Blue Screened

Two interesting posts in today's Cleveland Plain Dealer, analyzing Monday's Democratic debate in Ohio. The first, by PD politics writer Mark Naymik, faults the candidates for not talking more about local and urban issues, for not tailoring their remarks to the needs of the Ohio community. It is especially critical of debate moderators Tim Russert and Brian Williams for not focusing on these and other, more substantive issues. The second, by PD television critic Mark Dawidziak, also takes Williams and Russert to task, but less for their failure to focus on specific issues (addressed only at the end of Dawidziak's column), and more for their failure to keep the debate running smoothly, like a boxing match (to use Dawidziak's analogy). The columns offer fascinating contrasts, the former aching for substance, the latter complaining the debates weren't stylish enough. One might read this, in cinematic terms, as the relationship between foreground and background, between stars and setting, dialogue and narratives (or issues). In one passage of Naymik's analysis, he tries to link the two, through the oafish persona of Russert: writing of the failure to address the mortgage crisis, Naymik notes, "Russert should be sensitive to the problem, too. Educated in Cleveland, he is from Buffalo, as he noted during the debate. Buffalo has been ravaged by house-flipping, the sale of abandoned property at inflated prices to unwitting buyers, which ultimately leaves many houses in foreclosure." Naymik is right, of course, but also misses the point: "Buffalo" is not a real place for Russert, but a paradoxical fetish. It means nothing to him in real terms, functioning only as one more signifier of his "blue-collar authenticity" that he can toss off as a rhetorical pose (to paraphrase Kyra Sedgwick's line to Campbell Scott in Singles, "I think you have an act, and your act is not having an act"). In the thirties, MGM boss Irving Thalberg once admonished a director for being too obsessed with the realism and sets and rear projections: "If the audience is too busy looking at your backgrounds, and not at my stars, the film won't work." For Russert, "Buffalo" is the rear projection of his discourse, and no less disconnected from his actual body than the grainy footage we'd see in some Warner Brothers melodrama, coming through the back window of a car; at the same time, it's so crucial to that carefully arranged image (to counter Russert's real status as an insider, which he can only hold by projecting himself as an outsider), that it almost reverses Thalberg's dictum: what matters is less the banal anecdotes or pernicious line of questioning from the star in the foreground than the small-town, jes' folks vibe enabled by the endless loop of grainy footage.


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