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|| News Item: Posted 2008-09-04

Digging to China
By Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Nhat V. Meyer / Mercury News

Photo by Nhat V. Meyer / Mercury News

The Opening Ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics at the National Stadium or "Bird's Nest" in Beijing, China on Friday, August 8, 2008.
When the Olympics finally disappeared from my Sony Bravia XBR2 last week and quickly morphed into images from the Democratic National Convention in Denver, I knew there would be a bit of transitioning, a dose of television jet-lag. Especially having spent the last few weeks shaking my head in lament as the world's media and corporations lapped up every cliché thrown their way by a regime-turned-party-thrower ("How do those Beijing streets get so sparkly, Meredith? We'll spend some time with an 84-year-old street cleaner after we return from these messages." Cut to Nike spot), I certainly would have never imagined that the quick cut back to Denver and home-field advantage would bring on an instant sense of nostalgia for the Chinese show of tour-de-force.

It was a tale of two cities, to be sure, and, after a dismal start out of the blocks for Denver, it became a tale of two days. What started out as the least compelling use of imagery I've ever seen out of a political convention quickly changed, by the convention's penultimate moment, into a juggernaut of visual power, a guidebook for how conventions will be run from here on out.

But first, back to Beijing.

Watching the Olympic opening ceremonies from the Bird's Nest a few weeks ago, I was, like everyone else on the planet, blown away by the beauty, the symmetry, the grandeur, and yes, even the scariness of it all. I've always been quite hard on the Chinese government for their brutal oppression and suppression of, well, just about anything you can think of: Tibet, Darfur, Tiananmen, free press, free assembly, the usual suspects, (pun intended). But history has shown us, sadly, that regimes with strangleholds on freedoms are always the most adept with the power image and message. Leni Riefenstahl, anyone?

And Beijing was all about image and message, especially on that first night. The pictures, particularly in high definition at fifty inches across, were so breathtaking that it became hard to pull oneself away from the set. I remember remarking to my wife that the spectacle of 2,008 drummers banging away in unison was mesmerizing to watch yet possessed all the warmth and fuzziness of watching slaves build a pyramid.

(I loved the vapid commentary from Bob Costas and Matt Lauer: You know, they did this in practice and some people were downright scared by it so they told the performers to try and smile.)

For all the high notes--the acrobatics and beauty, the fireworks, the children--and the low notes--phantom fireworks and phantom children--the Chinese clearly understood one thing, one of the most fundamental elements of storytelling in this modern age: that the intended audience for these powerful images was not located anywhere inside the actual Bird's Nest but rather far, far away--in homes all over the world, munching on chicken wings and guzzling beer. The needs of the few--the thousands of people, including all those dignitaries, inside the arena--constitute a pittance compared with the hundreds of millions of people watching from home.

What those spectators and dignitaries saw from their seats can't come close to what we saw on television and it all has to do with the difference between an eye and a lens. The people watching the opening ceremonies from inside the stadium saw a dramatic field filled with drummers, sure. But they also saw at the same time the folks sitting to their left, to their right, above and below. They saw the track, the athletes, the performers, even the guys running cable for the television networks. The human eye doesn't have telescopic properties. It takes in everything at once, without discrimination or bias--the C-Span of organs.

Television and still cameras do the opposite. They pick and choose, they zoom in and zoom out. They are selective because we, as human operators, are selective. Those drummers drumming look all the more impressive (and even ominous) on television because a longer lens gives the appearance of compressed space, as if each drummer is only inches from the next. A bit of an illusion to viewers who've never shot with a 400mm 2.8, but a simple product of lens mechanics to the rest of us.

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Obama greets the 84,000 people at Invesco during the DNC.
It's a neat trick and boy, the Democrats should have been paying attention more. By the halfway point of their Denver get-together the DNC seemed like they were going for a gold medal in dullness, a Phelpsian performance of Phorgettable. For a party that claims to have the upper hand on those ancient Republicans when it comes to text messaging (that whole announcement thing kind of fizzled, no?), the internet, and, perhaps most importantly, the power of Hollywood, the Democrats were putting on a convention bereft of imagery.

