I've been planning a column about fictional representations of conventions but, when you get down to it, the selection is pretty thin. Part of that may have to do with the way conventions by themselves are notoriously dull for anyone not interested in how North Dakota is going to split up its votes, or what superlatives Georgia will use to describe itself.
Yeah, I'm one of those people. But we're talking about the public at large, whose lack of interest has spurred broadcast networks to minimal coverage in recent years. H.L. Mencken has often been quoted that a convention “is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus. … One sits through long sessions wishing all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell" -- although, he added, “then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour." Most don't want to wait for that, especially if -- as happened in 1924 -- picking a nominee takes 103 ballots.
Of course, this time may be different because of Donald Trump. Not only is he a TV star of enormous unpredictability, he reportedly called the 2012 GOP gathering "supremely boring" and is said to be eyeing sports stars and other celebs to jazz up the 2016 gathering.
Still, there are some bits of screen entertainment worth your time as a convention warm-up. Look for:
"The Best Man" (1964), the screen adaptation of Gore Vidal's play (with a script by Vidal as well). Set at a convention where a statesman-like wit (Henry Fonda) is vying for the nomination against a ruthless cynic (Cliff Robertson), the film is noteworthy not only for its playing with real types -- Robertson is utterly Nixonian, Fonda a lot of Adlai Stevenson with some JFK thrown in -- but for its contemplation of politics, idealism and what it takes to win. And the ending is nearly perfect, at least for idealists.
"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962). It's not really about a convention; a couple of other convention-tied movies aren't either. But they, and this, still reflect some of the cultural currents that flow into these nomination ceremonies. "Candidate," based on Richard Condon's novel, is the tightly plotted tale of a Korean War hero (Laurence Harvey) who becomes part of an evil plot to take the White House, which hinges on an assassination at a presidential convention. Frank Sinatra, as Harvey's army commander, gives one of his best performances. Skip the remake.
"Medium Cool" (1969). Like "The Manchurian Candidate," it's not about a convention per se. It's more about a TV newsman (Robert Forster) whose film-shooting assignments include the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. That convention became a touchstone, and in some cases a cliche, when people tried to define the '60s. This movie from Haskell Wexler blended footage shot in and around the convention (including Forster with his camera in the hall). But don't look at it just for the convention; look at how it shows conflicts in the culture -- and what was coming in newsrooms.
"The West Wing": "2162 Votes" (2005. If you're looking on Netflix: Season 6, Episode 22). After the departure of Aaron Sorkin, the series struggled to get a good tone and style again (especially because Sorkin had left a mess of a plot behind). It found its footing in the campaigns to succeed Bartlet, and especially in an episode like this one, where Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) is bidding for the Democratic nomination at the convention. Lots of sharp talk, solid performance and -- implausible though it is -- a lovely bit near the end with John Spencer. Gosh, I still miss that man.
"Best of Enemies" (2015). This documentary is not only about a legendary TV confrontation between Gore Vidal (yes, him again) and William F. Buckley Jr., but about the way TV's news coverage began a shift from reporting and calm analysis toward shouting and threats of fisticuffs. The background: to bring viewers to what had been low-rated news coverage, ABC hired Vidal and Buckley to discuss the events at the 1968 conventions. Their political disagreements were just part of a deeper dislike which led to ever nastier exchanges -- and the realization that some viewers liked that. Without this, we might never have had "Point/Counterpoint" on "60 Minutes," "Crossfire" on CNN, and the cage matches that are passed off as news discussion today.
And which most likely will flare up during the RNC.