Who wants to spend a beautiful summer evening inside an overly-air conditioned concert hall listening to a washed up politico, some gadget nerds, a NASA guy and a couple of Hollywood producers talk about the environment? Apparently, everybody. WIRED Magazine threw just such an event in New York City last night, occasioned by this week's release of Al Gore's global warming doc, An Inconvenient Truth, and judging by the clamoring crowds that spilled out of Town Hall onto 43rd street as far down as 6th Ave fifteen minutes before showtime, it was the hottest ticket in town. Boldfaced names in attendance reportedly included director Darren Aronofsky and his Oscar-winning baby mama Rachel Weisz, and Chelsea Clinton, who Gore took pains to point to from the stage as "a friend of the family".
But if we're talking about "hot" -- and, considering the bounty of temperature-related puns the topic at hand brings to the table, we most definitely are -- could anyone hotter have been in attendance than the guest of honor himself? Though it's way too early for it to mean anything (or, at least, for it to mean anything good), the liberal media is currently under the spell of a debilitating case of Gore Fever, They've got it bad, got it bad, got it bad - they're hot for an aging also-ran who won't even admit to thinking about running for President in 2008. Or maybe they're just, understandably, hot for the idea that liberal passion could actually mean something again. Or maybe -- and this is the one I'd like to believe -- we're talking about social movement that ostensibly thrives on dissent; Gore not only stands for the opposite of everything the current administration has come to represent, he's also the Anti-Hillary. You don't have to know much about global warming to warm to the appeal of the presumptive Democratic nominee's polar opposite.
The evening certainly wasn't billed as Al Gore's Coming Out Party -- in his opening remarks, WIRED editor Chris Anderson labeled the event as a celebration of "a new kind of environmentalist" he called the Neo-Green, a gadget-savvy do-over of the spacey hippie drip of olde, one "that realizes that technology doesn't only create problems - it solves them." But from the standing ovation that met the Vice President's entrance, to the thunderous applause with which the audience punctuated his every minor point, it was clear that the mass assembled were there to hear a statement of intent.
They didn't quite get that, but most in attendance seemed happy enough with what they did get. At the very least, the event showcased an Al Gore to which jokes involving the words "bore" or "snore" did not apply. At most, it was a chance to contemplate a rabblerouser in the body of an elder statesman, and that in itself was a spectacle rare enough to rouse my interest.
The organizers did what they could to stoke the flames of passion floating down the balcony towards the guest of honor. Anderson, calling Gore "my hero", described a senate hearing on high performance computing in the early 90s, to which Gore was "the only senator who bothered showing up." Gore apparently dispensed with formalities, and "came down to the witness tables and geeked out with the scientists", who were using state-of--the-art Krays to demo -- you guessed it -- models of projected climate change. "The Al Gore I saw huddled around those workstations was smart, he was funny, he was incredibly well informed ... and that's the Al Gore I'm very privileged to introduce tonight." With that, the Vice President emerged from the wings, and the crowd went wild.
As he's been doing at most of his public appearances of late, Gore did his best to deflect the audiences adoration away from his person and towards his personal agenda. In a ten minute speech last night, seemingly delivered without a cue, Gore was genial but firm, and incredibly engaging. He dismissed his efforts on these issues as politically motivated, instead labeling the climate crisis "a moral imperative." "In rising to meet this challenge," he said, "We can gain the ability to see that 20 million HIV/AIDS orphans in Africa is unacceptable ... genocide in Darfur, mass famine and disease that are easily preventable. These are not political problems - these are moral imperatives. The first step is for all of us to empower ourselves with knowledge and information." Of course, these happen to be "moral imperatives" that the current administration has little use for. And Gore admitted, later, during a roundtable discussion with producers David and Bender, and NASA scientist James Hansen (who moderator John Hockenberry introduced as "the Elvis of climate change") that in order for this movement and his film to make any real difference, "there has to be a change in the political environment." "We who are alive today have been placed with a burden that is almost unimaginable in human history. The good news is that we have everything we need to do it. The only thing we need is political will -- but that really is a renewable resource in the United States."