Talking head followed by talking head followed by talking head. All in front of the same blue wall, with the simple letters "DNC." One speech by a governor who couldn't read from a teleprompter drifted into another speech by a governor who--guess what?--couldn't read from a teleprompter, and I just drifted into sleep. (Those governors were all trying so hard to score at least one zinger--one Ann Richards silver spoon moment--that watching them became a cringe-worthy exercise, like amateur comics on open mike night.) And even worse, the speakers were all making the critical mistake of talking to the folks in the hall, not the rest of us, as if those couple of thousand delegates were going to matter on Election Day. Helloooooooo! A hundred million voters listening out here, a couple of thousand in there.

Didn't anyone watch the opening ceremonies? I thought. How could the DNC have gotten this so wrong, in this golden age of big-screen power.

In the newspaper business, dramatic 1A above-the-fold photos are the gold standard and headshots are the pennies. Unless your name happens to be Richard Avedon, there's not a lot one can do with a headshot. And yet the powers that be in Denver created an entire television event out of them. A boring, forgettable, endless sea of talking heads. Imagine if the Opening Ceremonies were comprised of one world leader at a podium after another.

All of this was so weak, in fact, that most of the major networks doing any coverage began to use the convention as an expanded set piece for their own talking heads. The goings-on of the actual convention were reduced to ambiance, a blurry backdrop for John King and James Carville to do their thing. Occasionally they'd zoom in to listen, but for the most part the Pepsi Center felt about as real as that fake town in Blazing Saddles. I'd call it post-modern but it was more prehistoric than anything.

I wondered why the Democrats were still clinging to this one-person-one-podium strategy in the first place? Its relevance went out the window somewhere around 1960. Given that conventions don't actually figure anything out these days, electorally speaking, convention planners should have thrown that old rulebook out decades ago.

And then they did. Something radical happened. An engaging Steven Spielberg film on veterans signaled that professional help was on the way, that the proceedings didn't need to be dull by default. Amid the worn out clichés--candidates touring the stage to see where the teleprompters were (about as exciting as going to a concert and watching the band set up)--someone finally got the message about message.

In moving the set piece--the entire convention, really--to Mile High, the musty old format was rejuvenated. Suddenly the pictures were staggering, just like they had been at the Bird's Nest. Real people, not just delegates in their goofy hats, filled the stadium, there was a sense that something heroic might take place, and pictures suddenly were abounding.

(Ironically, this turnaround happened just as police outside the Pepsi Center were starting to emulate their Chinese counterparts in an entirely different way, militarizing the streets unnecessarily and arresting a television reporter at the apparent behest of a hotel hosting a closed-door soiree for big-ticket Democratic donors. David Burnett, who has probably shot more Olympics and/or international police actions than anyone, lamented on how said it was that the Chinese police actually exhibited more restraint during the Olympics than the Denver police. How's that for fair is foul and foul is fair?)

Opening ceremonies and political conventions are first cousins. There's a lot of requisite pomp and circumstance-the endless parade of athletes, which we all hate to admit is supremely boring to watch or all that face time for those governors. But the ultimate goal is to convey message that rises above those procedural hiccups. The Chinese got it right and the Dems pulled one out with no time left on the clock. The Republicans will have their chance in a few days, when this piece will have already gone to bed, and it will be interesting if they opt for the new school or the old.

A friend once told me that her mentor said photographers should strive to cover a riot like a wedding and a wedding like a riot. I'm not sure if anyone should ever try and cover an Olympics like a convention, but the moment the Democratic Convention started acting more like an Olympics, things suddenly became interesting.

(Matt Mendelsohn is a Washington, D.C. based photographer. Portions of this column originally appeared on his blog, The Dark Slide, at

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