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Excloo: Long-Lost “Apocalypse Brown” Tape Found

3:01 AM ET, 11/ 1/2010

On the bitter cold Friday night of March 28, 1980, outside the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, the famed film director Francis Ford Coppola produced a 30-minute TV infomercial that effectively ended California Gov. Jerry Brown’s campaign for president.

For Brown, the production was a hideously embarrassing political disaster. It not only crashed his Democratic primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter, but also reinforced his Governor Moonbeam reputation and marked the start of a decade-long decline in his once-meteoric political fortunes.

Titled “The Shape of Things to Come,” the bizarre half-hour show was seen only by Wisconsin viewers who happened to tune in to the statewide broadcast, a pot-hazed crowd of 3,000 who showed for the event and a small group of political reporters who panned it the next day.

Dubbed “Apocalypse Brown,” after Coppola’s Vietnam War epic “Apocalypse Now,” the program has never been seen by most Californians, including even some of Brown’s closest associates.

Now Calbuzz has obtained one of the few known, converted-to-digital copies of the broadcast.

As a video artifact, the show offers both an extraordinary snapshot of a 41-year old, second-term Gov. Brown, and an intriguing glimpse of the times and culture that provided the backdrop for the rapid arc of success and failure that defined Act I of his long career in politics.

Despite our utter technological ineptitude and extraordinary cheapness,  we’ve found a way to make it available for the next 10 days on a file sharing site to any our loyal readers with the patience to download it. Trust us, it’s well worth the 36 few minutes the process will take you. You can find it here.

We got our DVD copy from TV consultant and Calbuzzer Peter Shaplen, a freelance network news producer who now teaches video journalism at the Art Institute of San Francisco. At the time, he was covering Brown’s campaign as an ABC News producer. As Shaplen recalls:

The governor and I got into a heated argument the following day aboard the campaign plane. He maintained the audience would see beyond the technology snafu and hear his message, respond and vote for him.  I suggested that the audience was so busy laughing at the failure of any reasonable communication that it was impossible to listen and respond.

A Francis Ford Coppola Production: Using — or misusing — the technique of  chroma key compositing,  Coppola  projected impressionistic images both on a big screen behind Brown, which was flapping in the strong wind, and in the simultaneous TV broadcast.

The signature moment of the infomercial comes about 11 minutes into it with the sudden appearance over Brown’s right shoulder of an astronaut, clad only in white boxer shorts, doing somersaults, flips and other gymnastic moves inside a space capsule while in a weightless state.

Just. Plain. Weird.

Things were going badly well before that, however.

Right before the broadcast begins, a voice from the crowd says, “America has lost its environmental ethic and also Wisconsin doesn’t grow enough sinsemilla.”

Then the titles go up and someone types on a dateline, which is misspelled “Madisno, Wisci”  before being corrected; next an utterly grim looking Brown walks to the stage, wearing a serious trench coat apparently a size too big, and starts orating into a sound system that isn’t working.

“We can’t hear,” a few people yell, whereupon Brown is given a hand-held mic and ad libs: “Even the technology of this age needs some human assistance.”

Not long after, the stage lights go out for a while, as seemingly random images – a steel mill, a rural cabin, an old guy shucking wheat – appear behind Brown, while quadrants of his head mysteriously keep dissolving into gaping gashes of flickering black and white.

How the deal went down: Just three weeks before, Brown had appointed the 40-year Coppola, who’d by then won an Academy Award and produced, directed and written the first two “Godfather” movies, to the state Arts Commission.

Brown’s campaign against a Democratic president never really took off – not least because the late Sen. Edward Kennedy was also challenging the incumbent – but Coppola was doing his bit to help his political patron. The journalist Doug Moe years later reconstructed the event:

Brown felt the April 1 primary in Wisconsin — a state often partial to mavericks — held his last best hope. Coppola produced a few TV spots for Brown that ran in Wisconsin. Then, with primary day fast approaching and funds running low, Coppola suggested the Brown campaign attempt something radical.

The decision was made to have Coppola produce a live half-hour show that would air statewide on March 28, the Friday night before the April 1 Tuesday primary. That Coppola knew little about the technology of live television broadcasting — and less about political campaigns — was apparently of small concern.

The director arrived in Madison on Wednesday, March 26, some 48 hours before the scheduled live telecast, accompanied by an entourage of family and friends. Madison-based media writer Tim Onosko covered Coppola’s Madison visit for the Village Voice out of New York City. That first day, Onosko asked Coppola’s brother, August, what he felt his sibling had in mind for Friday night.

“If Picasso were to paint a picture,” August Coppola said, “then donate it to a cause, that would be his way of contributing. Francis will create a piece of his own, and this will be his contribution.” Wednesday night, Coppola made an appearance at Madison West High School and spoke about what had brought him to town…

“We’ll center ourselves by the Capitol building,” Coppola told his West High audience. “We’ll put up this immense television set and we’re going to go on TV live with the governor making a statement that he wants to make. I’ll be in a truck where I can make a live mix, making any combination of things … we’ll decorate the dome and make it very beautiful; of course, it’s a beautiful building anyway.”

