By John Bailey
There’s a televised tradition in New York known at the Yule Log. Every Christmas Eve a cable channel broadcasts looped footage of a festive fireplace for several hours. Apartment dwellers without a hearth of their own can enjoy a video substitute. Melbourne community broadcaster Channel 31, too, ran its “FishCam” for many years after normal programming finished for the evening – live (and later pre-recorded) footage of an aquarium which was about as exciting as footage of an aquarium could get (i.e. not very).
This is TV as wallpaper, screensaver, background noise.
This is TV as wallpaper, screensaver, background noise. When it premiered, Big Brother Up Late wasn’t intended to be any of these things. It was a wholly commercial enterprise intended to win viewers and going about it terribly. The success of the regular Big Brother program may have lent some promise to a late night spin-off, but nobody had counted on the fact that the show’s contestants shared something in common with us regular folk: a need to sleep. And so, in its early days, Big Brother Up Late offered the unprecedented (and since unrepeated) opportunity to watch a group of strangers snoring and occasionally turning over in bed. By accident, a major television network had created something closer to a durational work of avant garde video art.
An example of the cavalier planning given the show was that someone had decided to appoint Mike Goldman as host. Goldman had until then worked as the voiceover guy for the regular version of Big Brother, which presumably afforded him knowledge of each contestant’s name, but that’s about as far as his aptitude as anchor went. Watching Goldman flail his way through each night’s episode of Up Late was an almost existential exercise.
From the outset Goldman was convinced that nobody was watching the show, and frequently said as much during the program. He couldn’t fathom why anybody would stay up until 1am to tune in to footage of people sleeping. This lent an absurd edge to his predicament, and as the weeks wore on he developed the manic stare of a man for whom performing for the dumb lens was like gazing into a Nietzschean abyss.
He was driver of an empty train, announcing each stop into a void. He seemed as surprised as anyone that the whole business hadn’t been canned immediately, and this confluence of futility and inexplicable persistence led to increasingly unhinged monologues rambled to his presumably non-existent audience. At times, his bleary red-veined eyes and hair in disarray seemed to suggest that he’d hit the sauce just to get through the night – and I wouldn’t blame him if this were so.Goldman was a test pattern that had attained self-consciousness. “Why are you still here?” he’d ask on a nightly basis, and it seemed that he was really asking the question of himself. “It’s not to look at my ugly mug,” he’d opine. “I’ve got a rough head”. This glorious lack of professionalism was refreshing. On one occasion the studio phone lines went down, so Goldman just got up and went home early. The driver left the train. He left the station entirely.
This was 2003, and I’d gone home early too. My father was 27 when I was born, and now, when I was at the same age, I was watching him die.
For three years a cancer had been hollowing him from the inside, and for three years doctors had told us that they expected him to live another month or two at most. This constant deferral of the inevitable wasn’t a blessing, a second chance, but a stretching out of something intolerable, an asymptote of loss. There comes a point when you begin to mourn someone you still have.
This kind of grief is boring. It has nowhere to go, but is instead a condition of suspension. It’s a delaying of death that bears some philosophical correspondences to the entire premise of Big Brother, whose hermetically-sealed artifice is itself a forced refuting of death. This hyper-boredom, according to Heidegger, comes upon us “when we are equally removed from despair and joy, and everything about us seems so hopelessly commonplace that we no longer care whether anything is, or is not.” In other words, the experience of watching strangers asleep on the television and not changing the channel.
I was dealing with this the only way I knew how, which is to say I wasn’t. I had moved back into the family home to help look after Dad, and was sleeping on the couch in the living room. Days were spent at my routine office job, followed by a 45-minute train commute in rush hour. Evenings were about waiting, staying up late in case my sleeping father woke and needed or wanted anything done.
I’d gotten into the habit of reading long, dense postmodern novels with little clear narrative and characters that were cyphers. I’d go for an hour-long jog at midnight to tire myself to exhaustion. I rejoiced when SBS programmed the series of Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski films, and was lulled into hypnogogic states by such masterpieces as Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo.
Up Late performed a similar function. It was television as white noise, whose significance came not from content (there wasn’t much of that) but from form. Media theorists have long written of the importance of “flow” in television broadcasting – of the way discrete items of programming are subsumed into the general experience of ongoing motion. TV never stops. Up Late was flow in its purest form, emptied of all interruption.
But like nature, network executives abhor a vacuum and soon enough Up Late was jacked up with inane talkback, cash-prized quizzes and recycled footage from the daily show. It lost the real value it had once offered, which was that it had no value. But for a brief and glimmering moment television had revealed what flow might be in its final stage of evolution: people staying awake to watch other people sleep.
I never liked Big Brother Up Late, but I adored it for what it admitted, however much this admission was due to error and not design.
This is what so much television has become, and I don’t begrudge anyone watching a show about competitive home improvement, or children cooking until they cry, or the world’s most exploding-est hairpieces.
Strip away the colour and movement and we are simply staying awake to watch people sleep, because sometimes the alternative is too hard to bear.
Back in 2003 I am commuting home from work, on a train which has paused at Flinders Street Station. Staring out the window, I see the train’s driver strolling along the platform, on his way to who-knows-where. A toilet break, a trip to the kiosk, something. He’s given us no indication as to where he’s going or when he’ll be back but we trust that he will be back, eventually. The delay might be an annoyance if I have somewhere I’m needed, but right now this emptiness is an okay place to be. All there is for it is to wait, safe in the knowledge that things will be moving again in no time. The driver always returns. The people on the TV wake up. Normal services will resume shortly. That’s how life works, right?
About John Bailey: John Bailey is an arts journalist and critic for The Sunday Age and various publications throughout Australia. He also appears regularly on radio station RRR, lectures at the University of Melbourne and coordinates The Signal Express, an online culture magazine written by Melbourne teenagers. He occasionally musters the fortitude to update his arts blog Capital Idea. You can also follow him on Twitter @johnbonbailey.
Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:
Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. Most recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City. Most recently, Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space.
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