The Sublime Minimalism of Finding Bigfoot

In Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise, Willie and Eddie decide to leave NYC and take a trip to Cleveland to visit Willie’s immigrant cousin, Eva. They’re searching for something—some American dream they can’t really articulate but are sure is in another part of the country. When they get to Cleveland it is just as grey, boring, and inert, so they spontaneously zag to Florida. But it’s the same. There is no progress, only unfulfilled hope and stasis, complemented by Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo’s shallow, confined black and white compositions—Pauline Kael called it “bombed-out listlessness.” Even when they venture outside, staring out over Lake Erie, for instance, they’re boxed-in by their surroundings, the horizon obscured. Over the course of the film, they’re effectively running in place. The sentiment is clear: America is a flat landscape in the metaphorical sense; the true nature of the dream is a constant, desperate desire to outpace the malaise—the search is all, and it’s unending. This brings me to Bigfoot. Allegorically, the search for Bigfoot holds the magical allure of the unknown. Surely, we have not discovered all that the natural world has to offer; this can’t be it. There must be something stranger, something supernatural that exists outside our narrow worldview. We are never going to find Bigfoot, and the tragedy is twofold.

There’s not really any evidence of Bigfoot. Everything we have is anecdotal, dubiously gathered, or suspiciously ill-preserved. There seems to be a trend and it’s not on the side of the BFRO—Bigfoot Field Research Organization, the self-proclaimed authority on all things Bigfoot, Bigfooting, and Sasquatchology. There is barely enough material to sustain a television special let alone a sustained series. Yet, against all odds, Animal Planet forges ahead with its surprisingly high-rated Finding Bigfoot, which has, as of this writing, lasted 7 seasons and 81 episodes, with specials. Finding Bigfoot has even spawned “spinoffs” that repeat in the same mold—Finding Bigfoot: Further Evidence, where episodes are repeated with pop-up comments from the principals, and Finding Bigfoot: Rejected Evidence. Over the course of these many expeditions, the show has crafted a fascinating loop, a seemingly interminable repetition with a complete lack of progression. Even the “expansions” on the Finding Bigfoot brand are just retreads of previously aired material feeding back into the cycle. They never find anything, they never make any headway, characters never grow, they never regret or second guess their mission, they just keep going back out into the woods and listening for howls and tree-knocks in the distance, grasping for any common forest noise that can be contorted to fit their hypothesis. The show has a mission, a logical endpoint—the eponymous promise—when its purpose will become clear, but it will never reach it. The further along it goes, the more apparent this is, and the more we are potentially disjoined from the internal reality of the program and these quixotic folks. But, the viewer is lulled into a mindset outside reason by the rhythms of the show.

In this way, the show is something of an accidental minimalist marvel. It follows the exact same framework every time. The only changes are the locations and the local characters they encounter in each episode, but even these elements are interchangeable, flattened into near-identical visions of small town America. There are no story arcs outside the unsolvable mystery, the wardrobe stays largely the same, the style of shooting stays the same, the interactions are repetitive, the people they meet deliver their tales in the same way, the music cues are routine, they have not updated their graphics, and they have not altered their investigative approach, such as it is. The show’s characters and voiceover are constantly repeating the same information over and over. The structure of the show is practically identical from one episode to the next: the team heads off to a new setting; they give a quick overview in voiceover of why they are going there and what people have seen as well as “evidence” they are hoping to inspect; they discuss their intended approach as a group; they scope out the local terrain and do a preliminary environmental survey; they hold a “town hall meeting” where locals can tell of their bigfoot encounters (invariably, the majority of the locals at the event have had some encounter); they have witnesses pinpoint their experiences on a map; they isolate a location for their “night investigation”; they travel to some of the more “compelling accounts” and hear eyewitness stories again (this time with reenactments); they “investigate” the sites seeking cursory information on proportions, movement, and distance; they conduct their night investigation; and, finally, they regroup in the morning to debrief. Over the closing credits, their conclusions are given in voiceover. Typically, they are convinced and affirm the Bigfoot presence.

