In all the minutiae of American domestic life that are endlessly dissected on reality television, there is one process that is never depicted: eviction. If a camera crew can follow people through customs, or in court, or on a date, they can presumably follow an auction broker as he or she moves from one house to another – it’s a series that effectively writes itself – as well as an evictee as they try to find work, accomodation and security after being forcibly removed from their home. Yet the closest American reality television has come to that prospect has been World’s Worst Tenants, one of the few reality series that is entirely fictionalised – comprised entirely of reenactments – as well as a series that, as the title might suggest, is exclusively concerned with tenants who deserve to be evicted. The situation is all the more striking in that eviction is arguably the subject matter and driving force behind the most recent wave of reality television, which, from the earliest days of Big Brother and Survivor, has seemed designed to seduce its audiences with the spectacle of people who have manged to evade or elude eviction, as well as people who are “above” eviction, although even these studies in supposed upper-class insularity – such as the Real Housewives franchise – often generate a great deal of their frisson from the way in which they suggest that precarity exists even in the midst of privilege, recalling Lauren Berlant’s claim, in Cruel Optimism, that we live in a time that is above all characterised by the “class incoherence of the populations claiming precariousness.”
If actual evictions of the kind that became so prominent in the wake of the GFC are the unnameable subtext of American reality television, then they presumably also consummate the aesthetic of complicity that drives these series as well. In many ways, reality television- at least in the post-Big Brother era – is a post-voyeuristic medium, a way of coming to terms with a globalised media landscape in which all the most repulsive features of late capitalism, and our complicity with them, have become a part of the texture of everyday life in a more pervasive manner than ever before. Moral critiques of reality television’s complicity with its subject matter are therefore a bit beside the point, since, according to reality television, this complicity has already happened, necessitating a new mode for feeling and articulating the contours of this new iteration of the late capitalist lifeworld. As a result, the most charismatic or at least popular reality shows tend to be those like Jersey Shore and Keeping Up With The Kardashians in which these late capitalist ideologies are most naked, just as the mantras that open each series and season of the Real Housewives franchise are likely to give you a better – if blunter – idea of what constitutes conservative American values than any amount of blustery Republican rhetoric. At the same time, the more sympathetic reality television characters also have their place in this rich media landscape, since reality television also speaks to our complicity in the uneven development of late capitalism as well, with the ideal reality demographic switching between a number of different reality franchises, from the most progressive, inclusive and open-minded to the most exclusive, conservative and cloistered.
It’s no exaggeration, then, to suggest that the ultimate reality television program would focus on evictees of the recent Global Financial Crisis, nor that this might ultimately be the last reality television program as well, since there’s something about the process of eviction that takes the aesthetic of complicity promulgated by reality television to its logical conclusion. As it now stands, reality television has found ever more nuanced ways to turn complicity into a form of detachment, or even into an ideological stance, recalling Slavoj Zizek’s fascinating suggestion that, in a late capitalist environment, ideology involves “knowing” that what you are doing is ideologically prescribed but doing it anyway. That is the kind of “knowing” complicity that reality television offers, as well as what makes it so comforting and titillating at the same time, a combination that anybody who has become addicted to a reality franchise – and I’m one of them – will know is quite unique amongst the different types of attachment that television has to offer. At the same time, there is something about the spectacle of the post-GFC eviction that undercuts this detached complicity, just because of the eloquence with which it removes any residual sense that representing the law, whether as an eviction broker, a lawyer, a policeman, can be extricated in any way from the worst kind of complicity. As the Occupy Wall Street movement has made so clear, anybody who witnesses an eviction and does nothing to stop it is an evictor, and there’s something galvanising about that logic that both informs the logic of reality television and ensures that this is one of the few procedures in American life that have remained largely untouched by it.
