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The Greatest Show on Earth: A Reflection on PoliWood

An addendum to Episode 384.

On April 11th, Sounds of Cinema partnered with the Winona State University English Department, Political Science Department, and Mass Communication Department to present a public screening of the documentary PoliWood on the Winona State campus. Directed by Barry Levinson, PoliWood examines the overlap of politics and entertainment. The documentary follows members of the Creative Coalition, a non-partisan organization of entertainers, as they visit the Democratic and Republican national conventions during the 2008 presidential campaign. Along the way, the film explores how entertainment and celebrity culture have shaped contemporary politics and what that means for the future of democracy. As Levinson puts it in the film, the challenge for entertainers and politicians is to survive the media circus but not become a clown. For the rest of us, the question is how we distinguish between fantasy and reality when contemporary culture conspires to make them indistinguishable.

There is no question that politics and entertainment are intertwined. Jack Valenti, who was the founder of the Motion Picture Association of America, has been quoted as saying “Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA” because its participants are always onstage and always performing. ┬áConsider these examples, most of them from just the past few months:

These examples demonstrate the trifecta of celebrity, news media, and politics. The influence of the relationship does not flow in a single direction; this isn’t just politicians cozying up to entertainers or celebrities adopting causes they may or may not believe in for photo ops. This is a complete system in which the three are bonded together in a triple helix and there is no pulling them apart.

PoliWood paints a dire picture of the culture that this trifecta has created. In the film’s finale Levinson concludes that “television . . . might be the most disastrous invention that ever happened in the history of mankind because it finally blurred the line between truth, reality, and mythology. . . . It might just be that ultimately the television is so powerful and so influential and so addictive that we can never find any truth.” That’s a severe claim to make and with anecdotes like the afore mentioned studies by Ohio State and Fairleigh Dickinson University it’s easy to agree with his perspective. But it is also important to remember that the link between politics and performance predates television. Marc Antony’s funeral speech as dramatized in the Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is as much a performance as any contemporary campaign speech. Today’s political commercials are no less propagandistic than the World War II films of Leni Riefenstahl and Frank Capra. And we should remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Life of Franklin Pierce, a “nonfiction” book whose popularity paved the way for Pierce’s successful presidential campaign (and his disastrous administration). To some extent, politics has always incorporated elements of performance art and it is na├»ve to ignore that fact. But it is also a fact that civilization has survived and even flourished despite political theater becoming more elaborate.

The important difference between these examples and contemporary life is the extent to which media and technology have become fused into our everyday experience. PoliWood spends quite a bit of time bemoaning the partisan divisions in the culture and blames the pundit class for sowing it as they role model endless conflict and hyperbole rather than a thoughtful and cordial exchange of ideas. That is a relevant point, but there is another aspect that Levinson hints at in his discussion about Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher but does not develop fully. As any documentary filmmaker can tell you, the presence of a camera impacts the way in which we behave. Successful politicians, like entertainers, are generally born performers with a pathological need to be the center of attention. In an environment in which the television camera, and for that matter the security camera, the cell phone camera, and the webcam, are so omnipresent, the politician is required to constantly be in-character. It’s no longer enough to bluster for a few minutes in front of a CSPAN camera like Antony on the steps of the Roman senate; the politician must maintain his or her tone or risk being labeled disingenuous. Just as Levinson compared Wurzelbacher to the title character of Meet John Doe, politicians may find themselves resembling Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd., as the individual is coopted by the public image he or she has created for the media.

Not all political anger is about showmanship. In one of PoliWood’s highlights, the mostly liberal members of the Creative Coalition sit down with conservative delegates at the Republican convention. Their interaction is civil but intense and several of the conservative speakers take the Hollywood figures to task for what they perceived as arrogant condescension. As actress Rachel Leigh Cook later reflects, the scolding was not intended to impress others; these people were genuinely angry because they felt marginalized and ignored. The protests of this scene are not really about the celebrities; these people are lashing out in frustration because they are immersed in political debate but they are also alienated from the institutions that are supposed to represent them. That this was filmed in mid-2008, well before the Tea Party and the Occupy movements, makes the footage a fascinating preview of future events. In the context of a discussion about politics and media, it reveals something that the infotainment establishment often misses: the way in which the voices of average people are drowned out by the rancor of political spectacle.

Philosophers from Plato onward have struggled to define what is true and come up with some way of understanding our sensations and experiences in a rational and intelligible way. In modern times we have access to more information than ever before. That deluge of information can be overwhelming, but this is the environment we live in today. As consumers and as participants in democracy it will be up to us to develop the habits and acumen to discern what is real from what are shadows on the wall.

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