In 1992, Kevin Rafferty (The Atomic Café) and James Ridgeway ( The Village Voice Washington correspondent) released a funny little documentary that garnered a bit of attention. Feed is billed as “A comedy about running for President”, and is comprised of unused campaign footage and satellite feeds taken moments before current presidential candidates were to go live on the air. The documentary takes place surrounding the ’92 New Hampshire primaries, and was released just before the election that same year. And what do you know, though it’s a bit late to the party, Feed is being released on DVD just in time for the 2008 primary season.
Though the film is now 16 years old, whatever the quadrennial, the same presidential rigmarole still shambles around demanding our attention. The endless smiling faces, the repeated, lackluster mantras, even the awkward, unimpressive scandals always come out of the woodwork to shape the image that will be voted the next President of the United States. Sure the faces have changed, but barely; George Bush simply drops a middle initial and Hillary Clinton just drops her bangs. If anything, Rafferty’s and Ridgeway’s Feed has become more relevant with the passage of time. Now its message no longer applies specifically to Jerry Brown, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, et al, but to all the Jerry Browns, George Bushes, and Bill Clintons. But exactly what that message is, has changed over the better part of two decades.
Given Ridgeway’s rich political history, I expected a clear and poignant direction for the film. But this non-narrated, non-narrative documentary is much less subversive and pointed than it would appear. Feed simply showcases snippets of candidates being human, dropping their façades preceding public appearances and televised interviews. Jerry Brown incessantly nitpicks his crooked tie, Bill Clinton tears up while make-up is being applied, and George Bush remarks, “This isn’t Dana Carvey; it’s the real thing.” Between these scenes of meta-talking heads, we join Paul Tsongas, Hillary Clinton and others along the foibles of the campaign trail, including heckling questioners, querying vagabonds, and just general disarray. Additionally, many of the old political relics are here; a Gennifer Flowers press conference, an interview with Pat Buchanan about running against the incumbent, and even a crass Texan story from Ross Perot. Describing this film makes it sound a good deal like Presidential Punk’d, and though it does share a slight resemblance, it’s much quieter, less stated, and generally more subdued. The voyeurism that comes along with “stolen” satellite feeds and cutting-room campaign footage makes it more of a “behind-the-scenes”, than a Candid Camera.
Though Feed succeeds on many levels, it falls short on some of the most pivotal fronts. Primarily, with a feature this truncated (76 minutes), one expects a streamlined version of hours of stock footage with only the best scenes making the cut. However, about half the scenes feel worth it, while the other half seems like filler. Wading through that much muck normally means there’s a great short subject caught inside of a muddled feature. And secondly, though the “pirated satellite signal” and the whole “signal-as-truth” idea might have worked well in 1992, the message hasn’t aged very well, and thanks to the proliferation of viral videos, paparazzi and endless “scandals”, knocking celebrities (including presidential candidates) off their pedestals isn’t much of a feat. This accomplishment seems to lack the punch it must have had to be called “the best doc of the year” by The Village Voice. It’s not so much enlightening to see the candidates look like us as it’s just demeaning.
However, what Feed delivers incredibly, and much easier and more clearly now, are the campaign images that these candidates create. Sure, we all know that presidential hopefuls are human, they have to use nasal inhalers just like the rest of us (though seeing Jerry Brown use one is quite funny), but watching the person literally attempt to become the ideas they promote is fascinating. You can just barely decipher the disinterest in Hillary Clinton’s face as she watches a local restaurateur cook up a stew; you can study Paul Tsongas’ search for intellectual responses to blindsiding questions like “How much does a gallon of milk cost?”
The primaries are where the presidential image is hatched. We don’t vote a person to be president, we vote for an image. And being able to see the personalities forming that image is charming, even a bit comforting. Additionally, watching this film retrospectively illustrates beyond a shadow of a doubt why Bill Clinton was able to win the general election. His image is the best. And no amount of intellect can overcome an infallible image. That’s why it’s placed ahead of intellect. Image is easier to mold.
Feed is adventurous and playful, and if nothing else, provides nostalgia for a time in politics scarcely different than our own. And proves that just because you care about Clinton’s draft-dodging today, doesn’t mean you will tomorrow.