In many ways, Ramin Bahrani’s latest film, 99 Homes, is an effort to produce this absent reality television event, which means that it is both indebted to the aesthetic of reality television but also anxious to push through it to a new way of envisaging the world, as well as a new way of transforming complicity into collectivity. On paper, it’s about the relationship between Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a builder, and Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), an eviction broker, after Rick evicts Dennis, his young son and his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern) from their home in the Orlando suburban sprawl. Desperate to get his family home back, Rick starts to work for Dennis as an apprentice eviction broker, and gets a bit of an insight into what it is that made Dennis take up the job in the first place. However, for all that Michael Shannon often feels as if he is channelling Gordon Gekko for the post-GFC era, the film is quite definitively about professional relationships rather than personal relationships, and even then is fairly weak when it dwells at any length on personal charisma or interpersonal communion, since it’s clear that we’re now in a world in which even the supreme capitalist egotism of a Gekko, itself a harbinger of the extreme personalities that drive reality television, has been subsumed into the grinding determinism of market forces. In fact, it often feels as if the point of 99 Homes is partly to characterise reality television as a strategy for devising and showcasing instances of charisma that are sufficiently flamboyant, outrageous or affronting – in a word, camp – to leave some room for the myth of individual self-realisation so critical to the American dream. In that sense, Shannon’s bathos often feels deliberate, a kind of truncated camp register that seems to acknowledge the limits of the very charisma that this kind of reality television is always aiming to amplify. If reality television strives against a world in which the transformative power of charisma seems more and more foreclosed, outlining a kind of exaggerated notion of personality that has all but vanished from mainstream cinema, then 99 Homes takes place just over the horizon of that foreclosure, giving its own reality aesthetic a bit of a spectral quality.
At the same time, however, great portions – the best portions – of the film do play out in a reality mode, especially Bahrani’s depictions of the actual procedure of eviction itself, as the film opens and concludes with a pair of evictions that are shot with exactly the expository sensationalism that you might expect from a reality franchise, outlining and signposting all the ways you should be outraged, shocked and titillated as Dennis’ family are forced to move into a motel because they’re unable to afford the rent for an apartment, and Dennis himself is thrust out into the Florida sprawl in desperate search of work. Even in these straitened circumstances, however, the focus is not interpersonal so much as geographical, with the movement from house to motel to sprawl opening up a kind of cognitive map that converges David Simon’s taxonomical sense of urban space with the kind of grainy, handheld, homemade digital “look” that makes reality television so attuned to residential, domestic and suburban spaces as well. In effect, it’s a reality television aesthetic shot from the mindset of David Simon, which can be jarring and a bit clunky at times, but is also nothing short of revelatory when the two different registers really synergise.
Not surprisingly, that synergy tends to happen in motion, especially in the second and best act of the film, when Rick takes Dennis under his wing to become an apprentice eviction broker. During this part of the film, narrative – or at least any kind of sustained narrative – is largely put to one side, as we follow Dennis from one eviction to another, as he gradually works his way up through the ranks of Rick’s posse until he is finally capable of commanding an eviction on his own. At the same time, though, this vertical, hierarchical, aspirational movement is largely subsumed into the lateral movement from house to house, and the metonymic drift across the Orlando sprawl, which is so ceaseless and relentless that it quickly comes to feel as if the entire film is poised at the cusp of every house we encounter, or as if Bahrani has managed to distill the cusp of each of these houses into an archetype for virtually every reality television threshold and premise, from home makeovers to family melodramas to border security exposes to hoarding confessions. Most of the connective tissue between these porches, front doors and verandas simply involves curb-crawling and curb-trawling, and is clearly improvised, giving the evictions themselves such an extraordinarily immediate quality that it’s really more like watching a docudrama than a film, especially since Bahrani really plays up the handheld aesthetic at these moments as well. The result falls somewhere between the interviews with actual victims of inadequate medical insurance in Michael Moore’s Sicko and the docudramatic depictions of layoffs in Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air, elaborating the texture, tone and momentum of this “other” America in quite a documentarian spirit – itinerant, precarious and poised at the brink of an omnivorous, omniscient sprawl – even if the actual incidents and couples have been fictionalised.
