While the hirsute, chubby hero on a quest to overthrow an evil overlord is a proven recipe for box office success, the unprecedented success of Michael Moore's wizard-free effort in the genre has occasioned no small amount of surprise—not to mention, on the right at least, a certain sense of panicked desperation.
Even in Washington, D.C., I'll confess my lower jaw felt gravity's pull more strongly than usual upon discovering that one of the theaters screening Fahrenheit 9/11 had sold out all but the midnight showing on the Friday before the Fourth of July, already well into the movie's run. But the real surprise ought to be how long in coming has been the renaissance of the political documentary—and that a demonstrable hack like Moore reaps half-hour standing ovations at Cannes while the makers of infinitely better films like Control Room dream in vain of catching up to Garfield: The Movie.
As Joshua Green notes in the current Atlantic, official campaign media is typically pretty lackluster stuff, requiring many more viewings than the average soft drink ad to cement itself in the mind of the viewer. A look at the current crop of campaign-produced political ads will confirm Green's portrait: They're tepid, barely-distinguishable recapitulations of all-too-familiar tropes, making use of the same sort of visual grammar to identify the candidate in question with families or patriotism or job creation. It is, in short, as though a commercial advertiser tried, unironically, to hawk a product using the kind of doggerel jingle that pervaded the airwaves in the 50s. If anything, this year's ads seem less clever or inspired than ads of the past. Indeed, perhaps the one lasting benefit of campaign finance reform, assuming its free speech "loopholes" remain, will be to shift the heavy lifting in campaign season to 527s like MoveOn or the Club for Growth. Which of the current official ads is remotely as powerful as MoveOn's simple but memorable "Child's Pay" ad?
Commercial ad agencies have been forced to adapt to an increasingly media literate audience, resorting in the late '90s and early naughts to what media theorist Doug Rushkoff has called "wink" marketing. "Wink" ads, perhaps most memorably Sprite's "Image is Nothing" campaign, seem to let the viewer in on the scam. "We know you're too sophisticated to fall for the familiar ad gimmicks we're lampooning," they implicitly say, "laugh along as we poke fun at our own attempt to pitch you… and, by the way, buy our product."
As Richard Brookhiser wrote in a recent review of a collection of Hendrik Hertzberg's reportage, "The journalistic observer treats politics as a serious carnival, or a vulgar drama—history happening, pace Marx, as tragedy and farce simultaneously." That attitude seems, increasingly, to be shared by the broader public. With the exception of the National Enquirer, not exactly a major repository of public trust to begin with, popular confidence in the credibility of traditional news outlets, both broadcast and print, has declined steadily, and in some instances dramatically, over the past few years. People are unlikely to be any less cynical about professionally produced campaign pitches.
But K Street has, for the most part, failed to follow Madison Avenue's lead in acknowledging and assimilating the cynicism of its audience, precisely because their clients are so loath to shed the veneer of respectability that, for most viewers, wore away long ago. A bit like New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass, they seem constitutionally incapable of acknowledging their own preposterousness, even after it's clear they've long since ceased to fool anyone.
In one sense, of course, Moore's fare too insults the intelligence of the viewer. Lacking the rigor or seriousness of, say, MoveOn's Uncovered, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a kitchen-sink farrago of conspiracy theories and dumb stunts of the sort more likely to make the cut on Punk'd or Jackass than The McLaughlin Group. But Moore's sardonic tone does, at least, constitute a "wink" at the viewer: Dispensing with the ersatz dignity that surrounds even most independent political media, he ropes us in not in spite of being a buffoon, but, perhaps, precisely because he's a buffoon.
One more intriguing possibility presents itself this campaign season. Ardent fans of the Star Wars franchise were mostly disappointed by the cartoonish prequel The Phantom Menace, but soon after its theatrical release, amateur remixes purged of the insufferable Jar-Jar Binks and some of the more wooden dialogue began to circulate on peer to peer networks. Many of these were judged far superior to the original. How many viewers of Fahrenheit 9/11, or any of the other political documentaries running or due to open soon, could do a better job, cutting and pasting the best footage, then laying down a less noxious voice-over? The presidential debate, when it comes, will likely be a nigh unwatchable contest between bargain basement Faulkner and dyslexic Hemingway. But a clever viewer armed with some commercial video editing software might well give us something worthy of Pynchon or DeLillo.