The script for Daniel Minahan’s Series 7, a dead-on shot to the heart of reality TV, predated Survivor by several years; in fact, it grew out of Minahan’s day job producing tabloid TV at Fox during the early ’90s. Another inspiration is Shirley Jackson’s grim, gothic short story “The Lottery.” The most adroit use of video since The Celebration, Series 7 was shot in DV and blown up to 35mm for theatrical release. In its entirety, the film is a three-episode marathon from the seventh season of a reality-based series called The Contenders. The show’s premise is unadorned Darwinism: Kill or be killed. The production team and the reigning champion descend upon an average American town where five fresh contestants are chosen at random. They’re given guns, and it’s up to each of them to kill the others. The last one left alive is the winner; the only prize is life itself.
In an extra twist, Dawn (Brooke Smith), the eight-months-pregnant champion and survivor of 10 kills, is returning to her hometown—one of the contestants she must do away with to survive is her high school soul mate, Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), now married and dying of testicular cancer. “Will Dawn kill the only man she ever loved for the sake of her baby? Can Jeff change from an ex-gay pacifist to a contender?” intones the narrator (Will Arnett). Minahan has a pitch-perfect ear for the dominant syntax and tone of network TV—not only of reality shows, but of the soaps, news programs, commercials, and nighttime dramas that led to them. It’s a language that’s hyperbolic, but also depressingly clichéd (to call it pulp is to give it credit for exactly the color and surprise it lacks), so pervasive it can’t help but filter into your unconscious and play through your dreams.
Series 7 has the quality of a dream—the kind of smothering nightmare that picks up where it left off every time you fall back to sleep. Minahan combines hyperrealism with a topsy-turvy absurdism: When people are chosen for The Contenders, they do not respond with extravagant expressions of joy as if they’d made it to the next round of Jeopardy. Instead, they tremulously accept their fate or try to flee; those who refuse to play by the rules are hunted down and killed. The implication is that neither the contestants nor the viewers have ever thought to protest a setup that, to say the least, goes against their self-interest. The Contenders might have seemed over-the-top if we had not just lived through an episode in American history—the 2000 election—that proved the majority of the population goes limp every time the “rule of law” is invoked.
Still, Series 7 could have turned out as ugly as the second season of Survivor, were it not for the pleasure Minahan takes in melodrama, particularly in the scenes between Dawn and Jeff, which are nearly as delirious as Almodóvar. (Their theme song is Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”) Leading an ensemble cast that’s precisely attuned to the material, Smith, typed too long as a character ingenue, proves here that she has the presence and range to carry a film.
The less said about The Caveman’s Valentine the better. Kasi Lemmons follows her debut feature, Eve’s Bayou, a moody, passionate depiction of the sexual dynamics of an upper-middle-class African American Southern family, with a preposterous gothic mystery about a paranoid schizophrenic (Samuel L. Jackson in waist-length dreads) who once showed great promise as a classical pianist and composer and now lives in a cave in a New York City park. When he discovers the frozen body of a street kid, he suspects foul play, and pursues an investigation that the cops refuse to take on. It leads him into a quasi-decadent milieu of artists, models, patrons, and hangers-on. The Caveman’s Valentine isn’t exploitative or trendy in the manner of so many indie films. Rather, it seems like the kind of art film that might have been dreamed up by a feverish high schooler.