Republicans, Cinema, and What Is Real

Republicans are watching their faxes arrive via webcam.

Under a headline “Parties Strategize for Dealing With Supreme Court Decision on Health Care” on the New York Times website right now, is this nugget: “The National Republican Congressional Campaign has mounted a petition drive for repeal [of the national health care law], complete with a function to allow signers to watch their faxed petitions arrive over the Internet.”

Leaving aside what this says about Republicans and their feelings about technology and trees, this says something about us and our feelings about cinema. Knowing nothing else about it – and what am I going to do? start clicking around on the Republicans’ website? I’m a screenwriter, God damn it. – knowing nothing else about it except what I know about the healthcare law, I predict that millions of people are going to love this!

On the face of it, the whole exercise makes zero sense. If you have the technology to watch a live video feed, then surely you can deliver a message to Congress in a more efficient and no less personalized way than a fax. It must be easier, and sounds a lot more entertaining, to make a digital simulation of a petition arriving, with a reproduction of each petitioner’s signature on it. But that’s not what we want.

We – and “we” are not just Republicans – want reality. It never occurred to me till this morning that it’s no coincidence that reality TV, the vulgar stepchild of cinema verité, matured at the very time when digital enhancement and outright fabrication of images became the norm. We can have a simulation of anything we want, but part of the pleasure of movies has always been capturing what’s real. Before films had narratives even, that’s what people enjoyed about them:


(That’s by the Lumiére Brothers, and they weren’t trying to make a history archive, that was an entrepreneurial film.)

There is not yet any satisfying substitute for a three-dimensional thing that is a manifestation of an idea or a position, except for a digital image if it’s  really spectacular, and then only some of the time. This is why gardening and cooking are so satisfying after a day spent manipulating tiny balls of light on a computer screen – and why I often think that sculptors are probably the happiest people on earth.

I face this in my own work when I am trying to write realistic characters, and their actions and reversals they face, when so much of the workforce around me is spending its day reading and typing. Crime and treachery are now committed via Paypal, or “Bump-ing” cell phones against one another, or intentionally forgetting to CC one’s rivals on emails. Complications are when the computer you’re borrowing hasn’t had its operating system updated, so you can’t open the file you need to work on, and your boss is asking where it is, via text message of course. In the real world, that can crush your dreams, but on screen it’s underwhelming.

Story-tellers are constantly thinking: How do we render this scene so that it’s not so boring? Do we keep the anachronism, like a suitcase full of ten dollar bills? (The Republican story-tellers are going for something like this with their healthcare petition.)

Or do we imagine some extra-digital complication? The coffee spilled on the keyboard, the muddy shoes on the boss’ carpet, or the car that got locked in a parking ramp while the digital conspiracy, boring and invisible, was playing out inside.

What do you think?

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