Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008

Unlike my fellow bloggers, who have seen a lot more films this year than I have, I’m refusing to put together a top 10 list of favorite movies this year. I’m doing this for several reasons, 1) I’ve been outside the limited release mecca of NYC for several weeks, and have thus been unable to see any of the movies that are alleged to be the best of the year, 2) I’ve been disappointed by many of the films I’ve seen this year, and would struggle to cobble together ten list-worthy ones, and 3) I went on a tirade against movie lists last spring, so while I realize how fun these lists can be, it would be a bit hypocritical and inconsistent for me to make one. So even though this is a blog that focuses primarily on movies and visual media, I’m instead putting together an end-year list on something I have very little authority on: music. So here are my top 10 albums of the year, according to my very narrow taste. I’ll be back posting on movies soon.

And for an expert analysis on why good music is good, check out Mary Go Round.

THE BEST OF THE YEAR

10. Monkey, Journey to the West

Damon Albarn is a man of prolific innovation. As the guy who headed Blur, Gorillaz, and The Good, the Bad, and the Queen, he’d have to be. So it comes as no surprise that Albarn eventually wrote his own opera, even one as esoteric as Monkey: Journey to the West—billed as a “circus opera” and adapted from a 16th century Chinese novel. While not adapted to album form directly from the opera itself, Journey to the West does feature a condensed version of the music used for Monkey’s run in Manchester. Ranging from astoundingly beautiful collaborations in voice and sound to prolonged and disturbingly odd noises, Journey to the West is never short on inspired creativity, even if it may not always be the most accessible kind. However, while listening to the album, one can’t help but feel like they’re missing out on Gorillaz collaborator Jamie Hewlett’s undoubtedly astounding visuals designed to go in tandem with Albarn’s music when Monkey was originally exhibited in the opera medium. Yet Journey to the West can’t help but manifest illustrious juxtapositions of sound and noise on its own terms, making this an enjoyable album despite the schism from its necessary visual counterpart.

Favorite track: “Heavenly Peace Banquet”

9. Friendly Fires

This is electro-synth pop at its most shameless. Friendly Fires’ lyrics are laughably generic and sophomoric, and frankly, after seeing their videos, the members of the band seem like self-infatuated douchebags. At 23, even I feel to old to be listening to this stuff, but it’s just so uncontrollably, ass-shakingly addictive. The very shamelessness of Friendly Fires’ easily consumable approach to hipster ‘indie’ pop, lacking any pretensions of artistic worth while at the same time being narcissisticly self-involved, is what makes their music so enjoyable without the necessary pious guilt often characteristic of this particular music snob’s pop consumption. Its corniness is almost winking, which makes it that much more endearing. Frankly, this kind of music makes me want to go back 5 years and crash a dorm party. Their debut album is so simple and fun, even a four-eyed white guy like me can dance to it—of course, keeping in the spirit of Friendly Fires, I’d be looking for a mirror all the while.

Favorite track: “Lovesick”

8. School of Language, Sea From Shore

The overlapping, vocals-only, vowel-reciting opening of School of Language’s debut album is unique and experimental while simultaneously being accessible and ever-so pleasant. The four-track movement entitled “Rockist” that frames the album evolves quite nicely through an array of developing and receding sounds and musical styles, making Sea From Shore feel like a far more coherent whole “album” rather than a selection of singles primed for individual downloads via iTunes. Other songs on the album don’t bleed together quite as nicely, and you may find yourself segregating your listening of Sea From Shore to a few brilliant selected tracks, but there’s definitely some gold to be mined here. Just from listening to the album (I literally know nothing about the band, as they haven’t made much of a splash on this side of the Atlantic), it seems like the entire project belongs to the immense creativity of the lead singer, whose vocal tracks seem to have been carefully overlapped in the album’s production (or else he is accompanied by vocalists that sound a great deal like him), and the combined aura of musical instruments seems so coherently in tune with the vocals that it doesn’t seem like a collaborative effort at as much as singular genius. The album can’t be listened to song-by-song—it evolves in a way that no other album this year can compare to.

Favorite track: “This is No Fun”

7. Foals, Antidotes

Produced by the white guy from TV on the Radio, Foals’ debut album is just so…so…so fulfilling. The combination of catchy dance-pop rock rhythms and Yannis Philippakis’ almost obnoxiously Oxford-accented vocals may initially remind one of Bloc Party or a far more matured version of Arctic Monkeys, but these conventions somehow occasionally achieve a surprising transcendence by moving far beyond its initial catchiness and misleading simplicity, which renders Antidotes all the more re-listenable. Foals is the type of band that holds their guitars as close to their chest as possible—so you know they’re more serious about music than their sound may initially seem. Wikipedia calls them “math rock” (a term which I’ve never fully understood), which brings immediate comparisons to American counterparts like Minus the Bear or MuteMath, and while Foals’ music seems calculated in the way the term implies, this calculation is reserved only for the band itself—for the listener, it can very well grab your emotions by the tail and take you somewhere else, while instinctively bobbing your head and tapping your feet to the rhythm along the way.

