So the candidates on both sides have released their "Christmas" videos (I say "Christmas," because it is more accurate, although some campaigns hedge and call them "Seasonal" or "Holiday" videos).
Twinkling lights, bright sweaters, warm smiles, knitted stockings and, whenever possible, adorable children, are all featured, as you might expect.
There's been a lot of chatter in the blogs about Huckabee's assertion that "what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ," or Barack and Michelle Obama's inclusion of their girls in the fireside scene, or Hillary Clinton's assortment of policy proposals for the American people...
But let's get away from the politics for a moment. I think it's high time for a critique of these videos, not for their content, but for their use of the medium.
As a filmmaker myself, I consider myself obligated to bear down and watch these babies.
What are the aesthetics of these videos?
In other words, what message do they convey, behind the words. It's a visual medium; we have to remember that what these videos are actually doing is showing something.
Let's start with my favorite candidate, so we can get my own agenda out of the way:
The first thing I noticed is the tense body language, despite the warm atmosphere.
I believe that this family is genuinely close, so I'm assuming that this is the 5th or 6th -- or 22nd! -- take, and they have grown increasingly tense as the minutes turned to an hour. I've seen it happen.
Perhaps technical issues (sound, lighting, framing) dragged the taping out. Perhaps the girls got restless, or had an argument about who got to sit on their dad's lap.
Whatever the facts, the result is that Michelle and Barack talk in a friendly, but curiously exacting way. Listen to the way Michelle's voice bounces rhythmically with the words of the opening: "We'd-like-to-take-a-moment to thank YOU and your FAMILY for the WARMTH and friendship that you've shown ouuurs." That sounds like someone who has grown weary of saying the same thing.
One visual element also immediately stands out to me: those spooky shadows of stockings on the wall above the fireplace. They are definitely intentional -- I would guess to convey the warmth of candlelight, and to add some texture to the background. But they hang behind this family in such a way as to evoke the aesthetics of film noir. Touch of Evil and Double Indemnity are usually not the best sources of inspiration for campaign videos
The books on the table in front of them suggest upper middle-class coffee table art books -- signaling a home of broad intellectual curiosity. The Christmas tree is discreet -- and notably designed instead of ad hoc (the red and amber theme stands out).
This is a house well under control. No holiday madness here.
As for Obama, he speaks in the same overly exacting way that Michelle does. Worse, it looks as if he gestures too closely to his daughter Malia's face a few times. I know it is an optical illusion (when zoomed in -- which creates a nice tight focus on the subjects with a blurry background -- the distance between objects can seem shorter than it really is), and I know that Obama often gestures this way to make a point, but it made me nervous the first time I watched it.
Then there's the telling moment. The parents have finished speaking and it's time for the girls to add their "Merry Christmas" and "Happy holidays." Watch how Barack and Michelle anticipate the girls' lines -- after all, it is hard not to after multiple takes. They both turn sharply just before their daughters speak. By doing this, they confirm for us -- it hits our subconscious, the eyes miss nothing -- that these are canned lines. It does, however avoid what would be worse: if the parents feigned surprise when their daughters spoke.
The overall effect of the video is actually a grudging one, which is -- and here, perhaps, my agenda is showing -- what I think makes it work. I get the sense, watching this video, that the Obamas are not at all comfortable with the megalomaniacal charm required to pull of a warm Christmas message to the entire nation. A tension fills the air, and it is the tension of a real family being asked -- for political purposes -- to do something patently ridiculous: wish 300 million Americans Merry Christmas.
Okay, let's turn to a Republican:
Like the Obamas, he sits in front of a Christmas tree. But -- it leaps out at you -- where is his family? Of course we know the answer to that question (reminding voters of Judith -- his divorce, their affair, the puppies -- is not helpful, and his kids are, well, a little distant, shall we say).
Instead of surrounding himself with progeny, Rudy dons a red sweater vest and a red tie. With his glasses and this combo he comes off looking like your friendly neighborhood pharmacist, all decked out for the holidays. It's actually quite winsome. And he can refill your Lipitor prescription if you need that too!
