This post contains full spoilers for both The Rehearsal and Nope, and I would recommend watching both before reading. Thanks!
When I was at middle school, one of the popular activities during free periods was r/5050, a subreddit that presented a kind of gamble with each link – when you clicked, you’d either see something visually pleasurable (cute puppies, a beautiful sunset), or something absolutely horrifying (dead puppies, human executions at sunset). The result of websites like reddit 50/50 was a kind of deafening of the senses, experienced probably in some form or another by everyone of my generation. Whether it was watching beheading videos on LiveLeak or the never ending onslaught of increasingly extreme pornography pumped onto the front pages of the internet, it‘s a well regarded phenomenon that people who grew up with the internet are simply harder to shock. Not just that, they might even seek out the kind of graphic perversions that only a few years ago were balked at. Of course, the human desire to see shocking imagery is nothing new, but an awareness of this problem is relatively more recent. In the last month, two projects that partially address this topic have been released; Jordan Peele with his new horror film Nope and Nathan Fielder with his new docuseries The Rehearsal. In both of these projects, the audiences are presented and confronted by the filmmakers with their own obsession for disturbing content.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that both Peele and Fielder started as comedians in the internet age; the job of the comedian has always involved at least a certain amount of shock value – even the most timid of comics push and probe the boundaries of everyday life. No one would call Jerry Seinfeld a boundary pushing comedian, including, probably, himself, but his work does claim to examine those hidden social codes that we live by; exposing them as a way of exposing the audience to their own place within the system.
In his earlier series, Nathan For You, Nathan Fielder pretended to be part of a reality TV show that helped struggling small businesses by presenting them with new ideas that would turn around their revenue stream. However, much like the work of Sacha Baron Cohen (some of which Fielder has written on), Fielder’s show was all a hoax on its subjects. Fielder’s business ideas were ridiculous and often legally dubious, and the business owners were often uncomfortable with his ideas, perhaps only playing along because of the exposure being on a TV show would get them. Unlike Baron Cohen’s Borat, which used this kind of set up to point out ignorance and bigotry within American society, Nathan For You lacked that kind of political point of view, instead playing the situations out for pure comedic value. Accordingly, Nathan For You is one of the funniest shows produced within the last couple of years – but its success clearly had some kind of impact on its creator, something which becomes clear when watching The Rehearsal.
In The Rehearsal, Fielder returns with a slightly similar premise. This time, instead of helping struggling business owners, Fielder searches out people with a problem. Perhaps you want to tell someone you’ve been lying to them for a while about your masters degree, or maybe you want to confront your brother over the issue of your inheritance money. Fielder will give you the resources to practice these difficult conversations using the budget only an HBO show can guarantee; hiring actors to play other people you know in detailed recreations of places from your life.
The Rehearsal clearly has a lot on its mind, but even from the first episode, Fielder’s questions about the morality of his own reality TV show endeavours come into play. The subject of the first rehearsal, a man named Kor Skeete, is a trivia obsessive who is worried about telling a friend that he’s been lying about having a masters degree. Fielder tricks Skeete into winning a trivia game by surreptitiously feeding him the answers beforehand in one of the show’s funniest scenes, but after doing so his guilt overwhelms him; the final scene shows him rehearsing apologising to Skeete. In the act of creating comedy for the viewer, Fielder has hurt Skeete and forced him to cheat in a game he cares passionately about. In Nathan for You, this kind of trickery is the norm, but in The Rehearsal, Fielder suddenly becomes more self-reflective.
Reality TV, whether enjoyed ironically or not, is built around this kind of deceit. Even the most casual viewers of dating shows or survival competitions know of the role of the mysterious “producer”; staff members whose job it is to coax interesting drama out of reality TV participants. Everyone watching a show knows that most of the drama is, at least to some extent, staged, but we also know this is what we came here to see. Those watching Love Island will enter into a contract with the show itself, promising to turn a blind eye to the interference of casting agents and producers in order to fully immerse themselves in the drama. But in doing so, we also turn a blind eye to the reality of life on the set for reality stars and participants. Nathan for You tells us to do the same – these are real life struggling business people trying to eke out a living, often in dying marketplaces, but we see them, to an extent, only as fodder for the comedy of the rich TV comedian.
In The Rehearsal, Fielder constantly forces the audience to look at the show’s own exploitative practices and empathise with the subjects of Fielder’s rehearsals. It’s funny at the start of the episode that Fielder can manipulate Skeete to cheat at his hobby, but by the end it all just seems a bit sad. In a later episode, Fielder starts an acting class and tells his students to stalk strangers as a form of method acting, but he soon realises, when stalking one of his students, that the only reason they agree to do something so creepy is because of the promise of being on TV; just the lure of the HBO cameras is a kind of manipulation in itself.
