Literature 4-4-2017

The Illusion of Encounter

Kevin Obsatz on his experiences as a PA working on a documentary about the 2004 campaign season and, specifically, the show business behind the spectacle of both art and politics.

1John Kerry campaigning in Durham, New Hampshire in 2004. Photo: William B. Plowman/Getty Images

An everyday life in thrall to the spectacle […] should be understood as the systematic organization of a breakdown in the faculty of encounter, and the replacement of that faculty by a social hallucination: a false consciousness of encounter, or an “illusion of encounter.”

Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967

In the early months of 2004, I travelled to New Hampshire as an intern for a documentary production at the Democratic Primary there. I was hired by Matt Ehling and Jim Taylor, who had attended twice before, in 1996 and 2000, and made a documentary out of each visit. The first film, Subdue the Universe, was about the fringe candidates vying to run against Clinton in ’96; then, in 2000, Jim Taylor himself decided to run and documented the process for what would become the feature film Run Some Idiot. Their new angle of approach in 2004 was that Jim was running for the Republican nomination to the right of George W. Bush; Bush was still on the ballot, though he was widely presumed to be unchallenged. Jim persuasively made the case that W was a conservative in name only, given that he was pursuing multiple foreign wars and wantonly increasing the federal deficit.

Back in those days, Obama was barely a glint in the eye of the progressive left, MySpace was still the social media du jour, and there was no such thing as streaming video online; YouTube didn’t exist, but we had the heavily compressed RealPlayer, which could download and play very small video files.

I didn’t consider myself a documentarian, but I liked Matt and Jim; I was curious about the political process, and I needed work—even a few hundred dollars’ worth. So, it was generous of them to invite me along as a production assistant, all-purpose errand runner, coffee-getter, and carrier of equipment. We drove east in a caravan, one aging minivan and one compact car held together with duct tape, in the midst of a snowstorm, nervous that we would get stuck partway and miss some of the fast-moving events. I remember driving a late, long coffee-fueled shift through swirling snow, eyes glued to the taillights of the semi ahead of me to stay on the road. We stopped at rest stops along the way, all of which appeared to have contracted with McDonalds to be the sole provider of warm freeway food in New England.

When we arrived, our team of six (Matt, Jim, a campaign manager whose name I forget, a “staffer,” a sound person, and me) sorted ourselves into two hotel rooms – wall-to-wall equipment and rollaway beds. Then, we went to set up our booth at the convention center, where Jim would hold events and interviews, impeccably playing the part of a serious conservative candidate: clean-shaven, hair-slicked, and everything.

This was mere weeks after the rise and fall of Howard Dean in Iowa (“Date Dean, Marry Kerry” is the slogan I remember), but the momentum had already definitively shifted in John Kerry’s direction. John Edwards would soon concede in order to be Kerry’s running mate, and Joe Lieberman rounded out the field of major candidates, but he seemed to be the only one who thought he had a serious shot at upsetting Kerry for the nomination.

My political experience was limited, but the political campaign environment seemed familiar. There were campaign buses and news trucks everywhere, crews running power for bright lights, and sound technicians hustling cords and cables in and out of events. In short, it was just like a movie production or a television show, only the politicians were the stars, with their trailers and hotel suites, and there was a swarm of small crews rather than one big, coordinated production team.

One of my roles was that of official campaign photographer; I was armed with a small Canon point-and-shoot digital camera. Jim’s goal was to put himself in the path of as many prominent figures as possible, so as Matt trailed him with a broadcast-quality video camera, I made my own surgical incursions with the Canon, and we provided our own modest contribution to the paparazzi effect.

Candidate Jim Taylor with John McCain. Photo courtesy of the author
Candidate Jim Taylor with Martin Sheen. Photo courtesy of the author

Though I didn’t speak to any of them, during that trip I was in the room and often within a few feet of John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Martin Sheen, Tucker Carlson, Dennis Kucinich. Just like when movie stars go “on location” outside of Los Angeles and know that some level of interaction with locals is more or less inevitable, the political stars, whenever out in public, were fairly accommodating of Jim’s efforts to engage with them and tolerant of our cameras. The political stakes were high, of course, and any politician who makes it to that level knows that every step taken off the bus or outside a hotel room requires perfect poise, a broad smile, and effortless approachability.

