John and Rielle show, read between the lines
The John Edwards/Rielle Hunter affair has been the talk of the Web since late last week, but a peppy, jagged little 2006 production called “Inspiring Politics: A Webisode Series Following John Edwards” has been attracting only a modest number of views on YouTube.
It surfaced there a week ago after being removed from Edwards’ website last year. Hunter, who by all accounts had a sketchy job history, including some off-the-radar acting and New Age spiritual advising, was contracted to make the videos soon after she met the candidate at an event in a New York City bar. The four short episodes are usually referred to as “campaign videos,” which might explain why they have not drawn much of a crowd. But they have nothing in common with traditional cleaned-up, on-message campaign videos. They’re a strangely watchable document of unbridled ambition -- Hunter’s as much as Edwards’.
Hunter’s three-person production company, Midline Groove, was reportedly incorporated in June 2006, and she made the videos that summer and fall. YouTube was just more than a year old, and the notion of a “webisode series” was barely a twinkle in Hollywood’s eye. Lonelygirl15, the first such series to attract mainstream attention, did not get big until September of that year.
So Hunter’s “webisode” idea could reasonably have seemed to promise Edwards some political magic: a charmingly unpolished look at the candidate that would be at once high-tech and down-home, unpretentious yet cutting edge -- the very essence of Internet culture. Her lack of “experience” could even be seen as part of the point of hiring her. Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign had already begun to use a MySpace page that was started by a private citizen. Revealing video clips of candidates were being e-mailed around. Why not try to tap into the YouTube revolution and its fresh, daring, amateur energy?
But as with so much on YouTube, the videos turned out to be revealing in ways no one could have predicted.
At the beginning of Episode 1, “Plane Truths,” Edwards talks into the camera about what he hopes the videos will do, sounding like any YouTubing teenager earnestly trying to express his inner self. “I’ve come to the personal conclusion that I actually want the country to see who I really am. Who I really am,” Edwards says, sitting back in his campaign plane. “But I don’t know what the result of that will be.” He is determined, however, to show people something other than the “plastic Ken doll” image he has acquired. “That’s not me,” he insists.
We soon hear the series’ theme song in the background: “True Reflections,” a solo effort by Dave Matthews Band member Boyd Tinsley. “When you look into the mirror,” Tinsley growls, “do you like what’s looking at you?” It’s a puzzling song choice that not only underscores the handsome and, yes, Ken doll looks, it also suggests that a central question confronting Edwards as he contemplates a run for the presidency is . . . how he feels about himself.
Edwards was on ABC News on Friday, talking about the “self-focus, egotism and narcissism” that led him to the affair, and that’s all in plain view on the videos. But much more fascinating is the view they give of Hunter’s self-obsession.
From the start of the four-episode series, Hunter slyly establishes herself as a character right alongside the presidential hopeful. She manages to insinuate herself constantly, even though she’s never on camera. Out of what must have been many hours of footage, Hunter chose to include in the final cut moment after moment of Edwards talking flirtatiously to her. The making of the webisode series itself is a running theme. In the first minute of the six-minute “Plane Truths,” we see Edwards moving his legs aside so Hunter and her fellow videographer can walk onto the plane. Soon he’s saying, “Glad to have you. And if any of these guys aren’t nice to you, you tell me.”
At times the flirtatious banter between Edwards and Hunter sounds right out of a romantic comedy (but the material isn’t exactly Hepburn-Tracy). “It’s a great speech!” he says as he looks over some notes. “So glad you like it!” we hear her say from behind the camera, her laugh trilling out. “I like it,” he says, then stares out the window for a second with a big grin. He turns back toward her to beam and say, “Wait till you hear me give it live.” Then he collects himself and looks at the shoes of the guy sitting next to him. “So the way his shoes are shaped, are those cool?” he asks.
Episode 2, “The Golden Rule,” shows Edwards preparing for and making a speech condemning the “corporate greed” of Wal-Mart. It ends with an outtake of Edwards joshing Hunter, apropos of nothing we’ve seen: “Very graceful, camera girl.” (Was Hunter dreaming of a sequel, “The Camera Girl Chronicles”?)
Only in Episode 3, “Plight of Uganda,” are we able to forget that Hunter is holding the camera, as the dire situation in a refugee camp takes over the narrative.
But there she is again in Episode 4, the jarringly named “Plugs,” which shows Edwards getting ready to go on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” With this perfunctory episode, Hunter appears to have run out of steam. Even she appears to be having a hard time finding Edwards scintillating as he sits in the back of a car discussing with great seriousness his decision not to announce his candidacy on “The Daily Show.” When Stewart walks into the green room and says hello, we hear a female voice from the general vicinity of the camera (it sounds like Hunter) calling out in an excited voice, “Hiii!”
In that helpless, automatic reaction to an even bigger male star than Edwards, Hunter is revealed as not simply a videographer hired by the Edwards campaign but a member of a much older profession: a groupie. And “Inspiring Politics” represents one of the most inventive ways a groupie has ever gained unlimited access to the power guy of her dreams. But it also, alas for both of them, set him up to lose everything and to have his weakness documented in excruciating detail on YouTube.
Read more about online entertainment and connected culture at the Web Scout blog: latimes.com/webscout.