Last fall when I was putting together my course on “Documenting Injustice,” one of the writers I considered teaching was Studs Terkel. I’d grown fond of Terkel originally from listening to his Chicago-based radio show when I was living in Illinois, in large part because Terkel had such a unique voice, a raspy, energetic, curious tone, but like others who appreciated Terkel’s often idiosyncratic approach to journalism, it was Terkel’s skill as a listener, his willingness to engage with ordinary people, that I appreciated most. He was a fascinating storyteller who continued to explore, work, and write, long after so many others would have put away their typewriter. He will be missed.
Archive for October, 2008
I’ve been following the Real Women Respond to Sarah Palin webathon, which is being (or was) streamed live on Ustream from 1-9 PM ET on October 30. The webathon consists of performers, some of whom are celebrities, read letters and comments written by others in response to a letter written by two women, Lyra and Quinn soon after Palin received the vice-presidential nomination.
The women typically read the letters in front of a minimalist black background, focusing our attention on the readers, who usually read letters from people who live in distant parts of the country. While many of the criticisms are now familiar–citing Palin’s opposition of comprehensive sex ed, her lack of support for Medicaid, her position on abortion–the letters do seem designed to focus on female voters. Many of the letter writers and readers also emphasize that they were former Hillary Clinton supporters or remind us that Palin and Clinton have vastly different policy views.
It’s an interesting idea conceptually, but I wonder precisely what rhetorical purpose it serves, especially given that most Clinton supporters have lined up behind Obama. That being said, many of the letters are quite powerful, and it is interesting to see the letters being read not by their original authors but by other women who are interpreting them.
I have to rush to campus in a few minutes to teach, but given some of my recent discussion of political advertising and representing the presidency, I wanted to point to a few of links:
- First, Slate has an interesting exchange between Ron Suskind, Oliver Stone, Jacob Weisberg, and Bob Woodward on the subject of Oliver Stone’s new movie, W (which I wrote about recently). Suskind and Woodward, of course, have written extensively on the Bush White House, with Suskind providing what has become one of the key soundbites of the Bush administration when he quoted one anonymous White House official stating that Bush’s opponents live in the “reality-based community.”
- Errol Morris has a new column in the New York Times on the history of the use of “real-people ads,” which he traces back to the dawn of television advertising (I’d be interested to know if a similar practice existed during the radio era). As Morris reminds us, many of these ads can be found at the extremely valuable resource, The Living Room Candidate. Morris uses this history to frame a series of advertisements he produced for the Obama campaign, People in the Middle for Obama.
- I haven’t had time to watch it yet, but Brave New Films has a video interview of Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine (which I’m currently reading in my spare time), talking about the current financial crisis.
If the Downfall Meme illustrates the power of viral videos to speak back to an “original” text, altering its meaning, then any attempt to narrate the presidency of George W. Bush will bump up against an almost unlimited number of textual representations, making it almost impossible to look at Bush with anything resembling a fresh perspective. In juxtaposition against this expansive network or storehouse of images of the President, which would include documentary films, books, YouTube videos, and even Bush’s “intentional” self-representations at press conferences, Bush himself has all but disappeared in recent months, eclipsed by a presidential race that we can only hope will end in just a few short days on November 5th. The result is that W. (IMDB), Oliver Stone’s early attempt to provide a definitive take on the George W. Bush presidency–just in time for the election, naturally–feels equal parts contrived and irrelevant, simultaneously too early and too late to provide any unexpected readings of one of the most controversial political figures in recent American politics. As J. Hoberman argues in the Village Voice, the film “can’t decide whether its aspirations are Shakespearean tragedy, political critique, or cathartic black comedy.” It is, perhaps, closest to the latter, and as political commentary, it is somewhere between obvious and irrelevant while also seeming strangely muted (perhaps with an eye towards trying to appear “fair and balanced”).
In some sense, my reaction to Stone’s film cannot be disconnected from previous impersonations and representations of George W. Bush that date back at least to Alexandra Pelosi’s Journeys with George, in which candidate Bush is seen as a rakish charmer who wins the affections of the press pool following him across the country, an image that was constantly being renegotiated, perhaps most famously by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, in which the President becomes an oblivious cowboy poseur. For me, however, it was most difficult to separate W. from the various comic impersonations of Bush, particularly Will Ferrell’s SNL portrayals of him. By coincidence, Ferrell rejoined SNL to play Bush offering his endorsement of John McCain the night I happened to see the film, and the sketch wittily dramatizes the degree to which McCain has been forced to run against an unpopular incumbent president while his VP candidate Sarah Palin (again played by Tina Fey) seems to be on the verge of running against him.
