The Cruel and Arrogant Look of Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal

Nathan Fielder is a master of the look, or rather the look. This capitalized look is the visual center of Fielder’s new series, The Rehearsal, on HBO Max. It’s the look where parents hold children, teachers hold students, judges hold defendants. It’s the look of the mastery itself – the visual hold that makes the subjects squirm. It’s the look of power. But Fielder’s subjects are volunteers, and they submit to his power with the expectation that he will do them good. In The Rehearsal, Fielder assumes that behavior is predictable and that he’s good at predicting it himself. His volunteers come to him with a problem; His plan is that when these real people act out the scenarios of these problems with the help of actors, they can anticipate possible outcomes and thus achieve the desired outcome. But his idea of ​​rehearsal isn’t just a verbal battle over a table. He is obsessed with the influence of the physical environment on behavior and tiny behavioral nudges to large-scale outcomes; He recreates the subjects’ relevant environments as huge and complicated sets.

Take the first subject in Episode 1 – a Brooklyn man in his fifties, a teacher named Kor Skeete. As a longtime member of a trivia team, Kor sets out to bust a lie: he claimed to have a master’s degree when he only has a bachelor’s degree. When he arrives at Kor’s apartment to plan the rehearsals and breaks the ice with small talk, Fielder – let’s call him Nathan – confesses to Kor that that very interaction was the result of Nathan’s own rehearsal. Fielder (the director working behind the scenes) had sent a fake crew to Kor’s apartment to investigate a non-existent gas leak; the crew actually photographed and mapped the apartment; a film crew built a life-size replica of Kor’s apartment in a studio; Fielder recruited an actor to play Kor and planned the small talk down to the last detail — including this confession. At Nathan’s rehearsal of this confession, the actor replies, “Wow.” To Nathan’s actual confession, Kor also replies, “Wow.” In this cut from the actor to the subject, Fielder is clearly impressed with his own methods and ingenuity.

At that moment, barely five minutes into the first episode, I wanted to throw my laptop across the room or just throw Nathan Fielder out. Not only is the gasscrew’s deception itself a ruthless betrayal, but the look of superiority and dominance he casts at Kor struck me as arrogant, cruel, and most importantly, indifferent. What I hoped more than anything was that Kor would tell Nathan to get out of his home and out of his life – to cut his losses. I longed to at least hear Nathan ask Kor what that placeholder “wow” meant – asking him for emotional details – and to hear Kor talk about his own feelings about being tricked. No luck: Kor continues to play along, and Nathan shows no interest in what Kor thinks about being deceived by the man he (as Nathan says offscreen) trusted with his life.

The show is riddled with key questions such as what Fielder – who sought his volunteers by placing a Craigslist post – promised the subjects, what was required of them, what they expected from the process and what involvement, if any, at the final shipment product they would have. Fielder doesn’t address these things at all in subsequent episodes.

Deception reigns everywhere. Fielder sets up a fake website to unexpectedly lure a woman named Tricia, to whom Kor wants to make a confession, into the project (and the deception goes far, even to a bogus job for her); We’ll never find out when she found out what she was involved in. When Nathan takes Kor on a skeet shooting trip to upstate New York, he makes sure the guns fire blanks; when they go swimming, Nathan arranges for a third man to interrupt a moment of mutual confession; Before a trivia contest, Nathan arranges an elaborate series of seemingly random encounters that provide the unsuspecting kor with the answers. The latter, in particular, recognizes Nathan as a betrayal (Kor refers to the group’s trivia competitions as “sacrosanct”), and he resents it; He shows a sample of himself confessing to an actor playing Kor, and gets a bitterly angry reply. As a result, Nathan never lets it be revealed if he confessed to Kor. (The show also leaves it unclear if he ever let Tricia know what she was tricked into.) We have no idea how or when Kor found out about the trick, or how he took it when he did it.

