Archive for September, 2004

The Great Debate

Here’s an interesting resource: The Great Debate & Beyond: The History of Presidential Debates and Beyond. The archive includes select video clips froms televised presidential debates since 1960. Coincidentally, I was talking to a colleague about wanting to see (or show my students) the “You’re no JFK” moment from the Bentsen-Quayle VP debate during the 1988 election, so this resource could be very helpful. Also several good clips from Reagan’s debates (“Are you better off four years ago?”).

Thanks to Blog for Democracy for the good find. Cross posted at Palimpsest.

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Movies as Political Puppets

Via Metaphilm: David Sterritt’s CSM article, “Movies as Political Puppets.” Sterritt lines up all the usual suspects, Team America, Silver City, and F9/11, but he mentions one film that I didn’t know, The September Tapes, which “blends nonfiction footage with staged scenes to create a thriller about a journalist who is searching for Osama bin Laden.” I like the idea of blending nonfiction and staged footage, and the investigation plot could serve the film well. Sterritt primarily considers whether or not the “political cycle” will affect the upcoming election, a question I’ve visited on several (too many?) occasions.

What I find interesting about the article (and I’m blogging between classes, so I’ll be brief) is the discussion of the role of film or popular entertainment in convincing people to vote for a particular candidate, or to hold a particular set of beliefs. Susan Zeig notes that any impact Moore’s film (or other “political” films) might have cannot be measured very easily. Aside from the fact that the effect of a political documentary will depend on an audience member’s preconceptions, it seems almost impossible to identify a single event (a film, a talk radio show, a conversation) that would determine one’s vote. Also, in a sense, the article doesn’t really explain that these decisions aren’t always rational, as this now famous New Yorker article points out.

I’m also trying to think through the article’s combined focus on documentary/non-fiction and fiction films. I’d assume that audiences go into a documentary film with a much different set of expectations (that there will be an argument, that the director will use factual information) than a feature film. And many of the fiction films may not have an overt goal of defeating Bush this fall. Team America probably doesn’t have this goal, while Sayles openly states he’d like Bush to lose.

Perhaps the most interesting point in the article is raised by Robert Merrill, editor of Baltimore’s Maisonneuve Press:

The election of Ronald Reagan was the moment when entertainment overwhelmed politics. […] His media advisers were entertainment and advertising experts…. It’s the same for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and George W. Bush clearly sees himself as playing a role in a drama.

I’ve been talking in passing with my students about the short films played before each candidate accepted his nomination, including Bush’s, which placed him in a very clear narrative about confronting the war on terror, culminating somewhat oddly in his throwing out the first pitch of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium soon after 9/11. I’m not sure how that event resolves the tension raised by the short film (the need for leadership), or more importantly, the problems raised by the September 11 attacks. But, the main point is that these films are usually fairly transparent attempts to organize a narrative around the candidate, and I think that’s what makes them interesting as cultural artifacts.

Not sure how to bring these fragments into a narrative myself, but some of these questions have been on my mind lately. I’m in processing mode right now, so many of these ideas may be attached to questions that aren’t apparent in this blog entry.

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When Blogging Goes Bad

For now, just a quick pointer to a couple of blog entries I’d want to consider while writing my paper on blogging for an upcoming conference:

Lots of meetings today, so I’ll have to come back to these blog entries later. In a sense, I no longer perceive blogging as an “experiment” in my classes, and that may mean that I need to change my approach to using them in the classroom. I have been thinking about how my use of blogs informs the election-themed composition course I’m currently teaching, and much of that material should find its way into the conference paper.

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McCain on Moore

Just a quick link to the text of John McCain’s speech at the RNC on Monday, August 30. I’m writing a short review essay on documentary film and want to mention his cut on Michael Moore:

The years of keeping Saddam in a box were coming to a close. The international consensus that he be kept isolated and unarmed had eroded to the point that many critics of military action had decided the time had come again to do business with Saddam, despite his near daily attacks on our pilots, and his refusal, until his last day in power, to allow the unrestricted inspection of his arsenal.

