C-SPAN Unleashes Its Inner Scorsese

Pathetic? Enraging? Ludicrous? Honestly pretty funny, but in a patience-testing, Andy Kaufman sort of way? For most Americans, this week’s marathon voting sessions to elect (or not) a Speaker of the House were all of those things. But, for connoisseurs of C-SPAN, serial failure made for riveting television, at least by that network’s normal production standards, which veer more toward vintage Soviet broadcasts than toward “Real Housewives” or the N.F.L. on Fox. The usual approach features locked-down cameras focussed tightly on individual speechmakers, a rigid mise en scène only occasionally enlivened by a wide-angle shot of the House floor, as if cutting to security-camera footage. But as the G.O.P. butted heads with its own rump faction, humiliating the Party’s nominal head Kevin McCarthy through round after round of losses, C-SPAN’s cameras, freed from their normal strictures for reasons we’ll get to in a moment, were panning and zooming and cutting back and forth with an almost cinematic brio.

There were vivid tableaux, especially on the first day, as the House floor churned with energy and the aisles filled with knots of gesticulating legislators; viewers—especially if they were cinéastes with generous imaginations—may have been reminded of the roiling, Old Master-inspired crowd scenes in “Raging Bull.” At times, the network ignored the main “action” altogether to focus on ancillary dramas, like the polite but animated parleys between the Democratic “squad” member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the MAGA-ists Paul Gosar and Matt Gaetz, which made news during the first day of voting. Turning up again and again, like a scene-stealing supporting player, was the representative-elect George Santos, the Queens-Long Island fabulist. Here he hovered expectantly near a scrum of rebel Republicans, who were doing their best to ignore him; there he sat next to the McCarthy loyalist Marjorie Taylor-Green, who seemed intent on making eye contact with anyone else. A pariah, but the camera adored him.

“I love the shots on the new ‘looser’ C-SPAN. It’s kind of like C-SPAN after hours,” said David Mandel, the TV showrunner and director (“Veep”; the forthcoming HBO Max Watergate comedy, “White House Plumbers”). “I love seeing the side chats, the attempts at dealmaking, and, most importantly, I love watching the Democrats try to pretend they aren’t enjoying every second of it.” He added one caveat: “Sadly, there is no sound. We need everyone miked like an N.F.L. game.” Nevertheless, viewers were rewarded with all manner of minor-key vérité drama, as when the camera caught a male representative telling a joke to a female representative, who responded with what looked like a charity laugh, then got up and left. On subsequent days, as the mood became enervated, the mix of stasis and routine was its own drama. A stifled yawn . . . a stifled laugh . . . the drudgery of standing up once again to vote for Byron Donalds. This was C-SPAN doing “Jeanne Dielman.”

Or was this C-SPAN doing “Twilight”? Supernatural teen melodrama was what the director Judd Apatow saw in shots of huddled G.O.P. rebels relishing the attention. He said that he was reminded of “the scenes where the evil vampires, the Volturi coven, gather to conspire. Every smile gives me the willies. They are clearly planning their attack on the Cullen family.”

The Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network launched in 1979, aiming for neither art house nor multiplex. Rather, it began just the way you’d imagine: with a platitudinous speech on the floor of the House from the then representative Al Gore, Jr. The network was allowed to cover day-to-day business in the House and the Senate on the condition that the leadership of each institution control the cameras and the feeds. If you are a senator or a representative who doesn’t want to be spotted doing Wordle instead of the people’s business, you probably like this arrangement, although it’s not foolproof. The former senator Al Franken recalled a couple of instances when he was caught on C-SPAN performing “physical humor” that arguably “didn’t look terribly senatorial. I think once it was like a little dance, like I was showing Marco Rubio a move.” But here’s the loophole: on certain occasions, such as when Congress is in joint session for the State of the Union address or for a speech from a foreign dignitary like Volodymyr Zelensky, C-SPAN is permitted to call its own shots. This is also the case for the opening of a new Congress, when the Speaker is chosen. These elections are usually pro forma; this year, you might say that the network has found itself in the happy position of a wedding videographer at a ceremony that has gone horribly but amusingly awry.

Have C-SPAN’s people been enjoying the gift? “Oh, absolutely,” Benjamin O’Connell, the network’s director of editorial operations, said. “I don’t think it’s been lost on anyone here that we are participating in a historic event by showing something so unusual to the American people.” O’Connell acknowledged that many people think C-SPAN is “boring,” but insisted that he and his colleagues take their craft and their mission as seriously as anyone at Hulu or Film Forum. “It’s all about visual storytelling,” he said. His personal taste in movies runs toward indie filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt and Jim Jarmusch. Has any of their DNA made it into C-SPAN? The question made him laugh. “I don’t know if I can claim it with a straight face,” he admitted, “but I would like to think so.” ♦

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