With all of those images in mind, it became virtually impossible to watch W. without thinking about the actors as impersonators acting a part rather than seeing them as immersing themselves into a character. To some extent, I’m tempted to read these performances as occasionally achieving something akin to a Brechtian alienation effect, but I’m not sure whether that is the intention. There are moments that support such a reading. When Josh Brolin repeats some of the president’s most famous Bushisms, many of them are spoken out of context, in situations relatively remote from their origins. These scenes, perhaps, serve as a reminder that the public Bush is nothing more than the soundbites and video clips that we have all already seen. In addition, the performances of the supporting members of Bush’s Cabinet do offer an interesting take on their role within the Bush administration. Jeffrey Wright’s Colin Powell essentially matches the liberal narrative of Powell as the reluctant warrior, the quiet, moral center who was essentially ignored by the zealous neoconservatives. Richard Dreyfuss’s Dick Cheney constantly looms in the background, a ghostly presence who seems to dominate discussion while saying almost nothing (other than a dramatic soliloquy about Iraq’s relationship to our oil interests). But because the film spends so much energy tracking Bush’s adolescence and examining him behind the scenes in Cabinet meetings, the effect of these moments of alienation seems less clear.
The film famously intercuts between Bush’s presidency, beginning with Bush in the White House office working with his staff on the “Axis of Evil” speech that would serve as a key launching point for the war in Iraq, and Bush’s adolescence and young adulthood, in which he converts from a life of debauchery and laziness into a president who would ambitiously introduce western democracy to the the Middle East. This intercutting serves as the closest thing the film offers to a “thesis” or approach to the historical figure of George W. Bush, suggesting some combination of the argument that Bush’s ambitious overreach in Iraq was an attempt, in part, to work through his daddy issues, with James Cromwell’s patrician George H. W. Bush never providing his son with his much needed approval. At the same time, W. revisits the argument that Bush’s actions are guided by his born again experience when he stopped drinking and sought to redeem himself.
As a result, W. never fully resolves the tension between what might be called the “Psychological Bush,” the son who must not only avenge his father’s failure in Iraq but surpass them, and the “Surface Bush,” the public image of the president that mixes both intentional (press conferences, State of the Union addresses) and unintentional (SNL parodies, YouTube mashups) publicity. In addition, the film essentially culminates with the beginnings of the insurgency in Fallujah, leaving out what may prove to be the most devastating legacy of the Bush White House, the drowning U.S. economy, not to mention the entire 2004 campaign.
To some extent, I think that as the film concludes, Stone may in fact be inviting us to “feel sorry” for Bush, as Roger Ebert surmises. Left in a bubble created equally by himself and his generally submissive Cabinet, we see Bush as essentially alone, and somewhat childlike, fantasizing about playing center field in an empty baseball stadium. But, again, the scene seems content to reinforce some of the already existing myths about Bush–this time as grown up jock–rather than exploring how those myths were created and how they developed so much power in the first place.
Back in May, I wrote a brief entry on the “Downfall Meme,” in response to Hillary’s Downfall, a YouTube video that took a pivotal scene in Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s movie about Adolf Hitler, and matches the scene with subtitles expressing Hillary Clinton’s outrage at being pushed out of the nomination by Barack Obama. I soon discovered that the practice was just one example of a more sustained meme, in which Hitler is depicted as stuck on hold with Microsoft’s Help Desk, to name one example. As Karina pointed out at the time, the meme seemed to serve as an unexpected form of publicity of Hirschbigel’s film, perhaps even introducing the film to audiences who hadn’t seen it.
However, six months later, the meme persists, with the recent “Republican Downfall,” which attempts to depict the sinking McCain campaign. It’s not the most successful version–the Hitler character’s identity is somewhat ambiguous. Is he McCain or someone within the campaign? It isn’t always clear. The persistence of this meme has prompted new analysis from Karina and a New York Times article from Virginia Heffernan. As Heffernan points out, it is almost impossible now to watch these scenes without thinking of the parodies. Like her, I had not seen the film when I saw “Hillary’s Downfall” and others within the meme. Now, I’m unsure I’d be able to watch the film and take it completely seriously, suggesting that the parodies have, in some sense, overtaken the original meaning of the film. Heffernan ultimately reaches on what might be an unsettling conclusion: that many of these videos oddly cast Hitler as a hapless Everyman (note the Xbox and Microsoft help desk examples), placing him precisely in what Heffernan calls “the brute voice of the everyman unconscious.”
