Thursday, December 29, 2005
Matt Stoller has a very interesting post up over at MYDD. It's written by his brother, Nick Stoller, a screenwriter whose new movie "Fun With Dick and Jane" has an extremely funny trailer, so I'm looking forward to seeing it.
I've always thought of the original "Fun With Dick and Jane" starring George Segal and Jane Fonda as the quintessential "malaise" movie. It was the chronicle of a middle class family who fell through the cracks in a harsh economy and ended up robbing banks. It's a comedy, of course, but for those of us who lived through the late 70's it had a bit of a bite. When I saw that it was being re-made I had one of those "of course" moments. I had just been reading about rising gas prices and GM lay-offs. Deja vu all over again.
Stoller's post asks why Democrats don't rely more on Hollywood for expertise instead of just fund-raising. I've been asking that question for years. Politics today requires narrative and stagecraft --- and Hollywood knows from narrative and stagecraft. It's about heroism, spectacle and soap opera. It's about myth. I realize that this offends our wonky souls on some level but it's a fact that the Republicans understand and exploit to their great advantage and we don't.
In the final days of the presidential campaign as John Kerry was being introduced by Bruce Springsteen on the stump with a moody, soulful solo rendition of "No Surrender" (which I loved) George W. Bush was landing in stadiums at sunset on the Marine one helicopter to fireworks and the theme to "Top Gun" screaming from the speakers. Which one do you suppose felt more like a rally?
The Bush administration has been working with a very defective product as we all know; a barely literate ignoramus with dismal communications skills. Yet they were able to bring him close enough to steal it in 2000 and eke out a narrow victory in 2004. They did it almost entirely with image, iconography and an archetypal warrior/leader narrative. And they used professionals to pull it off:
Officials of past Democratic and Republican administrations marvel at how the White House does not seem to miss an opportunity to showcase Mr. Bush in dramatic and perfectly lighted settings. It is all by design: the White House has stocked its communications operation with people from network television who have expertise in lighting, camera angles and the importance of backdrops.
''They understand the visual as well as anybody ever has,'' said Michael K. Deaver, Ronald Reagan's chief image maker. ''They watched what we did, they watched the mistakes of Bush I, they watched how Clinton kind of stumbled into it, and they've taken it to an art form.''
The White House efforts have been ambitious -- and costly. For the prime-time television address that Mr. Bush delivered to the nation on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House rented three barges of giant Musco lights, the kind used to illuminate sports stadiums and rock concerts, sent them across New York Harbor, tethered them in the water around the base of the Statue of Liberty and then blasted them upward to illuminate all 305 feet of America's symbol of freedom. It was the ultimate patriotic backdrop for Mr. Bush, who spoke from Ellis Island.
For a speech that Mr. Bush delivered last summer at Mount Rushmore, the White House positioned the best platform for television crews off to one side, not head on as other White Houses have done, so that the cameras caught Mr. Bush in profile, his face perfectly aligned with the four presidents carved in stone.
And on Monday, for remarks the president made promoting his tax cut plan near Albuquerque, the White House unfurled a backdrop that proclaimed its message of the day, ''Helping Small Business,'' over and over. The type was too small to be read by most in the audience, but just the right size for television viewers at home.
''I don't know who does it,'' Mr. Deaver said, ''but somebody's got a good eye over there.''
That somebody, White House officials and television executives say, is in fact three or four people. First among equals is Scott Sforza, a former ABC producer who was hired by the Bush campaign in Austin, Tex., and who now works for Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director. Mr. Sforza created the White House ''message of the day'' backdrops and helped design the $250,000 set at the United States Central Command forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar, during the Iraq war.
Mr. Sforza works closely with Bob DeServi, a former NBC cameraman whom the Bush White House hired after seeing his work in the 2000 campaign. Mr. DeServi, whose title is associate director of communications for production, is considered a master at lighting. ''You want it, I'll heat it up and make a picture,'' he said early this week. Mr. DeServi helped produce one of Mr. Bush's largest events, a speech to a crowd in Revolution Square in Bucharest last November.
To stage the event, Mr. DeServi went so far as to rent Musco lights in Britain, which were then shipped across the English Channel and driven across Europe to Romania, where they lighted Mr. Bush and the giant stage across from the country's former Communist headquarters.
A third crucial player is Greg Jenkins, a former Fox News television producer in Washington who is now the director of presidential advance. Mr. Jenkins manages the small army of staff members and volunteers who move days ahead of Mr. Bush and his entourage to set up the staging of all White House events.
''We pay particular attention to not only what the president says but what the American people see,'' Mr. Bartlett said. ''Americans are leading busy lives, and sometimes they don't have the opportunity to read a story or listen to an entire broadcast. But if they can have an instant understanding of what the president is talking about by seeing 60 seconds of television, you accomplish your goals as communicators. So we take it seriously.''
The president's image makers, Mr. Bartlett said, work within a budget for White House travel and events allotted by Congress, which for fiscal 2003 was $3.7 million. He said he did not know the specific cost of staging Mr. Bush's Sept. 11 anniversary speech, or what the White House was charged for the lights. A spokeswoman at the headquarters of Musco Lighting in Oskaloosa, Iowa, said the company did not disclose the prices it charged clients.
