Friday, August 12, 2011

1.4: On The Damned Human Race

Paul: There is nothing more excruciatingly human than the shared experience of man's inhumanity to man (man in the gender neutral sense.  Sorry.)  Tonight's episode was horrifying and at the same time absolutely compelling.  Tonight's episode has wounded me deeply.  There was a long moment of stunned silence in our house at the end, and I know that every one of us has spent the day that followed furiously gnawing the material like a rat trying to keep its teeth from growing into its brain.  It was as if the makers of Project Runway planted a dirty bomb in my skull.  I don't know why I'm still alive.

Laurie:  Yes, it all turned dark in Episode 4.  The contestants were set up, and I felt so too. Until now I really thought this show had some remarkably high standards for a reality series - that they were not setting people up to be as cut-throat as they can be for the sake of drama and ratings. Oh boy was I wrong. And the truly sad part is that none, absolutely NONE of this was necessary, either to weed out the weakest prospects or to make the show enjoyable. This was sheer pandering to the dark side of designer and viewer alike, and nothing more. It stripped bare the souls of the designers, exposing them for no better purpose than to gawk. Had some good come from it, I might not feel this way, but it didn't.  The lesson was that honesty and integrity will lose you your career in fashion. The unintended lesson, is that fashion wastes a lot of good talent through its determination to destroy rather than nurture budding talent.  In this manner, the fashion industry, as do so many others, destroys the very art it claims to promote.  Ruthlessness may take you to the top in business, but all that means is that the creations the masses end up seeing may not be the greatest that could have been. The greatest may still lie in the imaginations of lawyers and others who have had their dreams beaten out of them because they refused to compromise their human values and integrity.

Paul:  While I agree with the statements you have just made, I would say that there was a value to this episode, albeit entirely unawares and I would venture to guess of no consequence to the production team.  It was an encapsulation of some of the darkest aspects of all interpersonal interactions.  The dark sides here are universal.  I would also add that what you say about the fashion industry is true of the society we've created.  We all waste a lot of talent through destruction.  We all smash a lot of beauty for the sake of the mundane or the ugly or profit.  People cut out their souls and serve it on a plate for gas money and cheap trinkets.  We spend our lives doing things we don't care about and engaging in relationships with people who don't care about us.  So many people spend so much of their lives complaining about other people instead of focusing on being one of quality themselves.  I remember that old Charles Bukowski quote, "Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed."

At the beginning of this episode, we are introduced to an up-and-coming rock and roll musician.  Her name is Sarah Hudson.  In the seven years between the making of that episode and now, nothing has happened that has made anyone in the room ever hear of her.  More on that later.  First, what turns out to be a pointless offing of another model in a voting session takes place, but that's just the Hors D'Oeuvres.

Ms. Hudson is planning a music video with a definite aesthetic (sort of an Alice In Wonderland for Non-Mathematics Majors.)  All of the designers are to draft a design and "sell" their idea to Ms. Hudson.  She gets to pick three.  We're already beginning to feel like the train is taking the corner a little too quickly.

Laurie: It seems clear that this appearance is just as much a publicity push for Hudson as it is for the models and designers.  No one, it would seem, appears on this show without a profit motive. But then, to be fair, everyone's got to make a living, and with the internet undermining/confusing the traditional TV/music industry profit mechanisms, a show's got to scramble to get its dollars wherever it can find them....As do, "in these tough economic times", we all.

Paul: Jay, Kevin, and Austin are chosen.  Jay describes his concept as French prostitute from the year 2050, and I will tell you right now that one of the things about this episode that has me so deeply disturbed is why Jay did not win.  His outfit was clearly, beyond the pale better than the other two.  His crafting process seemed to have run completely smoothly, without a hitch.  The only time we see Jay in the crafting montages are to get reaction shots over what's going awry with the other teams.  Jay's outfit was perfection.  It was a brilliant work of art.  And it was shuffled off the stage having simply qualified at the end of the episode.  I shook my fist at the angry sky and shouted "Why?!!?" until tears streamed down my reddened cheeks.  Oh, but that's just the Amuse-bouche.

