Lost in the Movies: The Way We Weren't: Art Under Bush

The Way We Weren't: Art Under Bush

"A cloying cliché presented as profundity" - so Peter Plagens, Newsweek art critic, describes Jeff Koons' Hanging Heart and, by turn, the Bush era in Newsweek's recent article, "The Way We Were: Art and Culture In the Bush Era." One could add that it's also a particularly apt description of what passes for socio-cultural criticism these days, with the contents of Newsweek's run-down providing the latest example. The article's opening reads, "If artists depend on angst and unrest to fuel their creative fire, then at least in one sense the 43rd presidency has been a blessing." The implication is that somehow the Zeros have been a bonanza of cultural expression, angry fist-waving at our social conditions, a constant artistic outcry at the folly of our times. This is, of course, absurd, and to be fair, many of Newsweek's critics take a different tack, highlighting - as Plagens does with Koons' Heart - the ways in which glib, narcissistic, or tacky art has inadvertently reflected the ethos of the epoch. Yet even here their critique is problematic, for if the arts are thrown in the lion's den with our much-maligned president, the castigators largely refrain from applying the same vitriol towards themselves, the cultural (and mostly liberal) establishment, or us, the American people. Reading this article stirred up a variety of thoughts and feelings, criticisms which both reflected the writing and responded to it. The rest of my reaction follows after the jump.

As a mission statement, the first paragraph states, "NEWSWEEK asked its cultural critics to pick the one work in their field that they believe exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush." How these cultural critics responded to this prodding is telling, and reveals a great deal about the cultural poverty of our decade, particularly as it relates to the zeitgeist (for example, only a few of the selections were actually fashioned after 9/11). But before examining these choices, let me offer a clarification of the context in which I believe these critiques exist. I don't know what "one work" I'd pick to represent the Bush years, but I do know which phrase I would select. It isn't "axis of evil," or "weapons of mass destruction" or "mission accomplished" or even "with us or against us." It's another Bush quote, a response to the implicit question of what Americans should do after 9/11. He responded: "Go shopping."

This was one of the most consumerist decades in our national history. On the surface, there is nothing particularly wrong with this, unless you oppose a capitalist economy (which I do not). Goods are made, goods are purchased, and so forth. But our era fetishized consumerism with a chutzpah and bravado unchecked by the callous narcissism of the 80s or the braindead naivete of the 50s, both of which allowed room for critiques and subversion. The sophistication of the media and the pop culture provided ample cover for 00s consumer fetishization. After all, how can you attack a culture which already regards itself with a chuckling irony? How can you dismantle a dominant aesthetic, a slick, exclusive visual language, which receives the implicit approval of cultural standard-bearers? In the wake of 9/11, elements in the media declared irony dead. This can stand on par with Bush's "Mission Accomplished" as one of the worst prophecies of the age. True, the 90s irony, a scruffy, lovable kind of Seinfeldian nonchalance more or less disappeared, but only so it could mutate into a rabid, snarky, empty kind of irony, a hip postmodern glee which took a once subversive idiom and turned it into a reinforcement of power.

To put it as succinctly as I can, the Bush era was defined not only by its crises, but by the way it ignored these crises' implications, the way it papered over a damaged psyche with materialistic triviality and an inability to engage with the world in a serious fashion. To say the cultural establishment was complicit in this shallow cover-up is an understatement: it was the cover-up. It continued to perpetuate and facilitate an ironic, arch tone, a glib obsession with triviality and trash, and an aesthetic elegance which achieved the weird paradox of tasteful decadence. Why was this exactly? Institutions in denial about their own impotence and humanity? The disastrous fruits of postmodern surrender? Obsession with profits and success and trendspotting? The result of a corrosion of older (perhaps outdated) values, without new ones to replace them? I'm not sure. Perhaps all of these factors combined to create a cultural establishment which resembled an ostrich whose head was buried deep in the post-9/11 ash.

Meanwhile, the American people, including me and many (though not all) of you, went along the path of least resistance. Those who did seek to protest did so in outmoded ways, trying to inappropriately reenact the 60s with marches and strident proclamations. At best, some of these folks were misguided and confused, trying to register their disbelief and anger only to find themselves unexpectedly impotent. At worst, there was a self-satisfied narcissism at work - the most resonant, and saddest, symbolism I saw during the Iraq war was a group of students who marched inside a glass university building to stage a "die-in." As they lay quietly on the steps, making their symbolic, dramatic statement, pedestrians passed by on the sidewalk, not even noticing the demonstration inside.

Many of the artistic and cultural attempts to speak out, register protest, or even (hubris of hubris) challenge the status quo followed this same pattern. One thinks of the Iraq movies, flops all, many dismantled by critics sympathetic to their cause but disbelieving the sense of self-importance and flimsiness these works conveyed. Or the controversy of a Michael Moore film, rallying the troops and preaching to the choir and notably failing in its attempt to unseat Bush. Or the cries of neo-McCarthyism which emerged when artists and entertainers like the Dixie Chicks or Tim Robbins were criticized for their opinions, as if the worst fruit of the Bush era was revealed when celebrities had to endure the insults of the rabble. In all of these examples, we see a pattern, an inability to deal with the present on its own terms - antiwar critics seeking refuge in the myth of Vietnam redux, as if the rice paddies of Southeast Asia had been transferred to the sands of Mesopotamia; angry activists trying to rally people to the streets in big "marches," which was probably the least effective place for Bush's opponents to be; wounded celebrities trying to wrap themselves in the age-old martyrdom of the blacklist. This obsession with history, as if we could only make sense of our fresh experiences with a recourse to the past (and an overly mythologized past at that) was of course reflected on the right, with the noble cause of World War II and occasionally the Cold War being the favored metaphors.

At any rate, despite all these drawbacks, one is tempted to give these critics a pass because, well, at least they tried. The rest of the decade was overwhelmingly characterized by an apathy, a self-satisfaction, and a complete disconnect. The best forms of cultural criticism emerged in "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," consistently scathing critiques of political malevolence and media idiocy, but here there was a dark side too - one often detected in the applause and laughter of the audience a disgusting smugness: well, we've clapped and chuckled, we've done our part. This emerged most discomfortingly in misplaced applause, as Jon Stewart would call the war a failure and the audience would cheer. There's a palpable borderline between relief that someone has finally stated the obvious, and short-sighted, arrogant boosterism, an "our side has won" mentality that ignores the horror of what it means to say the war is "a failure." Quite often, one could sense these audiences crossing that borderlines, and perhaps sense one's own self slipping into this realm as well.

