Category Archives: [ features ]

political.celebrity

We’re just about to catch the season finale of what Jezebel has dubbed “America’s current favorite reality show,” also known as the 2008 Presidential Race. Over the past two years we’ve witnessed campaign implosion, soaring rhetoric, clunky diatribes, and a bonus emotional moment courtesy of Senator Hillary Clinton. This season, domestic terrorists and America-hating preachers were given larger roles than those specified by their original cameos due to popular GOP demand, and two women tried to overcome essentialist anti-feminism. Or maybe that was just one woman. This season has totes been like a cross between Desperate Housewives and Law and Order, flavored with a dash of Survivor!!!

This election and the mainstream media have sated themselves with each other, and we pull fervently on the feeding tube. We rely on this lascivious relationship to define for us “important issues,” and to package candidates and their relations in microwave-ready adjectives that are just as empty as they are overused. Campaign managers and newscasters argue over who is more “American.” Barack Obama has been branded an “elitist;” Sarah Palin a “hockey mom.” Out of the two party tickets, Obama and Palin seem to be garnering the most attention from the media. It seems odd that McCain’s September campaign ads condemned Obama as a celebrity when Palin fits that categorization just as easily today. Biden and McCain, though awarded their fair share of coverage, have receded from the spotlight, returning only if one of them has “misspoken.” Why the overarching Obama/Palin coverage? The historical nature of this election in terms of race and gender is certainly a contributing factor, though the media stopped registering amazement long ago. “It’s okay to laugh at him,” Jon Stewart reassured his tense audience after making a harmless Obama joke. Afraid of being labeled sexist—or worse, racist—the media has attempted to steer clear of any such implications, limiting their coverage to what really matters: the issues. Or so they claim.

Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh complains of what he deems an unfair label of racism placed on some of his remarks, yet View co-host and McCain campaigner Elizabeth Hassleback blames “the sexist liberal media” for taking cheap shots at the cost of Palin’s wardrobe. Race and gender are of course touchy subjects (Biden’s description of Obama as “clean and articulate” hit multiple nerves), and the semiotic war rages on as the Republican party attempts to stake a claim on feminism, a discourse that many liberals see as their own.

Overriding this semiotic struggle are the real mavericks: Obama, Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and Palin’s ESL coaches. With her show 30 Rock still stuck with relatively low ratings, Ms. Fey has reestablished herself on Saturday Night Live (SNL) as a lovably goofy sharp shootin’ down home folksy kinda gal who looks and sounds suspiciously like McCain’s vice presidential pick. And though their influence on the 2004 election was more marked, Stewart, Colbert, and their ilk are definitely in to expose, impose, and re-dispose media coverage and candidate sound bites in their delightfully postmodern fashion. With more than twenty percent of young adults getting their news solely from these programs, what role is the mainstream press playing in all this? Does it even matter?

Considering that Stewart wouldn’t have a show without some of the laughably biased networks out there, yes. It is thanks in part to Fox and MSNBC that we have our scandals, triumphs, and D-list celebs. The conservative networks gave us our Jeremiah Wrights, our Bill Ayers, and our Rashid Khalidis; the liberals reveled in Troopergate and Wardrobegate. The McCain anti-Obama diatribe shifted from celebrity to socialist to one who “palls around with terrorists.” The potentially legitimate points one can conceive of from these attacks are the socialist accusations (a very scary word for a fiscally liberal administration) and, um, everything about Sarah Palin. We’ve all heard how she fired someone who wouldn’t fire her sister’s ex-husband (Troopergate), or something like that, and how she’s under investigation for corruption in office back in Alaska, and how she spent $150,000 on clothes (Wardrobegate) which was really the RNC’s fault and did nothing for her small-town image and she’s going to donate it all to charity anyway. Once the GOP landed Palin they couldn’t complain any more about Obama’s lack of experience, so they focused instead on connecting him to unsavory types. Obama has since condemned Wright’s “God damn America” remarks, and frankly, the McCain administration is grasping at thin air with the Ayers and Khalidi accusations. Bill Ayers was a member of the domestic terrorist group Weather Underground, but he is now a respected professor who contributes regularly to the field of inner city education improvement. His violent past (resulting only in the deaths of his own coworkers) would be more of a real issue if Obama knew him outside the context of a charity board meeting and several subsequent casual encounters. Rashid Khalidi is an Arab who criticizes some Israeli policies, so he must be evil. The media presents these little anecdotes to us daily, in recurring segments perfect for lunch breaks. And the best part? We aren’t always sure where the bias is coming from. Important issues might arrive cut and dried from press releases, they might fly through a whirlwind of spin doctors and newsroom headsets, and they might not mean shit. Palin will continue to hold sway over us as a red-suited self-described intellectual (ask People Magazine) who “walks the walk” even if she can’t quite “talk the talk.” Obama will keep triggering our emotions with those ivory tower speeches of his. These are the images the media created for them. These are the images we can’t get out of our heads, even when we get to the voting booths.

