Saturday, March 2, 2013

Staying On Message

One of the ongoing frustrations of our current political climate is watching elected officials continue to regurgitate prefabricated talking points that do nothing to solve any of the problems facing our society. Since the rise of cable television, it has become commonplace for pundits and politicians to toe the line on any particular issue without any introspection, critical analysis, or independent thought. Thankfully, people are starting to take notice.

Staying on message is important. Unless, of course, the message reinforces shitty logic. From financial austerity to protecting the status quo, from racist recalcitrance to homophobic hypocrisy, the medium delivers a predetermined message. But sometimes the message has to change.

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During the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival, I was impressed by Kurt Bodden's one-man show entitled Steve Seabrook: Better Than You.  Bodden has returned to town with his comically subversive monologue, which he is performing through March 30 at The Marsh.

In his show, Bodden portrays a middle-aged motivational speaker who, though appropriately slick and cynical, will probably never rise to the level of someone like Tony Robbins.  Using the audience as participants in a “weekend workshop for personal growth,” he encourages attendees to “live vicariously" through themselves as they try to plot out a future course of increasingly vague disappointments with their lives.

When I first reviewed Bodden's show, I noted that:
"When Steve Seabrook is 'on,' he's the non-threatening guru leading a group of seminar attendees who are eager to improve themselves. At various points in his weekend workshop he slickly introduces his vertically integrated line of self-help/feel good products (which includes Steve Seabrook's personal brand of bottled water) and informs people of the 'special discounts' they can get if they sign up for another seminar before they head home. When Steve Seabrook is 'off,' he's desperately battling the loneliness of a road warrior, looking back on his life and wondering how many more of these "self-help" sessions he can bring himself to lead. In those moments of human weakness, he seems as frail as some of the people who come to Steve Seabrook looking for inspiration. What I really loved about Kurt Bodden's act was watching how easily his body language embraces the kind of slickly vacuous self-help advice that has become prevalent in American life."

Bodden has the language of self help  down pat. While his Steve Seabrook character may seem in control of things during the workshop, in the off-moments when he tries to get the lighting man to join him for drinks or dinner, Steve Seabrook is revealed to be no more than a lonely traveling snake oil salesman hungry for companionship.

It's interesting to see, that in its current version, Steve Seabrook's offstage persona seems to have softened a bit. Bodden has also added some new material in which he imitates a frightened dog barking at a stranger. His message is that most people fail to realize that the dog (or person who is intimidating them) is actually more threatened than they are. It would be interesting to see Bodden deepen this bit to explain how more people are afraid of success than failure (which they've learned to accommodate throughout their lives).

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Directed by Pablo Larrain, NO offers solid proof that some parts of politic marketing are not much different from selling cars or trendy clothes. The business has become as much about counting votes as about making people feel good about themselves for the simple act of voting.  Set in 1988 against the background of an election that everyone assumed had been rigged to keep Chile’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in power, NO becomes a primitive battle of advertising styles.

Gael Garcia Bernal as René Saavedra in NO
Drafted to help craft their campaign’s message, advertising executive René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) insists that a happier message is needed if the NO campaign is going to sizzle rather than fizzle. The leaders of the NO movement are well aware that they are being shadowed by Pinochet’s secret police, the DINA. As he reviews the materials previously created for the NO campaign, René understands full well that voters are frightened.

René (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Simon (Pascal Montero) in NO

René faces multiple obstacles. Not only must he convince his clients to take a radically different approach to messaging, he must survive the intimidation tactics of the opposition’s campaign (many Chileans have been “disappeared”) under Pinochet’s rule.

To make matters worse, Pinochet’s reelection campaign is largely being steered by René’s boss at the advertising agency where he works, Luis "Lucho" Guzman (Alfredo Castro). His estranged wife (Antonia Zegers). thinks the whole election is rigged. René, on the other hand, just wants to get back together with his wife and their young son, Simon (Pascal Montero).

With Pinochet's campaign outspending the NO campaign by a ratio of 30 to 1, René  must create a series of campaign ads that appeal to the Chilean population's emotions and encourage people to go to the polls. The last thing voters need to see are images of killing, torture, tanks, and tear gas being used on protesters.

René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) at his desk in NO

Instead of attacking Pinochet (whose goons might censor an offending message), René creates a standard advertising campaign that aims to make people happy. By commissioning cheerful jingles and engaging Chilean celebrities to help deliver a message that says “Chile --  happiness is coming!!!” he convinces voters that they deserve a better, happier future. As Bernal notes:
"I think that what was achieved at that moment was one of the most important and pure acts of fraternity that democracy has lived in the world. While knowing that they were entering an election that was largely considered to be fraudulent from the very beginning, they trusted that it was worth the sacrifice to show their faces for once and for all --  for themselves, for their parents, for their children. René is a character that is inherent to the context that he lived in, but at the same time, he is also eternal. He symbolizes the political awakening of an apparently apolitical person. Being as he is, a consequence of the politics lived by his parents (exile, persecution, the feeling of always being a foreigner), he inadvertently seeks to redeem himself with the political side. I feel that this rite of maturity is a recurrent passage in human beings, which appears when one realizes that it is possible to change things first-handedly. This is where Saavedra, in my opinion, turns into a heroic and plausible being."
Gael Garcia Bernal as René Saavedra in NO
Larrain shot his film using a 1983 U-matic video camera. As he explains:
"We decided to shoot in the same format used to shoot practically all the archive footage in the film. As a result, we achieved images identical to those shot in the 1980s, so the spectator has access to this rare footage without being aware of what is archive footage and what was shot for the film. In doing so, we were able to avoid making the usage of archive material evident, creating a seamless combination of time, space, and material generated with Ikegami tube cameras from 1983. The infectious songs and jingles are all from the 1988 campaign, as are many of the singers, dancers and actors in the commercials."

Poster art for NO

NO offers a fascinating lesson in revolutionizing political marketing which, coming on the heels of the Obama/Romney competition, shows that some basic advertising concepts never change. Fans of Gabriel Garcia Bernal will find plenty to admire in his laid-back performance while more politically inclined moviegoers will get plenty of food for thought. Here's the trailer.

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