This all culminates in a final episode that is fully about this kind of exploitation. Throughout the show, Fielder has been doing a long rehearsal where he rehearses being a father. One of the children, Remy, who doesn’t know his real dad, ends up becoming overly attached to Fielder. Using a child brings up ethical questions of its own, but in a way Remy is nothing more than an extension of all of Fielder’s subjects. The fact that he’s a child, and thus has a harder time distinguishing between fiction and reality is a big point in the series, but all of Fielder’s subjects are in some way fooled by the nature of his production. It just wouldn’t work any other way. Fielder’s guilt around Remy’s mistake extends throughout the show to form a collective guilt around the whole genre of reality TV and Fielder’s place in it.
In the last minute of the show, while pretending to be Remy’s mother (it’s complicated), Nathan Fielder himself appears to become trapped in his own game. No matter how exploitative the genre might be, the emotions fuelled by reality TV are still real. By casting himself in the place of one of his subjects, Fielder manages to see, for a brief instant, the other side of his own shows. We all want to see the comedy, but being the participant might be harder than any of us imagine.
In Nope, Jordan Peele’s latest, the subject of discussion isn’t reality TV but the premise is mostly the same; the viewing habits of the public aren’t subject to the morality or ethics of our daily lives; in fact, we may seek out the things that venture into the horrific or unethical. And so Peele writes into his sci-fi UFO film a fascinating subplot involving a chimp named Gordy. Probably in part inspired by the story of Travis the Chimp, who mauled and disfigured a friend of his owners’, Gordy is a chimp actor featured in a fictional multi-cam sitcom called Gordy’s Home, who goes feral one day after being surprised by a balloon popping on set. The story of Gordy opens Nope, and feels obviously key to understanding the film’s themes, given its otherwise disconnected nature from the rest of the narrative.
Gordy’s attack on the cast of the sitcom is an obvious result of film industry exploitation; much like Remy in The Rehearsal, using an animal or a child as an example makes explicit what is more muddy when discussing the exploitation of adults. But also like The Rehearsal, the exploitation expands far beyond the obvious. Take Jupe, the child actor on Gordy’s TV show, who ends up running a cowboy theme park nearby the main character’s house. Jupe, himself a visual link to decades of Hollywood child actors and their notable mistreatment, ends up feeling some sense of kinship with Gordy; perhaps unable to process his own experiences of the horror, he dilutes them through comedy and memorabilia. The fact that he can only talk about the experience of Gordy’s rampage through the framing of an SNL skit has been much commented on already, but even the fact that he keeps a room of memorabilia about the event as a kind of side-hustle is telling about how his unresolved trauma has come to manifest itself in such a twisted way. Seeing the rest of the world’s fascination with the public mauling of the Gordy’s Home cast, Jupe can’t process his feelings in any other way. It’s simply too public for him to get any distance on. The presence of the cameras has forced Jupe’s private emotions to enter the realm of the public.
The cycle of exploitation on screen follows through to the main characters of Nope, who seem at first only tangentially related to the theme. OJ and Emerald are a brother and sister pair who co-own their late father’s horse training ranch, which trains horses for screen. In the film’s lore, the pair are related to the unknown black jockey who starred in the very first motion picture; Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion. In linking the siblings to this history, and in giving a name to the nameless jockey, Peele makes the history of films into the history of exploitation; even from the very first images spliced together to create the illusion of movement, those in charge were using and exploiting those below them in order to provide the images that people want to see. It’s not just reality TV; even fiction is inextricably linked to exploitation.
Nope’s UFO, which the characters refer to as “Jean Jacket” is just another Gordy; an animal that doesn’t want to be exploited or used for entertainment that the characters of the film attempt to capture and contain on camera. It’s here where Nope ties itself into a bit of a knot. Although it punishes Jupe for his misunderstanding of the UFO and his attempts to exploit it for money, it doesn’t do the same for OJ and Emerald, who ostensibly do the same thing. Because they pay Jean Jacket the respect it’s due and know not to look into its eye, the two escape the fate of being eaten alive. But Peele is still invested in another aspect of his film; an ode to the ragtag team nature of filmmaking, and so gives them the “Oprah shot” that they’re so desperate for. Emerald kills the UFO and snags a photo of it. In the end, they succeed in managing to get the perfect shot, and do what Jupe and the cast of Gordy’s show simply couldn’t. This might read as a confusing message, but I think it’s admirable that Peele refuses to give an easy answer about the morality of filmmaking and image creation. Even in The Rehearsal, the attention given to Nathan and his crew’s skills at making his specific brand of documentary is almost fetishistic; even if filmmakers have moral problems with the way films are made, they’re still filmmakers, and the power of film is still something worth celebrating.
In a way, Nope’s more optimistic ending speaks to the differences of documentary vs fiction filmmaking. In Nope, Peele calls for a greater respect for cast and crew, ending with a triumphant ode to filming done right, while beginning his film with the horrific result of exploitation gone wrong. Peele can see a clear way through, but for Fielder the path forward seems more complex. Capturing people in their daily lives opens a whole host of complex moral questions that the documentarian must sort through at every stage from drafting a contract to the final edit. In Nope’s finale, Emerald manages to get the perfect shot. The final shot of The Rehearsal is on Fielder’s ass, mooning the camera. Is it a mistake? Or a purposeful admission of the fact that in trying to document real life, there is no perfect shot.
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