Watched: Frost/Nixon, Unreported World, Milk, Americathon, The Possibility of Hope, Amos Vogel

posted: 18 December, 2008
When he has finished speaking I can never remember what he has said.  there remains only an impression of strangeness, darkness … On television, his face clouds when his name is mentioned.  It is as if hearing his name frightens him.  Then he stares directly into the camera (an actor’s preempting gaze) and begins to speak.  One hears only cadences.

        — Donald Barthelme, “The President” (1968)

We tell tales of kings, emperors and rulers; our leaders are our celebrities, the focus of our myths and legends.  By "we" I mean ‘human beings’, this is not a new trend.  Cinema has gifted us with an infinite supply of films about the American presidency and its attached power.

Richard Nixon has amassed his own canon of literature, which isn’t surprising as he was the major public demon during the late 60’s and 70’s.  The Nixon years were an era of film, literature and music that continue to be mined by today’s practitioners; it’s an era of great innovation no doubt fueled somewhat by the anger and frustration felt by the sensible.  Robert Coover’s novel The Public Burning is a fave of mine, and pretty groundbreaking in the way it used a (then living) public figure as a fictional character.  Nixon's best screen treatment was the one-man show Secret Honor; his worst probably the teenage revisionist comedy Dick.

Ron Howard’s new film, Frost/Nixon, departs from the already existing Nixon filmograhpy by concentrating on his post-Watergate interview with David Frost.  Based on a stage play, the film was entertaining but ultimately a two hour drama about the making of a television interview.  It attempts to portray the interview as a major historical event, but I think that’s open to argument.  It’s main failure I think lies in the two lead actors, who portray their characters as caricatures.  Frank Langella’s Nixon is the frumpy trickster I expected; it was almost as if he was too focused on capturing the mannerisms and voice.  His character struggled with his humanity in the way we all expect Nixon to have done - for after all, this is the great monster of the countercultural movement - but something just seemed a little bit too easy about it.

Last month, when I watched Ken Jacobs’ Star-Spangled to Death in its entirety (which I must point out with pride, since it’s over 400 minutes long), I saw the entirety of Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech.  Though there’s a bit of strange Offshore Television-style editing by Jacobs, it’s largely untouched; it’s duration, shown for about a half-hour, provides more commentary than any external voice could offer. I don’t mean to be so hard on Frost/Nixon but after seeing the younger Nixon’s speech, I felt like Langella’s portrayal missed a lot of the complexities of the man — because he tried to convey Nixon’s complexities through traditional forms of ‘acting’.  It’s not an easy thing to do, really.

I can only imagine the plethora of films that will dissect and analyse the Bush years - Oliver Stone’s biopic has already made an attempt, though I have absolutely no interest in sitting through that.  Clinton and Reagan, figures who are really as huge as Nixon, have so far escaped this treatment but I’m sure their time will come.

I’ve been in the kitchen a lot so I’ve been using this time to catch up on all the documentaries and other non-feature things I’ve downloaded.  While making sourdough soft pretzels the other day, I checked out Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16.  I’m a big fan of Vogel’s book - which is really a Bible for deep investigation of film culture - but this film wasn’t actually about the book.  It was about the Cinema 16 film society and Vogel’s life, and because it didn’t stray from these topics, it worked extremely well.
Amos Vogel

Amos Vogel comes off as not just a great guy, but as a truly inspiring figure who greatly advanced film culture in the United States.  He was relentless in his idea of subversive film, which is more broadly about creating new ways to see as opposed to a more narrow definition of political or social subversion.  The Cinema 16 events were really a “society” - people came together to experience art and grew together as an audience.  That community is something that’s lacking when you live in a basement and download everything and watch documentaries alone.  It’s been a bit of inspiration to me to start a Cinema DivX club - sure, you can download these films yourself, but by watching things in a group we can have some discussions, etc.

There’s no shortage of social/political-themed documentaries though. Channel 4’s Unreported World series is compelling TV that portrays some truly astounding content through a standard television documentary presentation.  I watched the episode about the “ninja” miners in Mongolia and the “garbage people” of Egypt (a group of Coptic Christians who suffer under religious persecution and extreme poverty) and both were illuminating, yet a bit dull stylistically. There’s always the ‘safety’ of terrestrial British television, but for films trying to provoke outrage at social problems in developing nations, they could have been a bit edgier.  There’s an episode about the Janjaweed in the Sudan that I’m sure is going to be a devastatingly bummer time, so I’m saving it to balance against some TV comedy or something ‘light’.
The Possibility of Hope

I was surprised that The Possibility of Hope gets through its 27 minutes without mentioning Barack Obama, but it was made last year, before I was force-fed the “hope” meme.  It’s made by Alfonso Cuarón, who also made Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Y Tu Mamá También, neither of which feature Slavoj Zizek.  It’s surprisingly good, despite being a series of talking heads offering their opinions about the future of humanity.  Though I’ve enjoyed books this year by several of the heads (Zizek, Naomi Klein, and John Gray), I tend to get annoyed when seeing them in this format.

Still, the film discusses some ideas such as human migration, boundaries, and the future of public space - nothing too deep of course, but it would be a good starting point for discussions.  Image-wise, the film is made up of “generic” images of cities, people, buildings, and news footage.  The images aren’t irrelevant, but as the topics discussed are often abstract, they aren’t exactly necessary.  It’s an easy film to stop looking at, especially if you are cooking; it probably could have served just as much function as a radio show or podcast.

I was really impressed by Milk but I don’t have anything to really say here about it; it will probably win some awards and it’s deserving; I want to see the 80’s documentary now for a slightly less Hollywood reading of those events.  

Before I moved here I had a Windows-based PC, a second computer really, that I only used for downloading and a few audio applications.  It didn’t survive the move - when I finally plugged it in, I heard a pop and smelled smoke - and even though it’s probably just the power supply I haven’t really needed the machine enough to bother fixing it.  It’s literally been sitting around for months and I finally pulled the hard drive out to see what was on it.

I guess I downloaded Americathon before I moved and totally forgot about it; a subsequent IMDB investigation got me fairly excited.  When I saw that the cast included Fred Willard, John Ritter, Elvis Costello, Tommy Lasorda, Meat Loaf, and Jay Leno playing a character called “Poopy Butt”, I got really excited.  Could this be another lost gonzo satire, another Mr. Freedom or Sweet Movie?  

Jay Leno: Crunch all you want, we'll make moreThe plot centers around a future America, where a financial crisis has placed the country on the verge of total collapse.  Sound familiar?   The US government decides to hold a TV telethon to raise money, which allows an endless stream of mediocre performers to enact various goofy sketches.   I thought maybe this would be an incredibly prescient lost gem that would blow my mind, and have Fred Willard too.  Instead I found what I usually describe as a “forgotten yuk”, where it is forgotten for a reason. In case you’re wondering, other forgotten yuks are Ishtar, Leonard Part 6, and Clifford.

Americathon is a chore to sit through, with the humour being aimed at teenagers.  As a work of media commentary, it falls somewhere just above Stay Tuned (another Ritter vehicle) and somewhere vastly below Network.  It’s 86 minutes do fly by quickly; the highlight is definitely Jay Leno boxing a middle-aged woman (supposedly his mother).  But when even Fred Willard fails to make me laugh, we’re in for a bad time.

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