Next week, on Project Democracy

[katie.silverstein]

peggy.ahwesh

“In some ways I feel like I’m making sculpture,” filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh explained to Dr. Osterweil’s Women Filmmakers class last Wednesday. The Pittsburgh-area native and self-proclaimed vampire film junkie comfortably took over the professorial seat as she answered questions about her process. She emphasized the dangers of succumbing to the control of new technology, pointing out that tools can only really work for an artist once they’ve become obsolete (Ahwesh uses intertitles to this effect in her 1986 film The Dead Man). Though she decries blind technology usage, Ahwesh maintains the importance of the editing process, in which the filmmaker’s intelligence is paramount. Immersing herself in 70s punk culture, Ahwesh developed an interest in improvisation, anthropology, and documentary filmmaking. Her work with found footage and her defiance of genre conventions invites a post-modernist dialogue between viewers and the screen. The class learned that Peggy has worked with director George Romero on Dawn of the Dead, she treats her students at Bard College as her peers, and she thinks that people “are sophisticated and should be challenged.” In her last words of advice, Peggy half-jokingly extolled the glories of thrift store shopping; a virtual magnet for props and maybe even some found footage.

Dr. Osterweil’s students wrote response papers about an Ahwesh film of their choice. The following is Hugh Trimble’s response to Ahwesh’s The Dead Man, which is based on the text of Georges Bataille’s Le Mort. [katie.silverstein]

In her film The Dead Man, Peggy Ahwesh creates a problematic space for the viewer to inhabit. Through her utter rejection of familiar, traditional narrative form Ahwesh prohibits her audience from experiencing the work passively, but its shattered and unpredictable composition renders a viewer helpless and lost within the cinematic text. In watching the film I found myself continually consumed by and then exiled from the action on screen, forced to engage with the images from a detached but profoundly self-conscious psychological location. Marie’s consistent nudity and the explicit sexual activity throughout the film lures the objectifying, phallic gaze of the audience to the surface of perception and then violently punishes the looker through Marie’s unrestrained, humiliating behavior. At the close of the film I felt battered and confused, like a dog that has been repeatedly coaxed by the promise of affection and then beaten for advancing.

I understand the importance of exposing and critiquing our own phallocentric methods of perception, and I appreciate Ahwesh’s efforts to move her position within culture’s discourse on sexuality and femininity from defense to offense, but I sensed no solution within The Dead Man. Is there truly no constructive, accepting voice for me as a heterosexual male? Is my own guilt really the extent to which I can follow my path of discovering and participating in the system of sexuality that defines the human animal? And yet Ahwesh does not claim to be in a position to judge or assign labels to me or any of her viewers. My feelings of humiliation and scorn, in a way, stem from my own reflection, not from any statement made by the film itself. Perhaps Ahwesh seeks to embody the anti-authority by not directly distributing or delineating meaning, but creating an empty space, or a mould, in to which sense spills and acquires individual form for the viewer. The film is undeniably an uncomfortable experience within a conservative, patriarchal context, a rupture that seeks to become a threshold for otherness. I feel that Ahwesh is doing her best to chisel a hole in the wall of phallic ideology that guides our thought processes.