One of the problems that I’ve tried to think about in some of my writing on political parody videos is the longevity of certain memes or genres, and like the “Brokeback” meme (also cited by Heffernan), the Downfall meme continues to live and evolve in fascinating and sometimes troubling ways.
Ron Howard gets off the director’s chair and joins Andy Griffith and Henry Winkler in reprising their TV characters to endorse Barack Obama. I’d started to write that I doubt Howard’s endorsement will sway any undecided voters, but I’m becoming less convinced that that’s the real purpose or effect of these celebrity videos. Instead, much like the Hayden Panettiere video, they work best when they circulate among Obama supporters to sustain positive buzz about the candidate.
But, no matter what, it is pretty funny to see Howard revisiting his two well-known TV characters and gently parodying some of the conventions of earlier sitcom forms.
I’m anticipating that I will soon be dropping into a writing- and grading-induced hibernation, so blogging will likely be sporadic for the next month or so. But here are a few links I’ve been planning to mention:
- TechPres has an interesting discussion of plans to use Twitter as a way of monitoring and reporting voting day problems. This sounds to me like a really productive use of Twitter, one that plays to its strengths as a form, which works best as a means of disseminating real-time information to a potentially wide audience (or, at the very least, the right audience). It helps that you can post to Twitter using your text message service. Not much to add here, but I think Nancy Scola and Allison Fine have a great overview of how Twitter can be used to make sure that our election is run fairly and smoothly.
- Agnes points to a Wall Street Journal article on the digital distribution of films. Specifically the article focuses on alternative venues such as Hulu and SnagFilms where indie filmmakers are releasing their movies due to the intense competition over a small number of theatrical screens, a theme I spend quite a bit of time addressing in my book.
- PBS’s P.O.V. blog has an interview with filmmaker Joanna Rudnick, who made In the Family, a compelling exploration of the emotional conflicts many women face regarding the decision of whether or not to test for a gene that indicates a strong likelihood of eventually developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer. I’m still hoping to write a longer review because the film meant quite a bit to me, especially given that my mother is a breast cancer survivor. One of Rudnick’s greatest strengths as a documentarian was her ability to empathize with her subjects as they faced the difficult decision about whether or not to take the test in the first place. And then, once many of the women test positive for the genetic mutation that predisposes them to develop breast or ovarian cancer, they face an even more difficult question of getting a mastectomy. For now, I’ll just say that Rudnick’s film is a perfect illustration of why we need a vibrant public broadcasting system and that the film should be required viewing for anyone concerned specifically about women’s health issues.
- Karina Longworth also has a compelling blog essay on the potential of online film distribution, focusing specifically on the case of Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s documentary of Naomi Wolf’s The End of America, which is currently available for free on SnagFilms. I haven’t had a chance to watch the film yet, but I’m intrigued by her claim that “the first film I’ve seen that seems to have internalized the structure of the traffic-baiting blog post.” I remember reading Wolf’s book on an airplane some time ago, so hopefully I’ll be able to weigh in on Sundberg and Stern’s adaptation.
With John McCain falling further behind in the polls, he has renounced his earlier strategy of painting Obama as a celebrity hand has decided to enlist the help of a few talented Hollywood directors, including John Woo, Kevin Smith, and Wes Anderson to help us get to know the real McCain. These ads are the stunning result.
To be honest, these fake ads work somewhat better as parodies of the filmmakers than they do of McCain himself, but the Anderson ad, especially, really captures his use of color, titles, and music.
I took some time out this afternoon to attend the Barack Obama event at the Crown Coliseum here in Fayetteviile. It’s a little difficult to know what to say about these kinds of events, but it was certainly a lot of fun to hear him speak live and to watch and interact with others who are so enthusiastic about his campaign. The Coliseum itself was packed to capacity. I’m unable to estimate crowds, but according to this report the Coliseum holds over 10,000 for hockey games, and virtually every seat in the arena was full with several hundred others standing in front of the podium (I’ll try to add attendance numbers when I get them). In addition, there were at least 2,000 others who were turned away because of fire code violtions, although many of them stayed and listened to the speech on speakers set up outside.
According to the Fayetteville Observer, people began arriving well before 9 AM–I’m told that some people showed up around 5 AM–but the parking lots were not opened until 9. A friend and I arrived at about 9:45 to an already long line where we had the chance to chat with others while waiting for the doors to open at 11 AM (trying to put a positive spin on being forced to wait for so long). After a beautiful performance of the National Anthem and introductions from a couple of local politicians, Obama arrived,
I believe to the tune of “Beautiful Day” by U2 while Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” was playing* and proceeded to announce to the crowd the news that Colin Powell had endorsed him for president on Meet the Press to raucous cheers. Obama used Powell’s endorsement to emphasize the criticism of McCain’s heavy use of negative campaigning, including McCain’s extensive use of ominous robocalls and fliers (I got this one, tying Obama to Bill Ayers, a couple of days ago here in North Carolina). Much of the rest of the speech was Obama’s standard stump speech, but his discussion of health care, the economy, and education was a healthy reminder of why I became so enthusiastic about an Obama presidency over the last year or so.