And this brings up another point, another chink in the cultural and liberal establishment's flimsy armor. I believe George W. Bush was one of the worst presidents in history, based in large part on his decision to go to war in Iraq, the bungling of the occupation, and the paralysis when faced with Katrina. It's come to the point where the vast majority of American people agree. But let's face it, President Bush is the proverbial fish in a barrel, and what's more, he was shot dead long ago. That stinking, decaying corpse floating in the dirty water doesn't need any more bullets - could we start to look around for other targets? How about looking in the mirror?

The displacement of blame has come to rest not only on Bush but on the proverbial, almost mythic "Red America" which supposedly explains his success. Let's return to the Newsweek article for a moment. Marc Peyser chooses "American Idol" as the TV show which most accurately represents the Bush years. Fair enough. The wildly popular series is often mean-spirited, vapid, and arrogant. But where does Peyser take this potential self-critique? To Red America of course: "'Idol' is the quintessential television show of the Bush era not just because it's been the most popular show of his tenure but also because of where it's popular. You'll find defenders and detractors all over the country, but this is primarily a red-state show...Whenever those elitist critics on the coasts trash 'Idol' as mediocre, middlebrow entertainment, we rally to the show's defense, whether it deserves it or not."

First off, let's take that dishonest "we." Who's "we" here? It certainly isn't Peyser, who spends several paragraphs thrashing the show, while playfully and rhetorically distancing himself from "those elitist critics on the coasts." No, "we" is those overweight, stupid, reactionary, racist, greedy, materialistic, arrogant rural folks, the kind of people who believe in Biblical literalism, play with guns, and pig out at McDonald's. When the time comes to criticize America, and not just its president, the cultural establishment is always able to turn to one portion, neatly slicing it off from the rest of us in the same fashion that the right-wing establishment does when proclaiming the virtues of the "heartland."

Let's clear the air for a moment. I find it maddening that a majority of the American people re-elected Bush in 2004. But even putting aside the fact that many Blue-Staters voted for Bush, let's look at this evil, ignorant, crass Red America for a moment. Is this really the cultural home of "American Idol"? I remember lots of New Yorkers watching the show, but never mind. The deeper, more relevant point is, do Red America's values coincide with the vapid, mushy, materialistic values of the TV show? Towns across Red America, and the rural, more conservative slices of Blue America, have been sending their sons and daughter overseas at a far higher rate than the coastal cities. At the very least, don't they put their money where their mouth is? Isn't it the overpriced, oversaturated with advertisement, superficial, trend-obsessed cities which reflect the values of "Idol"? But Peyser ignores the implications of all this to take cheap potshots at the easy targets.

Elsewhere, this projection and misplaced grievance continues. Jeremy McCarter, proclaiming a play called "Far Away" as the theater's great statement of post-9/11 America writes, "George W. Bush's presidency hasn't been especially accomplished, or ennobling, but it has turned out to be awfully fantastical. Almost by the month, things that once seemed barely imaginable became all too real: an election better suited to a banana republic than a mature democracy, airliners converted to lethal weapons (see also exploding sneakers, powdery letters of death), an American city left to drown." Notice how easily the "airliners" line is sandwiched between the (only partially) Bush-fueled disasters of the 2000 election and Katrina. Though there's nothing in this passage to directly link the president with 9/11, the defining moment of our decade is mentioned as if it's merely yet another (cue rolling eyes and flippant tone) disaster of the Bush era.

Would it kill any of these critics to mention Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden? McCarter later throws in "fought two wars" with a list of other Bush atrocities, as if Afghanistan was part and parcel with the arbitrary invasion of Iraq or the downfall of our international reputation. Joshua Alston, in his appraisal of "Battlestar Galactica," does mention the elephant in the room, and his brief essay is one of the few to actually grapple with the complex questions of our times, rather than just wielding some Bush-bashing snark. "Battlestar," he claims (I wouldn't know) "confronts the thorny issues that crop up in a society's battle to preserve its way of life: the efficacy of torture, the curtailing of personal rights, the meaning of patriotism in a nation under siege. It also doesn't flinch from one question that '24' wouldn't dare raise: is our way of life even worth saving?"

Few of the other cultural critics grapple with this profundity, but they do occasionally skirt around the edges of the apathy which defined our decade and which primarily implicates those who disagreed with Bush. Praising Green Day's American Idiot, Lorraine Ali writes off the more thoughtful angst of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen: "But the iPod generation—and its artists—had better things to do, like downloading a billion ringtones and partying like it was still 1999. Maybe that's why 'American Idiot' was such a bolt of lightning: not just because of the message—finally, a rock-the-boat album that actually rocked—but because of the messenger, too. The clowns finally got serious, and no one could look away." But did they? Could they?

I remember American Idiot in two installments: as it premiered in the fall of 2004, deeply tied into the upcoming election, and then later as its tunes filtered out of bar jukeboxes and in music videos on TV (one of which, though silly and maudlin, at least tried to grapple with Iraq, while the others threw up some flashy imagery and coasted on their expensive budgets). In other words, the "iPod generation" (a generational displacement now, to echo the geographical and personal ones which have preceded) might have unplugged their earbuds for a moment, but soon they were rocking away again. And within a couple years, Green Day was neutering "Working Class Hero" for the screaming teenyboppers of "American Idol."

And was American Idiot itself ever really a coherent cry of protest? I must confess I have a soft spot for it. Certain of its singles do strike a chord, albeit a confused and generalized one. Yet the majority of the album's tracks, even the evocatively titled "Wake Me Up When September Ends" don't appear to be part of any post-9/11 context, focused as they are on typical adolescent angst and alienation, and one senses that the political vagueness is not accidental. Perhaps Robert Christgau was on to something when he acidly noted, "The emotional travails of two clueless punks—one passive, one aggressive, both projections of the auteur—stand in for the sociopolitical content that the vague references to Bush, Schwarzenegger, and war (not any special war, just war) are thought to indicate. There's no economics, no race, hardly any compassion. Joe name-checks America as if his hometown of Berkeley was in the middle of it, then name-checks Jesus as if he's never met anyone who's attended church."

Nonetheless, I'd grant American Idiot an A for effort. Certain of its songs resonate and there is an obvious - if only occasional - attempt to say something, anything, instead of nothing. But we have to look elsewhere for a coherent statement on post-9/11, intra-Iraq America. Since this is a movie blog, we might as well look in the annals of cinema, right? Fat chance! If other realms provided disappointments when it came to representing the zeitgeist, the film industry proved itself a disgrace. Not only was it unable to produce more than a handful of major fictional works which even tangentially grappled with the era, it couldn't even come up with many major works to begin with. Comic-book adaptations, endless sequels, turgid remakes - these provided the lifeblood of the most unimaginative decade in Hollywood's history. Into the rubble step Evan Thomas and David Ansen, looking for pieces of the wreckage which can be salvaged.

