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VIagra of the masses 

Erik Gandini's intoxicating Videocracy, and the case against Silvio Berlusconi

Thursday, Jul 15 2010
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An old-fashioned totalitarian leader might have taken over the media after assuming control of the state; contemporary Italy elected a man who already monopolized its media. According to Erik Gandini's intoxicating documentary Videocracy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's power over the people dates back to long before his 1994 election. One of the media mogul's earliest TV efforts, shown here in black-and-white video so degraded that it seems to be melting off the screen, was a quiz show in which a housewife stripped to reward contestants for correct answers. Factory bosses allegedly started calling the network to complain that their workers were too tired to work in the mornings on account of staying up late to watch. The billionaire's ability to lure the working classes was thus documented. If Berlusconi's media, centered around interchangeable women in less-than bikinis, is not the opiate of the masses, then at least it's the Viagra.

Gandini, narrating his case against Berlusconi in awkward, ominously toned English, suggests that in fusing his business and political endeavors into a mutually beneficial loop (he can air karaoke-style campaign ads with the chorus, "Italy has still chosen to believe in this dream/Thank God for Silvio" — and also declare himself immune from indictment), Berlusconi has created a body politic of bimbos and douche bags who aspire to nothing more than becoming famous or exploiting those who already are. We meet a photo broker who becomes a star himself after a scandal; Ricky, a mechanic with heavy blue-collar shame who's convinced his combination Ricky Martin/Jean-Claude Van Damme act will get him laid; and observe countless veline — showgirls whose scantily clad, rhythmically writhing bodies are inserted into all manner of Italian TV shows from competitions to the news, "to keep people interested."

Veline are extraordinarily upwardly mobile — many marry soccer players, at least one has advanced to a position in Berlusconi's government — which leads men like Ricky to complain that the system is rigged against his gender ("It's so hard for us guys. Why should I have to be a mechanic all my life?"). If Gandini asked any of the women themselves how they feel, he doesn't include that footage, but the tight smiles and scared eyes of the girls lining up in a mall to audition speak some kind of testimony.

click to enlarge Wannabe veline in Videocracy
  • Wannabe veline in Videocracy

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Videocracy is most persuasive when no one is speaking at all. Long montages mimic what Gandini refers to as Italian television's "flow of images," dreamy blankets of footage removed from their original contexts, entire cultural phenomena reduced to gestures, performed en masse by televised Italians more or less in unison: clapping, dancing, waving cake spatulas like flags. Gandini's vision is absurdist and dystopic, but there's also something curiously retrograde to it. Though media savvy should be a prerequisite for such fame junkies, Gandini's subjects reveal themselves to be pre-ironic in their self-presentation, and naive about the power of the camera to help them hurt themselves. The jaw-dropper: Lele Mora, a reality-TV talent manager who, "as personal friend of the president, has the power to turn ordinary people into TV stars," says he's "happy and excited to be a Mussolini fan" and proudly shows the camera a video he keeps on his phone, montaging Nazi and Fascist iconography. The clip ends, and he grins: "Neat, isn't it?"

While Berlusconi censors his own exploits by paying off the paparazzi and asserting editorial influence over the tabloids he owns, those lower on the media food chain apparently have a truly disconcerting inability to self-censor. It makes media whores closer to home seem downright professional by comparison. (Music Hall)

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