Wednesday, 14 July 2010

A little reminder about why we are here

Bit of a brief and slightly off-topic post for now because I am working on a few things (which should become apparent soon enough).

Last night I went to go and see Bret Easton Ellis talk at the Southbank Centre. Easton Ellis is the author of many great novels, the most famous of which is probably American Psycho.

After a really interesting interview with The Financial Times' Suzi Feay, there was a question-and-answer session.

I had a burning question, but it took me a while to work up the courage to voice it.

After about 10 minutes of handwringing whilst people asked Easton Ellis intelligent things like "do you think you glamorise the society you are trying to satirise in American Psycho?", I finally managed to ask:

"Do you watch The Hills?"

Nervous laughter rippled around the auditorium as hundreds of other bespectacled literature fanatics wondered how Easton Ellis would respond to being asked about MTV's most vacuous reality show.

The Hills, if you don't know, is filmed in LA and follows several beautiful and monied girls as they waft stylishly around Beverley Hills and are treated badly by perma-tanned men.

This for example, is Heidi Montag.

You are right in suspecting that her face hasn't always looked like that.

Anyway, The Hills is a "reality show" only in the sense that the people it features are "real" and those are their real names and they really do live in the houses. But the action in the television show is scripted, so the characters' lives off screen must correspond with their lives onscreen. The lines between what is artificial and what is real become blurred, and I'm not just talking about Heidi's face.

In Easton Ellis' novel Lunar Park, the main character is an authour called "Bret Easton Ellis" who has written a few novels, one of which is American Psycho. "Bret Easton Ellis" is married to an actress called Jayne Dennis. Here is her fan site, which debates whether it is Bret Easton Ellis or Keanu Reeves who is the father of her child.

In case you haven't figured it out, Jayne Dennis doesn't actually exist.

Anyhoo, I thought seeing as Easton Ellis' last novel Imperial Bedrooms is set in Montag's LA and that his work voices thematic concerns about reality that The Hills wordlessly converys that it would be interesting to get a few words from him on the matter.

After I asked the question, there was a short pause before Easton Ellis launched into a passionate ten-minute monolgue about The Hills, comparing Heidi and Spencer's wedding to The Godfather and suggesting that it was a modern hybrid of the novels of Jane Austen and the oeuvre of David Lynch. He also suggested that Season 3 was a masterpiece and recounted his favourite moments from various episodes before lamenting (with genuine regret) that the show "lost its soul" once Lauren Conrad left.

Easton Ellis wasn't being "ironic" when he answered my question, and I wasn't being "ironic" when I asked it. And when another member of the audience enquired whether Easton Ellis admired Baudrillard's theories on the Simulacra, he replied  "Who? Oh, that guy. No. Come on, I just spent ten minutes talking about The Hills".

Of course I felt gratified that someone whose work I deeply care about enjoyed answered my question in such detail (it's called being starstruck). And of course I'm genuinely interested in his take on The Hills. But almost more than that, I'm happy because Easton Ellis' answer took me back to the incident which made me want to write about video games in the first place.

For those of you who don't remember my first post or are pathologically incapable of following links, I will remind you that a third-year university discussion of Cormac McCarthy's The Road resulted in a textbook tumbleweed moment when I pointed out the thematic and aesthetic links between The Road and Fallout 3.

Now I know video games don't always help themselves when it comes to looking like they have artisitic integrity and I also know that there are practical barriers to people just "picking up" a video game which don't exist in other media such as films.

But if we as a culture decide to string ropes around things which are worthy of discussion (the works of Baudrillard, McCarthy and Bret Easton Ellis) and those that are not (The Hills, Fallout 3) then where will that leave us?

Well, looking pretty silly for a start. Samual Richardson's Pamela was a blockbuster in 1740 and recieved a critical mauling for being both sensationalist (which is a fair criticism) and populist (which isn't). But today it is an invaluable resource when one is considering the vast upheavals in culture and society that took place at the time.

(Apparently there was a Radio 4 edition of The Long View which was broadcasted back in 2007 which compared Pamela's effect on 18th century culture to video games' effect on today's, but I have never heard it. If anyone wants to get in touch regarding this that would be great.)

And even if it wasn't safe to say that people are likely to be watching episodes of The Hills in university lecture theatres in a hundred years or so, I still think it's ridiculous to declare arbitrary media not fit for discussion.