''They seem to approach an event site like it's a TV set,'' said Chris Carlson, an ABC cameraman who covers the White House. ''They dress it up really nicely. It looks like a million bucks.''
Even for standard-issue White House events, Mr. Bush's image makers watch every angle. Last week, when the president had a joint news conference with Prime Minister José Mariá Aznar of Spain, it was staged in the Grand Foyer of the White House, under grand marble columns, with the Blue Room and a huge cream-colored bouquet of flowers illuminated in the background. (Mr. Sforza and Mr. DeServi could be seen there conferring before the cameras began rolling.) The scene was lush and rich, filled with the beauty of the White House in real time.
''They understand they have to build a set, whether it's an aircraft carrier or the Rose Garden or the South Lawn,'' Mr. Deaver said. ''They understand that putting depth into the picture makes the candidate or president look better.''
Or as Mr. Deaver said he learned long ago with Mr. Reagan: ''They understand that what's around the head is just as important as the head.''
Why didn't Michael Bay direct an awesome action adventure ad where John Kerry singlehandedly blows up the terrorist insurgency with a solemn nod of his granite-chiseled chin? Why weren't the writers of SNL and the Daily Show brought in to create hilarious, ruthless anti-Bush spots that would have been forwarded all around the internet? Why wasn't James Brooks hired to create a touching, pull-the-heartstrings Kerry-Edwards-cares-about-the-voter commercial? This schlock works -- remember that 9/11 Bush ad where he's holding the crying girl? With the Hollywood talent the Democratic party has at its disposal, we could have blown that spot out of the water, made it look like a mediocre episode of Touched by an Angel next to our sinking of the Titanic. I don't care if you think "I am king of the world" is a cheesy line -- it made people cry. Nothing Kerry said made people cry. Except perhaps accidentally, out of boredom or pain.
In the end, there is no intersection between Hollywood and the Democratic Party (or none that I have noticed besides that of fundraising). This is a missed opportunity of gargantuan proportions. There are hundreds of writers and actors and directors who are angry and who want to do something besides give money. We are expert message machines offering our (generally overpriced) services for free and the Democratic Party does not use us. We create villains and good guys, we write America's jokes, we create the narrative of America, the lines that are repeated by boys and girls, men and women, over lunch and the water cooler and we have been left completely un-consulted.
If I were to guess, I would suspect that it's because political consultants believe that the liberal Hollywood elites don't understand average Americans.
Think about that for a minute. The purveyors of television, films and commercials don't understand average Americans. After all, only the brie 'n cheese eating set watch any of that stuff, right? Everyone else in America does nothing but homeschool and pray in their free time.
If I'm right and political consultants tell their employers that they shouldn't consult with professional show business, they should be fired. In today's world if you ignore the show business aspect of politics you lose. The Republicans have been on to this for decades and it (at least partially) explains why they've become more successful despite the fact that a minority of people support their policies.
I'll give you one word: Schwarzenneger. The man won the governorship of the most populated state by simply repeating the tag lines from his movies. Nothing else. He had no platform, no policies and no ideas. And latte liberals and anti-immigrants alike voted for him in droves. (Now, remember, I'm talking about getting elected here, not about governance --- a whole different issue.)
The fact is that as much as endorsing an ideology, people cast the role of "Leader" and choose "Best Story" when they vote and it behooves us to recognize this. Our culture is awash in showbiz values. I'm not crazy about this development but it's real and we ignore it at our peril.
Stoller also says:
Fun with Dick and Jane" (which, again, you should all see) has a relatively overt liberal message. However, that message has received none, or very little, mention in the press. Creatively, I discovered something interesting. At the beginning of the process, I was incredibly excited to fill the film with political message (like in Hal Ashby's Shampoo). However, every Gore-Lieberman poster (the movie takes places in 2000) and Bush reference takes one out of the movie, distracts from the laughs. Movies are supposed to be entertaining. Anything that distracts from entertainment feels preachy and extraneous.
And that's just fine, too. Regardless of whether the Democrats wise up and use its resources more wisely, Liberal Hollywood still provides an essential service by keeping our values, if not our politics, mainstream. There have always been Hollywood films with an overt political message, from "The Grapes of Wrath" to "Syriana." But it's the comedies like "Fun with Dick and Jane" that show the plight of the downsized or even an ostensibly "conservative" show like "Law and Order" which educates people about the legal system in a compelling and complex way, that really carry the liberal mail. "Will and Grace" goes into homes all over the country, not just San Francisco and it's probably been more influential in mainstreaming gay life than any activism. "The Simpsons" and now "The Family Guy" are two of the most liberal subversive television shows in American history --- and they are both on Fox.
And here's the great thing about it. Nobody is selling this stuff out of the goodness of their hearts or for propaganda purposes (as the right does with its communistic subsidized media.) Hollywood produces this stuff because there is a massive audience for it. They must make money or die. And through this virtuous feedback loop our values of tolerance and freedom, social and economic justice are kept alive in a period of reactionary politics.
Why do you think the Republicans hate us Hollywood liberals so much anyway?
Update: I should also add that the GOP sadists who endorse torture should thank liberal Hollywood for mainstreaming it in endless shows that have cops routinely beating the shit out of suspects to get information. Nobody's perfect.
digby 12/29/2005 09:01:00 AM