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Reality Check

George Barber

UK, 2012
17 minutes, 30 seconds, Colour, Stereo
Original format: SD video
Available formats: DVD / Digibeta tape / SD Digital file

“Reality Check” is an essay film referencing the various ‘realities’ we experience today. It proposes a synthesis of Reality as a popular TV format and Reality as the current political economic situation. In ‘Reality Check’ these themes are artistically articulated and intertwined.

Reality TV. Never have UK TV audiences watched so many hours of ‘real’ people – it seems almost part of the government’s recommended 5 a day. People are fascinated by watching people like themselves; people who are not fantastically good looking, talented, bright, well dressed, thin, successful – but paradoxically, at the same time, they are just as fascinated by looking at people who are better looking, rich, talented, famous but who don’t feel they’re alive unless they let the cameras in. ‘Real’ Celebrities play the double game too; Jude Law can be both the suave Hollywood actor but also, while clearing the dirty plates, he can confess to poor impulse control, poor divorce etiquette etc. Oddly, everybody knows Reality TV is just as much fantasy as reality, especially its fans. Yet, if it is a bellwether of contemporary society, ultimately, like its subjects, it is totally schizophrenic. It is a mad format. In 1967 D.A. Pennebaker , the famous US documentary filmmaker, angrily dismissed ‘David Holzman’s Diary’ as the complete trashing of the realist documentary art, Yet what on earth would he make of ‘Made in Chelsea’ or ‘Jersey Shore’? Here Reality is staged in every scene to seem like Reality – which in itself is a highly selective version. A cascade of reality, an image of an image, a representation of a representation. “Reality is an opinion” was a neat Dr Timothy Leary bumper sticker. The preferred TV reality is 7 or 8 male and female Robert De Niro’s putting up a tent – full of shrugs, noise, and emotion. A sophisticated and hard-to-analyse circle is created. A thick build-up of Reality, like paint on a De Kooning canvas, full of gestures, energy, anger and hard to resolve signs. Also, delightful moments of what could be avant-garde theatre are either intentionally or accidentally thrown up. The emptiness and repetition of Reality TV is often Beckett-like. Soap Operas have drama, and go somewhere each week. Reality TV just sits there, hours of it all the same, like being stuck in traffic but loving it. There is no heavy mental traffic either; it’s just family stuff, money, shopping, phone calls and bad language – just like last week. Viewer and subject both immovable, like the chemicals of the photographic process, they are ‘fixed’ eternally in the same scene.

The other ‘reality’ strand in ‘Reality Check’ is wealth and fairness in society. Walking the streets of London, many of us can feel and know it – London is awash with cash but none of it seems to be in anyone’s pocket, it all belongs to the 1%, somehow hidden away. The parks, the smart centre is awash with ‘money energy’ but personally we feel outside, often a bit scared of the future. Up in the towers and fancy houses, people, whom we never meet, seem to have everything worked out their way, everything we have is being chipped away to make them richer. This narrative of demise and unfairness fills the air. Statistics on the news and press repeat this. This economic reality, though it has always been there, seems to be breaking through into common awareness and discussion. Like global warming as a concept, the inequality of society is now making its way into people’s consciousness. It also enters media discussions more often, it certainly exists in the Occupy movement, and it crops up as a bond between young people, and in their elders who cannot believe what the future looks like for their children. Even the consciously apolitical, see that every year, a little bit more is taken from them; margins, work benefits are not in ‘Continuous Improvement’ – a term from auto manufacture – but quite the reverse, ‘Continuous Retraction’. In Auto Manufacture there is a constant search for ways in which the same quality can be achieved by cheaper methods – this is now standard policy in all sectors, school, old people’s homes, transport, airlines, TV, medicine, insurance, supermarkets and utilities. In 1980 the average water rates for a house in London was about £15 for the year – 30 years later it is veering towards £500 and still we are warned each year that the companies need more – we have to fix the pipes. What else are they fixing? Any guesses? From the worker’s point of view, everything is constantly being squeezed so that more has to be given to stay secure, to make the sector and your job ‘sustainable’. Any sector one cares to look at in detail, it’s the same story, the older workers tell one how much better it was when they first joined, and they wouldn’t recommend it for their children now. In law, lawyers will tell you that everything is sown up between a few major firms whose partners rely on younger workers putting in 12 hour days. Unless these foot soldiers can eventually become a partner they will be ejected once they reach that exhausted, ‘tricky’ mid-30s stage. Oh yes, you get to start by being an ‘intern’. Super.

Reality is an eternally hard thing to define. Human beings are individuals and see things differently with different imaginative fascinations; each is drawn, if they are happy and lucky, to their own reality – we make Reality at some level, we choose our Reality. In both Reality TV and in real life, the unhappy experience Reality as imposed. In one sense, Reality is just like Time, neither seems to reward one for thinking about them. For an individual there is no profit in spending life clock watching or thinking about time – it’s more positive to just get on with it. Similarly, it is unprofitable thinking others have it easier – which in reality they do – it gets you nowhere. It also suits the system, that most people park it and resign themselves to ‘life’, or their lot as they experience it.

These are the background themes of “Reality Check”.

Ultimately though, for the powerful, squeezing the poor is self-defeating and plainly not in their interest. A price cannot be put on a stable and happy society. Britain today is hovering, the wealth balance, like the weather systems more prone to cataclysmic events. Effectively, as the economic reality tips and more is taken away from the middle and bottom, even the basics are harder to secure. In the sense of social cohesion, the stability the rich and powerful have enjoyed for many years is perhaps waning and many of that group will wonder in time if it was worth screwing the little bit extra. Tesco’s strap line ‘Every little bit helps’ may not be true for all circumstances. Social destabilisation will bring the value of all assets down. Similarly, who can imagine the real price in economic terms or otherwise of trying to adjust to permanently irregular weather patterns? A rebellious society and unruly planet will not help the rich. They will not help anybody.

Walking the streets of Central London, it seems we have come up to some historical marker, some indicator of change – that the UK is going to seem different soon. I was a student in the 1980s and in a sense, the UK became more European in that period, we might not have known it then but that is what happened. People got better clothes, smarter suits, decent haircuts, European kitchens, went to restaurants with famous cooks and acquired the habit of coffee or wine. The rise of designer branding. I was born in South America and today that is where I’m afraid London is heading; no disrespect intended – vast swathes of London are simply beyond imagination; money is creating gated communities just like in Rio where simply being on certain streets walking marks you out as someone to be watched with self-evidently no right to be there. Often in the centre of London, above the shops nobody seems to be there anyway – the homes are not actually used, they are just piggy banks for characters abroad. The city is full of divisions – and empty rooms. My feeling is that if the 80s made us more European, today we are slowly turning South American – the post WW2 social contract is being thrown out and a much more divided tough society is on the way.

“Reality Check” is a humorous work inspired by these feelings.