Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Run For — Not From — “The Hills”!

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In honor of this week’s premiere of season four of MTV’s “The Hills,” I’d like to ruminate a bit on the end of the world. Not really, but you’ll get what I mean.

The show, in case you’re over 25 and/or don’t subscribe to a magazine other than The Nation, is a reality (I use that word liberally) TV series about a group of young women in Los Angeles, their friendships, their love lives and their incipient careers.

It is probably the last thing you’d expect to hear discussed by fans of POV docs, but I’d like to change that. I think there’s gold in them hills. The format of the show is such an effective manipulation of real life through filmmaking techniques, that I think documentary lovers ought to take note.

Lauren Conrad from MTV's 'The Hills'

Lauren Conrad from MTV’s “The Hills”

Whether it’s in writing or not, it’s patently obvious that the creators and the so-called real-life subjects of the show are in a pact to produce a successful money-making enterprise. If we accept that fundamental fact, then the allegation that the subjects stage events isn’t so scandalous. I don’t even want to suggest you should become enmeshed in the drama of the show or the characters. All I care about is how watching “The Hills” is such an incredibly unusual viewing experience.

You’ll be inside an apartment with two people talking, and then there’s a cut to outside the building, where you see the same people in a wide shot inside the building. Seems like ordinary filmmaking, but, wait, have you ever seen that in a documentary? Or there’s the lighting — it’s beautiful; every scene is perfectly lit. And then there’s the constantly seamless camera angles — you’ll see two people sitting in the front seat of a car, and they are each shown in a standard shot-reverse-shot format. How did they do it? They mount two small cameras right in the front of the passengers, just out of view of each other. That way, the audience observe the dialogue without noticing them, and it must allow the subjects to also be unaware (and I use the word very, very liberally) of the cameras as well. Other shots are clearly carried out with cameras on tripods or stedicams … it’s really quite incredible to watch.

Ok, sure, so it takes tons of money to achieve such feats. And the content is hardly the sort to elicit the interest of serious-minded documentarians. All I’m saying is check it out.

It’s the future of cinema verité — as most people will know it.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Cathy

    FOREIGNID: 17005
    I am so glad you wrote this and pleased to read it.
    As a documentary filmmaker who watched my first Hills episode last week (the season premiere), I was thinking very similar things! I even started wondering if I was going to have to teach The Hills to my students! I think I appreciate it the way I appreciated Cloverfield.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 17006
    Hi Cathy

  • Angela Tucker

    FOREIGNID: 17007
    I am so glad you wrote about this too. I love The Hills and get some serious flack for it. I think the producers of that show know how to make drama out of nothing at all and that is a true gift.

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