When he says he may get a fruitcake for America, someone off-camera questions him: "A fruitcake?" And Giuliani leans forward with his peculiar, aggressive charisma to someone whom we never see. This is a very post-modern move -- breaking the frame of the film. He can thank Goddard and the French New Wave (although I don't think that would be to his advantage in South Carolina). The effect is funny -- and surprising.
Interestingly, Giuliani is often called "insane," or some other nutty confection, by his critics. And the video of him in drag, kissing Donald Trump, is, one would guess, a political liability. So this mention of wanting to get America a "fruitcake" is a good double-fake move. If he were really a fruitcake he wouldn't be so comfortable talking about them.
The only false note is the Hillaryesque laugh, apropo of nothing, at the end when he says "Happy Holidays."
Giuliani has another ad too, with Santa laughing at his wish that the candidates all just get along. Rudy's wearing the same red and white sweater vest. This video suggests visually that he may be working for Santa Clause -- or at least on the same team. You can watch it here.
Okay, let's go to Hillary Clinton:
Immediately you notice the much-ballyhooed "professionalism" of the Clinton campaign. The video is edited snappily to the music soundtrack. The images -- close-ups of wrapping, cutting with scissors, etc. -- are framed tightly, which is the current standard for Hollywood shot selection. The lighting has that big budget studio gloss to it -- warm and muted all at once, as if this video is an outtake from, oh I don't know, Seabiscuit. The sound design is detailed (listen for that crinkling sound as the cards are placed under the bows -- all added in post). We see a tilt on "Universal Health Care," a pan on "Alternative Energy," a rack focus on "Bring the Troops Home."
And then the music pauses on the reveal of Hillary herself. The room is light...
INT. LIVING ROOM -- DAY
A woman sits comfortably on a couch, wrapping presents.
This scene, complete with throw pillows, captures those private, unnoteworthy moments that women share, taking care of the wrapping of presents, completing a project, preparing something wonderful for the family. The point is that Hillary seems to be enjoying it. Message: she is one of us.
Only there is a slight scratch in the record, so to speak. It comes just at the end. As Hillary exclaims, "Oh!" we are to understand that she has just located the present which matches the card "Universal Pre-K" -- good so far. But then she commits a beginner's acting mistake. She repeats the exclamation as she grabs the present: "Ah!" It rings false. We know that she already had her discovery moment. So what is this second "ah"?
Just like the entire Hillary Clinton for President campaign, this second "ah" suggests that Hillary knew where she was going all along. The double discovery shows that there never was a discovery. Everything has been orchestrated to reveal "discoveries" to us -- the voters -- when they are useful. Hillary is even prepared to experience those discoveries a second or third time (e.g. President Bush cannot be trusted!) when this may score additional political points.
And please, someone in the Clinton video production unit tell me why they froze that awkward frame at the end, with her smile half open, and zoomed in slowly, as she says, "I approve this message." It looks as if she has been caught red-handed, and we have a photograph to show it.
Onward to the Repubicans!
A red sweater, a white collar. Like Giuliani, Huckabee apparently works with Santa.
Otherwise, it couldn't be more different. There is no French New Wave or cinema of alienation here. The borders are not porous. There is just a straightforward point made: what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Jesus -- oh, and that you can count on Mike Huckabee to say that without apologies or unease of any kind.
Huckabee does everything that the Obamas resisted. He turns on the charm, the eyebrow-lifting, shoulder-shrugging charm of the best kind of salesman, the kind that means it, as he wishes an entire nation to have a "magnificent" Christmas.
Yes, yes, and there is a giant white cross over his right shoulder. Your point?
This video has all the simplicity and folksy charm of the best propaganda. It knows what it is selling (just as its subject does) and it goes about selling it. Its best analog is an Ipod ad on TV -- you always see the iPod up front and center, and there's always music playing on it. Well for Huckabee, Christianity is his music, and bass-player that he is, he knows how to keep a tune.
What about John Edwards:
We see the same Christmas tree hovering over the right shoulder. But this time the candidate is in a black suit, a white shirt, and a dark tie. Sober, unflashy, dedicated to the cause.
