Saturday, August 30, 2008

Obama's DNC speech

In an email thread, someone raised the issue of the propaganda-like elements of the DNC production, specifically quoting "a friend in the Canadian military" who referenced Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of Will. People were offended by this comparison.

This is what I wrote in response:

Against my better judgment I watched this speech (I will confess fatigue set in for me months ago in this electoral process). I did so because for years I have been interested in political speeches from the perspective of craft (speech writing was once part of my job). The speech was a great one both as it exists in time (relative to the audience expectations) and as a composition generally. It was also very well delivered (even his stumbles over teleprompter lines seemed perfectly delivered from a prosodic perspective, which is very, very hard to pull off).

What I could not stop thinking about is what is the relationship between CNN's feed (which is what I was watching because it was on in the house when I got home) and the DNC production feed? The whole of the speech and its presentation were powerfully delivered and orchestrated in Denver, and it appeared that way in my living room in California. How did it vary between the two locations and how did that variance get decided? I know I saw a lot of CNN branding during the time I was watching too (at this point I can't remember when I noticed this, but it was several times and probably before or after the speech). I also noticed stadium branding and adverts burned into the screens of the jumbotrons, which, while off topic, was kind of funny to me (at one point I thought "is United the official airline of the DNC or something?" before I realized it was just a screen artifact).

Frankly, the questions that kept popping into my head about the feed and CNN's coverage at times overpowered even the incredible speech. Yes, I was moved in my living room (it does not help that I watched everything 10 feet wide), but I certainly feel manipulated by being moved. Who was I manipulated by, on what level, and for what purposes, well, those are good questions. Broadcasters and politicians have a kind of creepy relationship to each other and politics is politics.

As for comparisons to Riefenstahl, come on - someone put this together. Even outside of the context of the words, which were not, I gather, scripted by the show's producer(s) or director(s), it's a creative work on multiple levels; even the selection of the venue and the choice of podium (both of which I thought a lot about) are debated over for the contribution to message. It's foolish to think otherwise and it's foolish to criticize comparing it to similar works. But just as the stadium was chosen over another venue for particular purposes, the subject of comparison (Triumph of Will) was chosen for particular purposes. Zingers are hard to understand outside of the context in which they were delivered, and this one can surely cut multiple ways (we are talking about art and politics here folks). I have no idea of the intent of the original deliverer ("Canadian" and "military" do pre-load a set of assumptions which may or may not be accurate) but if the goal was not to offend, I personally would have found a different point of comparison. If the point was to raise concerns over the balance of "news" and the political goals of individuals, parties, and nations and the potential for horrific outcomes, well, the zinger is probably not the best delivery mechanism for such a subtle point. But I also concede the context of a political speech at a political rally where "fitness of being commander in chief" is a campaign issue makes it seem reasonable to think Riefenstahl before one thinks Zhang Yimou, even though both may be appropriate.

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