The Magazine

The New Know-Nothings

From the November 1 / November 8, 2004 issue: On the making of celebrity get-out-the-vote documentaries.

Nov 1, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 08 • By MATT LABASH
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AT THE END of every election cycle, we hope to retire the clichés that have bedeviled us. Yet every four years, they reemerge from dormancy, causing pain, discomfort, and minor inflammation. We hold these clichés to be self-evident: (1) that this campaign season, like all those before it and without regard to actual history, will be deemed by some professor to be the most "negative" one ever; (2) that if an Ohio swing voter has a single unexpressed thought, a television producer will be dispatched to rectify that oversight; and (3) that some nitwit celebrity, who prior to the election couldn't find the newspaper's national affairs section if it came wrapped around his Chilean sea bass, will admit to a lifelong disengagement with our political system. To atone, he will then invite a documentary film crew to follow him around as he lectures the rest of us about the importance of voting.

If journalism, like politics, is show-business for ugly people, credit the news-gatherers with this much: We know our limitations. We are aware that we'd make awful actors, as Gridiron Dinner sketches acutely remind us. But this self-awareness seems unfairly one-sided. Celebrities have no idea that they make awful journalists. For the purpose of becoming a journalist is to explore the wider world. The purpose of becoming a celebrity is to explore yourself.

Most celebrities, of course, think that by exploring themselves, they are exploring the wider world. When many of them wake up in their mid-20s, after years of decadent sex and cocaine abuse, they finally discover that there are these things called "elections," which can affect the fate of the republic. Then they learn that you don't even have to audition to participate. Instead, you "register" and "vote" so that you too can "have a voice," as they like to say.

The fact that most people who have any business voting in elections mastered these concepts in ninth-grade civics is of no concern to the celebrity. Because he just discovered the importance of participation, this self-discovery must be not so much shared, as inflicted. And never mind grappling with thorny questions such as whom you should vote for. Or even whether the ill-informed should be encouraged to vote in the first place. That would require a moment's thought. And celebrities weren't put here to think. In this way, they do know their limitations. Any idiot can insist we need to vote. Which is why so many celebrities do.

Shortly after the advent of the "Rock the Vote" advocacy campaign featured on MTV, the genre got off to an inauspicious start with a documentary called The Last Party. Would that the title were literal. Alas, it was not the last party featuring celebrity-civics narcissisme vérité, but the first of many. Hosted by part-time actor/full-time rehabber Robert Downey Jr., The Last Party set the bar about as low as it could possibly go.

Armed with nothing but his pretensions and a camera crew, Downey lit out on the campaign trail. When not talking about his own battles with drug addiction and intimacy issues ("the idea of a vagina brings up a lot of . . . resentment," he shared), he attempted to reveal the pointlessness, the artifice, and the utmost importance of participating in our electoral process. If those themes seemed contradictory, Downey didn't pause over them. Instead he broke into arty asides, such as meditating in a park in his underwear, going for a swim in a public fountain, or jumping up and down on all fours, doing a character he called "goat boy." It's one of the advantages of being a celebrity journalist. Such devices aren't generally available to Jim Lehrer.

Two cycles later, in the year 2000, came The Party's Over (and no, it wasn't), hosted by Philip Seymour Hoffman. We know we're in for a rough go when Hoffman, as talented an actor as he is untalented a documentarian, tells us, "I decided to host this documentary because I felt ill-informed." He trudges along the campaign trail with three-day growth and shabby ski-hats, looking like an appetizer-sized version of Michael Moore. (All he's missing is 100 pounds and a point of view.)

Hoffman even gets to Washington, D.C., which he discovers is the political epicenter of our country. Thoroughly impressionable, he seems to adopt the opinion of whoever he interviewed last, be it Noam Chomsky (who offers that most politicians seek to divide and conquer), or Ralph Nader (who suggests that both parties are beholden to corporate interests). By the time he finishes, Hoffman is capable of proffering banalities of his own. "I think this whole thing is about survival of the fittest," he says at one point. He really ought to get a patent on this stuff.