Slipping Between Fiction and Reality
Despite the predominance of soulless databases and faceless corporations, the Internet is widely thought of as a space where exhibitionism is the norm, a mess of web logs, podcasts, and other means of personal expression. When you engage in an activity as reckless as putting yourself out on the Internet for all to see, though, it's hard to keep yourself from playing a character, from trying to make people see you as the person you want to be. Even the simplest blog is a performance, one in which the speaker constructs a fašade that the audience tries to look through in order to see the real person hiding behind it. It's almost become a force of habit, this process of peeling away layers of performance to reveal the performer's "true self", and we engage in it even when watching something that's explicitly presented to us as fiction.
Chasing Windmills is a fictional video podcast about a young, artsy, Puerto Rican couple living in Minneapolis. It's produced by and stars, a young, artsy, Puerto Rican couple living in Minneapolis. In their highly reflexive series, J.A. del Rosario and Cristina Cordova explore the nooks and crannies of their unnamed characters' relationships with each other and themselves. Described by its creators as a "video comic strip" or "cyber-sitcom", the show is an open-ended series of vignettes, glimpses into its subjects' lives. Episodes are only two or three minutes long -- just enough to leave an impression or deliver a punch line -- but as you follow them, tracking the characters' lives over days and weeks, a story begins to emerge from the set of discrete moments. The daily installments are for the most part standalone episodes, but plot threads wend their way through: anxiety over her pregnancy, his clandestine smoking habit, the mention of an unfamiliar name igniting suspicions of an affair.
In interviews, del Rosario and Cordova go to pains to make it clear that Chasing Windmills is not autobiographical, that the characters they portray are not themselves. It can be hard to remember this when you're following their day-to-day lives, the little arguments and making-ups, the big worries and hang-ups. And when you're exposed to all the private details in a person's life, it can be hard to keep from being irritated with them. The characters may be fictional, but they're not idealized by any stretch of the imagination. Most episodes revolve around one or another of their bad habits, the worst of which may be the way they keep picking on each others' bad habits. As they snipe at each other, letting minor annoyances rattle around and develop into long-simmering resentments, you feel a little embarrassed, a spectator to conflicts best left private. After a while, though, embarrassment turns into annoyance, as you begin to wonder how two people so close can have so little patience with one another.
What keeps you from losing patience with them yourself? There's something compelling -- perhaps even addictive -- about getting to know a character as closely as you get to know the ones in Chasing Windmills. The podcast is set for the most part in the couple's own apartment, and the fly-on-the-wall style of the show closes the distance between you and them. As on a show like MTV's The Real World, Chasing Windmills draws its power from voyeuristic pleasure, from the illusion that you've invaded someone's home, their private sphere. As a work of pure fiction, however, Chasing Windmills is afforded luxuries that reality television denies itself, things like scripts and multiple takes of scenes that allow the producers to give the podcast some punch and imbue it with a feeling of spontaneity that the self-conscious seekers of fame on Big Brother or Laguna Beach can't hope to achieve.
The knowledge you gain of the characters extends beyond their home and into their bodies. Del Rosario and Cordova are aware that when producing a daily show on a blogger's budget, their bodies are the best props they have, and they make the most of what they've got (while staying within the bounds of safe-for-work propriety). Unlike most of the video content you'll find on the Internet, the human body as displayed on Chasing Windmills is not necessarily laid out as an object of fetish, but is, as with the home, presented in a way that's both comfortably mundane and disconcertingly intimate. More than a few episodes revolve around the bathroom and the things that go on in there, like pregnancy tests and toilet scrubbing. The bathroom is the sanctum sanctorum of the home, and watching people do their thing in there, whether their thing is being played for drama or for humor, is an undeniably intimate experience.
This intimacy between the viewer and the character is only amplified by the blurry line between the character and the actor. Fictional or no, the couple in the show is played by a real-life couple; their apartment is del Rosario and Cordova's actual apartment; the friends and relatives they visit on a holiday trip to Puerto Rico are played by the actors' actual friends and relatives. This slippage between the fictional and the real encourages you to go beyond just getting to know the characters, to try and work through the characters to gain an understanding of the actors. This willingness to play with the audience in this way is a big part of what makes Chasing Windmills so watchable, and what lifts it above the podcasting pack.
20 January 2006