It would be years yet before I would read Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, but it was easy to draw connections between my experiences on film crews, at the Cannes Film Festival, and at the Democratic Primary. In fact, the early primaries, and the conventions themselves, are the closest things American culture seems to have to what could be called a “political festival.” The industries driving each event, despite their disparate subject matter, seemed to me identical. If anything, Hollywood gets points in my book for forthrightly representing itself as an industry, whereas the “political industry” seems too cynical to say out loud (though Eisenhower came closest with his “Military-Industrial Complex”).

The climax of the primary came after all the votes were cast and Kerry emerged triumphant, as expected, cementing his position as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. He gave his victory speech in an auditorium on a college campus, and I still remember the hopeful feeling of tromping through the snow, hearing bagpipes through the winter dark, approaching the building where he would speak. I remember thinking, surely John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran and a senator for 20 years, would have no trouble defeating Bush after years of scandal, disastrous and pointless wars, recession and domestic crisis.

Kerry won that night, but Jim Taylor lost his bid. He got about 100 votes— disappointing to our small team, since we had anticipated that more Republicans would take the opportunity to cast a protest vote against Bush. Particularly devastating to our campaign manager was the fact that Jim received fewer votes in 2004 than he had four years earlier, when he ran as a Democrat – though in that instance he was helped out by a brief mention on The Daily Show.

Afterwards, we went to a local dive bar on the depressed main street of some small New Hampshire town. It was relatively early, but we were all exhausted. Matt bought me a drink, served in a plastic cup, and I wandered out onto the dance floor with a handful of listless college students and twenty-something locals. The rest of the political operatives were celebrating or drowning their sorrows elsewhere, most likely in hotel ballrooms rented explicitly for that purpose.

It’s not an original idea by any means, but I was and continue to be struck by how blatantly arbitrary the New England locale was to all of the political theater transpiring there. New Hampshire and Iowa were merely backdrops for the news cameras, signifying Real (White) America to the television audience; jaded locals served as extras in their own neighborhood every four years to a steadily rotating cast of image-managed political celebrities.

Though all of this was incredibly recent on any historical timeline, it seems to me now distantly charming and quaint that Jim and Matt’s experiment in participation, in that pre-viral 2004 era, was a matter of getting a haircut, building a basic website, printing some signs and campaign literature, and merely showing up along with everyone else.

I’m struck by how blatantly arbitrary the New England locale was to all of the political theater transpiring there. New Hampshire and Iowa were merely backdrops for the news cameras, signifying Real (White) America to the television audience; jaded locals served as extras in their own neighborhood every four years to a steadily rotating cast of image-managed political celebrities.

That fall, I put Kerry bumper stickers on my car, knocked on some doors, and spent election night sitting alone at Caffetto coffeeshop in the Wedge neighborhood, hitting refresh on my browser and growing progressively more horrified and depressed by what I was learning about my country.

The spectacle erases the dividing line between self and world, in that the self, under siege by the presence/absence of the world, is eventually overwhelmed; it likewise erases the dividing line between true and false, repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances. The individual, though condemned to the passive acceptance of an alien everyday reality, is thus driven into a form of madness in which, by resorting to magical devices, he entertains the illusion that he is reacting to his fate.

Debord, ibid (219).

Guy Debord’s formulation of the Spectacle, though initially written in the ’60s, provides important insight into my experience in 2004, as well as everything that has happened since. I couldn’t put words to it in New Hampshire, but there was a pervasive sense of unreality, of show business — the politicians were there for the cameras, and the cameras were there for the politicians, and all of it was somehow self-contained, existing apart from any individual person or set of ideas about specific policies about how to run the government of the USA.

The New Hampshirites were interchangeable, but in a way, so were the politicians and the reporters and “news” personalities. They were all merely filling roles in a superstructure or organism or production that was more vast and powerful than any of us. And I don’t mean Democracy—democracy as a concept perhaps provided a few aesthetic flourishes to the proceedings, but it was nowhere near their organizing principle; a still nascent form of reality television.

My feelings about filmmaking changed when I saw, firsthand and up-close, how difficult it was to create a sustainable life making movies without being consumed — by the industry, by the entrepreneurial pressure to define success as a form of always growing, moving, innovating, and selling.

