Looking back in anger

As the historic inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama is set to take place on Tuesday, there is, according to a recent poll, unprecedented optimism greeting him in Washington. Outgoing President George W. Bush leaves the country he governed, begun after a highly questionable first election and ending with the near-collapse of the American economy, in ruins.

What historians ought to be mulling over is the role that the arts and culture shaped the Bush years. If there were voices of opposition to the Bush administration, few if any came from within the government or from the opposition party. It was during this eight year period that reality television flourished and the insatiable desire for “reality” and “truth” came in the form of bitter pills. I keep thinking of Anna Nicole Smith, whose show was little more than a overblown call for help, and how her reputation as a denigrated, ballooned drug addict actually drew her sympathy. Thinking of George Bush’s recent press conference, the most revealing and performative of his entire presidency, one realizes his existence has been defined and contained by an audience, much like Smith.

The trends in culture under Bush, the reliance on documentary films to fill in mainstream journalism gaps, mumblecore films showing “how people talk in real life”, new folk music revealing a entire generation of privileged, abused children longing for a return to a second grade lifestyle, and Takeshi Murakami making handbags the new canvas, reveal how much things have changed in eight years. There’s a reason why Lost remained the most popular network TV show, the title alone describing how the minds of my generation have been destroyed by a vacancy of “reality” and “truth” that trickled down from the Oval Office.

There was a psychological split among the two Bush terms, reflected in our pop culture and national mood. The first term was defined by Bush v. Gore, 9/11 and the Iraq War and Abu Ghraib, sure, but the air-tight questioning of the militaristic options and assaults on civil liberties, the sense that that moment in time was to be ignored or forgotten. It’s odd that filmmakers shooting out of train windows were criminals, but the carpetbombing of surveillance cameras were necessary to preserve the Republic. The paranoia on the Left, fueled by the need to unite in overthrowing Bush in 2004, permeated the intellectual air. The great irony of Bush’s second term is that just as the Left felt utterly defeated and hopeless, Bush managed to squander his entire presidency and be the self-loathing oaf that many a liberal personified in the days after the second Bush election. Needless to say, Hurricane Katrina and the implosion of the financial markets took the Bush presidency to new lows, beyond deception, cherry picking intelligence, torture, unnecessary wars, leaving the country without a shred of confidence in the man.

So, even if the Bush years saw Girls Gone Wild, American Idol, countless comic book adaptations, and Amelie, below are some moments in which I found solace from the past eight years:

Stephen Colbert’s roasting of Bush at the 2006 Press Correspondents Dinner remains the only time the president was publicly taken down, with a late addition of this wonderful gesture. The audience in this video seemed largely unprepared for where Colbert was going, greeting his jokes about Katrina, the NSA, and president’s trust of his gut with awkward laughs and cat calls. The press itself thought that Colbert’s standup was largely tasteless. There’s a reason, however, why this video has endured and it’s sadly because little has changed in the three years since its airing. Colbert and Jon Stewart may be the freshest voices on television, but this is a work of art.

If there was an artist who captured the Old Testament tone of the early Bush years best, it was Lars von Trier. Dogville, his greatest film to date, simultaneously diagnosed present day Danish immigration malaise and post-Depression American xenophobia, and cracked the surface of the moral theater of Bush’s rhetoric and actions. Dogville proves that there’s a reason why Brecht is so valuable to us in our most perilous, conservative times, and it’s to show that well-intentioned bleeding hearts are just as dangerous.

If Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is one of the defining films about race, and one of the most vibrant films the 1980s, When The Levees Broke is the defining film about Hurricane Katrina. Arguably the most preventable tragedy to strike a major city since, well, 9/11, the immediate tragedy of the levees breaking was not just the loss of a city, but the undeniable role that race and class played in the city’s unpreparedness for the storm. “The poor always live at the lowest altitude” a friend who volunteered in New Orleans told me, and Spike Lee’s film, celebrating the culture and people in one of America’s most gorgeous cities, sings from that lowest point. 

A man’s work is nothing but his slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. – Camus

The above quote is found in the LP of Scott Walker’s 4, his most fully realized pop record, referencing Bergman, Stalin, and Vietnam, and revealing his most existential and private markers. If The Drift can be taken as anything but sound as “chunks of time” as Walker claims, I think its utterly horrifying and deeply burrowed tenderness says more about the Blair/Bush years than any other document produced by a musician. Take for example lyrics from Cossacks Are:

That’s a nice suit
That’s a swanky suit
Been a pope like no other
I’m looking for a good cowboy
A rare outcry makes you lead a larger life
You could easily picture this in the current top ten
Medieval savagery 
Calculated cruelty
It’s hard to pick the worst moment
Calculated cruelty
It’s hard to pick the worst moment

Walker stated that he took lines from Bush’s talks with France prior to the Iraq War as inspiration for this song. Without explicitly referencing Bush or Jacques Chirac, Walker instead finds the horror in the moment itself.  But beyond Bush, which for Walker seems was just the springboard, The Drift practically reinvents both pop and classical music, and working with sounds such as the punching of hollow wooden boxes and slabs of meat, the elegant, operatic, hermetic Walker let out a rare outcry.

Is James Benning’s Ten Skies about Bush at all? As environmental agitprop, Ten Skies does what few films about global warming or nature ever do, which is allow the landscape to speak for itself. The skies, ten shots at 10 minutes long, provide much to reflect on, from clouds to pollution to power lines, but it is the sound in which the film comes to life. Half way through the film, gunshots ring out in the distance and a dog lets out a series of wails. Whether or not this was meant to be taken as political  (note: Benning told me it was), this film, more than any of the past eight years, gave me the space to contemplate the present moment. It was that privilege denied to Iraqis and Afghans, and when allowed in this country, the most unfathomable crime you could commit.

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