one attribute another appeal--how we look at National Geographic programs on the animal kingdom and taking that same approach to the human kingdom?
There certainly are elements of that in these programs because we are observing other creatures in their everyday behavior. But the difference, of course, is the level of manipulation. Here they hand-pick and choreograph the individuals for certain personality traits and then deliberately throw them into interpersonal conflicts and then milk those conflicts for any sort of dramatic value they might have.
I do see these shows as a faux reality, an exploration of a peer group culture, but they are staged scenes; they’re edited; they have art directors, even writers. They’re certainly doing a lot with technique in a way that Allen Funt never would have dreamed of. Funt was funny in a simple, low-brow way, and you can’t quite say that with Survivor and Big Brother. I don’t think they crystallize human reactions in nearly as interesting a way as Funt did so simply, say, by having a talking mailbox. I do think that Funt was right in the sense that 50 years from now people will look at that talking mailbox and still get a chuckle out of it, whereas people will look at Survivor and Big Brother and not know what to make of it.
On the plus side, perhaps these characters on these shows are a refreshing break from most of the formulaic characters on TV. Somehow I do think that people are responding to the fact that this is something different.
There are certain characters that we can identify with or see as villains. I think people are tuning in for something of that element.
But I suspect that much of that is phony. Last night Kelly (one of the Survivors) said ‘We’re not evil, we just play bad people on TV,’ and that suggests that she knows the role she’s supposed to play. These shows are dangerous for documentarians, since the shows often appropriate the look and feel and content of documentaries, but are dishonest with their audiences. The producers of these shows play with the heads of the participants and then tape the reactions. In that sense they’re doing what Allen Funt did, but they have taken it to a different level where it can be catastrophic and harmful. Indeed, this is part of that whole process of invading our lives. On the other hand, perhaps these shows, too, shall pass, and we shouldn’t take them too seriously because they won’t survive.