Our choice wasn’t between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war. It was between war and a graver threat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Not our critics abroad. Not our political opponents.

And certainly not a disingenuous film maker who would have us believe that Saddam’s Iraq was an oasis of peace when in fact it was a place of indescribable cruelty, torture chambers, mass graves and prisons that destroyed the lives of the small children held inside their walls.

Michael Moore was present at the convention, of course, and the story received a lot of attention, specifically because of the “unusual” mix of politics and filmmaking, as John Nichols’ piece in The Capital Times illustrates.

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More Underground Cinema

I’m in the midst of a grading marathon and therefore not in the bloggiest of moods today, but Heidi passed along a link to another Guardian article on La Mexicaine de la Perforation, the small group of “urban explorers” who built a small cinema in the Paris catacombs. Not much to say right now, but the group does have very good taste in movies, showing such films as Dark City, Eraserhead, and Brazil in their underground theater.

Like George, I enjoyed the conversations we held yesterday during our September Project event but wish that more people had attended. Thanks again to David Silver and Sarah Washburn for coming up with such a cool idea.

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The Hunting of the President

Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry’s The Hunting of the President (IMDB), a documentary about “the ten-year campaign to destroy Bill Clinton,” has been lost in the shuffle of the many other fine documentaries that have appeared in theaters this year. In fact, compared to the packed houses in Atlanta for F9/11 and Control Room, I was a little disappointed to see such a small crowd present last night for Thomason and Parry’s film. I was even more disappointed because Hunting is an engrossing, entertaining film, equal parts conspiracy thriller and political documentary (and, yes, like J. Hoberman, I’m aware that Clinton’s story is yesterday’s news).

Very quickly, The Hunting of the President introduces us to shady Arkansas locals, including a private detective and other local characters looking either to shut down Clinton’s rise to power or at least make a profit from it. These characters are introduced rapidly, using titles that appear to be typed onto the screen (echoing the effect used in All the President’s Men). At the same time, the film uses archival footage from kitschy 1950s detective films to humorous mock the artificial seriousness with which the investigations of Clinton were conducted. This use of footage reminded me more of The Corporation than of Michael Moore’s use of similar footage, but the effect of the inserted footage is to tweak the tone of Hunting and prevent it from feeling too heavy-handed.

We watch as reporters discuss overhearing conversations on houseboats involving shadowy figures from the Arkansas Project, while Bill Clinton’s ascent to the Presidency begins to appear inevitable, although we rarely glimpse Clinton himself, an aspect of the film that I found lacking (I’m no Clinton apologist, but conveying his charisma, especially during the 1992 campaign would have made the film more interesting, I believe). Further, because Thomason is a famous FOB (Friend of Bill), it seems to gloss Clinton’s complicated sexual history.

The film builds chronologically (the official website has a nice timeline and list of key figures), with local Arkansas “scandals,” including the Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers stories, giving way to Ken Starr’s unabashedly partisan $80 million investigation of Whitewater. These stories move primarily through talking heads inteviews, with David Brock emerging as a credible figure in discussing the smear tactics used by conservative Clinton haters. He also illustrates how the “liberal media” were complicit in bringing down Clinton, with everyone seeking to be the next Woodward and Bernstein in a new Watergate, a process that seems to be playing itself out yet again in the ridiculous Memogate controversy, in which we now see dozens of bloggers suddenly proclaiming themselves document experts. Meanwhile, reporters who questioned the validity of Starr’s investigation were immediately tarred as Clinton apologists

Susan McDougall and Claudia Riley emerge as key figures for talking about the Independent Counsel’s Whitewater investigation (McDougall eventually was sentenced to two years in prison, basically for refusing to testify against the Clintons). McDougall’s tales of being forced to wear the “red dress” in prison, typically a signifier of especially violent crimes such as chld killing, is rather upsetting and, of course, recalls another famous dress. Riley, a longtime Democrat and classic southern matriarch, provides plenty of color, echoing the film’s assertions about the Starr crowd’s fascination with Bill Clinton’s sex life. Asked if she ever had sex with Clinton, the 74-year old replies, “He never asked me.”