Laurie: I should probably interject here that one design would ultimately be chosen  for the video from the three whose concepts were selected to be executed.  After being selected from the field of nine, each of the three winners would be "lead designers" and required to choose two teammates from those whose designs Ms. Hudson had not selected to assist him (yes, she chose only hims) in the creation of the finished product.

Paul: So, the groups go buy materials.  Wendy Pepper employs a tactic that I often employ when someone starts complaining or talking about something I don't feel I should have to talk to that person about.  She stares silently at Vanessa until Vanessa gets creeped out and stops talking to her.  Wendy and Vanessa are on Austin's "team" and the dynamic comprises Sartrean Nausea.  Wendy is clearly nursing a full bile duct over not having her own design picked.  At this point she seems to be taking it out on Vanessa and the highly edited material that we are watching seems to suggest that Wendy has decided to keep her head down and do the work that is set before her.

Laurie:  Yes, Wendy goes silent. Vanessa, on the other hand at first appeared to me to be stubborn heel-dragging the whole time, stating over and over, "I'm just not a very strong sewer".  Though it seems like whining at the time, the course of the show finally led me to conclude that she was not trying to be difficult, she was actually concerned that she might be assigned tasks for which she was not skilled enough, that she would be leaned on and collapse.  Her insecurities were showing and she couldn't cover them up without risking they would be revealed in the final product anyway.

Paul: I know that feeling.

Austin acts a lot like I do under pressure.  He grows noticeably more theatrical in his mannerisms and is more likely to drop the occasional swear than his normal, reserved self would permit.  For example, Vanessa not only sews through her finger, but about 1/4th of an inch of needle breaks off inside of it.  As so often happens in emergency situations, people who are not going to be of any help immediately flock around and get in the way.  Austin, not having any of it, physically pushes Robert away.  As a Quaker, I find myself surprisingly okay with this and worry about what I'm becoming.

Laurie:  Yes, you have a Quaker in you, but you also have a medical care worker in you. Emergency situations do not leave time for molly-coddling.

Paul: Our hero Tim Gunn shows up briefly to offer two of the moments of sanity and wisdom in the show.  If only we would all listen to Tim Gunn!  I kind of wish Tim Gunn could show up in my personal life and do this for me when the need arises (Something like "Paul, I'm a little concerned about how much trans fat is on your plate right now.") [Laurie: Okay, that does it! How come if Tim Gunn says it you'll listen, but if I say it you only roll your eyes?]  Paul:  He says that Jay's dress is a work of genius simply on the merits of the vest alone AND HE IS RIGHT!  And yet there were no riots in 2004 when Jay did not win this challenge.  Second, and more importantly, Mr. Gunn expresses grave concerns about the level of professionalism on this project.  The unspoken subtext in the context of the scene is that these people are in a privileged place and need to rise to the occasion.  The unspoken subtext outside of the context of the scene, the life application of the Mr. Gunn's words, is that simply by virtue of being alive this is also true for all of us in all of our situations.  We are all equal and all going through a difficult time.  Suck it up and make it work.

Laurie:  The picture at right is the only one we could find of Jay's amazing design. It's really too bad that the model is holding that brilliant detachable skirt instead of wearing it. It was a riot of color perfectly reflected in the colors in the model's hair.

Paul: Let's get angry at Nora for a while, shall we?  Nora was the worst behaved beast on this episode.  She threw tantrums; she flagrantly defied her designer (unlike Vanessa who covertly defied her designer); she even leaves at one point; she accuses the other people in the room of stealing something that she probably lost and seems to continue to do so for much longer than it would take to make a new one.  She wastes the time they have to do their project with her faulty coping mechanisms.  Vanessa starts singing in mockery toward Nora and for a split second we almost transfer all of our hatred on to her instead.  Vanessa has a sort of arrested adolescence thing going on while Nora has mere adolescence.

Laurie:  Unfortunately, Nora wasted a lot of team time on tantrums and blame-shifting. To be fair, she is quite young. To be confused, I don't know she could behave in such a manner knowing full well all her words and actions were being watched and recorded.  She was definitely not behaving in her own best interests. Stress was clearly taking its toll.

