Wednesday, 25 March 2009

To LiVe! ethically or morally? That is the question.

LiVe! (2007) is a film that has been too easily dismissed for being reductive and obvious in its commentary on the values behind reality television. Josh Tyler, a contributor for, has expressed such an opinion, vehemently arguing that the filmmakers are "so desperate to expose while at the same time distracting us all from the fact that we’ve seen this movie hundreds of times before." However, I posit that though the film presents the main thread of its ideas in a clear and basic fashion (a mere functional step in narrative set-up), as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that its central concern is in fact in tune with an increasingly important issue facing contemporary film studies, and that is the filmic role of ethics, not only in the making of visual material, but in the ethical positioning involved in viewing it also. Rather than 'distraction' as Tyler presents it, LiVe! actually attempts to reveal what is beneath the popular veneer of satire, as one of its more unsettling devices is the inherent use of the original paradigm of that which it satirises. Thus, whilst on one level the film is concerned with showing television networks as the money-hungry soulless villains they undoubtedly are, it also simultaneously creates the proverbial cash-cow of a television programme which subsequently becomes the object pertaining to the manipulation of spectatorial response.

Katy Courbet (Eva Mendes), is a television producer who heads up a new show for a failing network based on the 'game' Russian Roulette. The stakes are extremely high: six players, of which five stand to win; five blanks and five cheques made out for five million dollars. Oh, and one silver bullet. Before each contestant places the gun at their temple, a short audition video is shown, supposedly to the television show's studio audience, revealing who that person "really" is. But in fact it is the spectator watching LiVe! who is being fed six character stereotypes, including; (1) Jewel, a blonde twenty-something aspiring actress/airhead, (2) Abalone, a mid-thirties ex-model come performance artist, (3) Pablo, a young & poor Spanish lad, (4) Byron the "token black guy" who comes from a nuclear family and privileged background, and consequently, for his lack of suffering, has failed to make it as a writer, (5) Brad the stereotypical bleach-blonde Californian surfer-dude, and finally (6) Rick, the family man- who just wants to win so as he can continue to keep the farm his father and his father before him ploughed, and someday pass it on to his son...

Of course it won't be the Spaniard or the African-American who land the silver bullet because that would make the film read as racist. Similarly, it won't be one of the women (who are both objects of beauty rather than agency in this film) as to choose either of them would result in a reading of misogyny, and provide yet another example of cinema's longstanding history of punishing women for being "the object of the male gaze". That leaves the two white alpha males. One is a 'waster' and the other a 'family man'. Pretty obvious which of those America, and the average spectator, will feel they can do without. In killing off the least likeable/most seemingly superfluous of characters, LiVe! implicates the viewer in its own moral judgement, and its decision to weigh the value of six peoples' lives against one another. This asks of the spectator, is it possible to see any Other, as they are presented through stereotype on screen, ethically rather than morally?

Following the 'live' (nice pun) airing of the show (and at the climax of the film no less) Katy rushes to the bathroom where she is violently sick. A young kid who had his whole life ahead of him - even though he only intended to use it to 'surf'- has died. Katy's realisation acts as an ethical awakening for the spectator, blatantly and confrontationally asking, who are you to judge the worth of human life based on an individual's intended 'use' thereof? Immediately after this awakening Katy is shot, dead. And it is her death that attracts the most attention, not Brad's; the 'motive' of her killer is openly questioned and though he is unidentified, he is ultimately held responsible. This leads to an inevitable questioning behind the motive and culpability for any killing. It is this idea- that any one person has the right to kill or deny the equal footing of any Other that LiVe! astutely highlights and questions. Finally, the spectator must assume the responsibility of their now dead and thus absent protagonist, whose burden has in death shifted onus.

Of course, you could watch this film and take, as Tyler did, its narrative veneer as a mere distraction. But then you would be denying the truly ethical existence of the Other, even as they are presented through stereotypes, for in that distraction lies the poignant dilemma LiVe! raises: denying your own responsibility in viewing such an atrocity, true or satirised, means you too are passing a moral judgement.

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