July 19, 2010

In April, I noted that television ratings indicate that sports audiences skew Republican and entertainment audiences Democratic. “€œWhich is more useful to control for propagandizing for your Party: the games or the stories?”€ I asked portentously.

An astute reader pointed to Italy, however, where Silvio Berlusconi is now enjoying his third terms as a center-right Prime Minister. Certainly, no politician enjoys leading his country more than the cruise-ship crooner turned TV and soccer billionaire, at least not as measured in number of prosecutors and magistrates who have fruitlessly investigated his complex dealings (789, according to the Prime Minister), albums recorded since 2003 (three), and public letters to the editor from his prima signora complaining about his relations with young ladies, such as his nominating TV starlets as candidates for the European Parliament (three).

When commercial television was finally legalized in the mid-1970s by an Italian court, Berlusconi bought up the main commercial networks, flooding them with soccer matches and cheap game shows. Berlusconi then purchased the AC Milan football club and made it the best in Italy. In 1994, he invented his own political party to replace the compromised Christian Democrats, naming it “€œForza Italia”€ after the chant of supporters of the national soccer team. It’s as if a less grumpy George Steinbrenner, the late owner of the Yankees, had gotten himself elected President of the United States.

So, I went to see a screening of a Swedish television documentary about Italian television: Videocracy. It’s an attempt by a half-Italian, half-Swedish killjoy named Erik Gandini to explain his native land’s television/politics to his friends in Stockholm.

The leftist documentarian is peeved that the conservative media mogul stands foursquare behind traditional Italian values, such as big-breastedness. Gandini suffused his Michael Moore-style documentary with dire music and ominous slow motion footage of veline, the celebrated showgirls who dance on Berlusconi’s equivalent of The Daily Show, to intimate that while they may look like the fiancés of famous footballers having the times of their lives, they are actually, if you stop to think about it, the real victims of patriarchy.

“In contrast, many Americans who enthusiastically voted for Barack Obama in 2008 are now vaguely disappointed that he has turned out not to be as epic as the President Will Smith character they thought they were electing.”

Gandini complains that Italy has uniquely junky television, yet it resembles a topless version of American Spanish-language networks, such as Univision, just with better-looking dancers. The Nordic self-righteousness of Videocracy becomes tiresome, as does Gandini’s low-brow condescension”€”in his English version of his narration, Gandini always refers to Berlusconi as “€œthe president of Italy,”€ presumably believing that us American morons would be confused by the unfamiliar term “€œprime minister.”€

The root of the half-Scandinavian’s resentment appears to be his awareness that to be a star in Italian television you need a big, extroverted, Berlusconi-sized personality. That’s not news. Italians pretty much invented celebrities. Tuscany alone produced Dante, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Galileo, along with numerous other one-name wonders.

Still, it’s worth putting up with Gandini’s Swedish drabness because Italy is always entertaining. Videocracy introduces us to a Sylvester Stallone-like lathe operator who has spent years trying to get on TV by singing the greatest hits of Ricky Martin while performing the karate kicks of Jean-Claude Van Damme. He explains that he hasn”€™t become a celebrity yet because TV wants too many girls.

We visit the Costa Smeralda villa of a television agent close to the PM. He could make the mechanic a star, although not many girls can be seen among the reality TV stars sunning themselves by his pool. We meet a sinister protégé of the agent, a papparazo who always seems to be tipped off to where the TV personalities will be that night. The blackmailer explains, “€œI am like Robin Hood. I steal from the rich and I give to myself.”€

The highlight of Videocracy, though, is Berlusconi’s own 2008 campaign video, in which the women of Italy sing a hymn to him entitled “€œThank God that Silvio exists.”€ (Berlusconi went on to win easily.) 

In contrast, many Americans who enthusiastically voted for Barack Obama in 2008 are now vaguely disappointed that he has turned out not to be as epic as the President Will Smith character they thought they were electing. Instead, they wound up with a part time law school lecturer and part time state legislator who needs his golf. Hence, the Democrats are now terrified that the young and star-struck won”€™t turn out to vote in 2010 like they did in 2008, unless maybe the Democrats get a new Will.I.Am video.

At the end of The Big Lebowski, cowboy actor Sam Elliott comments upon Jeff Bridges’s character: “€œThe Dude abides. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.”€ A lot of Italian voters seem to take comfort in knowing that Silvio’s out there, enjoying life for all Italians.


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