In honor of this week’s premiere of season four of MTV’s “The Hills,” I’d like to ruminate a bit on the end of the world. Not really, but you’ll get what I mean.

The show, in case you’re over 25 and/or don’t subscribe to a magazine other than The Nation, is a reality (I use that word liberally) TV series about a group of young women in Los Angeles, their friendships, their love lives and their incipient careers.

It is probably the last thing you’d expect to hear discussed by fans of POV docs, but I’d like to change that. I think there’s gold in them hills. The format of the show is such an effective manipulation of real life through filmmaking techniques, that I think documentary lovers ought to take note.

Lauren Conrad from MTV's 'The Hills'

Lauren Conrad from MTV’s “The Hills”

Whether it’s in writing or not, it’s patently obvious that the creators and the so-called real-life subjects of the show are in a pact to produce a successful money-making enterprise. If we accept that fundamental fact, then the allegation that the subjects stage events isn’t so scandalous. I don’t even want to suggest you should become enmeshed in the drama of the show or the characters. All I care about is how watching “The Hills” is such an incredibly unusual viewing experience.

You’ll be inside an apartment with two people talking, and then there’s a cut to outside the building, where you see the same people in a wide shot inside the building. Seems like ordinary filmmaking, but, wait, have you ever seen that in a documentary? Or there’s the lighting — it’s beautiful; every scene is perfectly lit. And then there’s the constantly seamless camera angles — you’ll see two people sitting in the front seat of a car, and they are each shown in a standard shot-reverse-shot format. How did they do it? They mount two small cameras right in the front of the passengers, just out of view of each other. That way, the audience observe the dialogue without noticing them, and it must allow the subjects to also be unaware (and I use the word very, very liberally) of the cameras as well. Other shots are clearly carried out with cameras on tripods or stedicams … it’s really quite incredible to watch.

Ok, sure, so it takes tons of money to achieve such feats. And the content is hardly the sort to elicit the interest of serious-minded documentarians. All I’m saying is check it out.

It’s the future of cinema verité — as most people will know it.

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen