Mr. Brokaw… I’m Ready for my Close-Up

October 8, 2008

Right now, American political discourse is enjoying some sort of metaphysical afterlife along with God and Punk. It’s been dead for quite some time now, but only in this current election has the stench become so¬† obvious. Much can be said about how mass media (I won’t say bourgeois media) has transformed (I won’t say eviscerated) political discourse, in terms of how it is owned and funded by the capitalist class, or how it forces passive consumption of news and issues, or how it limits debate within ideological boundaries, or how it has privatized a traditionally public sphere of debate, yada yada… but this is a whole other story.

I started writing this post because I hate the feeling I get after watching election debates. There is an overwhelming sense of futility in paying attention to the debate itself because, ultimately, the quality of the arguments don’t matter. This is why I’ve been drinking straight Jack during the debates. It’s not about who wins the debate, but who wins the American Idol performance contest. The debates are more of a casting call. In the same way, voters don’t elect a person for president, but the image of a person. What interested me is how now, more than ever, the language of a candidate’s debate performance is informed by the debate’s visual medium of presentation. The performance game is becoming more like a screen test. Take the Vice Presidential debate, which many have called a “stalemate”, even though Sarah Palin barely managed to deliver completely unrelated memorized tidbits in response to Biden’s charges. Rhetorically, it was quite an absurd event. But those conservative people reacted to her, because she actually spoke to the American people. Unlike Biden, who looked at his opponent or the moderator, Palin had her eyes right on the Camera. She smiled and winked. It was like watching an infomercial… and we know how infomercials can convince us to buy just about anything. In that sense, Palin’s screen language was successful, she was a trained beauty queen.

So what about yesterday’s debate between Obama and McCain? I venture to say that Obama outperformed McCain during the screen tests. Whenever Obama watched McCain answer a question, he reminded me of this video of Frank Sinatra and Tom Jobim:

I was struck by Frank Sinatra’s body language: how he fondles a cigarette, leans back on his chair, smokes, and opens his chest with nonchalance. Meanwhile, Tom Jobim, leaning over his guitar, strums the songs he composed, humming and and singing in portuguese while Sinatra takes a drag of his cigarette. Although Sinatra provided the face, the voice, and the image; Jobim was the engine, well attuned to Sinatra’s nicotine rhythm. Take a look at these two-shots of Barack during last night’s debate:

I would say that Obama embodied both Sinatra and Jobim, both the cool and the rhythm. Obama attentively watched and smiled, but he didn’t lean back on his chair as the smug Sinatra did, he was poised for attack, ready to jump in. McCain on the otherhand, scuttled around, scribbled, fidgeted and compressed his face. Look at the two-shots in the video below:

Compared to Obama’s height advantage and more youthful fluidness, McCain appears more like an angry troll. His referring to Obama as “that one” was so poorly delivered, that McCain came off as a petulant teenager. To top things off, the debate ended with McCain leaving an Obama handshake hanging center screen.

So what does this reading amount to? Not much. This debate can only help Obama’s rise in national and state polls. Voting in the US has devolved into a choice between brand names instead of policy positions, too many voters relate to candidates as abstracted images of themselves, in the same way consumers choose designer labels to complement their self-image. At least, my reading attaches some semblance of a methodology in assessing these image-people. Which may be enough to calm my earlier frustration and occupy me until the Jack drains away.

– s

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The Maccabean Theater of Judgment

August 4, 2008

There is much talk within film scholarship about the complicit passivity of audiences… Complicit in that the audience’s eyes aligns with the camera’s gaze, and passive in that the alignment (the images on the screen) and its direction doesn’t at all care for the audience’s agency. In a sense, watching a film is like stepping into a different world -or better yet, like taking a guided tour of another world. Stanley Cavell talks about how there is a moment of awakening after a movie ends, the audiences realigns with reality. Walter Benjamin likens the aesthetic experience of film to that of architecture. While it seems that film theorists like to talk about the passive audience as if it’s a “film thing”, something similar can be said about audiences at a classical music concert (just try coughing during one!) or even at a play. The big danger with this whole logic, is when it begins assuming that observers are essentially passive. Such an assumption belies a Eurocentric tradition of a non-participatory audience, where they can aspire to be, at most, loud tomato-throwing critics without any bearing on the course of what they are observing. In all this, different traditions are obscured. A notable exception to this entire passive audience talk is “the Maccabean Theater”.

The Maccabees were a Jewish fundamentalist terrorist organization seeking to liberate the holy land from the foreign occupation of the Greek empire-state (well, the Seleucid Dynasty). They were ultimately successful and today they are mostly known for two Apocryphal books and a surprisingly effective energy sustainability policy (even though they blew all the energy saved on a party). Little is known about “the Maccabean Theater”, probably because it wasn’t an actual theater. The Maccabean Revolt was as much of a struggle against an occupying empire as it was a civil war between Jewish Nationalist and Jewish Hellenists. Violence against the Hellenists was widespread, it was so common that it gave birth to a curious tradition. Maccabean fighters began rounding up Hellenists on an elevated platform, forcing them to act out their profane gentile rituals, utter prayers, and prepare offerings. As the captive Hellenists acted as they were told to, the Maccabees would shoot arrows and throw spears at the actors. Some would even rush up to the platform, bloodthirsty sword in hand. These performance ritual were also cleansing rituals, fervent homages to the High Priest Phineas (Pinchas). They grew in popularity and became more and more elaborate. The forced reenactment of rituals evolved into the forced reenactment of histories and mythologies. Thus was the “Maccabean Theater” born, a theater of sentencing, a theater of judgment and execution.

Unlike the Roman gladiators, who were mere spectacles, the Maccabean Theater reached a brief peak before the newly liberated Jewish theocracy ushered its decline. None exemplified the apex of the Maccabean Theater better than Zedekiah the Danite. While many question the historicity of Zedekiah, reasoning that he represented a small amorphous collective movement, his projects sought to elevate the performance purges to a different level. Zedekiah often crafted his own reenactments, binary morality tales based on Jewish struggles. He created a reenactment of Book of Esther where all the captives played Haman. There’s evidence that suggests that Zedekiah even trained some captives to act, as the more capable actors were often killed last to greater general enthusiasm. Zedekiah reasoned, that if the audience were to play G-d’s will and punishment, the reenactments shouldn’t simply be some glorified shooting gallery. There must be a dynamic between the audience and the actors. So Zedekiah the Danite began toying with sympathetic gentile characters (how much longer will the divine arm let this sinner live?), but then he wanted to take a step further. He imagined an opulent Passover pageant, in which the story would change according to the death of each captive. This task was harder than imagined, since a vast array of plot permutations had to be planned and rehearsed. Zedekiah would have also required captives with significant acting experiences, capable of memorizing all possible outcomes and improvising smooth transitions, as a captive never really knew when the “Will of G-d” would smite again. The historical record doesn’t indicate whether Zedekiah’s plans ever came to fruition, although it’s said that one time, as a big finger to Hellenic culture, Zedekiah staged a minor comedy by Menander.

With the liberated Jewish state and the decline of heretical crimes, the Maccabean Theater became less about killing the actors and more about letting the better actors live. Crowds began sparing the better performers before killing off the inferior ones. Once the Romans took over, even the hands-on killing started to cease, as the Roman state usurped the state’s judicial power of execution, and death by stoning made a rollicking comeback among smaller religious courts. By then, the performance rituals forsook plots and stories, to become a kind of holiday variety show, where the most popular captive criminal act would be spared execution. Such was the case when Jesus Christ competed against Barabbas one Passover morning (a detail the gospels poorly address). By choosing a majestic silence over the actor’s craft, Jesus was promptly dispatched to the nailing yard, while the thief Barabbas was set free (according to Luke, Barabbas beat out not only Jesus but two others).

While largely forgotten, the Maccabean Theater of Judgment does have some spiritual children of sorts. The concept of torture as theater is probably more common than it’s been in awhile, thanks mostly to the Bush administration, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. It’s in no way limited to post-9/11 politics. Take, for example, the shitty Korean movie Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, or Jean-Pierre Meville’s 1969 masterpiece Army of Shadows. But I think what best inherits the tradition of the Maccabean God-audience is the current fad of judge based reality TV shows, such as American Idol, or the one with the fashion designing cooks. The audience retains a faint semblance of Maccabean empowerment. The leap from Zedekiah the Danite to American Idol is certainly long, but as any good Czarist would attest: the Jews own the media.

– s