By A-J AronsteinSeptember 20, 2016
On subsequent mornings, I would read the fallout from the speeches (plagiarized and otherwise), check for new polls, and monitor social networks for signs of the internet’s total collapse under the weight of endless content. It struck me that the avalanche of media didn’t seem to be helping anyone get a handle on the politics of this continuously terrifying summer. But it sure was effective at keeping everyone freaked.
The Chicago weather didn’t make me feel any better. Every year, cool breezes from the east shut down in July as Lake Michigan starts to boil. The city settles into the thick, humid part of the summer. Beaches fill with heated, oiled flesh. Dogs go nuts. The sedges reach higher and the prairie grasses sprout white puffs. Languorous, rainless thunder rolls through at lunchtime. The dead-quiet afternoons put the city on edge, especially when the news is terrible.
And in part because the news has been so consistently terrible, there have been numerous comparisons between this summer and 1968. By the start of that year’s DNC in Chicago, the United States had sunk itself chest-deep into Vietnam; Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were dead; Lyndon Johnson had declined to run for reelection; and Washington, DC smoldered in the aftermath of riots. All of this culminated in a confrontation between establishment Democrats and divided factions of demonstrators, who were in turn put down violently by Mayor Daley, the Chicago Police Department, and the Illinois National Guard. The convention would go on to serve as a very depressing climax to a very bad year, reshaping American electoral politics in ways that still reverberate.
In one sense, every time I lean over my laptop to write this essay, new similarities, shadows, and parallels between 2016 and 1968 unfold. This has been a summer of mass shootings, police violence, backlash against police violence, accusations of rigged systems from all sides, and distasteful political expediency in the face of national tragedies. Much of it has been live-streamed, captured (or, sometimes not) by police body cameras, and Snapchatted — brought to us with an immediacy and horrible intimacy that has proven in many cases unprecedented.
But when it comes to the conventions themselves — and particularly to the changes that the 1968 DNC wrought in our collective consumption of mass media — there’s simply no comparison. After all, the 1968 DNC reshaped overnight the way that Americans experienced the possibilities and limitations of its newly dominant media form: television. Amid comparisons between 2016 and 1968, this seems a centrally important but under-analyzed observation. The convention represented that rarest of moments, in which a carefully staged spectacle failed systematically before a (newly) live and tuned-in audience, laying bare the very toxic divisions in the populace that planners had aimed to elide. The convention and anti-convention both played out on the same stage of network TV to the soundtrack of protestors chanting — for the first time ever — “The whole world is watching.”
So sure, Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement, Melania Trump’s unoriginality, Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s leaked emails, and the vehemence of the Bernie Boo-Birds may have laid bare embarrassing schisms in the political parties this year. But these embarrassments represented fractures within the structures of the political establishment. Party officials could move to minimize their effects, albeit with varying degrees of success: people were fired, press releases were issued, crowd marshals shushed sternly. By contrast, the television coverage of the 1968 DNC revealed cracks in the very foundation of establishment politics. Whereas I doubt that we will remember Cleveland and Philadelphia for groundbreaking use of 360-degree YouTube streams (we’re just as likely to recall 2016 as the summer of Pokémon GO), any conversation about the significance of 1968 must examine the ways that the DNC transformed how we think about television.
The best way to understand this transformation is not to watch television footage itself (though it’s available on YouTube and makes for harrowing viewing). Rather, we should consider two of the most important works to emerge in its aftermath: Norman Mailer’s essay “The Siege of Chicago” and Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool. Together they give us language not only to understand the convention and protests, but also to think through their mediation. In both works, we encounter artists straining to understand the effect of television on the events, but also on the ways their own work speaks back to television. Mailer and Wexler help outline the limitations and advantages of television as a medium, even as they struggle to find ways to describe events whose scope and gravity evade traditional means of narrative.
