I’ve been watching a lot of reality competition shows over the past year, as that format is about the upper limit of what my brain can handle right now. I particularly enjoy competition shows where contestants collaborate on art projects (especially fashion competitions), as opposed to the much more plentiful variety of shows where they compete for romantic connections. After 15 months of burnt-out pandemic brain, I feel like I’ve completely depleted the backlog of worthwhile, currently-streaming shows that hit that exact dopamine sweet spot. Since March of last year, I’ve watched Project Runway, Next in Fashion, Making the Cut, Legendary, Glow Up, Blown Away, America’s Next Top Model, Great British Bake-Off, Great Pottery Throwdown, Interior Design Masters, Big Flower Fight, Full Bloom, Nailed It, Making It, Haute Dog, Dragula and more spin-off series of RuPaul’s Drag Race than I care to recount. I couldn’t tell that I was scraping the bottom of the competition show barrel until recently, though, when I found myself watching the Hulu show Exposure. Exposure is essentially a 6-hour commercial for Samsung Galaxy smartphones, presented as a competition show for aspiring “smartphone photographers” – i.e., L.A. area Instagram hipsters. It’s trash, and I watched the entire thing in a single weekend between hammering away at my own home renovation projects and hiding from in-the-flesh social interactions.
As vapid as Exposure is on a conceptual level, it did get me thinking a lot about the art of smartphone photography and Instagram curation. Yes, the show was cynically designed to sell one specific brand of smartphone, but it’s also one of the few instances of popular, legitimized media I’ve seen acknowledge the labor & artistry that goes into smartphone photography. Most of us take pictures with our phones, and most of us are atrocious at it. Despite the democratization of the tech, there’s a highly developed skill level and shared aesthetic among the masters of the artform that most of us will never put in the time to match. Exposure could’ve been a show entirely about the art of the selfie alone and still had plenty of formalistic challenges to cover over the course of a season. If most of the professional photography we engage with on a daily basis is now relegated to the confines of smartphone tech and social media curation, it’s outright odd that Exposure is one of the few instances of that artistry spilling out into other, more legitimized media. It seems inevitable that the look & feel of Instagram photography in particular would start to influence the formalist approach of proper cinema, if not only because most young cinematographers in the industry likely got their start taking photos on a commercial-grade smartphone.
Enter Some Kind of Heaven, a highly stylized documentary that owes a lot of its visual appeal to the visual language of Instagram. A sweet, lightly surreal portrait of the largest “retirement community” in America, Some Kind of Heaven is relatively reserved in its subject & themes. The people & setting are interesting enough to hold your attention, but it’s really the cinematography that makes it sing. The film’s boxed-in, 4:3 aspect ratio should probably recall the studio-lot artificiality of the Old Hollywood era when the similarly squared-off Academy Ratio was basically an industry standard. Instead, its fetishistic obsession with symmetry and its formalist, posed portraiture can’t help but feel driven by the visual language of Instagram. As a documentary, it’s a fairly standard exercise human-interest journalism. As an art object, it feels like an Internet Age update on Lauren Greenfield’s oeuvre, modernizing the art of formalist portraiture with an Instagram-driven sense of framing against a bizarrely artificial backdrop. Of course, those two aspects of the film cannot be detangled from each other. First-time director Lance Oppenheim credits editor Daniel Garber as the film’s “co-author”, and I assume he’d include cinematographer David Bolen in that sentiment as well, considering how much of its eerie, otherworldly appeal is due to its Insta-era visual slang.
There’s an obvious, blatant clash between form & content here. While there’s a youthful modernism to the film’s post-Instagram aesthetic, the subjects being profiled live in a world populated only by the elderly. Some Kind of Heaven is entirely contained to the sprawling “retirement community” of The Villages, FL. The conflicts suffered by its four main interview subjects are largely specific to geriatric life: drug dependency, homelessness, loneliness, declining mental cognizance and physical health, etc. Those conflicts just happen to play out in the surreally artificial world of The Villages, self-described as “Disney World for retirees.” The people are recognizably real, but their playground is an extravagant illusion, which is where the film’s form & content work together in harmony. When we look at a slickly curated Instagram feed, we know we’re seeing an authentic person abstracted & distorted by a shamelessly inauthentic artform. That exact clash is echoed in this film’s fascination with how its subjects’ messy lives contrast against the fabricated surrealism of their intensely Floridian backdrop. Some Kind of Heaven makes for stiff competition with Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar for the most Floridian film of the year, and it didn’t have to build sets to achieve that status. It merely stumbles into a pre-existing alternate reality to gawk at the set dressing already in place.
As far as I can tell, Some Kind of Heaven was filmed on professional-grade digital movie cameras, not smartphones. It’s a little reductive for me to tie its meticulous visual artistry so closely to Instagram formalism, then, but I can’t help making the connection. If bottom-of-the-barrel competition shows like Exposure are going to be the only legitimized media outlets that recognize the artistry of cell phone photography, we’re going to lose sight of what makes this specific era of photography visually distinct from better-respected modes of the past. It’s only a matter of time before the chaotic irreverence and rapid-fire edits of TikTok overtake the Insta generation’s cinematic moment, so it’s worthwhile to consider which films are actually preserving & engaging with the aesthetic while it lasts. Of the few Insta-driven movies I can think of—Ingrid Goes West, Assassination Nation, Woodshock, etc.—this might be the most visually striking of the batch. There’s something wonderfully bizarre about that achievement being tied to such an explicitly geriatric subject, since Instagram celebrity has been so closely tied to youthful beauty since its inception & popularization. And, hey, if anyone out there wants to borrow my idea for a reality competition show about the art of the selfie you can have it for free. I need more mind-numbing bullshit to watch on the weekends anyway.