Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed and written by Brian Springer.

By Bill Stamets

For as long as filmmakers have pointed cameras at the world, they have edited their images to make points. And for just as long other filmmakers with other agendas have reedited those films. Surrealists whimsically collage unconscious links, deconstructionists yank at Oz’s curtain, and propagandists revise their enemies’ salvos. Back in 1927 Esther Shub skewered the czarists using Nicholas II’s home movies to reframe Russian history through a communist lens. And in 1940 the U.S. War Department recruited Luis Bunuel and the Museum of Modern Art to undermine the spectacle of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi films.

This pirate impulse is still strong. In 1992 Brian Springer scavenged 500 hours of television feeds from America’s media power brokers using his satellite dish in Buffalo and edited them down to 57 and a half minutes. The resulting documentary, Spin (showing on a double bill with Antonio Muntadas and Marshall Reese’s Political Advertisements 1956-1988, an artless chronological sampling of around 50 presidential campaign spots made between 1956 and 1988), is a remarkable exercise in video voyeurism and eavesdropping. A wary Springer exposes what Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barbara Bush, Larry King, Pat Robertson, Jerry Brown, Dan Rather, Tipper Gore, and their audible offscreen handlers said during off-the-air moments of satellite feeds normally edited out by local television stations.

Blooper specials of stars flubbing their lines and stumbling over props have trivialized the impact of outtakes–seeing makeup applied to the president’s face hardly demystifies the oval office. Springer does sneak a peek at correspondent Andrea Mitchell’s acne scars when an NBC camera operator zooms in for an extreme close-up to set focus prior to a live shot from Saint Louis, but his quarry is the more serious media leak, the kind that oozes calculation and collusion.

Spin, named after the rhetorical craft of evasion and revision practiced across the political spectrum, opens with a disorienting skyscape shot from a news chopper over Los Angeles. The horizon tilts at a queasy angle to the accompaniment of an eerie synthetic score by Aqua-Velveeta, a collective of audio artists based in Milwaukee. Snatches of audio gibberish suggesting sound bites from aliens punctuate the disquieting vista. Springer reprises this ominous music throughout Spin as he moves through ten topical segments–“Making News,” “Making Up the President,” “The Democratic Make-up.”

Springer begins with the basics. During a break on a call-in show, Pat Robertson’s handler coaches him: “You take the one sentence and turn it around and go on to another issue. Remember, you’re answering the questions. You can talk about anything you want.” Vice presidential candidate Al Gore gets identical instructions from his handler during a break from another call-in show beamed up from Carthage, Tennessee: “Don’t be afraid to turn their questions. If they ask about A just say, I want to talk about…”

Springer narrates Spin without the leftish hysteria you might expect from such a hacking-the-hegemony undertaking, though in a rare stretch he tries to link Rodney King, the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the ascendancy of CNN star Larry King “as the father of talk-show democracy.” While showing the local coverage of the LA riots, Springer observes, “The voiceless scenes from South Central LA, where nearly 50 percent of the children live in poverty, was contextualized by $600,000-a-year TV news anchors.” Yet he never identifies his own status as a media player and never discloses his own economic class standing–which would presumably contextualize his own choice of clips.

Springer’s satellite stars appear dazed by their global toys. Larry King confides, “It’s hard to believe we’re being watched in 151 countries.” “Yeah, I know,” replies Bill Clinton. “It’s scary.” During another broadcast King tells George Bush that it’s “kind of weird being seen around the world–technology.” Bush responds, “It’s amazing. Do you think Saddam Hussein is watching this very minute?” These emperors with no clothes seem unaware that such unguarded small talk is on the record for intrepid dish owners like Springer.

“Ted Turner changed the world. He’s a big fan of yours,” King tells Clinton. “He would, ah, serve you–you know what I mean….I’d call him. After you’re elected. Think about it.” King flatters all his heavy hitters, even telling Ross Perot how to upstage his competitors in a televised debate. “You could elevate it. Every time they talk about something silly you could say, ‘Come on, what are we wasting time.'” King gushes to Bush, “You’re doing great….I will be the first to tell you.” The president replies, “I did what I told you I would do.” King says, “Thank you.” In a satellite feed from Racine, Wisconsin, Bush complains, “I got a darn cold.” King’s tip: “My brother’s in the pharmaceutical business. He says there is a new pill coming from Israel–better than Halcion.”

Springer also catches Pat Robertson in damning double-talk. On NBC’s Meet the Press the Christian Broadcasting Network chief pontificates, “I don’t want to slant the news. I just want to tell it like it is.” Yet in a satellite feed from the floor of the Republican National Convention in Houston Robertson scolds his own news producer for sending camera crews to abortion protests instead of catching him and his wife hobnobbing with Republican big shots in their box seats. His rather unchristian counsel to CBN staff covering political foes includes “Don’t be nice” and “Don’t even say where you’re from.” His news-gathering gospel is “We play hardball.” After a remote interview on NBC he remains on the live satellite feed listening as the broadcast continues. Like a giddy kid spying on grown-ups, he relays to his off-camera adviser the nice things Tom Brokaw and Bryant Gumbel are saying on the air about Robertson’s grassroots organizing through the Christian Coalition.

As Tipper Gore awaits a remote interview, a campaign staffer tells her how someone at headquarters back in Arkansas noticed a shadow on her face that spoiled the shot. Unaware that anyone’s watching at this point, she listens as her handler describes how to stage-manage across state lines, using a recent Clinton rally in Buffalo to show how sign-carrying anti-Clinton types can be edited out simply by using satellite feeds from cameras panning the crowd. “It’s like Little Rock directed Buffalo,” she says. “Little Rock was able to say, ‘I can see you on TV. Now go two people over to your left.'” A campaign worker who’s picked up by a microphone near the podium before Clinton appears says, “I need to get the stage banner on the PVC. I need to use it as a tool to flush out those Bush/Quayle signs that say abortion right in the corner there. Do you copy?” Another invisible image manager pleads, “We can’t block everything.”

True enough, as Springer discovered when he tried to get Spin on the air. PBS’s POV series has turned it down twice for national broadcast, but Free Speech TV, a cable service based in Boulder, Colorado, has distributed it to some 50 public-access stations around the country. A national uplink to a public-television satellite may be arranged soon, allowing Spin to become a feed itself.

Springer ends Spin with a media handler trying to explain the satellite-mediated 90s to Tipper Gore. “See? Everybody watches.” Gore looks up into the camera and makes the most knowing and unnerving eye contact I’ve ever experienced.