Thomas emerges with Black Hawk Down which, like the majority of items on Newsweek's checklist, was created before 9/11. Isn't it telling that the most evocative descriptors of our national consciousness were prophets rather than witness? No matter. Thomas introduces some compelling ideas about Black Hawk which he doesn't quite follow up on (presumably his space was a bit more limited than mine...). Ultimately his statement is that Black Hawk "seemed to enhance the desire of Americans for a thumping war to avenge 9/11." He goes on to list the examples of Americans hedging on war, as new generations come of age unfamiliar with its horrors, only to discover them afresh, and see yet another generation rise in its wake, that martial spirit building again.

This is an interesting point, but hardly unique to our decade. I get the sense that Thomas punted; unable to find a film which dealt directly and evocatively with post-9/11 America, he ruminated on a larger theme which tied into the age. Fine, but hardly the stuff that "exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush." The implication, of course, being that there aren't many movies which do "exemplify what it was like." Thomas is a journalist, not a film critic, so his emphasis is understandable. Critic David Ansen goes a poppier route, selecting Borat, proclaiming that it "paints a portrait of the American unconscious that we all do our best to hide." I don't think you can take Borat's rather selective schema at face value as an accurate depiction of the American psyche, and though Ansen tries to be inclusive with his "all," the examples he provides of ignorant, embarrassing Americans are by and large Red State standbys: a used-car dealer, a gun salesman, and a Southern hostess.

Still, as Ansen observes, "What other film captured our mania for dirty linen so succinctly or caught our culture at the very moment when it seemed most eager to discard its claim to privacy?" In some ways, this is an astute pick but again, not particularly in the ways Newsweek ostensibly set out to pursue, unless Ansen follows the thread of his thought. He doesn't couple the "mania for dirty linen" with its obverse, the wilful ignorance of more important matters - neither does the film - and so Ansen's implicit social critique falls a little short. He gets half of the equation right, but until we take another step back and look at this "portrait of the American unconscious that we all do our best to hide" in the context of what we're really trying to hide, namely the repressed trauma of 9/11, the communal spirit which briefly emerged and than wilted, and the powerless culpability for an unnecessary and bloody war, we're not going to get anywhere.

Which brings us back to that "Hanging Heart." In a way, I like what Plagens is doing here, but he doesn't really follow through. He couples what he sees as the banal art-world materialism of Koons with the lazy, greedy, subtly powerful banality of the Bush administration. But wouldn't a better, more fitting analogy be a pairing of Koons' heart with the cultural establishment, whose apathy, greed, and triviality allowed Bush to roam free? Plagens writes that, "Koons likes to pretend that he's not an avatar of irony for billionaire collectors." Actually, the artistic and cultural establishment's apathy and irony greased the wheels not only for billionaire collectors and millions of consumers, but for the Bush administration's wilfully defiant acts. Bush and his cronies were the only ones in the room who seemed to care about anything, so naturally they got their way. As Plagens' Koons is to billionaire collectors, so the cultural elite is to the Bush administration.

In the past, I've been criticized for lobbing harsh appraisals of others' stands without clarifying my own position. So let me make it clear. I opposed going to war in Iraq. I found easy answers hard to come by once we were already there. I supported and continue to support the war in Afghanistain, and in broad terms the idea of a War on Terror though I vehemently oppose torture, rendition, and indefinite detention. I think that post-9/11 America presented a wasted opportunity and that the election of Obama is, in part, a displacement of our desire for change and unity 7 years ago. I think we are sweeping Bush and his "crazy base land" under the rug to avoid looking at ourselves and what we enabled. And by ourselves I mean, at least in part, myself. I did not do anything in the past 7 years that I am particularly proud of. I voted, I complained, I went about my way.

The best we can hope for now is an honest reckoning, a real awareness of where we've been and where we're going. No, we can't go back and change history, shaking our past selves out of our slumber - but we can at least grapple for the larger, more complex truth and burnish it going forward. As I see it there were three fundamental problems during the Bush administration, particularly the early years, and only one of them is tied directly to Bush himself: first, the relative minority who had a strong will to reshape the Middle East and fight the War on Terror without regard for the rest of the world or the rights of the accused; second, the inactive, distracted American culture, populated by anyone who worked in arts and the media, mired in notions of postmodern meaninglessness and obsessive materialism devoid of values, whose action may not have arrested Bush's aims, but could have at least provided a viable alternative; and finally, us, me, the American people, the masses who in fits and starts asked questions, got angry, but never cared enough to really do anything about it. If you don't fall into these categories, apologies. If you do, you know who we are. And I suspect we're in the majority.

Please leave comments below - these are just my initial thoughts on the matter, something which I'll be mulling over for years to come, as I have up to now. Certainly many of my ideas may need to be clarified and I'd be happy to do so in a lively back-and-forth. Let me know what you think.

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Tony D'Ambra said...

An ambitious essay and a valiant effort to make sense of the past decade.

Some random thoughts:

1. You chose a soft target. The pseudo-journalism of Newsweek, the pretender to Time, which is no better, is not worth the paper it is written on.

2. You make bold assertions about periods in history you know only second-hand. For example, "brain-dead naiveté of the 50s" is what Galbraith would have called a "conventional wisdom". You only have to look at the many significant movies, novels, plays, and the rebellious rock music of the 50s to put that particular cliché to rest.

3. "Consumer fetishism" is the sin-qua-non of capitalism - you can't have it both ways.

4. Is it the American people that "went along the path of least resistance"? Or is that how they are represented by a mass-media beholden to business interests and the governing elite?

5. To make a such a sweeping survey you need to know some political economy and the value of history.

6. You say protest is outmoded? How else do people establish awareness, an agenda for action, and the momentum for change? Look at what is happening on the streets of Athens right now.

6. If you want the zeitgeist for the period, you could do worse than listen to Green Day's Boulevard of Broken Dreams (2004):

"...I’m walking down the line
That divides me somewhere in my mind
On the border line
Of the edge and where I walk alone
Read between the lines
What’s fucked up and everything’s alright
Check my vital signs
To know I’m still alive and I walk alone
I walk alone...
My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
‘Til then I walk alone"

or to Bob Dylan's Ain’t Talkin’ (2006):

"... The suffering is unending
Every nook and cranny has it’s tears
I’m not playing, I’m not pretending
I’m not nursing any superfluous fears
Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
Walkin’ ever since the other night
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
Walkin’ ‘til I’m clean out of sight
As I walked out in the mystic garden
On a hot summer day, hot summer lawn
Excuse me, ma’am I beg your pardon
There’s no one here, the gardener is gone
Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
Up the road around the bend
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
In the last outback, at the world’s end..."