Some viewers of the film will fault it for not giving voice to “the other side,” and Thomason and Perry show only a couple of interviews with people who fought for Clinton’s impeachment (although the closing credits list several of the people who refused to be interviewed), but like David Edelstein, I don’t think this is a major fault in the film. It still makes the clear case that American taxpayers spent $80 million on an investigation that “turned up nothing but evidence of consensual oral sex.” And, to be honest, the film does downplay the Monica Lewinsky affair (I don’t think Linda Tripp was mentioned at all in the film), but their absence from the film doesn’t diminish its main point.

As Edelstein points out, Hunting effectively conveys the ability of the right in “transforming baseless innuendo into the stuff of $80-million taxpayer-funded investigations—and impeachments.” But, unlike Bush’s Brain, which seemed focused only on identifying Karl Rove as a masterful manipulator, Hunting doesn’t pretend to identify an organized conspiarcy. Intsead, several figures, from Ken Starr to Jerry Falwell to billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, emerge as working against the President for a variety of reasons. The film’s ability to avoid the image of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” is one of its greatest strengths. Intsead, it focuses on this loose alliance of figures who fought to weaken one of the most popular presidents in recent memory.

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Quick Question

Are other Moveable Type users having trouble using the MT Blacklist? I keep getting an error message that says something like “the server has left.”

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Underground Cinema

Fascinating story about a secret cinema in the catacombs of Paris. I’m sick today (some kind of cold or flu–ick!), so hopefully I’ll be able to come back to this story later when I’m feeling better. Very interesting that most of the movies the police discovered were 1950s film noir classics and recent thrillers. The theater was equipped with a bar and a small kitchen. Also cool: when teh police returned several days later to find the theater’s electrical source, someone had left a note saying, “Do not try to find us.”

Thanks to George and Heidi for the tip.

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September Project Atlanta

Just got some great news: Paul Loeb has agreed to participate in the September Project event here in Atlanta this weekend. Loeb is the author of several books, including Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time and The Impossible Will Take a While. Loeb will be joined by Sarah Shalf, a civil liberties lawyer who represented Martha Burk in her quest to be admitted to Augusta National Golf Club. David has more information about Sarah Shalf, who will be discussing some recent cases involving the prosecution of terrorsit suspects, Hamdi, Padilla, and Rasul.

Our September Project event will be scheduled for Saturday, September 11, from 3-5:30 at the Peachtree Branch of the Atlanta Public Library.

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I’d Love to See This Acceptance Speech

Michael Moore has announced that he will not submit Fahrenheit 9/11 for consideration for best documentary, choosing instead to pursue the Big Prize, best overall picture. My guess is that Republican anti-hero Moore, with the help of Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, will likely score a nomination for picture and/or director, but I simply don’t see the film winning the overall prize.

One effect Moore’s decision will have is that it will clear the way for another documentary filmmaker to gain some well-deserved recognition (my money is now on Control Room, with Super Size Me a sleeper pick); however, his decsion, according to his website, is based on the hope that he will be able to screen F9/11 on TV before the November election, which would disqualify his film from the documentary competition because of a silly and outdated rule that prohibits competing documentaries from being shown on TV within nine months of their theatrical release.

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Capturing Links

I’ve nearly completed my Fight Club essay and have decided to start thinking about my SAMLA paper (second entry) on Capturing the Friedmans (IMDB). I’m hoping that creating an overlap between these projects will ease the turbulence I typically feel when moving from one project to another. I’m also aware that the MLA job list will be coming out soon, so I’d like to get some momentum going on the paper before I start worrying too much about the job list.

At any rate, my Capturing paper focuses primarily on the film’s extensive use of home movies, the archives of Super-8 film and videotape collected by the family. Many of the reviewers have noted the connections between the Friedman family and reality TV (Cynthia Fuchs of Pop Matters also mentions the now defunct Jennicam), and what I’ve found interesting here is the implicit connection many of these reviewers make between the “juridical” aspects of the film, the questions of Arnold and Jesse Friedman’s guilt, and the use of family footage, that is the “truth” of documentary footage. In fact, unlike Roger Ebert, I find the film is pretty clear in its assertion that Jesse and Arnold Friedman are not guilty of the crimes for which they were charged (Arnold’s collection of illegal viewing material is another matter).

