Thursday, June 20, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Feed’

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Feed is a fascinating documentary of a specific time and place, the 1992 New Hampshire Presidential primary. The footage for the documentary is taken from countless hours of culled satellite news footage and then edited together. It’s sold as an attempt to give us candid outbursts and colorful moments, but in reality, Feed captures something less gotcha and more esoteric.

Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway allow Feed to trundle along without voice-overs or explanations. This is not to say there isn’t a narrative, there is, it’s just isn’t explicit and attempts to be as objective as possible. But as it goes along it begins to highlight the old maxim of the more things change the more things stay the same.

For, while Rafferty and Ridgeway’s aim was to capture candid comments from the politicians, what they captured were the mundane, everyday human moments. There’s nothing particularly salacious or jaw-dropping said into a hot mic. Instead, we see the myriad of ways people running for office interact with those around them when they don’t think anyone is watching.

Oh sure, former Californian Secretary of State Jerry Brown is a tad abrasive to people adjusting his tie. But mostly we get the feeling he just doesn’t feel comfortable talking to people. At one point we see Brown before a college classroom discussing media literacy and Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message.”

It’s an awkward scene but when I watched it, I began to see why Brown was going to lose. He’s wanting to have a conversation no one else is interested in having but can’t get them to change. Yet, another moment shows Brown with reporters and the conversation is much more lively.

While touting his tax plan, Brown name drops Gucci Gulch. A reporter asks if he’s read Showdown at Gucci Gulch by the journalist Jeffrey Birnbaum, and Brown says he hasn’t. Brown asks for the title again and the reporter writes the title down on some paper and gives it to him.

Moments like these are fascinating because they are so deeply of their time. Most viewers watching likely have no clue about Gucci Gulch or The Tax Reform Act of 1986; one of the largest tax reform bills ever passed in modern history. But in 1992 it would be ludcrious not to be talking about the effects of the bill.

Some of the people in Feed are memorable for other reasons. People such as Jacques Barzaghi, one of Brown’s Campaign Advisors. An intelligent, likable Frenchman, he nevertheless seems to struggle with expressing himself. One moment has Bargazhi stumbling and eventually getting lost in a meandering torturous metaphor.

“You have a cocktail and then you have a meal. During the entree you probably have, I don’t know, rose? Then for the meat, you might have red wine. With your fish, you have a white wine. Then with your dessert, you get your champagne. But at the end, right before you go to bed you drink a clear glass…of water. If you look at all the presidents, one after the other, you can look at the difference. One day it will be time for a clear glass of water. I don’t know when but hopefully soon.”

“Who is the clean glass of water?”

Barzaghi shrugs. “Let’s let the voter make up their mind who it is.”

Feed is a historical curiosity. Most of the candidates will likely be unknown, as they were to me, simply because like most viewers politics seems only to exist when we start to vote. Everything before is pointless and archaic and everything after is morbid and exhausting.

1992 is a strange year for Presidential politics. George H.W. Bush was the Republican President and is forced to run opposed by Pat Buchanan. It would be easier for Bush if he were unopposed but that’s not his biggest worry. His biggest worry is a Democratic Governor from Arkansas, Bill Clinton.

Rafferty and Ridgeway capture the ephemeral mad dash to the finish line that is Primary politics. Candidates like Massachutes Democratic Congressman Paul Tsongas having photo ops at a cafe. The owner brings him a plate but then Tsongas walks away from the plate, the food uneaten. Campaigns have been derailed by less.

But 1992 is also when Gennifer Flowers went public revealing her twelve-year affair with Governor Clinton. Feed shows us how the story threatens to overtake Clinton’s campaign but also how easily he side-steps it. It also gives us glimpses from the Flowers press conference and the back and forth she has with reporters.

One reporter asks her if someone from either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party had asked her to come forward. Flowers answers yes, and the crowd erupts into questions and shouts. But it’s nothing compared to the response of a reporter who shouts out “Did the Governor wear a condom?” The laughter and response of the crowd are almost deafening. 

Feed makes the media as much of a character as the candidates themselves. We see a clip of two broadcasters discussing the candidates off the air. “He’s a nice enough guy and very thoughtful. But he looks like a kid on tv. It’s ridiculous he looks like a teenager.” The same broadcasters are also caught marveling at how Clinton seems to be a political Teflon. “Nothing seems to stick to this guy.”