Joel Bocko said...

Tony, thanks for your thoughts. I'll try to respond in kind:

1. You have a harsher opinion of them than I do - Newsweek has shown some aptitude from time to time, and though they are historically the pretender to Time's throne, they have, in my experience, exhibited stronger and more perceptive writing more frequently than the more exalted publication. At any rate, my target was not so much their journalism as their cultural criticism - in this particular instance. And my larger target was not Newsweek in particular, but the cultural industry in general, and with an emphasis on the arts rather than on journalism.

2. This is a fair point, in that I made a generalization; I would argue in my defense, however, that my generalization was meant to apply to the advertising culture, and not the pop culture as a whole, which you amply defend. My point was that television and print advertising of the 50s has a kind of breezy overeager naivitee which made it an easy target for campy subversion. Today's ad culture and media aesthetic anticipates and defuses the campy subversion by applying an ironic filter to itself. I find this immensely frustrating.

3. You may be right, but it's a question of lesser evils. I don't think a command economy would be preferable to a (largely) capitalistic one, so I accept consumer fetishism, which to be fair I engage in from time to time (Criterion Collection being a case in point), as a necessary evil. But it can vary wildly based on what people are able to accept and what the cultural elites wants to deliver and wallow in. I think the level of consumer fetishization we've seen lately outstrips that of the 90s - and I think it does so partly to compensate for trauma and anxiety.

4. Based on firsthand observation and my own experience as an American over the past 7 years, I would definitely say the former though it would be nice to believe the latter.

5. You may very well be right, in terms of political economy. I submit that this essay is essentially a starting point, a gathering of my thoughts, and certainly not a thorough and complete diagnosis of our nation's ills. What do you mean, however, by "the value of history"?

6. Not exactly. But I think the form protest has largely taken on the left has proved ineffectual, at least in America. Nobody batted an eye when thousands marched in the streets, especially when many of them were carrying puppets and a few staging counterproductive violence and vandalism. There was little to no message discipline in the early phases of the antiwar movement - I recall a teach-in I attended in '03. Knowing that there were many, like me, who did not necessarily embrace a broad spectrum of left-wing causes but who were appalled by the rapid march to war, I mentioned that it seemed counterproductive to stage events at which high schoolers marched onstage to shout "Fuck Bush!" into microphones. One of the speakers, an older guy, obviously a veteran of 60s struggles, practically tripped over himself to rush to his own microphone and proclaim, "First of all, that speech is protected!" At which point the room burst into applause. Well, duh. That wasn't my point. My point was that a political group can ancitipate and control who goes onstage and what its demonstrations look like. This is particularly important if their goal is to reach Middle America, which was ostensibly the aim of the antiwar movement. But while there were many good people involved, leadership showed no interest in winning an argument, and that was an air of self-satisfaction which was noxious.

Anyway, I think many have learned their lessons from this time - hence the refocus on electoral methods, a curtailing of more extreme rhetoric, and a focus on specific aims (I remember seeing protests in '03 that talked as much about the Palestinians as the Iraqis - a sure loser if these people were serious about reaching a wider audience on the specific issue of the war.) You are correct that protest is not universally useless and feckless, but in this place and this time it has largely proven to be so.

Thanks for the lyrics - they are indeed evocative. I do think things are changing now, and the Bush era is irrevocably over. But our political, cultural, and psychological challenges will not go away and I just hope we - and by this I mean Americans, not necessarily the rest of the world - can really, truly look around us and shake of the torpor of the past 8 years.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Thanks MM for your detailed response.

Fifties advertising occurred during a period when the (white) middle-class came into its own and (white) blue-collar workers began to get a greater share of post-war posperity, so there was optimism, and this was reflected in what we now in retrospect see as a certain cheesiness. As for today's ad culture, it is like capitalism and keeps reinventing itself by absorbing the subversive critique that holds it up to ridicule. A more disturbing element for me is the burgeoning cult of celebrity, which you do hold up for criticism.

Consumerism is getting a reality check in the current economic debacle. The case for intervention in markets has been made, and we already have a command economy inasfar as a role for govt is essential in dealing with the mess unfettered market capitalism has dealt us.

By referring to knowing the value of history I was alluding to your apparent scepticism on how history can help us understand the recent past and deal with the present. Viz:

"Those who did seek to protest did so in outmoded ways, trying to inappropriately reenact the 60s with marches...


"[The] obsession with history, as if we could only make sense of our fresh experiences with a recourse to the past (and an overly mythologized past at that)... "

These are very bold and largely unsupported assertions. Just how is protest to be effected? Why is direct action and street demonstration outmoded? How is the past mythologised and in whose interests? We can only understand the present by recourse to history, so these are essential questions you need to deal with.

Joel Bocko said...


In saying I'm not in favor of a command economy, I don't mean to suggest I want unfettered capitalism - I would prefer a mixed economic environment. But I will admit economics is not my forte - I've probably learned more in the past few months than the previous 25 years - so my position in these matters is generally tentative.

As for history, perhaps I gave myself short shrift in those comments. I am in fact obsessed with history - to an extent only rivaled by movies - so I don't mean to suggest that history is useless in grappling with seemingly new problems. Only that a particularly shallow and facile understanding of history seems to have been applied to current crises, in lieu of engaging with the unique circumstances of the present. If history teaches us anything, it's that conditions are constantly changing, and there's no way to apply willy-nilly the lessons of one era to the present; it requires a deeper understanding of our own current situation than I think the cultural elites have shown.

As to the specific examples you cite, let me elaborate:

"Just how is protest to be effected? Why is direct action and street demonstration outmoded?"

Firstly, I think the results of direct action and street demonstrations in the past 5 years speak for themselves. One can blame this on scant media coverage (as many did) but everyone I knew was fully aware of protests and it didn't seem to do much to affect public opinion (except occasionally to turn it against the protestors which, incidentally, was often the case in the 60s as well, though there demonstrations had other side effects which were useful.)

But, to be fair, how was one to anticipate this reaction? I think the key is understanding what was different between now and then. Firstly, in the 60s, the civil rights movement had largely justified this sort of action in the public's eyes. This was in large part because their actions were seen as defensive - yes, there was a conscious decision made to gather, to march, to sit-in, etc. but the protestors were passive and it was the counterdemonstraters and police who ended up seeming like the instigators. So, with protest and demonstrations having gathered a cultural cache by the mid-60s the antiwar movement was able to adapt what seemed liked a viable form of protest for their own purposes. In other words, the American people had been primed to accept protest as something newsworthy, something effective, a legitimate form of self-expression.