However, I’m less interested in the film’s treatment of innocence and guilt (even though I originally pitched the idea of reading the film as a “trial documentary”) than I am interested in Capturing’s fascination with self-documentation–the “reality TV” aspect of the film. It’s worth noting that much of the family’s footage was captured in the 1970s and ’80s, soon after the Loud family became one of the first families to have their lives broadcast before a national audience, something I think that Elvis Mitchell hints at in his New York Times review (without mentioning the Loud family or their PBS series by name). I’m just starting to think specifically about this paper, so these ideas are a bit scattered. In fact, I’d originally just planned to bullet point a few links.

One or two other quick points for now: David Denby’s New Yorker review, reprinted in its entirety inside the cover of the Capturing DVD, looks particularly useful for thinking about this paper, and Debbie Nathan’s Village Voice article supplements the film reviews nicely. Nathan is a journalist who has written extensively on the case, and notes among other things, that David and Jesse were orginally very suspicious of director Andrew Jarecki’s questions. Specifically they were concerned about Jarecki’s “repeated questions about whether Arnold molested his sons.” She also provides a bit of detail about Jesse’s thirteen difficult years in prison, something the film doesn’t really discuss in much detail.

Again, I’m still in the early stages of planning this paper. Hopefully I’ll have more to say in the next few weeks.

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Shock Corridor

Now that I’m getting settled into fall semester (three weeks down), I’m trying to watch more “escapist” movies. Last night, it was indie movie guru Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor. Shock Corridor is the 1963 film that the cinephiles are watching during the opening sequence of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, and after seeing Fuller’s film, I can see why the French New Wave filmmakers admired it so much.

Shock Corridor is about Johnny Barrett, an ambitious newspaper reporter who hopes to win a Pulitzer by going undercover as a mental patient in order to solve a mysterious murder. In the opening scene, Johnny trains with a psychiatrist friend, learning to perform the symptoms of mental illness in much the same way that a college student might cram for a final exam. His girlfriend, a stripper with an intense affinity to her feather boa, worries that Johnny will get caught–or worse, that he will become insane because of his exposure to the patients in the asylum. The film is shot in gritty black-and-white, with several long shots of “the street,” the long hallway where the patients congregate to socialize. In addition, there are several surrealistic shots of dreams and fantasies that disrupt this grittiness in fairly complicated ways, but I don’t want to describe them in too much detail because the pleasure in being surprised by these shots was so much fun.

Once inside, Johnny begins having nightmares involving his girlfriend and her career as a stripper. At the same time, he slowly makes progress on solving the murder by talking to the three principle witnesses, all of whom are trauamtized by both the murder and their own pasts. These witnesses include: a southern Korean War veteran who claims to have been brainwashed by the Communists and now believes himself to be a Civil War soldier; a black man who as a child crossed picket lines to attend a formerly white college and now believes himself to be a white supremacist, and a nuclear scientist who has regressed to the mental capacity of a two-year-old. All three patients offer some version of satire on late ’50s America, including the paranoia that produced McCarthyism, segregationism, and the Cold War. In an odd way, the film reminded me of the more recent–and less overtly political–spoof film, Bubba Ho-Tep (my review).

Many of the reviews I’ve seen downgrade the film for its tabloid style, but that’s what makes it so enjoyable in my opinion. The pseudo-Freudian language and the false seriousness make the film a great B-movie experience. Another reader of the film faults the film for showing the world outside the asylum as being equally “grim, painful and downright weird as that inside.” In a sense, that seems to be the point of the film; the “outside” world is just as crazy as the asylum, if not moreso. I’d also disagree with the claim that the film satirizes “America’s demand for over-achievement.” It’s not the desire for over-achievement that dooms the black patient to madness; it’s the fear and paranoia of the community around him. But no matter what, for the next few days, I’ll be walking straight to the Samuel Fuller shelf at my local videostore.

