Reality TV has officially hit the big screen, but not in the way you’d think. Where films like The Real Cancun and masterful Jackass quadrilogy took existing programs and stretched them to feature length, three upcoming releases are molding the same misbehaving subject matter into traditional narrative cinema.
The first taste we’ll get is Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers in March, followed by Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring in June. The trio rounds out when The Gangster Princess of Beverly Hills, a project Craig Brewer just signed on to direct, comes out next year. Depending on their success, these films could mean a significant shift in the legitimization of reality television as an "art" form.
Since the early Real World days, the "reality" genre has been the entertainment industry’s lucrative red-headed stepchild. Few modes are as popular and reviled in equal measure. The tension only intensified when networks fused the format with US Weekly-style tabloid culture in shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians and the various Real Housewives spin-offs.
Yet love it or hate it, we’re all participants in this "rise of reality."
It was just a matter of time before this once-disdained medium joined the "higher" artistic forms. The Truman Show gave hints with its dour satire of voyeuristic entertainment. But where that film scolded our "nosy neighbor" tendencies via an Average Joe whose life happens to be a TV show, these newer movies take excess and tabloid spectacle as springboards to explore crime and punishment: Tony Montana meets Paris Hilton.
The implicit critique is that "you do the crime, you do the time." A group of spring-breaking coeds led by Disney darlings Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens party too hard with dope-slinging James Franco and face the consequences in Korine’s flick. West L.A. girls in Juicy sweatpants rob celebrity homes in Coppola’s Bling Ring. And Brewer’s Gangster Princess recounts the true story of Lisette Lee, who we all thought was your normal hell-raising SoCal socialite until police revealed she’d trafficked 7,000 pounds of marijuana into Ohio. All three set well-worn crime narratives against a TMZ-friendly backdrop.
There’s no better way to sell skeptical filmgoers on tabloid culture than marriage to a respected genre. Crime film gave us GoodFellas. Who’s to say Gangster Princess won’t be tabloid cinema’s equivalent?
Going further, these films can help legitimize reality TV as source material for "high culture" artifacts. Just like Quentin Tarantino re-vitalized the grindhouse aesthetic by using exploitation cinema as a primary influence, Spring Breakers could do the same for "party girls gone bad" tabloid fodder. The possibilities are endless.
But at the same time, these movies have to be good to be impactful. A forgettable film is a forgettable film, no matter what the topic is. As we continually chart this rise of tabloid "reality" culture, its "high culture" manifestations will no doubt increase, whether they be through film, literature, or what have you. How successfully this is done is yet to be seen.