Doc of the Day: Videocracy Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Videocracy

Posted in Days of Docs by - March 05, 2012

 Think reality TV is bad in America? Visit Italy, where it is an instrument of oppression.

Dir. Erik Gandini, 2009, 80 min

Italy as presented in Videocracy is some nightmare mixture of Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, a state where government-issued opiates placate an oppressed populace. This documentary is a warning siren to the rest of the world, and America in particular should heed what it has to say. Omnipresent media has turned so many into wannabe superstars, and created a climate where fame for the sake of fame is a worthy pursuit. In Italy, this atmosphere has seemingly shut down people’s sense of civic responsibility.

Silvio Berlusconi is the one responsible for this climate. He’s a print and television tyrant, like Rupert Murdoch but with an interest in direct control instead of merely pulling the strings. As president, he controlled 90% of all media. His grip on the information he allows to reach his people is so Orwellian that the late Kim Jong-il would have to applaud it. Berlusconi is an odious, corrupt slime ball, with a long list of abuses of power that runs the gamut from tax fraud to Mafia connections to sex with a minor. Hopefully, his recent ousting will be the last we see of him on the world stage.

Videocracy takes us inside the Italian media machine, what director Erik Gandini calls “the banality of evilness.” It’s a sea of mindless game shows, talk shows, and “reality” competitions. It’s all the vapid, banal, artificial things you hate about American TV, magnified a hundredfold. It’s a climate that reduces women to set dressing and prizes popularity above all.

In such a videocracy, fame becomes power, and the doc follows several people who are either seeking that power or already have it. Ricky is a singer/dancer/martial artist who wants to make it big, but can’t catch his big break. Lele Mora is the most powerful agent in the country and a good friend of Berlusconi, whom he favorably compares to Mussolini. Fabrizio Corona at first looks like a “good guy,” as an influential paparazzi photo-broker who seeks to tear down the image of the rich and famous. But even his efforts are really a ploy to gain attention. He cynically states that power is all that matters, and that it should be sought at all costs.

That cynicism seems to have infected the country. How else can one explain a commercial for Berlusconi’s reelection campaign, a singalong that would be right at home on the screens of Oceania? Of course, this raises the question: are we any better? There is still a good separation between state and screen in America, but the media is corporatized, and so are our candidates. We would do well to be watchful of our government and the fourth estate, but we seem more concerned with Jersey Shore.

Gandini views all of this with a frame of cold, calm remove. There’s an interesting contrast between the garish, fake joviality of the Italian programs and his solemn narration. Sinister music and editing strip away the cheerful surface to reveal these entertainments for the distraction that they are. This is often an effectively eerie movie, with so much dissonance between the happy talk hosts and the sinister mastermind behind them.

In spite of the film’s vital subject, Videocracy mostly stumbles in its execution. Gandini doesn’t take us far enough into this world, and we never get a sense of how any of it works. It features very few people involved in the actual production of television. I’m surprised that it didn’t bring in even one culture critic to serve as a talking head. The doc is like a skipping stone, glancing over a few issues but never punching beyond the surface.

That distance extends to the character work. Ricky shows up at the beginning and end, and nowhere else, and that isn’t enough to understand how a fame-hungry citizen thinks. The doc brings up velines, the girls on every show who exist as eye candy, but never introduces us to one so that we can get a personal view of how their treatment. Characters and ideas come and go haphazardly, and it somewhat coheres into an overall impression of Italy’s entertainment landscape, but nothing more than that.

Videocracy is intriguing enough that I wish it had done more than it did. There are lessons to learn from Italy, but I don’t feel that this documentary is essential to teaching them. A movie that informs you how a first world nation gets ranked 77th in media freedom should pack a stronger punch. That kind of connection comes not from the strength of one’s facts but from the skill of one’s presentation. this film is lacking in that area, which is ironic, given that it is all about presentation.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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