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Convention Keywords

Cool New York Times graphic counting the keywords used by speakers at this year’s Democratic and Republican conventions. Not surprisingly, Republicans were more likely to mention the war, although this number was closer than you’d think, while Dems were much more likely to mention jobs and health care (big surprise there). Perhaps the biggest contrast: Republicans mentioned Kerry nearly eight times more often than Democrats mentioned Bush.

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Conventional Wisdom

After watching George Bush’s campaign speech last night, I was relieved that I had not yet completed my annual ritual of watching Dazed and Confused. After a slash and burn Republican convention, I needed something to make me feel better about the world, and Linklater’s film provided that. I was even able to indulge my nostalgia for a world before anyone in the Bush family had ever been President, and this time around, Ben Affleck’s presence in the film didn’t even bother me. I think I needed that escape pretty badly, especially after watching so much of the convention this week. I did the full marathon–keynotes all four nights (then again, Jenna and Barbara Bush were utterly fascinating).

I’ve been following a few documentary film stories that are worth noting. First, Warner Brothers has decided not to distribute David O. Russell’s 35-minute anti-war documentary. The docu originally was to accompany a re-release of Russell’s vastly underrated Three Kings, which I regard as one of the best films of the 1990s. Warner’s decision follows Sony’s decision to back out of a deal to distribute Control Room on DVD. Lion’s Gate, which also distributed F9/11 in theaters, wisely stepped to the plate and will distribute instead. Still, it’s rather discouraging (to say the least) to see major studios balking at distributing political material.

Russell’s documentary will find an audience, possibly through MoveOn.org, but Warner’s decision is pretty chilling, and based on the language of the Times article, I don’t think that Warner’s decision is a financial one, or at least it’s not simply financial (look at the success of “political” docs like F9/11, Super Size Me, and Control Room). Instead, Warner claims to be concerned about violating campaign finance law. Russell’s comments about the documentary’s role in showing audiences the effects of war

prompted Warner Brothers to ask its lawyers if the documentary might run afoul of Federal Election Commission regulations, or constitute a so-called soft money political contribution. Though the legal opinion was unclear, the studio decided not to release a film that might be construed as partisan ahead of the election. The president of Warner Brothers, Alan Horn, is an active Democrat and wanted to avoid the perception that he was using the studio to support his own political convictions, studio executives said.

Not much else to add here except to compliment the independent studios who are still willing to release these films.

I finally got a chance to watch one of those documentaries, Bush’s Brain, the other day, but hadn’t had time to blog it. But, as promised, here’s a quick review. Brain is based on the book by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater about Karl Rove’s role in promoting George W. Bush to the Oval Office, and I’ve gotta admit that I was somewhat disappointed in this documentary. Yes, it shows Karl Rove engaging in political dirty tricks. Or at least people suggesting that KR has been engaging in dirty tricks. But, for one, there’s no real smoking gun, at least in my memory of the film. The films’ claims seem closer to a “man behind the curtain, pulling all the strings” approach.

This “gotcha” approach isn’t very satisfying, and it doesn’t really offer a compelling reason to vote against George Bush. There’s very little information about the effects of Bush’s policies, and instead we get a laundry list of Karl Rove’s dirty tricks, dating back to his early triumph in running for national office in the Young Republicans. The film’s website comments that Rove is the person “the person who many think is calling the shots at the White House.” These kinds of allegations are little better than Fox’s “some people say…” ploy, described in Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed, and they say little about Bush’s policies.

I want to be clear that I’m perfectly happy to see Rove being criticized and to see people bringing his dirty tricks to light, but there’s nothing in the film that takes us beyond criticizing these dirty tricks. The film seems to take the election process at face value, identifying the one bad apple rather than considering larger problems about political campaigns (including the very problems that prevented Russell’s documentary from being released).

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Live From New York, It’s the Zellacious One!

Okay, I think it’s pretty well-documented that I’m no fan of Zell Miller, but playing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” when he walked onstage was pretty funny.

Update Scroll down the comments to find a full transcript of Zell Miller’s one shining moment.

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