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Art in Politics - Politics at 24 frames-per-second Art in Politics - Politics at 24 frames-per-second
by Asa Butcher
2007-12-23 09:33:55
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As America psyches itself up for another Presidential Election, I will have to familiarise myself with American politics via the Hollywood Handbook once again. Thanks to movies I am able to follow the political system of the USA a little easier, although it has been a shock discovering that reality really does differ from fiction - for example, the underdog never seems to win.

I am English and I grew up among British politics, with its House of Commons, House of Lords and occasional House of Cards, and even that was confusing at times - well, until Thanos gave me Jeffrey Archer's 1984 novel First Among Equals to read. However, when it came to America with its House of Representatives, Congress, Senators, Capitol Hill, Bill of Rights and controversy over chads I am thankful I am not among the US's 142 million registered voters, although it seems that the 20 million that chose not to vote in the 2004 Presidential Election also wish they weren't part of the system.

In the same way that movies have made American football and baseball accessible for non-American audiences around the world, they have given us a foundation upon which to build an understanding of the American political system beginning with the main two parties: the Democrats and the Republicans - if I am to follow President Russell P. Kramer's statement (Jack Lemmon) in My Fellow Americans, also starring James Garner, Republicans are better: "Well, as usual, the Republican comes up with a plan while the Democrat just aimlessly wanders in the woods."

However, I have my doubts because The American President, my personal favourite among films set in the White House, features Michael Douglas playing Democratic President Andrew Shepherd and he doesn't seem to be 'wandering in the woods'. To me, President Andrew Shepherd embodies all the qualities of a great leader, at least in movie terms, which are, if you are interested intelligent, fallible, maintains his integrity and has sense of humour. The screenplay of The American President was written by Aaron Sorkin and the film inspired his television drama "The West Wing" that features another strong president.

It is the comparison between Sorkin's movie president and television president where some of my confusion over Democrats and Republicans begins. Martin Sheen's President Bartlet in the "The West Wing" is a Republican, yet he has all the same qualities as President Shepherd, which must mean that there's more to the ideals of each party than the personality of one man. Okay, I knew that really, sine Tony Blair hardly represented the early ideologies of the British Labour Party - quite the opposite.

My question should be: what are the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties? The answer to this question could easily extend to a thesis and probably has many times, so it seems the basic difference is that Republicans follow a conservative philosophy and Democrats follow a liberal philosophy. Have I got this right? Was I following the movies and TV series closely enough? I am beginning to understand why 20 million people decided to waste their vote last US Election Day.

Is it really fair to expect our political representatives to live up to the expectations we get from watching these movies? I don't see why not, since reality is always stranger than fiction. How many movies and television series have shown the new president taking the Executive Oath of Office? "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

I had to check the exact wording, but I did know the general idea of the inauguration text, which may clarify why so many people are terrified of President George W. Bush - perhaps he really is trying to the best of his ability to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution; maybe his heart is in the right place, shame about his brain. Anyway, comparing President Bush to any of the fictional presidents already mentioned would be unfair to them all, so who could we use?

How about President George W. Bush in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11? Yeah, the man who described himself as a 'War President', although his statement does remind me of Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog. The film is about Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), a Washington spin doctor, who distracts the electorate from a presidential sex scandal by hiring Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to construct a fake war with Albania.

Stanley Motss: The President will be a hero. He brought peace.
Conrad Brean: But there was never a war.
Stanley Motss: All the greater accomplishment.


In another strange twist of reality being stranger than fiction, one month after the release of Wag the Dog real-life President Bill Clinton found himself entangled the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and as the scandal dominated the American press, the US engaged in three separate military operations. 'Life imitating art', would be a great cliché to employ here, but I shall refrain. On the subject of scandals, how many people born after 1972 would fully understand the President Nixon/Watergate scandal if it hadn't been for Hollywood?

All the President's Men is the 1976 film based on the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two journalists responsible for investigating the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post, while Oliver Stone's Nixon is the 1995 film that tells the story of his political and personal life, so between the two there is little room left for imagination. Thanks to these two movies, plus a reference in Forrest Gump, we all know about Deep Throat, secret tape recordings, break-ins and the dogged investigative journalism of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford… I mean Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

While researching this article I was surprised to discover that President Nixon wasn't a complete failure in office. In fact during the Nixon Administration, the US established the Environmental Protection Agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration and formed U.S. Postal Service after abolishing the Post Office Department. Unfortunately these have been forgotten due his unintentional contribution to Hollywood's screenplays, plus he also disillusioned voters with the Republican Party. Poor President Bartlet!