Oddly I found myself becoming enamored with Tsongas. “How many people, do you think, have a picture of George Bush on their college dorms? Hello? Somebody out there in the great universe just said hello to me.” I don’t know if I’d vote for the senator but I did enjoy his moments of candor.

At a press conference, an audience member got up and asked Tsongas since he has three kids if he knew how much it cost to raise a family of five. “Or at the very least do you happen to know, or, can you guess how much a gallon of milk costs?” Tsongas smiles and throws up his hands.

He hops off the stage and shakes the man’s hands before returning to his podium. “You asked me how much a gallon of milk costs. 1.79. At your friendly grocers.” “Senator, can you tell me where you shop?”

Amidst all the genial politicking and tame hot mics, we get a glimpse of an America that is largely white, if not as male-dominated as it once was. For, while other candidates may be married, it’s Hillary Clinton who we see on the campaign trail alongside her husband. At one point, while at a dinner someone asks her to take a serious look at “the divorce rates’ ‘ when she gets to the white house. Forcing a smile she nods.

The side effect of seeing everybody gladhand and smile at everybody is that it becomes almost unnerving when we see people who don’t. President H.W. Bush sits before the camera before his interview starts and stares unblinkingly into the middle distance. He knows the dangers of being caught off guard and so his approach is to simply exist. 

Bush’s zen-like, charismatic-free existence is a stark contrast to almost every other candidate Democrat or Republican. Bizarrely the reason for Buchanan’s primary challenge, if his supporters are to be believed, springs from Bush pledging never to raise taxes during his campaign and then doing so once in office. Buchanan comes off the most mysterious and closed off.

One protester by Buchanan’s bus holds a sign that says Buchanan is supported by nazis. Seeing the sign, Buchanan and his wife give an expressionless reaction. Incredibly we find out at the end of Feed that Buchanan won the Republican primary in New Hampshire but will lose all the others.

Rafferty and Ridgeway aren’t out to paint a picture one way or the other. Feed isn’t reportage but more an attempt to merely glance at the whole of a thing and draw our conclusions. It is less about catching politicians off guard and more about exposing their confusion and anxieties as they struggle through the maddening process.

Edited by Sarah Durham, she slyly finds ways of tying the footage in Feed together, sometimes capturing politicians at their most vulnerable points. Durham cuts from the Flowers press conference to Clinton shaking hands at a local restaurant. A woman in a low-cut dress stands at the front of the line. An aide discreetly but noticeably distracts the President and eases him past the woman even as she tries to get his attention.

I found the most startling moment to be between a homeless man and one of Hillary Clinton’s aides. While leaving a restaurant, Hillary meets what we think is a drunk man on his way home. She humors the man, gets into her car, and drives away. One of her people who stays behind follows the man to his cart, and it’s then we realize he is homeless.

The aid talks to the man who feels slighted by Clinton. She patiently tries to explain she had a plane to catch. The aide then asks if she can give the man something as she grabs her purse. She reaches inside and pulls out a voter registration form.

Both the homeless man and I had the same confused reaction. Eventually, the woman asks the man if he has a place to sleep, and soon the camera cuts away. But the moment stays seared into my brain.

Feed has a narrative but not in a dramatic sense. It goes chronologically, interview by interview, crisis by crisis. Stopping along the way to have a glimpse of the pollsters and campaign staffers working on the ground floor.

One campaign office has a woman shouting out, “We are not going to lose to a man who wears a pocket protector,” referring to Tsongas. Another has a man patiently calling voters on behalf of Clinton to see if they are registered. There is a moment where a young man is talking to an elderly woman who is hard of hearing with the patience of a saint. It is both humorous and deeply touching at the same time.

Just as Feed is about to wear out its welcome, enter the larger than life Independent oil billionaire Ross Perot, and we’re off to the races all over again. “My favorite story Dan. Guy came up to me Saturday morning and says, ‘Perot I’m going to vote for you.’ I said well thank you. And he says ‘and here’s the reason why. Anyone as ugly as you are who could convince that good looking woman to marry ya and then stay with you all these years can probably convince the Japanese to buy American made cars.’”

Feed ends as the primary does, practically anticlimactic. Rafferty and Ridgeway, in the end, tell us how each candidate did in the primary. It doesn’t feel final, if only because for many of the candidates, this is only the beginning. 

The final shot of Feed is possibly it’s most sublime. President George H.W. Bush, once again, sits before a camera, stoically; contemplating, unbothered, and unaware. He reaches for a clear glass of water.

Image courtesy of First Run Features and Original Cinema

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