In 2003, the impulse to protest and to regard protests as effective did not arise naturally - it seemed like a pretentious co-option of past movements, fairly or not. (I would like to add that I suspect there may be a gap of perception between how Americans perceive demonstrations and how the rest of the world does.) What's more, the very 60s which had done so much to legitimize demonstrations had left a legacy which essentially belittled them as baby-boomer rites of passage. We can debate who characterized them this way, and why they did so, but I think the fact remains that this was the popular perception.

Keep in mind also that, aside from public perception of protest, President Bush had already proved himself fairly inflexible and stubborn - it was quite clear that angry crowds in the street was not going to stop him. In fact, I'm not sure anything could have arrested the march to war in the spring of '03 - the only effective action could probably have occurred in the fall of '02, with pressure applied to senators before the vote on war authorization which essentially gave Bush a blank check.

The only possible way to prevent Bush's march to war would, I think, have been to change public opinion. If the vast majority of Americans, reflected in the polls, had opposed going into Iraq, it's just possible that Karl Rove could have forced Bush to cool off. To change public opinion, the antiwar movement would have had to co-opt the language of the center, of reasonable opposition, a sort of "well, this idea to go to war is crazed! No normal person would think like this! These guys are freaks for wanting to do this!". This is, in large part, where the media failed, but also where the antiwar movement didn't get it. It took about 2-3 years before liberals understood how to defeat Bush, and by 2006 there was an overwhelming focus on the crisis in Iraq, along with a co-option of the center (through moderate candidates and a more disciplined message), which Bush had left open with his divide-and-conquer strategies.

As for direct action and street demonstration, they may prove useful again the future. Indeed, changing economic circumstances seem already to be shifting attitudes on the matter (think the sit-in in Detroit; it also helps when the face of these actions is workers rather than college students) - but in order for these maneuvers to succeed they have to reflect the broader attitude of the American population. In the 60s, despite prosperity, there was a general unease in the air, and a restlessness in the youth. In the 00s, people were too comfortable and to the extent that there was post-9/11 anxiety, it took the form of a reliance on the establishment, rather than an opposition to it. The left misread this attitude, or didn't bother to read it at all, and stumbled badly as a result.

"How is the past mythologised and in whose interests?"

A variety of interests. To take the example at hand, the left may mythologize the Vietnam era as one in which romantic protests galvanized the conscience of a nation. The truth is more complicated. Among other things, Nixon kept the war going for 5 years after the Tet Offensive sparked a broader antiwar movement; it was people like Walter Cronkite, more than Tom Hayden, who shifted public opinion against the war; protests often engendered a violent reaction which proved more powerful than the demonstrations themselves.

By all of this I do not mean to dismiss the 60s, an era which holds endless fascination for me (admittedly as much, if not more, for aesthetic reasons as ideological, though the two are more intricately bound than at many other times). I mean to point out that believing too simply in the idea that street protests are the answer, that we need an over-mythologized faith in a countercultural, New Left-style movement, can lead to a very poor political strategy indeed.

That is just one example, and of course the past can (and has been) mythologized for right-wing and nonpartisan reasons as well. Everyone does it - I do it sometimes, too. It's tempting to look over our shoulders and say, "ah, there was the era where everything made sense. If we could just take those lessons and apply it now, we could re-enact the past!" Such impulses are to be regarded with more than a fair share of skepticism.

Anonymous said...

I agree, an ambitious essay that has generated a lot of thoughts.

Consumerism is not the problem with the U.S. economy; it is the failure to add value to the economy. I freelanced briefly for a company whose sole purpose was to go to IPO and make the company executives rich. The company itself had not created value - a really solid product that filled a real need - but with inventive marketing and the willingness of unsophisticated investors to believe, IPOs drained significant wealth out of the economy. The culture of image continues; I find that the tangible value I can offer with a real product (a magazine) with real information is not valued in the slightest by an employer who believes creating a brand image actually creates value. It does not. The ponzi scheme that recently came to light is the perfect image of the economy of the past 25 years.

I'm at a disadvantage when talking about the cultural zeitgeist, since a bit of TV, more theatre, and a lot of movies are where my "expertise" lie. Again, I see product that makes money but fails to add value - a near total lack of imagination and an unwillingness to create anything that hasn't been done before. I see this not only as a creative bankruptcy but also as a byproduct of fear. Stepping outside the program under a rogue government with willing lackeys in the media made creation fraught with danger. Our flirtation with fascism makes history relevant here - Hitler ridiculed and banished innovation. He and Mussolini lionized mythology and tried to build their own versions of Ozimandias. The Bush lack of any kind of creative aesthetic built a similar lack in the country - negative space, if you will, rather than monuments.

As for protests, remember that they take a long time to trickle up, build momentum, create a critical mass. Just because people ignored a physical protest in the streets does not mean it didn't register. Old-fashioned letter writing has had real impact. New media has entered the fray, with Twitter being one of the community-building tools that has led the charge for change. I agree that the younger generation rejects the Baby Boomers, perhaps more because of their smug attitude than their tactics. Current generations aren't fighting for their own lives the way the Vietnam War protesters were? A wartime draft was never on the table with the Bush administration; they wanted a country of lotus eaters who wouldn't feel personally threatened enough to rise up and demand change. As for enabling Bush by supporting his reelection in 2004, history again provides a lesson. Citizens do not unseat presidents in time of war; they want to give them a chance to see it to its conclusion. It certainly is not the fault of the electorate for not realizing that Bush's administration never meant to leave Iraq and that the real agenda was the dismantlement of the federal government. That's a radical agenda too bizarre for the average American to contemplate.

If I had to pick a film that has grappled successfully with our culture, perhaps late in the aughts, it is Cloverfield. It is the realization that our civilization has been under relentless attack from a beast unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes, that mediating devices like camcorders and picture phones will not help us keep the attack at a safe, ironic distance, that love may set us on a course toward human contact, but that in the end, trying to save one person simply is not enough. It is indeed the time to return to hippie values, which having lived with and worked alongside a real hippie for six years, I can assure you are still very much alive and working for good in the world today.

Tony D'Ambra said...

You argue your position cogently MM, and though I don't agree with you on some issues, I don't I think I need to re-state my position. The only issue that I would flag is you need to focus more on the role of the media. You say it 'failed', but this presumes some positive purpose, which is debatable. I would refer you to the film documentary of Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent for a less benign view.

I welcome Marilyn's input and believe she has made some solid points. But as a baby-boomer, I don't like the idea that we can be seen as a homogenous cohort, as would I imagine most generation x-er's and y-er's. Indeed, what better example is there of the subversion of free discourse than the adoption of the demographic constructs of the ad industry as givens. I certainly don't accept that any significant number of baby-boomers are 'smug' - most of us are not part of the ruling elite and many of us chose the road less travelled. But I will admit to a certain failure to realise the aspirations of the late 60s. If you can find a copy, read Charles Reich's The Greening of America (1970), to comprehend the magnitude of the false dawn.

