Saturday :: Apr 17, 2004

A Mote In The Electronic Cyclop's Eye

by pessimist

It has been a theory of mine, not scientifically tested, that the media really decides for us who we will choose for our leaders based on the way they and their policies are presented.

Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan was the beneficiary of such favorable coverage that Jimmy Carter never stood a chance. Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis suffered continual negatve imagery while going down to flaming defeats. The media caricatured and boosted Ross Perot enough that the incumbent advantages 'enjoyed' by George H W were offset enough to allow a clear plurality for Clinton in 1992, and similar coverage for Perot in 1996, along with a major change in the polling questions two weeks before the election to keep Dole newsworthy, kept that election from being a snorer. Lastly, recall the 'policy wonk' versus the party-time frat boy we were presented in 2000 - another round, bartender!

So how will the Great pRetender's media image fare this time around?

Anti-Bush sentiment busts out all over

And it's not just the usual suspects taking shots, SIMON HOUPT [Canada's Globe and Mail entertainment reporter - ed] writes. The fire is coming from feature film, theatre and TV.

It was an unusual occasion for a political statement. On Wednesday morning, the day after George W. Bush hosted a prime-time news conference to defend the fuzzy state of affairs in Iraq, architect James Polshek took the podium at a Brooklyn Museum preview to speak of the challenges in completing a multimillion dollar glass-and-steel renovation to the museum entrance.

"Building is a little like war. Once you get in it, you have to go all the way," he said. "But in this case, we did so successfully." Polshek paused, and a tiny smile crept across his face while the assembled media and museum supporters offered chuckles and light applause. "I don't want to get into that."

So much for architecture being a non-partisan discipline.

Anti-administration politics are busting out of their usual homes in music, books, fine art and standup comedy, and crossing easily over into feature films, theatre, and even mainstream television shows in the run-up to this November's U.S. presidential election. At the same time, many of the flag-waving, administration-friendly movies that Hollywood rushed to produce in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, either foundered in development or are bombing at the box office, including the current The Alamo.

Writers and others say the sniping now directed at the White House is at least partly a response to the self-censorship they endured for more than a year after the terrorist attacks for fear of being seen as disloyal, and the disenchantment many have over the perception that George W. Bush intentionally misled the nation into war.

The year began sharply when the Sundance Film Festival in January gave an enthusiastic reception to The Hunting of the President, a documentary version of the bestselling book by journalists Joe Conason and Gene Lyons that exposed the well-funded right-wing machinations - from the Paula Jones lawsuit to the Whitewater investigation - that kept Bill Clinton on the defensive and occasionally distracted from affairs of state throughout his presidency.

The film was made by the television producer Harry Thomason, one of Clinton's friends. It will be theatrically released June 11. "What I think is important for people to see is the triviality of the obsessions of the right wing in those years, when you set that in a situation that we find ourselves in now," Conason said this week. "It does not reflect well on them."

Sundance programmed Control Room, a documentary about Al-Jazeera that offers a more nuanced depiction of the Qatar-based channel than that of a Muslim extremist propaganda outlet, which some members of the Bush administration have suggested. The film will be released next month.

The festival also hosted a talk by John Sayles, whose latest film, Silver City, features some characters who parallel members of the current administration. Actor Chris Cooper plays a grammatically challenged son of a Colorado senator who bumbles into a murder mystery while campaigning for governor.

The conventional wisdom, at least among conservatives, is that Hollywood is a left-wing town that spoils American minds with their well-financed powers of persuasion. But none of the current crop of anti-administration films is backed with Hollywood money or distribution muscle.

Sayles wrote Silver City in a furious two-week blast last year and, realizing it would be best released in this election cycle, felt he didn't have time to wait around to see if a studio would put up the $5-million budget. So he just started the six-week shoot and figured the money would find its way to him, which it did. He is racing to get Silver City ready for a Sept. 17 release. It may play at the Toronto International Film Festival a few days beforehand.

Sayles is well known for his politics, but has never before made a film that so directly commented on the current state of the country. Anger fuels him now. "I really feel like an awful lot has gone on that is non-democratic," he explained this week during a phone call from the edit suite.

"I've been surprised at how rarely I've heard the word 'war profiteer' in conjunction with what's going on."

One sign for Sayles that there's blood in the water is that the mainstream press and TV shows, which normally "have to wait until the big politicians are on the run," are now in attack mode.

Other filmmakers are joining the feeding frenzy. As Sundance wrapped up, the Rotterdam Film Festival programmed a slate of documentaries and animated shorts that portrayed an anxious America, under the rubric Homefront USA.

Last month, the South by Southwest film festival in Texas followed this with Bush's Brain, a documentary about Bush strategist Karl Rove based on a book by reporters Jim Moore and Wayne Slater. The film begins with a scene of Bush emerging from Air Force One, accompanied by the pomp of Hail to the Chief, which is quickly deflated by the appearance of on-screen text that reads, "How did this happen?"

Michael Moore's next film, Fahrenheit 911, will take a jaundiced look at the connections between the Bush and bin Laden families. It is expected to debut at the Cannes Film Festival next month.

Even on Broadway, which has lately preferred the marmalade of Abba tunes to the meat of Arthur Miller parables, troubling fare with an ambivalent attitude toward authority is making at least a tentative comeback. A planned production of Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim musical which explores the motivations of presidential assassins through history, was cancelled two days after Sept. 11, 2001, because producers with the Roundabout Theatre felt it might have been discordant with the un-ironic culture then ascendant. But next week it will make its Broadway debut.

A few kilometres downtown, provocateur Tim Robbins's Embedded, a comedy about journalists and politicians and war, has just been extended. And over in London a musical satire about Bush and Tony Blair, Follow My Leader, subtitled Making a Song and Dance About the War on Terror, opens Wednesday night.

Still, theatre artists are expected to give a finger to people in power. Now, however, even television shows paid for and aired by some of the largest corporations in America are getting laughs off White House troubles.

David Letterman is reinforcing George W. Bush's public persona as a dolt more than ever. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which four years ago took about equal potshots at Al Gore and George W. Bush, this time has taken off the gloves for the Republicans and their handling of Sept. 11.

The dissension isn't just showing up on late-night TV

A detective on Law & Order recently made a crack about missing weapons of mass destruction. And Larry David's self-styled character on Curb Your Enthusiasm rebuffed the advances of a woman when he discovered she was a Republican.

Most creators say the anti-administration cracks are only showing up because there's a significant audience for them.

"This is the marketplace," said Joe Conason. "Republicans are supposed to believe in that."


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