Title: Programming the Nation
Director: Jeff Warrick
Fewer recent documentary films evince a bigger gap between potential level of intrigue and delivered interest than “Programming the Nation,” a shaggy look at the history of subliminal messaging in the United States that leaves one wanting for the pruning of a sensible editor. Flitting back and forth from 1950s and ’60s cinema and advertising to the alleged usage of subliminal tactics in everything from anti-theft devices, political propaganda, military psychological operations and advanced weapons development, Warrick’s film is interesting in pieces and patches, but ultimately done in by its own manic desire to cram in as much anecdotal detail as possible, no matter its big-picture relevance. It’s the nonfiction equivalent of an excited teenager relating to a parent the story of an important event in their world, and what it individually means for all of their friends.
Warrick, formerly employed in the advertising industry, uses his professional experience and acumen to bundle up a lot of footage. And to its credit, Warrick’s movie is certainly rangy and intellectually curious, working in interviews with everyone from Queensryche lead singer Geoff Tate and U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich to author and MIT professor Noam Chomsky and “Rolling Stone” senior editor David Fricke. Along the way, Warrick touches on everything from the famous trial in which Judas Priest defended themselves against culpability in the murder-suicide of two teenage fans convinced they’d been told to “do it” by hidden words in the music to similar played-backwards charges levied against the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and a look at the potential capital and political advantages of such message management. (Oh, and there’s lots of talk about phalluses hidden in print advertisements, too. Seriously… lots.) Amidst the dozens of film and entertainment clips showcasing product placement and efforts at subconscious branding, about the only clip that doesn’t turn up, strangely, is of Kevin Nealon’s “Saturday Night Live” character, Mr. Subliminal.
Still, the film isn’t put together with any consideration for keeping an audience’s attention, and it’s hamstrung, to an almost mortal degree, by Warrick’s decision to burden his project with his own unfocused voiceover, which sounds like it was recorded reel-to-reel in a college radio station deejay booth. Mostly, however, there’s just not a savvy, coherent sense of structure to “Programming the Nation.” Warrick could have constructed his movie in chronological fashion, but he does not. He could have divided it up into an examination of commercial and political usages and abuses of subliminal messaging, but he does not. He could have investigated more cleanly and deliberately the science of such, debunking certain claims along the way, but he does not.
Instead, “Programming the Nation” merely bounces around, to and fro. “Experts” and authors in one arena sometimes slag other interview subjects, and certain studies or stories are presented in such a fashion that one isn’t entirely sure if they are fact or opinion. Later in the film, a bit of time is granted to those who promulgate some outlandish conspiracy theories, which are fascinating and amusing, but also kind of dangerously unchecked, at least on a substantive level. Warrick instead spends time questioning a hapless Toys ‘R’ Us assistant manager about whether his store’s background music contains subliminal anti-theft admonitions. To that end, “Programming the Nation,” is like a grab-bag collection of themed material; one never knows quite what they’re going to get. Characterized by a pleased-with-itself obliviousness and full of wild pivots, it’s sometimes intriguing. But mostly not. For more information, visit www.ProgrammingTheNation.com.
Written by: Brent Simon