Monday, July 04, 2005

Famous Faces

British and Irish television is a lot different than American television. I'm not saying it's a 100% improvement over American television, but it's at least 75% better. Despite the crappy reality television shows ("Celebrity Love Island") and overly melodramatic soaps ("Coronation Street"), you have a lot of decent choices on any given television night. The British and Irish seem to have taken the principle of reality television (showing real-life people in unique or empathy-inspiring situations) and taken it down a slightly more measured and learned path.

One of the best examples of this (and my newest favorite show) is on BBC1 on Sunday nights - "Famous Faces". The premise is intriquing. Rolf Harris rounds up 3 contemporary British artists and arranges for them to create a portrait of someone famous in British life. I'm not talking Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie famous. I'm talking former Cabinet ministers or old British television personality level of famousness. Real-people famous, is how I think about it. It's one of those situations where if the person was behind you in the supermarket, you might find them familiar but mightn't necessarily be able to place the face with a name.

The format is simple. The painters get a 5-hour long sitting with the Famous Face in question. At the end of the sitting, they can take photographs of the subject. The Face doesn't get to have a peak at the paintings at all. The painters then have 2 weeks to work on the painting in their own studios. After that, the painters and the paintings are brought to the Face, who makes the decision on which one he or she is going to keep.

At twenty-five minutes long, the show is well-paced and by the end, you're also dying to see how the paintings turned out and which one The Face will keep. The show fascinates me on several different levels.

Human interaction. I love seeing that painters at the start. They are all nervous and twitty, wondering who's going to be their Famous Face. They look like kindegarteners on the first day of school. But when the initial introduction is done and they take up seats behind their canvasses, they are transformed into consummate professionals. It's neat to watch their nervousness give way to contentment and competence when they're in their millieu.

Individual perspectives. Each of the three painters sits with the same Face. They're each seeing the same person. But when you see the finished products, you realize that they each saw something entirely different. Although each painting is recognizably of The Face, the painters present it in a different way.

Insight into the artisitc process. I love listening to the painters talk about the finished products and how they got from the 5-hour sitting to the completed portrait. Invariably, they use the sitting to just create studies and then go for a whole different approach when they get back to the sanctity of the studio. I am fascinated by the choices they make - to scrape down an entire canvas and start over, to use a particular angle to highlight an aspect of the face, to use certain background colors to bring out different colors in the subject.

My perception of beauty. This has been the best, and most unexpected, outcome for me of watching this show - a change in my preception of beauty in general and of aging in particular. I can see that aging doesn't have to be the horrible plastic-surgery-requiring travesty that the Western popular media makes it out to be. Two of the most beautiful portraits I've seen were done of Mo Mowlam, the former Secretary for Northern Ireland. You'd call her strong and smart and tough but you'd probably never call her beautiful. The portaits done of her caught her intelligence but also her humor. They made her wrinkles suit her, and her wry and matter-of-fact way of dealing with life. I've noticed recently that I'm starting to look a bit wrinkly around the eyes and although I'll probably still smother Oil of Olay on the suspected areas, I don't fear the aging process quite so much. There is something to the whole character aspect of it.

My only disappointment with "Famous Faces" is that the series is done for awhile. I did hear that they will be bringing some of the portraits on tour to Belfast in August and September and I've already begun lobbying for a field trip.


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