In short, Gore looked a helluva lot like a candidate on the stump last night. In the typical mode of a politician trying to Talk to The Kids, his speech was clogged with colloquialisms ("People go from denial to despair - and despair ain't just another tire in the trunk"), but a good deal of it felt natural, if not entirely unrehearsed (We face a planetary emergency. Think about that phrase for the moment. It doesn't roll off the tongue -- in fact, it kind of clangs a bit".) As he does in film, Gore managed to soften the audience with jokes (or, at least, "jokes") before reeling them with hard data, and whilst never a stranger to hyperbole, Gore has clearly learned from the debacles of past to temper his own worst instincts. It's easy to cringe watching Al Gore say something like, "This is by far the most dangerous crisis we have faced in the history of civilization." But wait for him to qualify it: "[Some scientists] have an even darker vision. I don't adopt that kind of a dark vision, because I know a couple of things about the political system, from the years I was in it." Politics and climate crisis have something in common, he went on, in that they're both "non-linear: they will appear to move at a snails pace, and then there will be a complete shift." Again, cue the riotous applause -- this audience was looking for clues where there likely were none, and we're were willing to settle for the smallest hints they could get.
In this Gore-centric climate (absolutely no pun intended), the other panelists were given little air time, with Laurie David even forcefully bouncing questions directed at her back to Gore. Still, Bender was given the opportunity to half-answer a few very important questions about the film. Essentially, it's all well and good that WIRED can get a few hundred New York liberals to show up and cheerlead for Gore, but if An Inconvenient Truth is going to be effective as a work of activism, based on the current distribution plan, it's first got to be effective as a work of commerce. A question from the audience: "Not everyone lives in a city where they can see this movie, and of those who do, not everyone will ... have you considered distributing it for free online, under a Creative Commons License?" Bender's answer betrayed the Pulp Fiction producer's leash to the Hollywood system: "Of course that comes from a technology sponsored event ... We're using the theatrical release patterns that have been proven to work. It opened last night in New York and Los Angeles to great reviews, and if everyone in Los Angeles and New York go and see it, it will expand [in June]. We'll do a DVD release, a TV release. And I think we have a good chance of getting people to see it."
So, basically, he's speaking as a producer who believes that he's got a viable product on his hands, and will exhaust all means of reaping a return on that product before altruistically taking it out of the marketplace. I can't fault him for that, but the low murmur in the crowd suggested that some do. Gore almost seemed to have a better idea of how to make this film a hit than the Hollywood types. At one point, he asked the audience to raise their hands if they saw March of the Penguins, and nearly everyone in the auditorium raised their hands. Then, he asked those who saw the film on opening weekend to keep their hands raised. He pointed to the three remaining arms in the air and said, "See, you and you and you told your friends, and that's how this works."
The clips of An Inconvenient Truth shown last night literally took the crowd's breath away, temporarily silencing an audience that was otherwise boisterous throughout. But though the crowd pushed the issue several times, I left unconvinced that Gore and the producers have the ability to make non-rich, non-white, non-Left-leaning people care. At one point citing statistics that "minority groups are almost always disproportionately affected by the negative effects of pollution," Gore admitted that those awareness within those communities "won't happen naturally -- there should be an affirmative strategy, of reaching out to build [environmentally active] communities of color throughout the United States." David and Bender confirmed that they've hired a "Latino-specific press group", and that they're organizing screenings for underprivileged kinds in several cities, including Philadelphia and Boston. But it looks to me like their best hope for reaching out beyond the daydreams of well-paid 25-year-old white girls lies in the evangelical community. Bender told a story about a screening of the film, held for the country's biggest evangelical leaders in Washington just before Sundance, at which Rich Cizik, head of the national college of evangelical leaders, gave him the following pullquote: "There is not an evangelical leader in the country that should not see this film." And at the film's premiere last week, "Rick Warren, one of the biggest evangelical leaders in the country, was sitting next to me, high fiving me." 22% Bush approval ratings or no, there's still a huge segment of the population that will bash the film because of potential-future President Gore's involvement; on that front, the interference of religious leaders can only do the film good.
And back to that business of Gore maybe-probably running for president: it would be fair to say that the gentleman from Tennessee doth protest too much. At one point last night, after Gore shot out yet another call for governmental change in environmental policy, moderator Hockenberry produced a formidable, 2-plus-inch thick stack of question cards submitted by the audience, and indicated that each in some way queried whether or not Gore had plans to be part of that governmental change. Gore began shaking his head vehemently. "Assuming those questions are about me being a candidate," he started. The rest of that sentence was drowned out by the audience's cheers. My take? This guy comes to New York, spends two hours talking to audience that's probably primarily made up of bloggers about the deficiencies of the current administration, all the while dropping names like Lawrence Lessig and Carl Sagan and even Alice Waters, and manages to make a couple of decent jokes in the process? There is NO WAY this guy is not running for president.
Of course, I'm just a rich, 25-year-old white girl, so I'm probably just buying into the fantasy of the masses.
Want more on Truth? Read Kim Voynar and Ryan Stewart's reviews of An Inconvenient Truth, and Kim's write-up of Gore's Sundance Q&A.