Friday, March 8, 2013

Washington then and now

Jimmy Stewart reading Twitter messages against him?

You probably heard in the news on Wednesday or yesterday morning about the junior Senator from Kentucky who filibustered for 13 hours trying to get the Obama administration to make its policy on drones more explicit. Now, I don't want to talk about politics, and I can't think offhand of any good movies about drone aircraft. But what I did find interesting is seeing several people in various comment sections to news articles and blog posts make comments about the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In that clasic 1939 movie, Stewart's Jefferson Smith filibusters the Senate alone, with everybody against him, only admitting defeat when his mentor, Senator Paine (Claude Rains) does what would be called "astrotufing" today: rather than grass roots support for a position, the politician or a lobbyist drums up people who aren't really independently voicing their view. All those telegrams we see were commissioned by Paine's machine, and anybody trying to send a telegram in support of Smith had their messages kept from Smith. Indeed, I even read somebody make the point that the senior senatory from Kentucky must have known what happened to Claude Rains' character, and that's why he made an appearance in favor of his junior colleague.

One of the things about the filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington that's decidedly different from what we saw on Wednesday was the messages in support of one side or another. Where we had Sen. Paine drumming up those bogus telegrams, nowadays people can easily comment themselves by going on to Twitter and spilling whatever nonsense thought they've got that they can fit in 140 characters or less. And one of the more surreal scenes from Wednesday's filibuster was of a fellow Senator, supportive of the junior Senator from Kentucky, "asking a question" and using that "question" to read out a bunch of those supportive Twitters. Perhaps if Twitter were around in Jefferson Smith's day those junior campers wouldn't have been assaulted trying to put out their newspaper. The changing technology is actually something I touched on back in September 2011, albeit in regards to cell phones instead of Twitter.

Although several people referred to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it also reminded me that there are only a small number of old movies that really have such a broader cultural relevance. People know that, and The Wizard of Oz -- and in fact there's an Oz-themed movie opening tonight, although it's based on a different one of Baum's stories of Oz, of which there were several dozen. Gone With the Wind would be a third, but beyond that, what is there from the 1930s? Maybe the horror movies. But I really don't think there are too many of them, and it's one of the problems those of us who love classic films and try to promote them face.

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