The show would be titled “The Shape of Things to Come,” taken from an H. G. Wells story about a society undone by war and reborn through technology. The new technology behind the Jerry Brown half-hour from Madison was called chroma key, and it was being developed at Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios in California. It was a technique of blending images on screen by removing color from one image, rendering it transparent and revealing another image behind it.

But as Coppola told his West High audience that night: “I have no experience at this kind of thing. One reason I’m so excited about doing this little piece is that it’s live television. I get to say ‘cut’ and ‘dissolve’ and if I screw up it’s right there; everybody knows it.”

Indeed.

The Brown manifesto. The following Tuesday, Brown won only 15 percent of the primary vote and dropped out of the race. But the 25-minute speech he delivered during the program, overshadowed by the technical debacle, was framed by many of the ideas and attitudes he still holds – and a few he long ago dumped on the Krusty ash bin of history:

1-Paddle to the right, paddle to the left: Brown’s commentary on global and national political economics, the absolutely humorless tone of which is at odds with the counter-culture crowd on hand to hear, is a case study of how he combines conservative and liberal views in his politics.

His theme was rejuvenating America’s economy, then beset by a crippling combination of high inflation, skyrocketing energy prices and widespread unemployment. He proposed a Japan-like “new economic order,” led by government but including both business and organized labor, that would rebuild the nation’s manufacturing capacity.

“A call to arms, not for war, but for peace – we can re-industrialize this country,” he said.

Among the left-liberal elements of this policy: a “coupon rationing method” for gasoline; a “ban on import of foreign oil by private companies” in favor of a government-run “U.S. Oil Buying Authority,” and new mandatory conservation policies to curtail “profligate, scandalous, unnecessary” energy consumption.

At the same, however, he sounded fiscally conservative themes: stop the government “printing press” of inflationary monetary policy; “balance the budget” by ending “fiscal gimmickry, borrowing from the future (and) huge deficits.” He also called for private-public sector cooperation to sell “re-industrialization bonds (and to) double research efforts into information technologies.”

2-The value of service: Brown’s remarks about himself and his reasons for pursuing elected office echo across three decades.

He recounted growing up in a household dominated by the career of his father, the late Gov. Pat Brown, and his revulsion at what he considered the demeaning nature of much political interaction – “the political language we hear is debased.” He said this led him to his time in the Jesuit seminary.

“I didn’t like politics…I wanted to find God,” he said, an experience that resulted in “development (of) a commitment to be of service.” Railing against “consumerism,” he said that as president he would manifest this idea, which remains a central thread of his politics today, by creating a “domestic Peace Corps” to channel young people into “voluntary service.”

3-The vision thing: Brown’s 1980 speech is also notable for how much it foresees mega economic and political trends that were just then forming.

Speaking of how we all live in “a very small global village,” for example, he foresaw globalization and trade policies a generation into the future, calling for a “North American Economic Community” including the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and enthusiastically describing the possibilities of “co-generation, solar, photo-voltaic” energy sources, as well as the need for “mass transit, bullet trains, fuel efficient cars.”

Also included in the speech are seeds of others arguments he makes in the current race for governor, sometimes in almost the same words:

“I have the skill, the know-how, the commitment,” for high office, he said at one point; when a woman asked him what he will do to assure the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, he presaged his get-them-all-in-a-room plan for solving the current budget deficit: “I’ll bring recalcitrant legislators to Washington and keep them there until they change their mind.”

Somewhat awkwardly, Brown concluded his remarks by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance – without inviting the crowd to join him. Then he left the stage, unaware that the technical meltdown of the program within a few hours would lead to widespread mockery of the event. Said Shaplen:

My impression was (and remains) that much of what the governor said was well phrased and at times prospective.  But the show reinforced audience stereotypes that he was a wild, untamed Californian unsuited for Washington.

You read the percentages down, not across

Giants fans for Jerry; Rangers fans for Meg: Our friend SF pollster Ben Tulchin came up with some fun data in a survey of 700 likely voters Oct. 25-27 wherein he found Jerry Brown leading Meg Whitman 45-37% and Barbara Boxer leading Carly Fiorina 48-40%.

But the much more interesting data were in the crosstabs with Ben’s findings on the SF Giants and Texas Rangers. Phil Matier and Andy Ross at the SF Chronicle had this first, but thanks to the geniuses managing the Hearst Chron, their article isn’t available online until Tuesday because it’s stuck behind the Chronicle Firewall Designed to Make You Buy Their Dying Newspaper. Which is fine, because M&R screwed up the story by misreporting the crosstabs.

Here’s what Tulchin found: California voters are rooting for the Giants over the Rangers 53-15%; Giants fans support Brown over Whitman 56-32% while Rangers fans support Whitman 51-29%. Giants fans also support Babara Boxer over Carly Fiorina and they oppose Prop. 23 (the measure to undo California’s climate-change law) while Rangers fans support Fiorina and Prop. 23.

The Boyz read the crosstabs (and Ben’s memo) wrong, reporting that Brown supporters favor the Giants 56-29% while Whitman supporters favor the Rangers 51-31%. (That was wrong, too: if you were going to misread the chart properly (!) you’d have it 51-32%).

Bottom line: Go Giants!


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About Calbuzz

Calbuzz is the creation of Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine, former political editors of the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury News. They have covered California politics for more than 60 years. One of the most influential forces in the state, Calbuzz is insightful, sharp, fair and funny.
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