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Thoughts on "Dream": Can Filmmakers Mobilize Audiences with an Ethical Spectacle?

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

Given the release of Grand Theft Auto V last week, now seems as good a time as any to share thoughts on a book we read on a recommendation from a friend in the filmmaker community: Stephen Duncombe's "Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy." Generally theorizing that progressives could learn a lot from the fantastical image-making that the Right has executed at will in political theater (see: George W. Bush on the aircraft with the "Mission Accomplished" banner), Duncombe, who is a professor at NYU, spends much time articulating how the violent, sexual id-like impulses that are allowed to play out in Grand Theft Auto 4 are not cause for shameful moral hand-wringing, but rather that the popularity of the game speaks to the power of channelling fantasy through performance as an Other in the Other-world of a video game. (For more insight on video game narrative and storytelling, see CRI fellow Ryan Silbert's work here). What does this all have to do with grassroots distribution? In discussing what has hobbled progressive politics in the past, Duncombe actually does hit on many of the fundamental elements of grassroots movements that we have considered through the lens of film. For example, he derides organizations that recruit young "activists" on the street who stop you to ask for your money -- these are not empowered people. "This method... severely circumscribes the playing field of politics, disconnecting potential activists from political activity... What is asked from the passerby is equally alienating... This sort of politics discourages the creation of the very thing needed for democratic change: everyday citizen-activists" (pg. 66). These young organizers have not been respected, empowered, and included -- they are not in charge of the change they can create, as they would be in a truly grassroots organization. As a counter example and one in which the political activity is distinctly "image making," Duncombe cites MoveOn (much discussed by Nicco Mele in our conversation with him) and their campaign to democratically create an anti-Bush ad to play during half time of the Super Bowl. MoveOn "turned to its amateur membership, asking them to use their handicaps and desktop editing software (or access to moonlit professional facilities) and create an ad themselves... [which] resulted in a low-cost, high-quality product and the donations required to get it broadcast. MoveOn works because it invites its members to play" (pg. 75). The use of the word "play" here denotes the connection between grassroots movements and a video game like Grand Theft Auto; in both the key is that people at every level are participating in a meaningful way.

What Duncombe gets to in his book is a call for an "ethical spectacle" that progressives can collectively participate in. Some minor examples he gives is the participatory role-playing of the Billionaires for Bush, and the power of the presence of huge numbers of cyclists in Critical Mass. Because he's writing about the need to make "images," it seems like the connection between grassroots politics and grassroots film would be a clear one. In fact he calls attention to the fact that political "grand-standing" often learns the wrong thing from Hollywood -- the posturing around it instead of the power of its images:

"The mainstream models of progressive politics, from the professionalized Democratic Party to the ritualistic "March on Washington" of those further to the left, don't learn from celebrity culture; they ape it. A star on the platform is seen and heard, while the rest of us merely watch, applauding at the right moments. This has to change…. we need to look downward, concentrating on building local organizations where all participants can witness the efficacy of their participation and, in turn, have their participation witnessed by others…" (pg. 112)

If progressive masses continue to be treated as the audience, with certain leaders as the pedagogues, their politics will go nowhere, says Duncombe.

The natural conclusion to Duncombe's thinking is that filmmakers are the perfect ones to create and/or benefit from an "ethical spectacle." However, this could go two ways: 1) filmmakers are appropriately tuned to be the one making the image-based spectacles (through their films) that could motivate the masses in progressive politics. In other words: progressivism benefits from film / the medium), or 2) filmmakers could benefit from using the tactics that Duncombe proposes for the purposes of getting audiences to their films. So film benefits from progressivism / its field.

The second idea is less interesting than the first; in many ways we've been exploring how filmmakers could use grassroots tactics to get people to their films for the last 9 months. A participatory spectacle that is separate from the film itself is, however, an interesting idea, if only just another thing in the filmmakers' grassroots quiver. An example that comes to mind is the parade that the True/False film festival holds to kick off the weekend's festivities. Not only does anyone get to participate, but the costuming that is encouraging is in line with the broader idea of the festival, which is to constantly explore the line (if there is one) between what is "true" and "false" in documentary film. Another creative way the festival does this: their yearly game show "Gimme Truth!" in which participants guess whether 2 minute documentaries are real or fake. It's worth pointing out that these "spectacles" move forward an idea of a festival in general (which in turn of course promotes going to see films), but not the notion of going to see specific films.

The first idea -- that film can provide progressive politics with an ethical spectacle -- puts us firmly in a social action cinema landscape. Inherently any films we're talking about are being utilized for an external purpose (to move politics forward). However, filmmakers could still learn from what Duncombe finds in games like Grand Theft Auto 4: that the target audience creates meanings for themselves. Often "social issue" films feel very didactic and polemic, with little room left for multiple conclusions or interpretations. One can name a million documentaries like this, but even a fair number of narrative features do this and limit their audience as a result -- "Promised Land" comes to mind. "Whereas such multiplicity of popular interpretation was once seen as a problem that the artist… had to overcome, this openness to meaning is now built into the art itself… This is exactly how an open spectacle should work: planned, guided, and artfully created, but open to modification, indeterminacy, and contingency at both the level of form and meaning," says Duncombe on page 136.

In conclusion, though, one wonders if the medium of film is inherently too based on a paradigm between audience and thing looked at -- just like the speaker and the audience at the March on Washington or a Democratic Party Convention. Duncombe cites Situationist Guy Debord: " 'The role played by a passive or merely bit-playing 'public' must constantly diminish'… What an organizer of ethical spectacles must do is provide plenty of opportunity for intervention at an intimate and personal level, for this will translate into some sort of action that is transformation to both the individual actor and, ideally, the larger society" (pg. 130). Today more than ever, films have other mediums through which their audiences can "participate" in the world of the film -- something we discuss in an older post here -- but how can this be channelled meaningfully and not subsumed by market-based "fan culture" spaces?

There is a difference between living in a fantasy and acting out a fantasy of change. This is what Duncombe explores, and what grassroots filmmakers could afford to explore with their work.