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Davis, California

Friday, July 19, 2024

Column: Populist Rhetoric

It’s great when titles say it all.

Take a recent NPR.org article titled “The Abramoff Saga: Reads Like A Movie, And Now It Is” about the upcoming film, Casino Jack and the United States of Money. The film’s title, like the Abramoff story itself, is almost too simple to be true.

These stories make headlines on an almost weekly basis, so it’s refreshing when they’re portrayed creatively. And when they’re done right, they’re all the more powerful.

After all, the news often reads a bit like a cheap romance comedy – way too perfect and ridiculous, and chock full with bad actors. Tom Delay never got his makeup right; John Ashcroft couldn’t sing; Sarah Palin always forgot her lines. It’s almost as if they’re paid to give artists their material.

It’s also a little sad when politically conscious art bypasses these gaffes and dives straight into the dirt – when the bad actors actually oppose health care reform, betted against the financial health of their own clients and permitted risky mortgage-backed securities. Portraying these darker issues creatively is no easy task.

It’s not impossible, though. Ira Glass, creator and host of NPR’s “This American Life”, demonstrated just how at the Mondavi Center last Thursday. In his own snarky way, Glass railed against the “crazy theatrical seriousness” of local news. His program, in conjunction with fellow NPR producers Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson of Planet Money, explain topics like the economic crisis and health care reform better than any economics class I’ve ever taken at this college.

Their work – notably this more recent news coverage – puts a creative touch on something that can easily be described as alienating, especially if all you have is local news. This innovative and creative approach lets people get it, and people need this understanding if they’re going to actually do anything about it.

Some say this approach dumbs down the news for the younger, college-aged “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” audience (“stoned slackers,” as Bill O’Reilly affectionately labels us). This is far more applicable to the “The Daily Show” itself, since such an assertion about a show as renowned and celebrated as “This American Life” would be ludicrous. But to say the creative approach of the “The Daily Show” is negative for America is entirely missing the point. If people are watching, people will care. That’s enough to cause something bigger down the road.

Maybe focusing on the funny is too easy – which gives way to long and complex documentaries, be they facetious or on-point. Documentaries might be a different story, but they’re still artistic. Regardless of the accuracy of Michael Moore’s documentaries, Moore consistently delivers a thoughtful and entertaining piece of work – an approach more serious documentary makers could learn a lot from.

Finally, take graffiti artist Banksy, whose work recently popped up in San Francisco. As cliché and overrated as it may be, and regardless of the ethics of his medium or the irony that his own work is often vandalized, Banksy turns heads.

We’re receptive of the simple message. If it can cause all the rage necessary to bring a movement into action, then I’m all for it. As long as the rage isn’t wearing Revolutionary uniforms and quoting Thomas Paine.

JUSTIN T. HO knows that the vandalism of Banksy’s work isn’t necessarily ironic, but finds the whole everything-is-your-canvas excuse a bit corny and naïve. E-mail him at arts@theaggie.org.


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