As for American cinema, there is the perverse view among most younger critics that unless a movie is decidedly perfect in its execution, the validity of its theme can be dismissed. But films like Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, and The Good Shepherd, for example, are certainly worthy efforts. As Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, wrote in his review of In the Valley of Elah:

"Paul Haggis actually thinks movies can mean something, even change things. So, of course, critics like to crush him. Ambition equals pretension every time. Crash won the 2005 Oscar, but detractors tarred Haggis’ race parable for overreaching. Right. Feed us more pap, please. Haggis haters will have a field day with In the Valley of Elah… Haggis’ script, loosely based on a true story, isn’t about the war. It’s about the humanity being sucked out of the soldiers we send there, and how that process reflects on us as a nation. Yes, Haggis stumbles and loses focus. The haunting, heart-piercing Elah isn’t perfect. It’s something better: essential."

Joel Bocko said...


Thanks for your response! My subject in this essay was largely cultural rather than economic - hence the focus on consumerism for its cultural damage. But you do an excellent job tying the lack of value into the aesthetic realm as well, and making a cogent argument thereof.

As for yourself, don't think you're at a disadvantage talking about the cultural zeitgeist vis a vis me, because God knows I'm not very knowledgable about the current fine-arts and literary scenes or, even, for that matter, pop culture of the last couple years. My reaction was based more on a generalized sense of where the culture is at, obviously with media and film as focal points, but trying to go beyond that as well. And it helped that I was largely responding to another article rather than completely staking out my own territory.

As for your point about the draft, I don't know why I forgot to mention that in my rundown of why street demonstrations are ineffective nowadays. It's yet another reason most citizens didn't necessarily feel an immediate stake in the war with Iraq or even the War on Terror.

I tend to regard talk of fascism with some wariness, I think the hyperbole has been overused here, but I completely agree about the lack of any aesthetic filtering down into the larger populace. Leadership does matter, which is why I highlighted that "Go shopping" quote - it set the tone for a decade which could have had a very different tone indeed.

Interesting on Cloverfield - I wasn't crazy about it when I saw it, partly because it made me physically nauseous, partly because the yupster characters were so obnoxious; but the latter point, as you suggest, may actually strengthen the film's relevancy: showing how a culture of vapid, narcissistic partyboys and girls is completely helpless in the face of an overwhelming force - and how their narcissism only ends up creating a record of disaster, without changing the course of that disaster at all.

Tony, I think I do have a different view of the media as you. I don't quite buy the Chomsky view of a media elite which maliciously . I think the truth is more chaotic. There is undoubtedly a pull from corporate overlords to fit a certain agenda - though I think their primary goal is to make money, not manufacture an ideology. Within the media machine, editors and reporters are prey to conflicting interests - I think most of them are politically liberal, while at the same time harboring some (typically liberal) anxiety over potential bias, which they sometimes go out of their way to compensate for, before running in the other direction when they feel they've gone too far in kowtowing to the Right (see MSNBC, which is quickly becoming the Democratic version of Fox). In other words, I think there's too much going on there for it to fit neatly in one paradigm, where its goal is to reinforce power. To be fair, the media has been pretty relentless in its attack on Bush & the Republicans in the past 3 years - too late to do too much good (though it did make a difference in the 2006 midterms), but proof at least that they are more beholden to fashion than ideology - whether that's preferable or not, I'll leave it for you to decide.


You're right in that our views will change and to a certain extent clarify with time. But, like Oliver Stone with W., I sense that a lot of people feel the need to say something right now, however clumsily it comes out. Thanks for the link, I will check it out - I wasn't sure if this article had sparked any larger discussion elsewhere, but when I stumbled across it, I just felt an overwhelming urge to discuss and, in many regards, attack it - it just pushed too many buttons for me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, MM. Cloverfield could have made me nauseous, but I learned my lesson after Blair Witch on how to deal with it. I really liked the former.

As for this comment, "To be fair, the media has been pretty relentless in its attack on Bush & the Republicans in the past 3 years," not so. I suggest you go over to The Daily Howler site and peruse the archives. Bob Somerby has been exposing media bias sin 1999. I read him nearly every weekday.

As for fascism, I've had other people decry my use of it. I stand my ground and don't consider it hyperbole. That we haven't reached more repressive aspects among the general population just makes it a different variety of the same species. There can be no doubt that the Constitution was under attack, and there's no reason to do that other than to set up a dictatorship.

Tony - I'm a baby boomer, too, and while I agree that the term has been coopted for marketing purposes and led to further segmentation as a strategy for learning how to sell, it originated to explain a phenomenon. Certainly, we're not monolithic, and I never meant to suggest that we were. But whether we like it or not, others lump us all together. I have read enough to know that future generations do think we're smug; I myself have been subjected to a "poor dear, you weren't there" pat on the head (I was in grade school during the Summer of Love).

Joel Bocko said...

Marilyn, on the media I've seen arguments for both sides - right and left, both of which think the media is biased against them. I will check out the site (I think I've visited it in the past, though I'm not sure) but as of now I stand by my assessment which is that the media was too light on Bush prior to Katrina and after Katrina was pretty hard on him (excepting Fox News and other Murdoch-owned outlets, of course) - which I think is completely appropriate and was a long time coming. But as a pretty regular peruser of the mainstream news media since '06 I find it hard to buy the acquiescence argument. CNN, in the run-up to the '06 election even had an ongoing series called "Broken Government"! You'll be hard-pressed to find any news analysis these days which does not characterize Bush as a failed president.

As for fascism, to each their own, but if the goal was to set up a dictatorship why the transference of power? I would submit there were other, more short-term goals in mind, and that Cheney was the operating intelligence behind these maneuvers. As for his motivations, be they greed, ideology, a misplaced sense of duty, I can't say - that man and his aura of darkness seems impenetrable to me and I wonder if it will ever be cracked. But dictatorships - except in the case of Pinochet, only after a good 16 or so years of repression - do not hand over power so easily. Also, and I want to tread lightly here because I know this wasn't your intention and I respect your views, use of the epithet "fascism" to a certain extent trivializes the plight of those who have actually had to endure such regimes. I will accept that their actions abroad, towards non-citizens, may fall within the rubric of "fascism," but domestically, a distinction should be made between what American citizens had to endure, and what, say, Italian or Chilean or German citizens had to endure. The "fascism" argument also lets us off the hook a little too easily, I think.

Tony D'Ambra said...

