Artifice of the Small Screen

by Christine Adams Beckett

Montclair is one of the few surrounding towns that grants permits to film production companies to shoot within our town limits. As such, Montclair has bragging rights as the backdrop for films, TV shows and commercials. Analyze This (and That), Syriana, The Sopranos, and countless TV commercials and product placement spots are just a handful of examples to which Montclair offered services as Setting.

Last summer, we hosted the film crew making a commercial for Barbara’s Bakery who was looking to advertise their Puffins Cereal on television. This was the first of two times we opened our doors to a film crew and we were understandably excited about the prospects. At 7:30 AM, the support crew showed up and lined almost every surface with protective paper and cardboard: the floors, the walls up to the chair rails. Most furniture was moved out of the way and covered with drop cloths. Big trucks crammed with lighting and camera equipment dominated our Avenue, and a caterer’s truck opened their awning and served the director, some of the actors, and my family breakfast on my curb. (Heck, you’ll feed us too??) When the twin boys who were to play the cereal eaters came over to schmear their bagels,  the irony struck me.

The curly red-headed boys were toting copies of Harry Potter, the same volumes my kids read earlier that summer, under their arms. The woman playing the mother was a redhead like me, was my height, build, albeit younger. Definitely younger. She was dressed casually and mentioned that she didn’t even need a costume change for this shot. I remarked to my kids, as they were seated comfortably on the curb munching their free pancakes drenched in maple syrup while the Pooch got morsels of bacon from the food truck man: “We might have accomplished this with a couple of double A batteries and a flip camera, no?”

“I prefer Cheerios,” said my oldest. Spoil Sport.

Members of the support crew were wheeling 10 foot tall maple trees to my driveway, to give the appearance that I lived in a more leafy, less suburban locale. They put sheer curtains on my windows and rearranged my counters to look a tad more cluttered. They had a stuffed puffin on the counter to aid them in computer generating the animated one that would take its place during post production. And of course, the woman of a certain lesser age, who never could have had twin boys when she was 12 herself, certainly wasn’t running around in circles between packing lunches, signing permission slips, searching for a missing shoe and trying to pacify a clingy baby. She wasn’t raising her voice over a skipped homework assignment and she was impeccably groomed. Lipstick and all, subtle as it was, made her look naturally beautiful and serene. At breakfast. Boloney. Yes, the artifice was there in spades. So much for that flip camera.

The second shoot we hosted was for House and Garden Television, all SC Johnson product placement spots for air fresheners and toilet bowl cleaners, none of which I actually use. The smell post shoot was revolting, requiring a day-long air out as the chemicals stung the back of our throats and clogged our nostrils. In one spot, they removed my entire living room, photographs and paintings and furniture that I have collected over the years from family members, glorified flea market antique shops and contemporary stores. They replaced them with old, worn out versions of someone else’s taste. The hostess of the show talked about cleaning up the clutter and finding tricks to keep it organized, creating a formerly ordered space, made less orderly, orderly again. My head was spinning.

It isn’t peculiar that those who are trying to sell us (breakfast cereal, air freshener, fill in the _____ here) use artifice to pedal the wares. Any woman with even an inkling of recognition when mentioned Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth understands the strategy of selling products to an entire group of people by carving out computer generated Super Beings that don’t exist in nature. No big secret revealed here. Yet there are a host of reality television shows, from the low-brow Real Housewives to the more highbrow Finding Your Roots with Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. whose intent is to entertain us with startling “reality,” warts and all. What a strange dichotomy of programming, right there on the same flat screen.

Even the warts themselves, like my made messy living room, might be artificial. A new friend and fellow mom, Miranda Sherwin, recently shared with me a book she wrote for the world of Academia entitled Confessional Writing and the Twentieth Century Literary Imagination. She writes about the original confessional poets and a shift in genre towards more autobiographical works. But in fact there are many contradictions that exist between the most private of confessions and the public expression of art that is their poetry. They “challenge the lines between the public and the private, between the essential and the constructed self, between high and low art.” Consider it a literary precursor to the Kardashians perhaps, but with talent. But don’t consider it absolute truth. What you see is certainly not what you get, but the confessional poets and perhaps our reality televisions stars have created an original way to represent identity. Memoirs on the shelves of book stores are often shocking in their revelations, their confessions: but these too exist for an ulterior motive, and not all of it is true.

In an interview with The Paris Review, former Poet Laureate and Montclair resident Richard Wilbur responds to the inquiry: “You have said that “the work of every good poet may be seen in one way or another as an exploration and declaration of the self.” Wilbur’s response was quite simple: “I do feel that the truth, especially the truth about oneself, is hard to report, and that if you set out to confess, what you are likely to do is tell lies in addition to reporting some of the truth. And the fact that you are consciously part of the material of the poem may lead you to falsify in ways that are not good. There are good fictions and bad fictions. The kinds of fiction that glamorizes you is not good either for your sake or for the reader’s, and I think that very often the confessional poet is drawn to glamorize himself, whether he is aware of it or not.”

The Ars Poetica of the television commercial and the reality TV show is as all art in its literal meaning: artificial, a mere representation of reality. It is not necessarily truth however. It is a reality that is created to entertain and to seduce. Look to your inner soul for truth, perhaps the Poet, but it does not reside in my phony living room or on my Puffin playground of a kitchen counter or in a tell-all memoir, reality shows or any of our public personas, whether broadcast on television or not. It is something to ponder: that the selves we present to the world may be our own personal art.

Meantime, I will keep my eyes peeled on the small screen for tiny versions of Eli Manning dancing on the arm of my sofa. We did another job this Spring, this one for Direct TV which will feature the Manning brothers and all their football glory. I was dreaming of ways to spill the beans to my son about it, including imagined encounters between Eli and my boy, the casual toss of a jersey, perhaps a personally signed football, when the production manager quickly added, “We’ll green screen them and superimpose them post production.” Alas, the furthest our football heroes will travel through New Jersey is the Meadowlands in East Rutherford. I also noticed from production notes they left on the counter: they’ll be in miniature, presumably performing celebratory dances on my coffee table coasters. How refreshing to think that the Manning brothers will self-depreciatingly pretend to be something they are not: miniature, instead of larger than life.

To read more about Miranda Sherwin’s book on Confessional Writers, please click here.

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