The implication of this dress code is that Edwards will be working for you, even during the holidays. He's that dedicated.
The music is unremarkable: a gathering-moment piano piece. But it does raise the stakes emotionally. It seems to be building to something. And Edwards talks directly to us, as Huckabee did. He means it.
There's the problem of his stuffed-up nose, adding a nasally quality to his voice. But otherwise we focus on him and him alone for the duration of the video.
The background does not suggest anything fancy at all. The tree is nondescript, the wood-framed picture on the wall, the wood paneling -- everything suggests a middle-class living room, or even a modest hotel room.
I think this is a strong video. It highlights Edwards' most endearing trait -- his commitment to making things better. Edwards' appeal is emotional (unlike Obama's, which like JFK's is more cerebral). And this ad does all the right things to create a sense of stirring emotion, held back only by the sobriety required to get the job done.
Back to the Republican side:
Okay, this is not technically a Christmas video like the others. This is a video of Mitt Romney and his family sledding together. It was posted by the campaign on December 17 -- so it must have been last weekend?
It's a relief to see a video that looks as if it documents a real-life event. Of course it is partly staged for the camera operator, but you do get the sense that there did take place an actual afternoon of sledding at some undisclosed location, with actual members of the Romney family (and their dogs) in attendance.
The video has a documentary feel, but like all good documentaries it tells a story. The story is that Mitt is a man who is different from his sons. They may be more self-aware and willing to open up to strangers (two of them admit to being "lazy"; another says he is "in awe" of his dad). They may be more socially at ease (we see them lounging on the couch without a clear mandate; Mitt is conspicuously absent).
But they never forget that he is their hero.
He is a tireless worker (we see him shoveling snow). He is caring (he reassures a youngster -- his son? -- that he will "do his best" not to let him "hit the pole"). He is frugal (he prefers the gloves from last year with duct tape holding them together). He hates waste of any kind ("Go leave the water running and see how quickly that will last," comments one of his boys).
The story it tells is that of Mitt overcoming whatever obstacles his family meets (snow, poles, failing gear, running faucets). He may not be the most accessible guy, but it is only because he is so busy doing stuff. If you knew him like we know him, he would be your hero too.
It's effective. I wish more political ads took this raw-footage, shooting from the hip documentary form. The distortion is still there, but it's in the editing not the performance of the candidate -- you get glimpses of the real person behind the mask.
Finally, the only other viable candidate in the race:
A prisoner of war story. A black and white photo of McCain as a young man. The older McCain's calm voice recounting it. He tells a heartwarming story of a guard easing his misery. And then the image:
A cross drawn in the ground with a stick.
This video has the starkness of a documentary, but the iconographic power of a religious story. It matches Huckabee's white, glowing, "coincidental" cross (formed by the sections of a bookcase) with a genuine, intentional cross, infused with meaning and history.
For my part, I think it is a powerful rejoinder to Huckabee. But the lasting impression of the video is not its image of the cross. The lasting impression is the one left by the black and white images and the unaffected tone in McCain's voice: suffering, hard-earned wisdom, sadness, quiet resolve. Those may be important and moving aspects of his experience, but I don't think they draw votes.
The McCain ad is a Christmas video done in the Ken Burns' style -- elegiac and cold.
Well, that completes my round-up critique of the candidates' videos. In then end I would rank them in two ways. Once for my personal preference:
1. Romney's "cinema verité documentary" style.
2. McCain's "Ken Burns' elegiac" style
3. Edwards' "I'm out here working for you" direct appeal
4. Obama's "I-will-sit-for-this-but-this-kind-of-self-aggrandizement-is-forced" style
5. Giuliani's "French New Wave Santa sidekick comedy" style
6. Hillary's Hollywood big-studio style
7. Huckabee's "direct propagandistic" style
My second list is in order of effectiveness:
After all that, while we're on the subject of Christmas videos, check out this inexplicably hilarious video (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan):
I'll be writing occasionally next week, but back to daily entries again in January. Happy holidays to everyone!