Paul: Then comes the judgment.  As I said, Jay is shuffled offstage with nothing more than an atta-boy as a cue that things are about to get ugly.  Remember how Laurie and I liked how the conniving, manipulation, and power plays between the contestants wouldn't work on this show because the judgment is done by outside forces?  Well, they made short work of that tonight by pitting the remaining contestants onstage against one another, asking each who was the weakest link in their team.  We all know it was Nora, but Nora says it was Kevin and somehow she is still on the show.

Laurie:  As if things hadn't gotten dark enough after forcing the losing designers to serve as employees of the winners, they pulled this diabolus ex machina, asking each person on each team to identify the weakest team member. 

Paul: Austin stands between Wendy and Vanessa like a veal-calf being lead up to the guy with the bolt-gun, completely free of any suspicion of any malice or ill will.  So trusting, he begins to sob when he his asked to go Sophie's Choice on his teammates.  He even states at one point that he would rather leave than make this choice.  Wendy breaks the ice by (metaphorically) plunging an ice pick into Austin's back without question, warning, or, indeed, reason.  She says that he was a bad leader AND SHE IS WRONG!  Although, in reference to our previous post, here is an example of integrity being a bad thing.  She is openly acting like the Wendy Pepper we've come to know.  Integrity is good, but good character with integrity is a little closer to the bull's eye.  Austin then composes himself and decides that Vanessa lacks skill at sewing and therefore she was the weaker contestant.  Vanessa agrees and, for some reason, decides to play the humble card.

Laurie: And here is where Austin retained and Vanessa earned my respect.  Even in the choosing, Austin would only focus on a clear cut weakness in Vanessa's actual skills, one that did not come out of the blue, like a knife in the back. Vanessa had openly and repeatedly confessed to this very weakness. In addition, Austin was gentle and clearly full of regret in being required to speak this simple truth. He spoke the truth in love.

Vanessa, for her part, as Paul said, "played the humble card".  When asked to name the weakest link, she named herself and explained briefly.  I applauded.

At this point I fully expected that of the last two left to be judged, Nora and Vanessa, Nora would be the one to go home.  You see, integrity and honesty go a long way, and, in my book, are at the heart of professionalism.

Paul:  The judges oust Vanessa, stating that the business is about selling one's self.  I could almost agree with them were it not for the glaring fact that Nora wasted more time on Kevin's project than someone with the most basic sewing skills could waste.  Come on, Michael Kors, which would you rather have in your studio?  There would have been plenty of time to eliminate Vanessa later.

The final moment of the episode (well, the penultimate one) is the image of Austin Scarlett laying prone on the couch in the green room with his arm over his eyes, weeping bitterly, the sound of which echoes in our ears and haunts our dreams.  It is the captured moment of a loss of innocence, of a gentle spirit first experiencing how harsh and wicked this world can be, the knowledge that somewhere in the world, something terrible is always happening to someone.  In your highest moments of joy, someone somewhere is having the worst moment of their life.  In that moment is childhood's awful realization that while you want to love and be friends with everyone, not everyone loves and wants to be friends with you.  He also cries for the "lesser of two evils" choices in life that we are forced to make in full knowledge that we are still choosing evil.  Hey presto, circumstances have just made us complicit in evil.  Considering what he has just done to one mother figure on the show and what the other mother figure has just done to him, I sincerely hope that he has not gouged his own eyes out.

Austin is not being dramatic in weeping in this manner for these reasons.  We are being reptilian for not weeping in that manner more often while having to live in this world.

Actually, the denouement of this episode belongs to Sarah Hudson (remember her?  Me neither.)  She is performing her song in the adequate but sub-Jay outfit designed by Kevin.  The designers are in the audience dancing without a hint of irony.  Indeed, it is a strange disposed time, but men may construe things after their fashion, clean from the purpose of the things themselves.

In the end, this episode reminds me of an axiom of my own devising that I spout fairly often which reflects my optimism and pessimism at the same time.  It is this: "The world can be whatever we choose to make it.  This is what we've chosen to make it."

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