Of course, that kind of vision runs the risk of falling into fatalism or determinism, or of simply reiterating the post-voyeuristic innovations of reality television without adding anything to them. It’s fortunate, then, that Bahrani provides two very significant potential disruptions to the eviction proceedings, in the form of a young girl who threatens to film the process on her SmartPhone and post it to Facebook, and an evictee who threatens to live blog his appeal, leading to widespread panic on the part of of the bank and its affiliates that this will become a trend. In both cases, the film advocates but also instantiates the same aesthetic of sousveillance – surveillance from below – that Steven Shaviro identifies as a hallmark of the Paranormal Activity cycle, which is no surprise, since this is the best attempt to evoke the foreclosing suburban sprawl and the devolution of suburbia itself into a single strip, since Oren Peli’s groundbreaking film, even if the movement from California to Florida gives it a slightly different feel. At the same time, there’s something about that transition that feels apt, since Orlando has in many ways recapitulated and exceeded the archetypal model of urban sprawl traditionally associated with Los Angeles. As it currently stands, Orlando only falls behind Nashville, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles in terms of urban sprawl, but it is nevertheless a bit of a special case insofar as it has witnessed the greatest rate of sprawl in the United States over the last fifty years, thanks to the arrival of Walt Disney World in 1965 and the subsequent rebranding of the city as the “Theme Park Capital of the World.” Whereas the Los Angeles sprawl was exacerbated by theme parks, the Los Angeles sprawl was built upon them, which perhaps explains why the traditional downtown district of Orlando has been even more subsumed into so many simulacral Main Streets and new urbanist enclaves in the vein of Celebration, producing what is arguably the most amorphous, anonymous, decentred slab of urban sprawl in the United States.
Not surprisingly, that has tended to gravitate Los Angeles noir directors towards Florida to test how their strategies for mapping urban sprawl might look in this more challenging environment, to the point where the presence or at least possibility of Florida is one of the key factors distinguishing neo-noir from noir. From Night Moves to Wild Things, neo-noir films have often framed Florida as an enclave of Los Angeles – and Walt Disney World as an enclave of Disneyland – as if extending California to the state most remote from it were a way of approximating the fundamentally unrepresentable sprawl surrounding Orlando, which remains one of the least visible cities in American cinema. At the same time, the fact that Walt Disney World functions both as the horizon and as the motor engine to the Orlando sprawl means that this is the one sprawl in the United States that most defies being framed in terms of a static, specific or discrete sense of place, instead offering itself up to the senses as a kind of pure, decontextualised momentum, an endlessly and somewhat magically self-generating space that is as enclosed by its own replicatory and simulacral logic as the various worlds that constitute Walt Disney World. Add to that the fact that Tomorrowland is the most iconic of these worlds, and it makes sense that the Orlando sprawl is a spatiotemporal more than a spatial phenomenon, an experience of self-generating futurity that precludes any future actually arriving, and that can only be glimpsed in transit or from some transitory aesthetic apparatus of the kind that Bahrani lights upon here in his appropriation of the vocabulary of reality television. After all, while reality television frequently takes wealthy, exclusive, gated communities as its subject matter, the indiscriminate, promiscuous, prowling aesthetic of the reality television camera addresses itself first and foremost to this sprawl, with the result that Bahrani’s use of a reality television aesthetic to depict the Florida sprawl feels like a consummation and exhaustion of reality television itself, a revelation of the collective landscape that all reality television inhabits, as well a consummation of Orlando as a city that can only really exist through precisely this reality mode, in what is possibly the most sustained representation of this most unrepresentable of American cities that has ever been committed to the big screen.
In that sense, there is also a noir fringe, or perhaps more accurately a neo-noir fringe to Bahrani’s vision, since while his style may be devoid of the lush affectations of neo-noir, his peripatetic approach also draws on these efforts to map Florida – and Orlando – by way of the noir project. In other words, the film not only proposes sousveillance as a tactic but frames it as a specifically noir tactic, drawing a common denominator between noir and reality television as genres that both consciously adopt B-tropes and ethics of disposability in order to avoid the kind of scrutiny that might preclude the – admittedly very different ways – in which they are both trying to bear witness. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis pays homage to the role of noir in providing exactly this brand of sousveillance, but also suggests that it has been more than appropriated by the very powers it was designed to resist, to the point where “the “noir image” has glamorized, quite unintentionally, the need to destroy downtown communities. That is the ironic genius of social imaginaries as cities, either of the sunshine variety or the shady: they always wind up selling product.” By dissociating noir from Los Angeles, pairing it with the “sunshine” of Florida and then inflecting it through reality television, Bahrani may render it unrecognisable, but, then again, perhaps that’s what’s needed to hide the noir optic and ethos in plain sight as scrupulously as it is here, allowing it to become an agent of sousveillance once again.