Southland and Realism

I am stupidly excited that my favorite show, Southland, got renewed by TNT, so I will have more than just thirteen episodes of excellence to revel in. I cannot explain well enough how great this show is, but here are a few highlights:
- It’s a gritty cop show that has a writing staff entirely made up of women.
- It’s one of the more feminist things I’ve seen on TV. Even with a cast made up of mostly men, it regularly passes the Bechdel test.
- Two of the main characters, the ones who get the most critical buzz and are central figures in the story, are a gay man and a black woman. And they carry guns and boss people around and have actual interior lives.
- It reflects that there are actual people of color in Los Angeles.
- This is on top of it just being a well-told story that doesn’t talk down to its audience.

But I’m not going to talk about that. I am going to make a long overdue post about the use of documentary techniques in the way the show is produced. One of the stylistic conceits is that none of the language is softened for broadcast. Rather, profanity is censored, but still easily understood. This is generally played as way to heighten the “realism” of the show, rather than prohibiting the use of language that people in the situation would not be expected to refrain from using. This remained purely an audio choice, without an analogue in the visual style, until the second episode of the second season, entitled “Butch and Sundance.”

Two of the main characters enter a crime scene where three people have been raped and murdered, and the camera follows a normal crime show style, shooting around corners to heighten suspense. This is where the style changes slightly. Normal crime shows never show the faces of the dead, shooting at angles that let the scenery or the other actors obscure the body. Southland has previously chosen to show bodies fully, sometimes lingering on faces or wounds to demonstrate the brutality of the murder. Southland chooses in this instance to show the victim fully, but blur her face, in a style reminiscent of true crime shows that follow police.

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There are two things I’m interested in here. First, the mimicry of real life shows afforded by the use of blurring helps to ground the show in the vernacular of the true crime shows whose style it imitates. This, along with the bleeping of profanity and shooting on location, adds to the sense that the show is telling the inside story of what really happens.

The other effect of the images that I like is how the absence of detail increases the sense of something horrible having happened. In some scholarship on gothic novels and horror films, there’s a distinction made between horror and terror (I hate to link to Wikipedia, but it has the best rundown of the difference.) Horror is the display of scary/disturbing elements, whereas terror is the absence of the details of those elements, used to provoke the audience into feeling dread and anticipation. Most slasher films are horror, and something like “The Haunting of Hill House” is terror.

This isn’t quite the same as what’s happening with the choice to obscure the face, but it serves much of the same purpose, because it functions in a way that makes the audience imagine the terrible thing that has happened to the woman, rather than seeing it and being revulsed. In doing so, while still maintaining the style of true crime shows, the show manages to simultaneously preserve its realistic style and increase the drama and emotional reaction to the images.

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What to say about making a B-movie?

I’m the kind of academic writer who theorizes on the fly; I never have any clue what I’m going to write until I start writing it. I was really shocked to find that this was true with making this mockumentary, too. What we set out to do was make a movie that commented on the nature of documentaries, and then a movie that commented on the nature of zombie movies. There was a lot of conversation about what we were saying with the project in the script revision process (and here I need to thank Tim for an amazing script that he happily adapted, Saralyn for coming up with concrete additions, and Eric for raising a lot of questions that sparked more nuanced thinking for me), and up until the day we were continually discussing how we were going to communicate our theoretical viewpoint within the framework of the film.

This did not prepare me for the actual filming. I’ve only been involved in two student film projects (in 1998 and 2002) and never in any sort of creative capacity, so I had no idea what I was getting into. There were two aspects I found particularly surprising when we filmed: 1) the unexpected thematic shift, and 2) the seeming reality of the experience.

For some unknown reason, I had not considered that filming a group of men talking about a world that is devoid of women (except for the one filming them) would bring up really interesting gender dynamics. Luckily, we ran with it. A lot of the boys’ fantasy vibe that the finished product has is, I think, a product of editing. There is something in the repetition of seeing men on screen talking to a woman and about women, but never actually seeing a woman, that we really didn’t anticipate but which added a dimension of commentary on the genre.

The other effect of letting the camera run and having the “actors” speak for themselves was how authentic the story started to feel to me, as a filmmaker. I always hesitate to use the word “authentic,” but the juxtaposition of real events from our actors’ lives with this completely fabricated but apocalyptic situation made me very hesitant to do a project that would involve me asking questions like this of real people. The process of provoking emotionally heavy or volatile reactions from subjects is one that I found too manipulative. I’ve never had a problem watching documentaries that tackle difficult subjects, but I don’t know that I could participate in one.

Overall, the project accomplished more than we anticipated. And there were only a few injuries.