In some ways, however, I may have been just as intrigued by the orchestration of the event as the event itself, the sheer amount of labor and planning that goes into orchestrating a single campaign event. The Obama volunteers were clearly well-prepared, and the event was smoothly run (although traffic after the event was a nightmare). More than that, however, I enjoyed getting a sense of how carefully stage-managed these events are. This is, of course, something I know as a scholar of media studies; however, it was difficult not to be aware of the presence of the news cameras–and there were a surprisingly large number. More than anything, though, I can’t help but think that there are only sixteen days left until this thing is finally over.
Update: Melissa Garcia already has photos. I’ll link to others when I get them (sadly, I still don’t have a digital camera).
Update 3: Thanks to techsassy for the song correction (via Twitter).
After getting several recommendations from bloggers I trust, I took some time out yesterday to watch Frontline’s The Choice 2008, a PBS documentary about the two major candidates for president (the program is available online), and like Agnes, I think this is a great example of the value of public broadcasting. The Choice 2008 provides an excellent overview of the two candidates’ personal stories and contextualizes their campaigns in these histories, while paying special attention to how the two candidates won their parties’ nominations. The film proceeds in part through the use of interviews with close associates of the two candidates, and while the filmmakers have clearly been assembling material for months, The Choice remains fresh and timely.
I’ll also add that Agnes is right that the documentary humanizes both candidates in a way that seems absolutely vital given the extent of the name-calling and negative campaigning that has taken place in the final weeks of the campaign. While not shying away from McCain’s involvement in the Keating Five scandal, the film serves as a reminder that McCain has served his country in a variety of ways throughout his long career. And I’d like to imagine that a conservative viewer would be able to appreciate Obama’s personal journey after seeing this film.
There are some compelling images in the film. Shots of Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, clearly enraptured by Obama’s famous 2004 convention speech, take on a new meaning after their protracted primary campaign. The early struggles on McCain in Iowa and New Hampshire in January 2008 are a stark reminder of the fact that he came very close to dropping out of the race. We also learn quite a bit about Obama’s work in Chicago, where he served as a community organizer and had to fight to gain the respect and trust of some of the locals who originally perceived him as an outsider.
Michael Rose also has an excellent review essay that explains some of the challenges the filmmakers faced in light of the extended Democratic primary, in which it was unclear whether Obama or Clinton would secure the nomination, as well as a useful overview of some of the choices made by the film’s executive producer Michael Kirk, who chose, for example, not to interview the two candidates themselves, in part because the candidates are often more concerned about protecting their image. Overall, The Choice belongs in any archive that will help us make sense of what seems like the longest, loudest (and is certainly the most expensive) presidential campaign in U.S. history.
Details such as exact time and location are forthcoming, but The Fayetteville Observer has the scoop. This time, it’ll be a public event.
Updated to add that I have to admit that I’m pretty excited to be living in a state that is actually in play this late in the election season. I think the last time I lived in a state this close it was the Clinton-Bush-Perot election in 1992.
I’m finally starting to get back to normal after traveling to the Flow Conference in Austin last weekend where I had the chance to participate on a panel with KVUE political blogger Elise Hu and managed to run into Agnes Varnum, whose blog I’ve been reading for several years, at a film festival party. I don’t have time for a longer post right now, but wanted to point to a few videos that have recently crossed my radar.
- Pretty much everyone is linking to this John Cleese interview in which the former Monty Python star admits that his comedy colleague Michael Palin is “no longer the funniest Palin.” In addition to being pretty funny himself, Cleese has a good reading of Sarah Palin’s performance as a VP candidate.
- More Palin-related humor: Sarah Benincasa’s Palin videoblogs have been circulating for a while, but they’re well worth checking out as well.
- After catching Crawford on Hulu the other day, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the role of political documentary (broadly defined) in the Bush era, possibly as part of a larger project. With that in mind, I’m curious to check out Steve Rosenbaum’s Inside the Bubble, a look at the “bubble” that engulfed the closest advisors to the John Kerry campaign. The documentary is available in its entirety on SnagFims, one of the great new online film distribution hubs.