Ahwesh uses intertitles in The Dead Man, a cinematic device employed in classic Hollywood to compensate for the lack of dialogue in early cinema. The film, however, includes diagetic sound and is also narrated so the titles are generally redundant, merely repeating the words and actions of the characters on screen. The arbitrary role of the text, therefore, serves to illuminate mainstream cinema’s crippling allegiance to standard and oppressive visual and narrative techniques as well as to gesture towards the filmmaker’s critical opinion of the institution of language itself. As with my experiences with other material containing postmodern insight, I am left in a position of paralyzed stimulation in the wake of Ahwesh’s film. I sense significance and genuine relevance, but I am encouraged to forget everything I am told the moment it is voiced. Like Jacques Derrida, Ahwesh is “writing with both hands,” continually inscribing belief and then undermining her own conviction (and her audience’s ability to process and apply the thematic content). This postmodern condition of thought is appropriate and necessary in light of this era’s materialistic, confined philosophy of identity, but I believe reactionary art should be able to stimulate some form of action, even if it be deliberate inaction.

why.mccain.lost

Flip-flopper. This phrase may very well have lost Kerry the 2004 presidential campaign and given us all the pleasure of four more years of the Bush administration. For months the Republican party hammered on the issue—from party-wide stunts like distributing flip-flops to delegates at the summer convention, to ads like Windsurfing—and proved that labels can be impossible to shed. In the realm of political ads, message discipline allowed the RNC and Bush campaign to create Kerry’s own narrative and frame his image within their created discourse. It didn’t matter how misleading the facts were or that Bush’s own voting record revealed the same propensity to “flip-flop”—ultimately, all that mattered was that much of the public believed Kerry lacked strength and conviction, that he was too weak to lead such a troubled country. The stubborn attachment to message is a Bush (and Republican) hallmark, and in recent years it has enabled both to wield considerable control over Washington. Bush has come to represent a cohesive set of values that, despite all those who may vehemently oppose everything he stands for, proves that he is indeed a symbol of something.

For the same reason, Barack Obama is winning the presidential race. He stands for one idea—change. Pollster site fivethirtyeight.com, which aggregates many of the important national and state polls, estimates Obama’s chances of winning at 98.1% as of November 3rd. Clearly, someone in the Democratic party has finally caught on. Obama’s narrative has been unwavering and his campaign has followed the principle of discipline, becoming one of the best-run and most methodical of recent years (unlike John McCain’s, which has proved unwieldy and clumsy). His negative ads consistently paint McCain as just like Bush, as anything but a maverick, thereby emphasizing how different an Obama presidency would be. Obama’s most recent media feat was a thirty-minute, primetime infomercial that connected personal struggles and the nation’s economic crisis with bad policies of the past. Rather explicitly, Obama calls for a fundamental shift in American policies. Of course, in Obama’s narrative, he is the only channel for that transformation. Now that voters are sick of the Bush regime, tired of being told to fight a losing, chaotic, selfish war, and terrified of the looming depression, a fundamental change is not something terribly transgressive. It’s welcome, needed, and one of the few options that allows for optimism.

McCain’s campaign has suffered from the kind of inconsistencies and off-message flailings that are absolutely antithetical to the campaigns of both Bush and Obama. After many of his senior staffers walked out (primarily due to infighting), he was left to try and reconstruct some kind of cohesion with the remnants. At first, he was positioned as the veteran and staunch countryman, than as the maverick, than as the down-home alternative to the celebrity of Obama…and finally, it seems, as a desperate mishmash of whatever positive qualities he may have. Still, as Bush proved in 2004, you can’t win after someone else has already determined the discourse of the race. You can’t offer the same promise of change when someone else has done it first and has done it better. Choosing Palin as running mate could have been a game-changing move—had she managed to never open her mouth. She represented the political rebel McCain had claimed to be. Had she proven to be a smart, sharp, natural talent she may very well have brought the legitimacy McCain’s claims needed. Unfortunately (for McCain), she was unable to rise to the challenges a national political career demanded. In fact, she embodied the very qualities of inexperience and political naivety McCain had tried to pin on Obama. Left with a failed message, an incoherent campaign, and an inability to McCain’s enormous slippage in the polls seems inevitable.