Nixon hasn't been the only political movie target, but not many are used with their original name. For example, the central character of Willie Stark in All the King's Men is believed to have been based upon the life of Huey P. Long, a former governor of Louisiana and that state's U.S. senator in the mid-1930s. The movie was based upon a book originally written by Robert Penn Warren seemingly inspired by the famous quote by John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, which says, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The character of Willie Stark begins as an idealistic young lawyer fighting for a better life for those without a voice, but as his political career develops and he gains more power then his morals and ideologies shift in the opposite direction - in other words, he is an excellent movie character and we hope that not all of our leaders are too similar. As I mentioned earlier, we can't help comparing the characteristics of the fictional with the real, which may explain why Californians elected Arnold Schwarznegger as their Governor or why the people of Carmel, California, elected Clint Eastwood as mayor in 1986.

For every sleazy, low-down, cheating, corrupt… or to put it simply, a politician (that's satire), Hollywood does serve an antidote. One, a very large one, can be found in Frank Capra's 1939 drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the form of James Stewart as Jefferson Smith, a man so dedicated to the American ideal of freedom and democracy he holds the floor of the Senate refusing to yield until the corruption of certain Senators is revealed. Thankfully neither the Republican Party nor Democratic Party is mentioned in the film leaving it to our own political conscience to apply the applicable labels.

According to trivia, when Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was initially released politicians in Congress and the Washington D.C. press labelled the film as "anti-American and pro-Communist for its portrayal of corruption in the American government." However today, the film is cited as a patriotic tribute to democracy, which just goes to show how politicians can never make up their mind. It is not often that you can go from the Capra classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde in just one step, but today we can.

Reese Witherspoon returns as Elle Woods, a blonde that forces you to reassess the stereotype of dumb blonde, as she heads to Washington D.C. to fight against animal testing, or as she says, "A voice for those who can't speak!" The film gently guides you through the process of writing and submitting a Bill to Congress and reminds you of the backstabbing that also take place, but it is certainly one of the stranger political films to guide you through Capitol Hill.

As America's attention is about to tighten its focus on the 2008 US Elections we can only hope that the Politician's Speech Writers follow the same course as the Writers Guild of America and initiate strike action. Can you imagine how great it would be to hear what the candidates really have to say rather than the well-crafted words written by their writers, but now it seems that I am once again mixing up reality with fiction.

Click here to download 'Art in Politics' theme PDF

* * * * * *

'Art in Politics' includes:

Poetry by Mbizo Chirasha & Alexander Mikhaylov
Artwork by Sarah Beetson, Steve Cartwright & Jan Sand
Articles and essays by Asa Butcher, Thanos Kalamidas, Emanuel L. Paparella & Rene Wadlow

 


    
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Sand2007-12-23 10:28:19
Although much of Hollywood acknowledges its central core of fantasy it unfortunately has disregarded sensational opportunities in its technology. Aside from the obvious current shape of American politics wherein the corporations are safely in control of both the Democrats and Republicans, a situation of someone legislating for the rights of dumb animals could have a sensational climax when a grey parrot (who is quite capable in English as current history has indicated) gives a ringing speech in the best Shakespearian manner (As of Henry the 5th speech at Agincourt) to great acclamation of both houses of congress and thereby wins the day.


Emanuel Paparella2007-12-23 15:03:32
Indeed, it would seem that in politics life is often stranger than fiction, and the strangest thing of all in life is the talented artist who prostitutes his/her talent to an ideological agenda, that is to say, the artist who claims to be objectively presenting the facts of life as they are, when in reality he/she has an ax to grind and a political agenda to push. Some even claim to be journalists and poets. More often than not they are pseudo journalists and versifiers. This paradox is presented in the movie Il Postino in the characterization of Neruda who had a running argument with Octavio Paz on the issue. Also, Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary “Triumph of the Will” has undoubtedly artistic merits, but it also was undoubtedly integral part of the Third Reich’s propaganda machine, despite protestations to the contrary by Riefenstahl. Similarly, Fahrrenheit 9/11 tells us much more about Michael More than about George Bush. It is practically impossible for an author or an artist to take oneself out of the story but some can manage it much better than others. The ones who manage it best are those who are capable of telling the whole story and not one merely clever by half. (continued below)


Emanuel Paparella2007-12-23 15:04:32
It would appear that since Boccaccio’s Decameron life has a strange way of erupting into art. There too, ten young people escape the pestilence of Florence (life with all its warts) to a villa in the countryside where they do art: they tell each other stories based on the theme of the day (one each, ten a day for a total of 100 hence the title). They are so engrossed in this artistic process that they manage for a while to forget what is going on in Florence. But then at one point of the narrative there is a rude interruption by a servant crashing into this ideal frame with some disturbing news from the city. But, wait a minute, that interruption too is part of the story of the Decameron. So we have a frame within a frame within a frame and life on the outside: the picture of the young people in the country side telling each other story, art escaping life from Florence; than we have the larger frame of what is going on real life in Florence at the time, and finally we have Boccaccio the author who actually went through the real pestilence going on in Florence and then had to fight the Inquisitors to preserve his masterpiece intact. What is then Boccaccio telling us about art and life? I’ll leave the answer to the imagination of the Ovi readers.


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