A locked house, a group of characters trapped inside it, an almost endless filmed series that at any given moment is following the actions of those characters and of an omnipotent leader - who sees all but is unseen, and whose orders are transmitted to the tenants of the house in the privacy of a confessional. These are the basic materials that constitute "Big Brother," the television show, or let's call it "the television phenomenon," the Israeli version of which, in its first season, comes to an end this evening.
A review of the basic materials that make up the phenomenon of "Big Brother" testify to the extent to which the phenomenon draws its strength from a linkage of cinematic genres that come together in the program in a way that is off-putting yet sophisticated: the horror film, the thriller, the science-fiction film and all of those movies that are set in a closed space, be it a prison or submarine in a time of crisis, or that depict a disaster that traps a group of characters on a capsized ship, in a skyscraper that is going up in flames or an airplane that is in big trouble.
One regular element of such films is that some of the characters are eliminated in the course of events, just as in "Big Brother" - and the other TV series that belong to the genre of programs that have been given the ironic and depressing name "reality" - characters are eliminated in accordance with some internal order and logic. Other examples include "Survivor" and "Paradise Hotel" (in its local version, "The Love Bay")
In the movies, the characters are expelled as corpses - Shelly Winters dies of a heart attack after her heroic swim in "The Poseidon Adventure"; Robert Wagner is burned to a crisp in "The Towering Inferno" as he tries to rescue the woman he loves - who also goes up in flames and falls to her death from one of the burning skyscraper's top stories. In "Oz," the prison series of which "Big Brother" is sometimes reminiscent in its sadistic bluntness, the characters are murdered one by one.
However, there isn't really much difference between them and the characters who are eliminated on "Survivor" or "Big Brother": The moment they are expelled from the circumscribed space where the series is set, they "die" as far as we are concerned, even if the audience outside greets them with cheers and we can be certain that they will be back, on talk shows, in commercials or even as characters in the series from which they have been eliminated, as a kind of "living dead." As in the best horror films, they will emerge from out of the series' subconscious as repressed monsters, in order to assuage their hurt feelings and take their revenge. (To date, the first season of "Paradise Hotel" implemented this plot move in the cleverest and most effective way; the show's second season, which was broadcast here a few months ago and was, like its local version, utter garbage, proved how hard it is to carry out this move in an effective way).
From George Orwell to Stanley Kubrick
Voyeurism is the basic ingredient that shapes the viewing experience in programs like "Big Brother," and voyeurism has always been the basic element in the cinematic experience in general, a voyeurism that is made possible for us as spectators inside a darkened movie theater, or in the case of the reality shows, from within the privacy of viewing at home.
"We've become a nation of Peeping Toms," declares Thelma Ritter, the nurse tending James Stewart, a news photographer whose leg is broken and who has to spend several weeks in his room, sitting in a wheelchair. Ritter is shocked to discover that Stewart - the hero of Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film "Rear Window" - is, out of sheer boredom, spending most of his time at his window watching what is happening in the apartments of his neighbors in the building across the way. She too, however, is gradually drawn into the experience of watching the neighbors across the way; she too becomes a voyeur, especially after Stewart begins to suspect that a murder has been committed in one of their apartments.
"Rear Window" is still the most important and the best-known film dealing with the experience of cinematic watching and the place of voyeurism in the cinema. Thus it is not surprising that the strongest moment in this film is the one in which the boundary is crossed between the observer, Stewart, and the object he is watching - the murderer (played by Raymond Burr), who suddenly notices that someone is looking at him. By the light of the cigarette that the murderer has lit in the darkness of his apartment, darkness that ostensibly protects him, Stewart, who also thinks that he is protected by the darkness that surrounds him in his room, realizes that the murderer is looking directly at him. The power of this chilling moment derives not only from the fact that it signifies the danger that the hero of the film now faces, after the murderer has discovered his identity, but rather from the fact that the basic constancy that separates us from the characters on the screen has been broken: The character has discovered our identity, he has exposed us, he is looking at us.
In "Big Brother" this happens only when the participants talk to the eponymous character; only then do they look straight at us. But whom does "Big Brother" represent? Is he the director of the show? Does he represent us? Does he control the characters on the show to the same extent that he controls us? Are we, just like the characters on the program, trapped in it by the very fact of our addiction to it? Is he God, the computer that takes over the space ship in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," or is he, by the very fact of his title, the mythological origins and ideological significance of which need no discussion, a symbol of the loss of our freedom and perhaps also of our dignity as human beings?