Television is not known for being a bastion of minimalist technique, but there seems to be a built-in repetition that is characteristic of the form. This is likely a necessity, in most instances, because of the demands of abundance and persistence that are especially stressed in television. In this landscape, it would seem that having a template and offering slight variations over time is advantageous and lessens the burden. But, so often, hyperstimulation is the primary talking point for critics discussing the medium. Perhaps this veneer serves as a distraction from the patterned foundations, from the formula at the core of so many texts, and at the heart of the televisual framework. Keep the eyeballs constantly stimulated and glued. Never cease the constant stream. Finding Bigfoot is mesmerizing in a different way, perhaps an inverse way. Its tranquility, its passivity, is constant. It’s television wallpaper. It’s Dadaist trash-TV. It’s low-brow minimalism. Minimalist exercises are so often high-concept, cagey, icy, and ascetic, designed for alienation and reflexive disengagement. Finding Bigfoot somehow reverses each one of these—it is brazenly dopey, oddly enthralling, low-stakes, mind-numbing detritus. Finding Bigfoot is bargain-barrel ambient TV. Slight variations and spikes of discord disrupt sustained periods of monotony. It is easy to place it in the background and passively experience, and this is perhaps the ideal way to view the program. It breeds and reinforces sedate viewing patterns, pulling its audience back in only when the characters are giving their signature squatch calls, or when a poorly animated, drooling Bigfoot roars, signaling the clockwork bookends of a commercial break.

Finding Bigfoot frequently, if not exclusively, pushes the teasing nature of television over the line into manipulation. A character will hear an odd sound before the commercial break, but, when we return, the suspense is immediately deflated, and the possibility of strange goings-on refuted. The audience is constantly provoked then totally let down to the point of utterly diminished returns. The succession of disappointments flattens response over time. There is never any gratification or progress in the investigation, and even when the characters think they hear something, the audience is never let in on it. Despite the abundance of sound equipment and cameras at their disposal, they never capture anything tangible and they never play anything back. Perspective is all off in Finding Bigfoot. The show willfully obscures itself through its style. When we are meant to be searching, the camera limits our vision to close-ups of the investigators. When we finally view the environment, night vision and thermal imaging lenses meld and warp the field of vision. And, it contradicts itself, creating a mismatch between style and (in)action. As the camera cuts around the team during their investigations of open, empty spaces, rapid edits try to approximate momentum and progress, even when everything and everyone is literally and figuratively standing still.

In minimalism, pared-down design elements, repetition and iteration, and the “theatricality” of the spectator’s position are defining characteristics and prominent motifs. Through abstraction, the plasticity of the form, no matter the medium—its unreality, its two-dimensionality, the manner of its presentation—is uprooted. All non-essential elements are excised and the skeleton of the framework remains fully exposed. That’s not to say that Finding Bigfoot is replete with excessive long-takes, silence, limited presentation styles, and a sparse mise-en-scène. Quite the opposite, it harbors many of the embellishments typical of procedural reality television. But there is hollowness and tediousness at its essence marking it as a different beast, so to speak, and, in this emptiness, the spokes in the gears of the medium poke through. As in many minimalist works, it exposes this essence, this underlying void, by eliminating non-essential components—narrative, relatable characters, thematic and tonal progression, stylistic development, and logical coherence. Finding Bigfoot falls in line with the tenets of minimalism while contorting them to fit television. It shapes itself as an archetypal spectacle, but the act of observation is mutated and its redundancy revealed, and the viewer’s participation in creating the off-kilter internal logic of the Finding Bigfoot world is unveiled. It is pure stimulation but delivered in limited, drawn-out doses.

Everyone has a trash TV fixation; there’s no use fighting it. The videographic axiom of spatial overload is often the allure of television and a defining characteristic of the medium. Trash TV is typically associated with excess, with junk food, with passive consumption—it’s not really good for the system, but it’s irresistible and craving it is tragically instinctive. Despite this low bar, and despite its popularity, trash TV bears some marks of radicalism—in its disregard for quality and its blatant exposure of the rapport between text and audience, for example. It’s not as many degrees separation between trash TV and twentieth-century avant-garde practices as one might think. Only now, techniques designed for alienation are crammed into a mass-cultural format. In this wasteland, high and low cultures dissolve in one another, and the reflection of our cultural consumption gazes back at us. Unlike trash TV forebears from the late-’80s and through the ’90s, some modern trash shows are not necessarily built on a bricolage aesthetic, with a mélange of meticulously crafted images flitting by faster than cognition. Instead the pace and the excess is sometimes evoked but without the intensity. Or, the hyperstimulation mission is amplified to the point of insanity. Whereas the modern post-trash TV idyll of Kroll Show constantly references its own repetition, augmenting modern reality show delivery patterns with an assaultive pastiche patchwork, purposefully or no, Finding Bigfoot totally sheds referentiality, cultural touchpoints, and intertextuality, deviating from the depth and cultural cachet of trash TV past and present, but fitting in the fold in some manner. Finding Bigfoot is not a radical show, but in the haste to fill time with slim material it stumbled into a foreign artistic territory. It’s a hulking, ungainly, strangely elusive creature of a TV show skulking around terrain where it should not be.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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