Mailer’s account of the convention combines the reported with the self-reflective in a representative example of early-ish New Journalism. He watches the apparent disintegration of American society from the vantage point of the streets and from his 19th-floor room in the Conrad Hilton, the hotel where convention-goers had a ringside seat for clashes between protestors and the combined forces of the CPD and Illinois National Guard. Of course, he also watches the protests on TV. Grappling with the graphic footage of the violence, Mailer questions the value of his own coverage in the context of a relentless stream of images. He asks what a journalist can add to the inexhaustible eye of the television camera, producing an essay that’s as much about TV as it is about politics.
From the start, Mailer plays with the relationship between the staged and authentic versions of the televised convention (again, perhaps the first to be designed specifically for network audiences). TV’s weakness seems at first to lie in the medium’s pliability to the will of convention stagemasters. Here’s how he describes Mayor Daley’s orchestration of the proceedings:
[Network TV] cameras would be limited to the hotels and to the Amphitheatre — they would not be able to take their portable generators out to the street and run lines to their color cameras. That would not be permitted. They were restricted to movie cameras, which would make them half a day late in reporting action or interviews in the streets (half a day late for television is equal to being a week late).
Control of the convention relies on control of their representation, as well as on limitation of the speed at which coverage reaches viewers. This may seem self-evident today, but the presence of cameras in 1968 leads to the creation of an event that is, as Mailer puts it, “calculated to work to the deterrence of dramatic possibility.” In this sense, the presence of cameras works to drain the event of anything eventful (though even in the convention hall, Dan Rather was famously socked by security with CBS cameras rolling). In this context, Mailer observes, “[h]e who controlled the floor no longer controlled the power of public opinion.” Power accrues to whoever controls the broadcast — not to those who hold the floor. Given these circumstances, Mailer commits himself at the outset of the essay to exposing the staged quality of the televised proceedings and revealing the sham of the camera’s supposed objectivity. What we get at home is merely a performance of politics.
But when the protests explode in full view of the television cameras, Mailer cannot deny TV’s effectiveness in presenting the truth of the violence. The irony here, of course, is that Daley’s decision to keep color television cameras out of the hall meant that they instead roamed freely in the streets. The strength of television lies in the stark immediacy of its images and its inexhaustible energy for recording, making it the perfect medium for capturing images of violence. What it misses is the context that gives meaning to these images. Mailer’s role as a journalist shifts from one who exposes the absurd artificiality of television to one who corroborates and contextualizes the coverage of TV cameras. He signals this shift at a pivot point in the essay:
We have been present until now at an account of the Democratic Convention of 1968. It has not, however, been a description of the event. The event was a convention which took place during a continuing five-day battle in the streets and parks of Chicago between some of the minions of the high established, and some of the nihilistic of the young.
On one hand, this shift seems to downplay the entire opening frame of the essay, in which Mailer has described the speeches and the ceremonies, the events leading up to the convention, and the pomp of the proceedings. In fact, this opening frame plays a crucial role as a counterpoint to his account of the protests on the second half. It sets the stage for Mailer’s longer meditation on the value of his own perspective against that of television.
Mailer’s perspective is perhaps the perfect one to capture both sides of the “battle.” As an established author, he is a “minion” of the literary establishment; but he identifies more closely with the “nihilistic of the young” in the streets. Unlike the television camera, whose perspective remains fixed on the action, Mailer struggles to figure out where to place himself in the coverage. Throughout the essay, he moves between the Hilton and the streets. Like the cameras, he can move between the two worlds of the convention. But in his case, these different perspectives become charged with ideological import. He looks down on the chaos from the establishment’s hotel perch, or up from the streets in alliance with the protestors. Watching from his window — which itself seems to represent a kind of screen — Mailer gets the Olympian view:
It was as if the war had finally begun, and this was therefore a great and solemn moment, as if indeed even the gods of history had come together from each side to choose the very front of the Hilton Hotel before the television cameras of the world […] as if, no metaphor large enough to suffice, the Democratic Party had here broken in two before the eyes of a nation like Melville’s whale charging right out of the sea.