MM, re the media, let me paraphrase a published letter I sent to the editor of the Guardian Weekly in November 2004:

"I have followed with interest over the past few weeks the debate on the result of the US Presidential Election in the pages of the Guardian Weekly. One issue that is significant by its absence in the articles and letters, is the role of the media.

I spent six despairing hours viewing the BBC World Election night coverage. The most telling moment for me was during a live cross to a union leader in Michigan. She saw the issues as job losses, health care, and tax cuts for the rich. Her earnest sincerity and commitment to the Democratic cause were impressive and appealing. But she was not a polished media performer, and nervous. It was apparent also that she was not quite comfortable with the technical paraphernalia required on her person to facilitate the live coverage. She misheard or misunderstood a question from BBC host, David Dimbleby, and went off on a tangent. A wily producer at the BBC quickly cut to the Republican and Democrat media boffins arrayed around the studio set. Each and everyone one of them was either tittering or guffawing at the poor lady's faux-pas. To his credit Mr Dimbleby repeated his question, and the good lady responded sensibly and with clarity.

Mr Dimbleby then put the question of why Mr Bush had favored the rich in his massive tax cuts, to a Republican apologist on the panel, who said, and ever so urbanely, that yes the rich got most of the tax cuts because they get most of the income. This otherwise risible response was greeted with sage nodding by the gathered notables, and the coverage moved on."

Jason Bellamy said...

Wow. There’s so much here to read, think about and respond to. Nice job, everyone. Reading through your essay and all the comments, there are as many as 25 things I could respond to, so let me try to focus on one issue that came up a few times: protest. I don’t think it’s outmoded. And I still think it’s the most effective tool we have for change. More effective, actually, than elections themselves, because the protests (public demonstrations) often provide the momentum for how someone votes.

Let’s start by recognizing that most Americans get their news from TV. This is an opinion, I have no fact to support it, but I think that on the whole the TV network news (and left and right channels like MSNBC and Fox News) is slave to the advertising dollar. (Newspapers have long made an enormous amount of money via classified ads, which is one of the reasons newspapers are dying, now that people post free ads at Craig’s List instead. I’m oversimplifying. But it’s a big piece of the pie.) Also, TV news tends to be oversimplified due to time constraints. And it tends to be slave to the press event.

Put all that together and the TV media often reflects majority public sentiment (print does, too, but TV more so). After 9/11, TV media assaulted us with the jingoistic coverage: the flags flying everywhere in digital templates surrounding each broadcast; or TV reporters having orgasms over being “embedded” in the action in Iraq, never mind that those “embedded” locations were so carefully selected and controlled, never mind that at the same time the media was barred from doing things as simple as filming the caskets of fallen soldiers.

The mood of the country (on the whole, as demonstrated by Bush’s reelection) was to attack, smoke ‘em out, bring it on. The TV media reflected that, over and over. Meantime, Bush’s genius PR team kept delivering the same message, even when the evidence didn’t support the message. The TV media would report what the Bush team said, believing that to poke holes in the statements would be to act with bias. This is nonsense. If there’s no link between 9/11 and Iraq, for example, then the Bush squad shouldn’t be allowed to continually imply otherwise. But, again, the national mood was flag-waving. And that’s what the dominant media did.

When Kerry ran against Bush in 2004, he was “reporting for duty.” Essentially, his campaign argued that he was just as much of a tough ass as Bush, but better. For the majority of America, that wasn’t reason enough to make a change. Right or wrong, Kerry’s pathetic campaign was informed by what he believed the country wanted. So he waved that flag.

Which brings us to protest: The only way to signal to the media between elections that public sentiment has changed, is to protest. One march here or there means nothing. Multiple marches, over time, in different places, sends a message.

One last story: Many of us probably remember Bush throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium shortly after 9/11. Pro-Bush or not, it was a great moment. He was cheered not just for who he was but as a symbol of unity. Cut to the beginning of this baseball season, and here in Washington, DC, Bush was mostly booed (though also cheered) when he threw out the first pitch at the Nationals’ new stadium. Some questioned whether it was proper to boo the president, noting that the office deserves respect, if not the man. I say, how else to send a message of disapproval? Those who were against Iraq from the beginning kept beating their drum until more people heard their warning and protest and joined in. If the citizens don’t attempt to band together in these large demonstrations, nothing changes. Is it ideal? No. Is it fast? No. But it’s essential. If there’s a more effective way of changing things, I don’t know it.

You write of all of the Americans who just complained and didn’t really act (for the most part, I’d be one of them). Well, imagine if all of us – every single one of us – had done something as simple as joining a march? You don’t think that would have sent a message? The form of protest is fine. In fact, Obama’s campaign – won largely on inclusion – is a symbol of its effectiveness. What’s striking is how long it took for Americans to realize that they MUST act in order to spark some kind of change.

Maybe the rite-of-passage myth of the 60s did us in. Maybe it taught us incorrectly that such things mean more to the people marching than to government and history as a whole. It seems like now, more than ever in my lifetime (I'm 31), people believe that they can make a difference. Maybe next time we won't be so slow to act.

Dean Treadway said...

My gosh. What an ambitious and effective post.

I won't pretend to have the intellect to debate the values of the artworks namechecked here, except to say that all have validity.

My personal choice, when I remember the Bush era, is perhaps a more obvious one: Paul Greengrass's UNITED 93 is the film that smacks more of the Bush era than any other, in my mind. Of course, it's intimately connected with the defining moments of Bush's presidency. But it is also connected with what we can probably expect from the near future, too. And that is enough for me.

Matt Maul said...

Very thoughtful piece. I'm probably echoing others, but it's certainly more thoughtful than the Newsweek article you skewer.

BTW, I think you'd enjoy Battlestar Galactica. I recommend that you at least rent the mini-series and first season.

I'll only add on add'l comment regarding Black Hawk Down

Thomas says:

His version of "Black Hawk Down" may have been antiwar on the surface, but I believe it was fundamentally pro-war. Though it depicted a shameful defeat, the soldiers were heroes willing to die for their brothers in arms. The movie showed brutal scenes of killing, but also courage, stoicism and honor. The overall effect was stirring, if slightly pornographic, and it seemed to enhance the desire of Americans for a thumping war to avenge 9/11.

In addition to Thomas getting the chronology of the movie wrong in terms of 9/11 (as you point out), I never perceived it as "antiwar on the surface." If it were "antiwar," I don't think Scott would have left out the fact that American troops had to fire on Somali combatants who used children as human shields. Furthermore, even when Thomas is right, he's wrong. To me, the movie did seem to present the "action" of the battles for entertainment's sake. BUT, I'm not sure that depictions of "courage, stocism and honor" in wartime also qualify as "slightly pornographic" in this regard.

Joel Bocko said...


