A Channel 4 Eye Opener; Jacques Peretti talks The New Dull
As part of Flatpack’s celebration of mind-altering short films on Channel 4, independent film programmer Kate Taylor has selected 'The Art Show: Stepford Lives', a darkly funny slice of experimental television first transmitted in 2002.
'Stepford Lives' was directed by former club culture satirist Jacques Peretti, whose documentary subjects have included Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods and Hitler (all of whom pale in ego to recalcitrant subject Vincent Gallo). Peretti is now a regular face on television, hosting subversive docs such as ‘The Men Who Made Us Fat’, 'The Super-Rich and Us' and the prescient Panama Papers primer ‘The Town That Went Offshore’.
We got him on the phone to cast his mind back and talk radical telly.
PERETTI: At the time arts coverage on television was very focused on artist biographies, and while digital culture was growing and stuff was getting interesting online, there wasn’t much on TV reflecting culture more broadly.
I’d made a series called ‘The Trip’, which showed late-night and was this weird, free jazz, totally experimental show purely about experience, and it had gone down really well – with millions of viewers – so Channel 4 realised that there was audience appetite for something a bit out there.
The idea of ‘The Art Show’ series was a bit like in the 1970s when Arena came along at the BBC and had a radical approach to Arts – bringing back an idea of Culture – and making something unpredictable, with a more lateral approach. The episodes would be films made by the artist themselves, and each film would be art. So we had episodes made by artists like David Shrigley and Jake Chapman.
With Daniel Stier, I’d created a photo essay in the magazine Sleaze Nation, and that was the basis for 'Stepford Lives'. It was a series of photos of dead spaces, non-spaces, showing modern Britain becoming like middle America.
These Barratt home estates on the edges of towns, thinking about life inside them, you never see the people, and that hinders the imagination. So we were wondering what happens to the person in the space and how much the environment erases personality through homogenisation.
The idea of using still images and voiceover, we liked films like 'La Jetée' and some experimental 1960s filmmaking, but we didn’t want to imitate that. We were aiming for more like an Andreas Gursky aesthetic, the New Dull, dullness being interesting, banal environments, asking what is this new world of the mundane.
It needed to feel desperate, that’s what the title is about. When prosperity and modernity seek to get rid of an environment there’s also a deadpan, gallows humour in the routine and repetition of everyday life.
The people we interviewed were real people we met at supermarkets or their workplaces, and those recorded people are mixed with the actors and fictional narrative. The funniest lines are from the public – like a woman talking about World of Leather and how she’d save the sofa over the husband.
I’d love to go back to making experimental films again, fucking around with form and narrative. At the time the show was broadcast it felt radical, the response was good, and it must have struck a chord because over the years people have mentioned it a lot. It’s fantastic that you’re showing it at Flatpack and, after fourteen years, I’m hoping it’ll stand the test of time.