Context Is Everything
By Al Giordano
As my closest colleagues know, I'm not a fan of long documentary films, and I discourage my journalism students from attempting them. There are only a handful of directors alive today that can pull off a work of non-fiction for the screen and still hold people's battered attention span after 20 minutes or more. And I'm bored, like most people, with 30- and 60-second ads. I think the public is inoculated against them and views them extremely skeptically. They flash by too rapidly - like trucks on the freeway - to lower the viewer's guard enough to infiltrate his and her psyche and deepest yearnings.
I am, however, a huge enthusiast, and sometimes writer-producer, of the newsreel: that short film format that before the television era played in movie theaters, that would last five to fifteen minutes: that's about the maximum that you can hold most people's attention onto a "serious" work, and yet it provides the opportunity to move the audience's heads and hearts together for a lasting impression, especially if it is seen in the context of current events and circumstances that already touch the viewers' lives rather than in isolation of them.
When, during Thursday night's convention in Denver, I saw the nine minute introductory video (it came on right at prime time, when those 40 million + Americans were tuned in live on every network and via the Internet) that preceded Obama's speech and that's when I knew - even before Obama uttered the first word of his oratory - that it will be a wonderful November. This brief film erased any doubts that were out there that this guy isn't "American" enough or somehow doesn't belong as its head of state and organizer-in-chief.
But what really made the film work was the context: It brought the viewer at home (and at 50,000+ house parties across the fruited plain) into that stadium, together with the 84,000 that were physically present. It made one feel that he and she, too, were there. And although Obama gave a speech for the history books, it almost didn't matter what he would say after this video coup de grace imprinted on the public psyche. In truth, the speech itself - DVD copies, rebroadcasts, etcetera - ought to always be shown with this film in front of it, because it sets the context.
And speaking of the context on Thursday night, I thought it was also tremendously important for the Democratic Party - its politicians, leaders, constituency groups, delegates and superdelegates - to experience that film and that speech in the larger stadium, where the insiders were suddenly outnumbered by real people who are not public figures and don't even imagine themselves as power brokers or back room deal makers. It forced those insiders to get used to the new reality: that they are not the show, nor should they ever be again. This film and that speech would not have left such an everlasting impression had it been in the smaller Pepsi Center hall, an exclusive screening for the political elites.
If for any reason you missed the introductory video on Thursday, or were so busy wondering what Obama would say (or how it would be received), or yakking with your friends and family members that you didn't pay good attention, watch it now, study that newsreel. For this was the greatest video newsreel of the convention, and probably of the century, and it's the reason - together with the speech itself - why all the media flurries and distractions that have happened since and will happen through November are pale sideshows, affecting a small fraction of the audience, by comparison, to that of tens of millions who were ushered into the future on Thursday night.