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September 29, 2012

Politicians and Filmmakers Follow Many of the Same Principles

by Howard Suber

The first and one of the most important documents in American history was a press release – something Thomas Jefferson and his collaborators called “A Declaration of Independence.” The actual act of separating from Great Britain took place on July 2nd; what we celebrate as the beginning of our nation was the date the P.R. document was released.

In its very first sentence, the Declaration of Independence states:     “… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” The rest of the document is an attempt to explain to its audience/readership what motivated the characters involved to do what they did.

Politics and film/television/etc. (for which I’ll use the shorthand term “film”) are fundamentally storytelling activities. This means that everything revolves around the concept of the audience, that all actions are public actions meant to influence and please as large a portion of those watching, reading, and/or listening as possible.

It is often said that politicians and film/television makers appeal to the “Lowest Common Denominator,” but this is a simplistic analysis. Voters, film-goers, television-watchers, etc. are made up of many different constituencies, people who have similar attitudes, values, backgrounds, experiences, etc. Among them are gender, ethnicity, education, wealth, religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, etc. What attracts one constituent group may repel another. This is self-evident in politics, and should be self-evident in film as well. To take the simplest example, there’s plenty of evidence that a good percentage of women ordinarily avoid war and other films with violence at their core, and a good percentage of men ordinarily try to avoid what they think of as “sentimental” works.

The art of politics, like the art of film, consists of putting together, not some lowest common denominator, but the highest number of constituent groups. Film studio executives in recent years have talked about “four-quadrant films,” by which they mean men, women, those over 25 and those under 25. This is a step in the direction of thinking about constituencies, but not nearly as sophisticated as current political campaigns use

Where does genuine belief or “authenticity” come into the art of film or the art of politics? Well, first of all we have to ask how many people involved in making films or running for office really believe in anything, and how much what they put out is focused on appealing to buyers; that is, the audience.

I assume there are politicians and filmmakers who have genuinely-held beliefs. If they are be able to pursue their respective careers, however, they cannot focus entirely on what’s inside their heads. Like Thomas Jefferson and his pals, they have to have “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” for without it they cannot prosper.

So, I urge you to watch the presidential debates that start next Wednesday. Look at them as pure show business and notice that the things we’re likely to remember have as much to do with entertainment as they do with the destiny of this country. I’d particularly pay attention to the importance of characterization.

Great movies consist of great characters in great scenes. What makes a great character? Someone who is in great scenes. If the debates have any significant impact at all, it will be because, in the middle of all that dialogue citing facts, figures, predictions of the future and blame for the past, suddenly we see a scene.


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