TV provides the images, and from a similar vantage point Mailer provides narrative resonance and symbolic heft. The journalist works in tandem with the camera, assigning metaphoric meaning to the unfolding scenes. It is the necessary injection of figurative language to give body to the otherwise flat images that television produces.
When he’s in the streets, Mailer concentrates more on his own obsolescence — both figuratively as a writer and literally as an older man — as a medium. He increasingly details his faults as a reporter, cataloging a flagging energy for the provision of perspective in the face of continuing violence. His body fails him: he misses a night of protest in Lincoln Park because he falls asleep. His courage fails him: fear of his own capacity for violence scares him away from the march. Instead, he drinks and watches the protests from the safety of his room. He describes the fatigue induced by days of slogging through the protests. He feels both embedded in the plot and unable to catch up to it. Meantime, TV’s inexhaustibility means that it goes on capturing what Mailer cannot. As if in response, Mailer provides what TV’s images cannot on their own: an account of what it means to lose one’s abilities to describe the events.
Driven to speak in front of the protesters in Grant Park alongside Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet, and William Burroughs, Mailer finds his words inadequate to the occasion. Referring to himself in the third person as he does with increasing regularity, Mailer writes, “He had even begun by saying to them, ‘You’re beautiful,’ a show-biz vulgarity he detested to the root of his nerve.” The disappointment spurs him into more speeches and more drinking, the action continuing to whir around him. He ultimately finds himself hungover, distraught, and too tired to drag himself back to the protest lines. At the end of the convention, Gene McCarthy’s daughter asks Mailer what he plans to do about the violence. He tells her that he just wants to go home.
Later, he thinks that he should have instead said, “Dear miss […] we will be fighting for forty years.” It’s strange to see Mailer ragged, worn out by five days of siege, and disappointed in his own inability to get his head around the protests. In the end, his defeat comes to represent an exhaustion that the camera simply cannot express. As such, he gives voice to an event’s capacity to escape definitive description.
As in Mailer’s case, Wexler’s film engages with the role that TV plays at the conventions, but within a broader conversation about media in the United States. Wexler’s means of questioning entails a mash-up of filmmaking styles, combining a made-up narrative with documentary to trouble the relationship between fact and fiction. In doing so, Medium Cool presses back vehemently against the apparent objectivity of televised images, and suggests that no medium can claim ultimate authority over representation of even real events.
The film follows John Cassellis (Robert Forster), a television cameraman for a Chicago station. Cassellis falls for Eileen (Verna Bloom), a poor Appalachian transplant to Chicago, whose son Harold goes missing during the convention. Wexler complicates this straightforward plot by interweaving scenes of documentary footage and interviews, shot with vérité-style camerawork before and during the convention. In the film’s second-half climax, Eileen and John wander through the ongoing protests, interacting with cops, guardsmen, delegates, and injured protestors in a search for Harold. The actors remain in character even as they are surrounded by the real violence of the protests. It becomes almost impossible to concentrate on the fictional plot as characters (and filmmakers) find themselves embedded more deeply in the live drama.
At its most basic, Medium Cool asks us to consider what compels us to consume film and television in the first place. For Cassellis, to shoot film effectively seems a question of capturing the kinetic energy of a scene: “We don’t deal with the static things,” he tells colleagues at a cocktail party, “We deal with the things that are happening.” The static represents context, or the boring stuff about class, race, politics, and economics (the stuff Mailer tries to describe) that lies beyond the frame. Cassellis wants to capture images and deliver them to his audience as quickly and objectively as possible, precisely in the absence of the kind of context that Mailer wants to provide. “Jesus, I love to shoot film,” he whispers in the glow of a televised rebroadcast of Martin Luther King’s final speech. Specifically, he loves the television camera’s power to unlock the latent tension of a scene, its promise to deliver drama-in-motion, and its insistent motive force. At the center of Medium Cool lies Wexler’s constant questioning of how the filmmaker — who ostensibly moves more slowly and deliberately in the construction of narratives that establish context and richer stories — can compete with the kinetic motion of television.