In today’s media-saturated environment, political ads have certainly risen to be some of the most influential means of structuring a message and narrative. Ever since the DNC ran the now-infamous “Daisy” ad in September of 1964, where a little girl’s image and voice is destroyed by a nuclear explosion (the seeming consequence of electing Barry Goldwater), ads have become integral component of every campaign. Examining some of this race’s major ads further highlights the difference between the strategies of the McCain and Obama campaigns—and provides further evidence of how the two are binary opposites in terms of cohesion, discipline, and structure.

McCain

While not all the ads are negative, as Obama claimed in one of the presidential debates, McCain does seem to obsessively focus on his opponent rather than on himself. Throughout, it is striking how many of the ads begin with melodramatic music and foreboding drumbeats (“Celeb,” “Taxman,” and “Housing Problem,” to name a few). The ads attack Obama for various offences, forming no clear and concise front against him.

On July 31st, “Celeb” aired and caused a stir on both sides of the political divide. Comparing Obama to vapid celebretards like Paris Hilton, it marked one of McCain’s first outright attacks on Obama’s cultural status and relationship to the media. It also questioned whether Obama was really ready to lead. By August 1st, McCain had gone even further in the online-only ad “The One”. This rendered Obama as more than celebrity—it mockingly implied that Obama was being treated as a Christ-like figure and went so far as to use a clip of a Ten Commandments Charlton Heston shouting “Behold his mighty hands!”

Around the time Sarah Palin was chosen as his running mate, the McCain campaign was forced to find a new dialogue of attack. Palin became just as much a celebrity as Obama, if not more so. In “Housing Problem,” and “Chicago Machine” the campaign instead began to question Obama’s associations, implying he was corrupt and shamelessly accepted political bribes. The campaign began cast Obama as an unknown whose devious connections meant he was under the control of some shadowy figures. Parallel to these, McCain began airing ads like “Original Mavericks,” that catalogued his own achievements in fighting political corruption.

In a recent New York Times piece, Robert Draper chronicled “The Making (and Remaking) of John McCain,” which emphasized the constant shifting, redefinition, and failures of the campaign. Like Kerry in 2004 and Gore in 2000, McCain has struggled against a dialogue in which the terms have already been defined. In the past few weeks, the campaign has laboured to find a solid point of attack. Their most effective argument—that Obama had little experience—now pertained to their own vice presidential pick. Yet, McCain has soldiered on, producing spots like last week’s “Special” which makes the weak case that Obama isn’t ready. Yet.

Obama

After accepting the democratic nomination, Barack Obama did not change his campaign strategy—just the tactics. He was already a symbol of change and thus only had to define McCain as “more of the same.” His ads became sharply focused on connecting McCain to George Bush and continued to emphasize his own historic and revolutionary status.

July’s “Old Politics” criticized a McCain ad for being part of the same political game that had been played for years. August’s “Original” threw doubt upon the maverick claims, incorporating a recent clip of McCain saying he voted with George Bush nearly ninety percent of the time. In October, “Rearview Mirror” used some obvious symbolism to connect McCain with backward-looking Bush policies.

The campaign’s negative ads did not just attack McCain, they juxtaposed McCain either with images of Bush or images of Obama. They continuously defined McCain through some exterior political context, making retaliation very difficult. McCain couldn’t comment on these ads without first extricating himself from the system they created. He couldn’t define himself without first defining Bush and Obama. He was stuck in the narrative the Obama campaign created and this is why, hours before any election results are verified, I will congratulate President Obama.

[kate.schlauch]

ETA: I had to share this quote from Gawker. It’s referring to JFK and his similarity to Obama: ” His election — from its beginnings in the famous televised debate with Richard Nixon — was about creating a cultural image that Americans could comfortably desire.”