I was struck, too, by the immensity of the resources poured into those few days (representing merely one stop along the many-months-long campaign trail), which to me resembled, in scale, a major Hollywood production with a cast and crew of thousands. It was a village unto itself. It’s not a question so much of money in politics or campaign finance reform, because most of the people there weren’t being paid directly out of campaign coffers. It’s a reframing of politics as an industry, employing hundreds of thousands of people who work full-time (with benefits) to create and maintain our political reality.

The new technology in filmmaking, which became accessible in the ’90s and ’00s, created a giddy sense of possibility around the idea of populist rebellion —“breaking the studio system” or a hundred other forms of digital boosterism. Twenty years later, the film industry has changed, but those changes are due mostly to economics and commercial technology driving formal and aesthetic shifts, not the other way around. The professionals protect their jobs and careers, and, if anything, less money goes to artists creating moving images than ever before, because of changes to union rules for crews, copyright, and residuals for actors. The power is consolidated: a few new big names replace the old big names, there are new Vice Presidents in charge of Viral Marketing and YouTube Personalities, but the spectacle itself only intensifies. It reaches deep into our lives insatiably from within our own pockets. It’s there when we go to bed at night and waiting when we wake up the next morning.

My feelings about filmmaking changed when I saw, firsthand and up-close, how difficult it was to create a sustainable life making movies without being consumed — by the industry, by the entrepreneurial pressure to define success as a form of always growing, moving, innovating, and selling.

Today, there’s a tantalizing and familiar sense of access to power in politics that feels parallel to that ’90s “democratization” of cinema, facilitated by the new technology available. You can tweet at the President! You can make some kind of viral thing that hundreds of thousands of people will share! You can organize a protest or a march and Make a Difference!

By eagerly embracing the machinations of reformism or making common cause with pseudo-revolutionary dregs, those driven by the abstract wish for immediate efficacity obey only the laws of the dominant forms of thought, and adopt the exclusive viewpoint of actuality. In this way delusion is able to reemerge within the camp of its erstwhile opponents. The fact is that a critique capable of surpassing the spectacle must know how to bide its time. 

Debord, ibid.(220)

My concern, my hunch—right or wrong—is that the current wave of political protest, online and off, is first and foremost fuel for the bonfire of spectacle. It plays into exactly the sociopolitical dynamic it hopes to oppose, framed as an effort to create an event big enough to get enough attention (likes, shares, votes) to sway public opinion. The protests lately have certainly been impressive, but they have also required massive and unsustainable flows of resources. You can only be mobilized so many times to stand on a plaza waving a sign before it affects your livelihood, your job, your family. When it comes to spectacle, people who are paid to be there — industry professionals — always outlast the volunteers in the end.

As a filmmaker in my late 30s, sustainability is high on my list of priorities. I figure I have to keep doing this for a long time, if I ever hope to be good at it, to make a lasting contribution to the art form. So, my approach has always been to proceed carefully on small films, to create lasting relationships, and to focus on the projects that I can afford to complete, financially and energetically. In the words of  Debord, I am biding my time. Have I overthrown the Hollywood oligarchy? Nope. But I like to think I’ve been participating in the cultivation of a community of artists and a body of work that is real and meaningful, rather than chasing after spectacular illusions of encounter.

This seems to be going on in the political arena as well. People are going out to meetings, sharing their thoughts and dreams and struggles and challenges, forging relationships with others around shared values, “organizing” — a protest is only the occasionally visible manifestation of these efforts, the tip of the iceberg.

I believe that sociopolitical change is always ongoing, and I appreciate the community-level efforts underway to articulate what a more compassionate, fair, and equitable world would look like, starting block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, town by town. This sort of work is not immediately gratifying in either art or social justice. The real process involved is a slow, interpersonal evolution, building something from the ground up, resisting the seductive distractions of the spectacle, which always seems to promise so much, so soon.

Kevin Obsatz

Kevin Obsatz is a filmmaker and video artist with a BA in Film Production from the University of Southern California and (soon) an MFA in Experimental Media from the University of Minnesota. After a very formal, classical Hollywood film industry education at USC, he was seduced by a ragtag group of underground experimental filmmakers in Paris who taught him how to hand-process Super-8 film and question cinematic authority figures. He has worked on feature films with budgets from $15,000 to $35 …   read more