His answer lies in Medium Cool’s questioning of the veracity of filmic images, or at least its suggestion that the camera always captures elements of truth combined with elements of fiction. In one of the weirder sequences in the film, half of a squad of Illinois National Guardsmen impersonates protestors while the other half practices putting down demonstrations using plastic bayonets, jeeps outfitted with barbed wire grills, and canisters of fake tear gas. The guardsmen are playing roles, but so too is Forster in the role of Cassellis, and so too is Wexler in the role of a documentary filmmaker (who is actually shooting a scene for a fiction film). What counts as “real” becomes an unstable matter of opinion, certainly not a fact presented by the camera. We remember the scene when, later in the film, a canister of tear gas falls at the feet of Wexler and his crew during the protests. “Look out Haskell, it’s real!” says someone off camera. For a moment, the real appears to tear the veneer of the fictional. But even in this instance, we have to question their relationship to the action — and in the documentary that accompanies Medium Cool, Wexler confesses that he added the line afterward.
As the protests unfold, Eileen wanders through the streets of Chicago in a bright yellow dress, looking for her son. John meantime tries to capture news footage in the increasingly tumultuous convention hall. Outside, tanks form a blockade in the streets; police swing their clubs at bloodied kids; protestors shout at departing TV cameras, “NBC come back! Stay with us!” Television becomes an ally of the protestors, not because it keeps the police from acting, but rather because it captures visceral image of officers when they do act.
In Medium Cool, the viewer is tugged between the drama of the fictional plot and the real-life violence that puts everyone in danger. Wexler’s achievement lies in his ability to make sure that we neither trust the documentarian’s perspective nor convince ourselves that we reside safely within the land of make-believe. Nor do we emerge confident that television captures everything. Instead, we sit suspended between multiple forms of mediation, left to piece together fragmented narratives. What’s striking here is that he does not choose a single medium to provide a concrete truth of the convention. Neither TV, documentary, nor fictional film captures the totality — the drama, the chaos, the unreality — of the event. Wexler puts the responsibility of stitching the narratives together on the shoulders of his viewers.
Boiled down, Mailer asserts that the writer’s perspective can give body to television’s otherwise flat images, while Wexler argues that no single medium has a monopoly on the truth of those images. If the television camera proved something at the 1968 DNC, it was the visceral power of televised footage to shock and galvanize a mass audience, a truth reinforced again and again by nightly news from Vietnam. But coverage of the convention also produced conditions for thinking through the meaning of older mediums in the context of television’s new supremacy. It exposed both the power of TV and the elements of an event that the tube potentially couldn’t mediate.
Future convention planners would interpret the lessons of 1968 to mean that the decisions made at a quadrennial national circus had to be diffused and distributed throughout a primary season that preceded it. The stakes of conventions decreased in each successive cycle (the stakes this year may have been stoked to feel high, but the conclusions were — with the benefit of hindsight — utterly foregone).
I wonder if post-1968 conventions will ever again produce similarly vital and rich works that press back against dominant media forms. Certainly if the production of such works is predicated on mass violence, I’m opposed! But from my End of Democracy Mission Control, it seems that television is still very much in command of mass political spectacle (and, I guess, as I watched the Olympics, I’m reminded again). Meantime, our newest forms of streamed media provide more of an echo chamber effect than humanizing context. And many of us seem to have happily welcomed PolitiFact, data journalists, and poll aggregators as arbiters of objectivity. I don’t lament these developments necessarily. Any form of new media might hold the possibility to produce genres that speak back to the dominant mode. I hope that Mailer and Wexler might teach us that we should always take opportunities to search for those forms.
A-J Aronstein splits his time between Chicago and New York. His work has appeared in The New Ohio Review and he has written online for publications that include the Paris Review and Tin House. He is working on his first book.
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