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This Wordless Clip of a Man Throwing a Rock into a Pond Is the Greatest Campaign Ad Ever

In 2008, Mike Gravel was not a very good presidential candidate. But he was also the star of one of the strangest and best bits of political performance art ever.
May 9, 2016, 7:30pm
Mike Gravel Weird Ad

We've now basically reached the home stretch of the presidential campaign. Two presumptive candidates in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, 182 days until the election, one country that suddenly seems cramped and claustrophobic. You can be angry about the election, you can be resigned, but no one is happy, save maybe those Trump diehards gleefully watching their man stick it to the system by constantly lying. No one wants to read another recap of another no good, very bad week of politics, but here's just one item to note: Clinton was assailed by Latino protesters who accused her of "pandering" when she appeared in East LA on Cinco de Mayo, but Trump's own commemoration of the day included a tweet about how he loved "Hispanics."

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Those turned jaded and disaffected by the prospect of six more months of this don't have many options. Bernie Sanders's only hope is an impossible-to-imagine superdelegate insurrection against Clinton, and casting a ballot for a third party will accomplish exactly nothing, same as usual. A sizable number of Republicans hate Trump enough to vote for someone, anyone, else, or stay home altogether. Betting markets have Clinton as the clear favorite, but whatever the result, we're on the hook for a wave of negativity, ugliness, and the sort of hate that politics as usual normally keeps hidden. Things are bad. They're going to get worse.

Forget all that. Don't click away to read another thing about why Trump is evil incarnate, or why Clinton isn't much better. What you should do is watch this video. Full screen it if your boss isn't coming by; like everything actually worth looking at for more than five seconds, it's better if it gets your undivided attention:

I suppose you need some context. The man who stares into the camera is Mike Gravel—pronounced gra-vel, not like the bits of rock—a former senator from Alaska who ran a campaign for president in 2008 that was a sort of proto-Sanders experiment. He was a curmudgeon who talked straight, maybe a little too straight: During one debate, he said that some of the other Democratic candidates "frighten" him because they wouldn't rule out the use of nuclear weapons and told Joe Biden he had a "certain arrogance" about him. Gravel also said that Vietnam vets "died in vain," that people identifying as LGBT should be allowed to serve in the military, that the US should get out of Iraq immediately, that the government should end the war on drugs and allow gays to marry.

Eight years ago, this was progressive stuff, but Gravel's guy-on-the-bus-who-starts-talking-to-you-for-no-reason style didn't endear him to many voters, and he didn't stand out from a crowded field that quickly reduced itself to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Gravel didn't crack 1 percent of the vote in any primary, then tried unsuccessfully to become the Libertarian Party's candidate. In the years since, he's lent his support to oddball causes like 9/11 trutherism and UFO theories.

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Gravel's politics are beside the point here, though—the important thing is that he's standing there, in front of the camera, silently imploring the viewer to listen while being unable to say anything. "Rock" is not a campaign video. It's a documentary about a man who is trying to tell us something that even he doesn't know. It's a two-minute film about honesty, about the impossibility of communication. When it climaxes (spoilers) with Gravel tossing the rock into the pond, you understand that he is in touch with deeper, more truthful things than just mere politics. The world is not divided into Democrats and Republicans, left wing and right. It's split between people who feel their soul being tugged by a man who can do nothing but throw a rock into a pond and then walk away and those who have no idea what I'm talking about. To quote the Red Hot Chili Peppers, if you have to ask, you'll never know.

"Rock" was one of two videos Gravel made at the behest of a pair of 24-year-old artists in Southern California who wanted to work with him; Gravel said in an old interview that he spent a whole day making the films with them. The second video, "Twigs," shows him gathering up twigs and then sitting in front of the resulting fire. There is no soundtrack, no dialogue, no non-diegetic noise at all; you can hear the fire crackle, the cries of birds, a barge's horn echoing somewhere, the splash of rock on water.

There are metaphorical meanings Gravel explained at the time (a rock thrown into water creates "ripples into infinity"; twigs "are what people acquire in the way of wisdom"). Then there is the maybe more profound meaning of having a politician of that stature working with his hands the way humans have worked with their hands forever, an expression of shared identity deeper than mere party affiliation. We have all been walking beside the water under a gray sky. We have all hiked through grass picking up wood. We have all sat in front of a fire trying to get warm.

In these moments, I don't think of Gravel as a politician, the usual conglomeration of interest groups and policy preferences with a little bit of personality thrown in. "Rock" and "Twigs" are works of performance art—they remind me of the Chris Burden piece Honest Labor, in which the artist was invited to discuss his work with students at a college but instead asked the school to give him tools with which he spent four days digging a ditch. In "Rock" particularly, there's that same attempt to use physical action as a way to communicate something, that same mix of the routine and the absurd.

Say what you will about Gravel, but the current crop of frontrunners doesn't seem capable of creating videos like these. Imagine Trump staring into the camera for more than ten seconds without saying anything or cracking into a grin like a nervous teenager. Imagine Clinton by herself in the woods. (Imagine either of them giving their time to artists the way Gravel did.) The two of them have long since departed the realm of the ordinary and turned into symbols, thinkpiece topics, avatars on which to hang our hopes and fears. The next six months are going to be all rhetoric, all sound and fury, the wordless roar of a million pundit hands slamming down on a million laptop keyboards. It will be awful. So remember that there are simpler, more important things in life. Like a rock, or a pond, or a man who won't be president throwing one into the other.