The culture that surrounds us informs and is informed by who we are, regardless of whether or not we care to admit it. If you're not interested in The Hills then fair enough, but you'd be a fool to say that it's beneath comtempt.

Likewise, if you're reading this then I probably don't need to convice you that video games have as much (if not in some cases more) to say about society, culture and the world as any book, film or record.

It's just nice to remind ourselves every now and again.


  1. "a textbook tumbleweed moment when I pointed out the thematic and aesthetic links between The Road and Fallout 3."

    Have you ever come across Ken Hollings? He'd totally rate that connection.

  2. Thanks for that David. I've heard Hollings on Radio 4's "Front Row" a couple of times, but I never made the connection with "trash culture" before.

    I understand the use of the term "trash culture" in context - it makes for good rhetoric - but I'm not sure about the implication of disposability.

    I mean "Pamela" isn't especially edifying OR well-written, but it's still relevant in all kinds of discussions: historical, cultural, artistic. It was certainly trash culture of the day, but it's anything but disposable.

    I'd argue the same is true of The Hills, and many video games such as (maybe) Second Life? Dead or Alive? Not necessarily edifying in themselves but interesting in a cultural context.

    But I would never describe Ico, Beyond Good and Evil, Black and White, Fallout, Bioshock (I could go on) as "trash" culture just because they are video games.

    I'm not trying to be ironic or controversial here, and new doesn't have to equal shallow.

    I went off on abit of a tangent there.

  3. I'm afraid I haven't seen The Hills, but I've had my share of tumbleweed moments. I just wanted to say how much I admire you for asking the question. Wish I had been there. But at least I can rest assured in the knowledge that I'm now "two degrees of Bret Easton Ellis"...well, virtually anyway. ;D

  4. ...which would mean that I am now one degree from Bret Easton Ellis! Well, Bret, seeing as we are now (probably) on first name terms.

  5. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for your insightful blog. It got a mention on the comments section of the Guardian interview with BEE and I thought it sounded like an interesting take. It certainly beats the po-faced, and frankly pointless, questions of "do you think American Psycho glamourises (delete as appropriate) violence/mysogyny/high rolling".

    I completely agree with you regarding the use of supposed low and high culture to understand the world in which we live. The idea that you cannot enjoy and understand The Hills and Baudrillard is simply not true.

    I suppose you are an afficionado of Zizek who, whilst not using video games (to my knowledge), is very well versed in drawing analogies between culture, both high and low, and public events/theoretical constructs.

  6. Hi Kabul Noir,

    Well thank you.

    I just read the Guardian interview, interesting take, although I share the views represented in some of the comments that by this point perhaps interviewers shouldn't expect BEE to be open about himself/his opinions at this point.

    I'll be contradicting things that I have said in the past and probably things I will say in the future by saying that I am generally more interested in authors/artists/writers/developers opinions of other things as opposed to the things they are working on/have worked on.

    Much as I love Beyond Good and Evil (for example) I would be more interested in Michel Ancel's take on the work of Luc Besson (which I think shares stylistic elements with BG&E) than on BG&E itself.

    This is because the artistic process is elusive and often difficult to talk about. Not that an artist/author/writer on a good day can't say something really illuminating about such things, but often they have spent so long thinking so hard about their opus that they have nothing left to say. If you want to know more, go and read the book again, or maybe go and read/watch/play what the author was reading/watching/playing at the time.

    That said, I kind of wish I had asked BEE about Heidi Montag instead because if I'd done my research I would have seen that he'd already spoken about "The Hills". Never mind eh?

    * * *

    Though I'd heard the name Zizek floating around, I'd never actually made the effort to read anything he had written until you pointed him out, so thank you very much for that. It's always rewarding to explore new avenues of discussion, and the internet is such an effective way of finding them.

  7. No problems. I am inclined to agree with you about asking question surrounding the work of creative types. Perhaps, like you say, the best way is question around the ideas of their work and its connection with other things as this may solicit and interesting response. Keep up the good work - I have even answered your survey!


    Well it is interesting that you haven't read Zizek. I think you are in for a treat. Check out his work "First and Tragedy, Then as Farce", which is a very insightful look at the financial crisis often through the prism of culture, psychology, and Marx. I would also suggest his DVD called "The Perverts Guide to Cinema" which is brilliant.

    All the best,

    DTK (Kabul Noir/Blue)