Update: I forgot to mention A.J.’s thought-provoking post on a key scene in Robert Drew’s Primary (which was recently rereleased along with Drew’s Crisis by Docurama). Primary, of course, documents, in classic verite fashion, the rivalry between John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the 1960 Democratic primary in Wisconsin, but as A.J. astutely notes, there is a key scene in which Humphrey, seeing himself losing to the slicker and more polished Kennedy , criticizes the elite media members who don’t understand rural America (money quote: “they don’t know the difference between a corn cob and a ukulele”). It’s probably not a big surprise that the bash-the-media tactics that McCain-Palin have adopted have a much longer history. It’s probably also not a surprise to see that they don’t always work.
Update 2: McChris has a blog post related to my Flow panel on viral videos and presidential politics. One of the issues that came up was the issue of copyright and the fair use of news clips in many of the viral videos. McChris reports that according to a NewTeeVee story, the McCain campaign has contacted YouTube asking them to evaluate the fair use of news material in a number of McCain ads that have been taken down because of copyright claims by news organizations. While I’m no big fan of the McCain campaign, I’m glad to see them standing up for fair use rights.
In case you’re interested, here is the audio of the interview I gave with the New Hampshire-based NPR show, “Word of Mouth,” on viral videos and the election. As I mentioned elsewhere, I now have a newfound respect for anyone who can speak coherently in an interview on radio or TV (especially early in the morning when the interview was recorded).
I took some time out this afternoon to catch David Modigliani’s documentary, Crawford, the first feature-length film to receive its premiere on the video sharing site Hulu. Crawford documents the rise and fall of George W. Bush through the perspective of the residents of Crawford, TX, the small town that Bush adopted as a hometown when he began running for the presidency back in 2000. In addition to reflecting on the Bush presidency, however, Crawford becomes a profound, but entertaining, reflection on the experiences of a number of Crawford’s residents as they become accidental witnesses to history.
Crawford introduces us to a number of compelling local characters who express varying degrees of enthusiasm for President Bush’s arrival in their quiet small town. A Baptist pastor, Mike Murphy, enthusiastically welcomes the arrival of Bush’s family, extending an open invitation to his church. Norma Nelson-Crow seizes on Bush’s arrival in town to open a souvenir shop catering to the tourists who come to town. Others are less enthusiastic: Leon Smith, who runs Crawford’s local paper, eventually finds Bush’s justification for war in Iraq lacking and ends up endorsing John Kerry in 2004. But the most compelling figures in the film are a local high school teacher, Misty Tubeville, who is critical of Bush’s policies but sees his presence in Crawford as an opportunity to help her students become more enthusiastic about politics, and Tom Warlick, a local student who gradually finds himself questioning the war after talking to protesters at Bush’s inauguration.
Notably, Bush appears in the film almost entirely as an absent presence, depicted through TV soundbites and staged media events that suggest that Crawford, in some ways, is little more than a backdrop against which Bush can project his rancher image to the voting public. Many residents laugh that footage of Bush clearing brush ostensibly on his ranch was actually taken behind the high school gym. If their cameras panned a little to the left, the track around the football field would come into view. Tom, in a moment of keen insight notes that Crawford served much like a can of white paint for Bush, helping to “cover over” some of the blemishes on his record. Of course, a number of Crawford’s residents clearly admire Bush and continue to do so long after his popularity waned elsewhere, and Modigliani’s camera subtly captures the background details–the cardboard cutouts of Bush and his family in the local coffeehouse or the kitschy souvenirs at the local store–that reinforce Bush’s status as a local celebrity.
The film follows much of the trajectory of Bush’s presidency, starting with his early popularity through the dramatic summer in which Cindy Sheehan staged a protest of several weeks outside of Bush’s ranch while he vacationed there. The town, suddenly overrun with protesters and counterprotesters (some estimates suggest that as many as 20,000 people came to Crawford), finds itself at the center of a heated conflict over the war, testing the patience of the residents who now find their lives overturned. Of course, just as quickly as they arrive, most of these unexpected guests leave, transforming the town yet again, allowing the residents to reflect on what effect Bush’s presence in Crawford has had on their community.
I’ll post more information later this week, but I just wanted to mention that I am scheduled to appear on Word of Mouth, a very cool New Hampshire-based NPR show on Wednesday afternoon. This week, they’re looking at a variety of topics related to new media and the election . Monday’s show, for instance, examined a topic that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately: the role of Twitter in the 2008 Presidential election (here’s my take). In my case, I’ll be talking about viral political videos, a topic I’ll also be addressing at this year’s Flow Conference in Austin later this week.