Docu-fiction classics offer insightful comparisons. Also in Jean Rouch’s 1961 The Human Pyramid, students who have improvised dramas based on their own lives watch and comment on the footage. In William Greaves’ 1968 Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, the crew films themselves and critiques the director – who inserts this footage into the film. Fielder’s crew members remain nothing, mere on-screen emblems of planning and work, though throughout I wish his cast and crew had made him symbiotic – had spoken their minds on camera about their work with him. It’s not a matter of time, but of diligence. In contrast, “The Rehearsal” plays like a multi-part embodiment of the joke (whether it’s Jack Handey or Steve Martin): “Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” That way, when you criticize him, you are miles away and have his shoes.”

The second episode introduces a 44-year-old woman named Angela who would like to have a child but has no man in her life and wonders if she should become a single mother. To help her find out, Fielder plants her in a large house in a small Oregon town, fills the house with security cameras, and hires child actors – from babies to teens – to portray Angela’s potential child. (Fielder is more explicit about the practical complications of working with child actors—the time constraints, negotiating parental consent—than the personal reactions, expectations, or involvement of his key participants.) Nathan also tries to help her find a partner find whom to raise the wrong child, who she names Adam – and when that doesn’t work out, Nathan volunteers himself to be Adam’s co-parent. (His involvement in fictional family life changes the tenor of the series without changing his approach to the subjects.) Angela presents herself as a devout Christian; She shows an obsession with the dangers of satanic cults and articulates some notable conspiracy theories about the devil’s power in everyday life, yet his narrow-eyed doubts about these ideas remain aloof and uninterested, without searching for causes and sources and without the scathing political satire from Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

The terms of Angela’s participation in “The Rehearsal” — her grasp of who Fielder is and what he does, and of the practices inherent in the production — would be all the more interesting to hear given her briefly expressed skepticism about the mainstream. media life. They become even more meaningful when a glimmer of their uneasiness—and their own motives, even their own delusions—appears. Similarly, a third participant, an Oregon man named Patrick, submits to Fielder’s methods to confront his brother, the executor of their grandfather’s estate, for denying him his inheritance. To put Patrick in the right mindset, Nathan pulls off an elaborate prank involving a rehearsal actor and his supposed real life (which is actually staged); Again, Patrick’s response to apparent absurdity, let alone deception, remains mute. In the voiceover, Nathan expresses an odd confusion about how he can “create feelings for other people’s rehearsals” but not for himself. It’s a confusion that reflects the intellectual and emotional emptiness at the heart of “The Rehearsal.” . First, Fielder can’t play tricks on himself; he pulls the strings. Second, his contestants – Kor, Angela, and Patrick – have come to him with problems he needs him to help solve, while Fielder, whatever personal problems he may solve as the series progresses, has an overarching problem that just keeps growing throughout Away from everyone: his authority.

As a filmmaker, Fielder is not interested in a physical process unfolding over time, but in his own intellectual process – the authentic genius of elaborating his imagination, which events on screen merely illustrate, more like data points than experiences . He indulges in his own thoughts as he adapts his subjects’ living conditions to his stories, largely through his own voiceover. Fielder’s primary concern in real life is onscreen: making the show a success. The vanity and ambition of The Rehearsal are its driving forces. Fielder can’t relinquish control; his obsession with detail, with predicted outcomes, bespeaks his failure as a filmmaker – failure to find dramatic form for the full range of implications and experiences of the series. If the series is intended as a comedy, so much the worse, to downplay the issues the contestants care about — and to make even easier the deceptions he throws at them. And if The Rehearsal turned out not to be a documentary at all, but a mockumentary — a continuous fiction that pranks us all with no real-life characters volunteering — it would be just a wet squick insincere self-mockery is exhausted in the first few minutes of the first episode. Fielder goes into this to validate results, with the most important being his own ability to control, anticipate, and most importantly, entertain. As the series progresses (spoiler alert), Fielder amplifies the complexity of his rehearsals, creating an ever-deeper spiral of preparation and imitation. His cleverness masks the hollowness of his plans. No digressions, no trivia, no loose ends can interfere with Fielder’s tight, compact, self-contained sketches. He looks at the people he’s filming but doesn’t seem to see them. ♦

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