The direct gaze appears officially in the scenes in which the characters meet Big Brother face to face, but in fact it is present throughout the entire show. The element of voyeurism in "Big Brother" is so vivid that throughout the show there is a feeling that the characters are looking at us, challenging us for looking at them unflinchingly, without embarrassment and above all with no shame, enjoying every moment of the bullying that watching the show affords us. And our sense of power is an illusion just like the one experienced by Jimmy Stewart, who, by way of what happens in the windows of the building across the way, is provided with a series of reality shows of different sorts: romantic, sentimental and horrible.
From Angelina Jolie to Einav Boublil
In order to enjoy a show like "Big Brother," we have to subscribe to the rules that guide it - or more accurately, we have to submit to them. The submission begins with the very fact of the acceptance of the term "reality," and there is nothing that is less of "real" than the reality show (and if there is any importance to the phenomenon of reality shows it is, after all, that they have subverted once and for all the perception of what reality is, not only in the cinema or on television, but in reality itself). We are aware of the manipulations that drive these shows, and at the same time we are prepared to ignore them; this is what makes the phenomenon of reality shows such a fetishistic experience, one that underlines the extent to which the fetishistic dimension is indeed a basic and inevitable ingredient in the experience of watching a movie or television.
This fetishistic element also characterizes the behavior of the characters in the series: They are supposed to ignore the presence of the cameras that follow them 24 hours a day, and at the same time to be aware of them. Does this leave them as "non-actors," plucked at random from their anonymity, or does it transform them into actors like any other film actors?
They are film - or TV - stars, just like all the film or television stars who have preceded them, and who always conbined who they "really" were with the characters they played on the screen: From Greta Garbo to Angelina Jolie, from Cary Grant to George Clooney, the film star has always served as a link between those two personae: the "real" one and the "invented" one, and both of these personae have always been equally "real" and "invented."
It is possible of course to argue that it is ridiculous to compare Einav Boublil's or Itai Ziv's charisma to that of Jolie or Clooney, but the principle that guides their appearance before us is the same: The moment the camera is focused on someone, a new character is created, even if that character is supposed to be ignoring the camera's scrutiny of him (and one of the laws that has guided cinematic acting, until the directors of the French New Wave and other modernist cinematic schools broke it, was that it is forbidden to look at the camera, because that would destroy the illusion of the gap that separates the observer and the object he is watching).
From George Obadiah to Erez Tal
"Big Brother," more than any other reality show, transforms the individual into an object; or, to put it more crudely, into a "laboratory animal." To a large extent, it is from this that is derived the power of the phenomenon that has had a grip on the world for nearly a decade now. The local success of "Big Brother" derives from the fact that it is based on a principle that is nearly impossible to resist, but also from the fact that the creators of the Israeli version of the show have succeeded in endowing it with a more local essence.
"Big Brother" is the contemporary version of the "bourekas" films of yesteryear - a peculiarly Israeli genre of comic melodramas or tearjerkers directed by Ze'ev Revach, George Obadiah and others, based on ethnic stereotypes that flourished here in the 1960s and 1970s. Bourekas films never really died. Even though officially they ceased to be produced in quantity by the 1980s, their heritage continues to exist in more sophisticated and analytical ways in films like Savi Gavison's "Lovesick on Nana Street" ("Holeh ahavah beshikun gimel"), more recently, Reshef Levy's "Lost Islands." Currently this legacy is manifested anew in "Big Brother," a bourekas comedy for the end of the new century's first decade. The show's creators have populated it with a canny collection of representatives of contemporary Israeli society, and have enabled them, under the rules of the show, to come up against one another. They even had no hesitations about inserting into the show a father and his daughter, Yossi and Einav Boublil, a blatantly perverse ingredient that gradually made the two the focus of the show, the center into which all the ethnic, cultural and sexual tensions that have always been the basic ingredients of bourekas films drain. The crudeness, the vulgarity; the false, backslapping camaraderie and the bursting malevolence are also part of the genre that "Big Brother" presents to us in its updated version.
"Big Brother" provides its viewers with an elementary cinematic experience, in which they get to peep at the other from a position of distance, arrogance and safety position. But this would seem to be just an illusion. The very fact of the situation that is created by "Big Brother," and other shows of its sort, perpetuates some of the basic human values. In this respect, they leave us, the viewers, exposed, involved and incriminated by the repugnant substance that the show produces with the encouragement of all those involved in its manufacture, above all its two smug moderators, Erez Tal and Assi Ezer, who are positioned both outside the show and are also stuck inside it. The show will end tonight with the triumph of the individual; it will also mark the defeat of all the others.