Thanks for the letter. As the (semi?) final word on the subject I'd say that I suspect problems with the media have more to do with distorted conceptions of fairness (forgetting, as the late David Patrick Moynihan said, "You're entitled to your opinion, but not your own facts!") more than an ideological or financial agenda, but I think we somewhat disagree on that. At any rate, since 2004, the liberals/left have gotten much better at making their case.


Thanks for jumping in. Yours is an interesting comment, which comes at the question from a slightly different angle than I did. I agree that, in theory, protest can be useful and that, given the various filters of the media, it may be the best way to demonstrate a shift in public opinion (though I would suspect public polling can do this too). But I think the pertinent question is, not how do we reflect public opinion, but how do we CHANGE public opinion? In 2003, as you accurately note, the mood of the country was different than it is now.

With that in mind, that the majority of the country was at best, ambivalent about Iraq, at worst, willing to go in, the question should not have been, how do we vocalize the resistance of the few, but how do we convince the many? In this sense, I think public demonstrations (particularly since it was generally far-left groups, like ANSWER, which rushed in to fill the leadership gap) was a misguided tactic. Though you cite the Obama campaign as an example of protest at work, I think it follows another paradigm, one which the antiwar movement should probably have followed - slick, co-opting the other side's tools, reaching for the center, creating an aura of "this is where it's at." In other words, using the forces in powers' means against them, as well as finding their weaknesses and exploiting them. A campaign of, as Obama said in 2002 (perhaps if he had been more prominent on the national scene, he could have spearheaded a more effective antiwar movement), "I'm not against all wars, just dumb ones."

Also, I have to admit my feelings on post-invasion Iraq are conflicted. It has never been clear to me what the majority of Iraqi people want there. If there was a referendum, and they asked us to leave, we should have. But if not, look at it this way...we invaded their country and made a horrible mess of it. To then leave and say, clean it up yourself, would have been irresponsible. As such, once we were in, I wanted the mission, however misguided to begin with to succeed. With Iraq, where my objections were based more on practical concerns than moral ones - I certainly didn' feel any sympathy for Saddam, but felt that it was the wrong war at the wrong time, and that the cause wasn't worth the deaths that would ensue). Part of Bush's damning legacy, for me, is not only that he made the disastrous decision to invade but that, once he did, he completely failed to follow through and prolonged the misery. At any rate, my views in this regard make it hard for me to say what the antiwar forces should have done after March 19 - at which point I didn't really share their aims anymore. So that slowly building aspect of it is, to me, irrelevant - I would have rather seem them succeed initially.

Compelling post - thanks for your thoughts.


Don't hold back - I certainly was not familiar with many of the works discussed, and that didn't stop me! As for United 93, I hesitated on seeing it for a while. I thought it was very well-done, but am not entirely sure if it captured the mood of 9/11, though I'm not sure that was really it's job. Anyway, I don't feel that movies of the past 8 years should necessarily have referred to the Bush years directly, just that it would have been nice if they somehow caught the mood instead of ignoring it. The only film I saw which really did this was Spike Lee's underrated 25th Hour.


As for Black Hawk, I have heard that Scott left some more damning details out, which I didn't realize initially (though I had read part of the book before seeing the movie). Your final point is well-noted; I think Hollywood and modern-day liberals have a problem dealing with the idea of militarism - with the concept of showing the horrors of war and the values of soldiering at the same time. Older war films, while not coming close to the verisimilitude of latter-day ventures, do a better job of capturing this ambivalence whereas many contemporary war films - and portrayals of the military in the media or culture - seem to view soldiers as either helpless victims of the system or monsters, or - if the tone is propagandistic - cardboard cutout G.I. Joes. In reality, they're people just like anyone else.

Have you seen The War Tapes? I reviewed this a while back, a good documentary - worth looking into.

Jason Bellamy said...

MM: Just to follow-up on your comment: Yeah, it was far-left groups organizing the protests in the first place. But that's OK. It has to start somewhere. I mentioned Obama because he ran a campaign of inclusion, which shows that these group-momentum projects can work. But comparing an anti-war grassroots effort to a presidential campaign is apples to oranges in a very significant aspect: Obama on the campaign trail had obvious, well-reported rallying spots -- places people could gather to demonstrate and/or bolster energy. The anti-war sentiment had no such obvious soap box. One has to be created. And that's where protests/gatherings come in. Again, they're imperfect. But it starts there, I think.

As for the comments about art ...

In a sense, it's too soon to pick which film or song or whatever best captured the Bush era. We're still too close. But since "United 93" has been mentioned, I think that film best captures the emotions (shock, helplessness but also community) of 9/11 itself -- that one day, not the symbol it became.

To be honest, when it's all said and done, the most Bushian film may prove to be "The Dark Knight." Fans of TDK balk at the idea that it's pro-Bush, and I doubt that was Nolan's intent. But you can't deny the many similarities.

As for the film that captures the sentiment of the people, I have hope that "In The Valley of Elah" might be rediscovered with fresh eyes over time. Yes, its final scene is a classic case of Paul Haggis writing in bolded caps. But the evolution of Tommy Lee Jones' character, and the combination of anger, shame and wounded-but-still-there pride he displays, really evokes the national mood. It might not have been a hit at the box office, but it's a fine picture.

Joel Bocko said...

I think the Dark Knight was a very conservative - in the traditional, elitist sense - film, though there was enough ambiguity in it to make it more than just propaganda. Of all the Iraq films, Elah is the one that seems most compelling to me. Hopefully, I will see it early in the new year and share my thoughts here.

Have you seen the documentary "9/11"? It has a few aesthetic missteps (for example, allowing one of the fireman, also an actor, to do a too-dramatic voiceover) but mostly its a very sobering, up-close look at that day. I tend to end up watching it every year around September 11 as a reminder.

Though I didn't really make this distinction in my essay, I'm not necessarily seeking Bush critiques in the art of the 00s. I would just liked to have seen more movies that acknowledged the tenor of the times we lived in: the way films of the late 60s, World War II era, and even the Great Depression (for all the escapism of the Golden Age) did.

Another film which really captured the mood, I thought, was the one I mentioned in my last post - 25th Hour. It also has its flaws, but there's a raw, grim, very very post-9/11 feel to it which becomes explicit in a few scenes - for example, when Spike Lee utilizes the blue beams of light at Ground Zero - but mostly remains a simmering subtext to an adaptation of a pre-9/11 novel. Did you see that movie, and if so, what did you think? I guess if pressed, I would name that the art which most represented life in one of the crucial moments of the Bush era. I hope there will be a forthcoming write-up on that as well - but I've pressed myself in so many corners at the end of 2008, that I'm loathe to "commit" myself to any particular posts by particular deadlines at this point - even if it's just to myself that I'm doing so!

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