Favorite track: “Olympic Airways”

6. Gnarls Barkley, The Odd Couple

I never cared for Gnarls Barkley’s first album. I got sick of hearing “Crazy” a thousand times and thought their cover of “Gone Daddy Gone” added nothing to The Violent Femmes’ original—I even thought Danger Mouse was overrated. The Odd Couple has sold only a small fraction of St. Elsewhere’s 3.6 million copies, and has yet to produce a similarly overplayed single, but I think that Danger and Cee-Lo are better probably off for it. Instead of the stick-in-your-head radio friendliness of “Crazy,” The Odd Couple gives Cee-Lo the chance to belt out that powerful voice of his, while Danger employs an overwhelming (if not magnificently chaotic) array of musical styles to back him up. Each track seems to be an ongoing mad experiment, packing as many sounds, pop eras, backing vocals, and hand claps as humanly conceivable into each song until it almost implodes, but thankfully doesn’t. I particularly love Cee-Lo’s urgent, “run, children!” in “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)” and his desperate screaming in “Open Book.” Each track sounds so epic, it’s hard to believe that The Odd Couple clocks in at under forty minutes.

Check out Gnarls Barkley’s cover of Radiohead’s “Reckoner” from one of their live shows, which isn’t on The Odd Couple, but does further evidence their awesomeness.

Favorite track: “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)”

5. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals

Mashup DJ and fair use prophet Girl Talk released this album In Rainbows-style early this fall, and I can’t think of a type of music more fitting to this open distribution format, as Girl Talk’s very approach to music makes a good case that all music—even corporate pop and bling-praising hip-hop—belongs to everyone. The reason I love Girl Talk’s music is because it works on so many levels. On one, it’s the perfect dance party mix or live concert experience, a self-contained summer rooftop party whose short attention span to any given style or song makes for an ongoing entertainment experience. Frankly, anybody that can’t dance to Girl Talk should probably visit a mortician. On the other hand, it’s a similarly satisfying solitary experience, as identifying the various layers of songs embedded in each seconds-long musical block of Girl Talk’s tracks can prove and endlessly fascinating test of one’s popular music expertise. Thankfully, however, Girl Talk’s constant song shifting does not ring of somebody who hasn’t outgrown his ADHD, as each track seems like as meticulously assembled concoction of overlapping sounds that any lesser DJ could never have conceived as compatible.
LinkFavorite track: “What It’s All About”

4. Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer

The moment this album came out, every critic and fan pronounced its evident inferiority to WP’s debut album, Apologies to the Queen Mary. While At Mount Zoomer certainly lacks some of the iconic, catchy tunes and palpable musical passion that made every track of WP’s first album richer with each listen, it’s pretty hard to follow up expectations on (what I think) will probably prove itself to be the best alternative rock debut of this decade, and made them one of my favorite bands ever. However, WP has never seemed to be co-singer/songwriter/masterminds Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug’s major musical concern, as they have devoted just as much if not more time to their respective “side projects” (Boeckner’s amazing Handsome Furs, Krug’s innovative Sunset Rubdown and lackluster Swan Lake). Having first listened to Apologies to the Queen Mary long before knowing about any of these other projects, WP’s first album sounded like a collective sound of astonishing musical range. But knowing about the extent of their careers since, At Mount Zoomer unfortunately feels not so much like the surprisingly effective collaboration of two very different musical approaches that characterized their first album as much as a track-by-track trade off between the two musicians’ individual efforts, up to and including the 11-minute “Kissing the Beehive” (the only song cowritten by Boeckner and Krug), which ends the album by trading off their respective musical sounds within an individual track. Yet WP still remains an indisputably good band. My taste just so happens to gravitate towards Boeckner, so while I appreciate several of Krug’s contributions (the haunting “Call It a Ritual”) and skip through some of those that seem to lack inspiration (“Animal in Your Case”), all of Boeckner’s rocktastic songs are repeatedly satisfying, and their single-unfriendly approach allow his catchy guitar riffs to continually morph into glorious noise on each of his lengthy tracks.

Favorite track: “Fine Young Cannibals”

3. Fleet Foxes

Like any great new folk band, Fleet Foxes sounds like it came from a time without the modern distractions of television, the Internet, or the Jonas Brothers, as their sound seems to have had to develop from an isolated lifestyle heretofore connected exclusively to nature. So it comes as a surprise that Fleet Foxes, headed by the impossibly talented and young Robin Pecknold, hail from the densely legacied musical metropolis of Seattle. Their debut LP spread like wildfire this summer as they quickly sold out shows at their modest venues, highly underestimating their rapidly growing fanbase. The reason they became so popular so quickly is simple: their music is just that good. At a time when most “indie” “folk” bands interchangeably throw together quiet, introspective albums whose mark of success and credibility is their ability to make you fall asleep, Fleet Foxes treat this stuff quite seriously, tossing off the generic for a fuller, particular, and all the more pleasant sound. Often, music is just so good that its sound is inextricable from the experience of listening to it, and I’ll always remember listening to this album while on a train from Edinburgh to London this summer, peering out the window at the rolling hills and agrarian landscape where Fleet Foxes’ music fits so well (…and yes, even falling asleep to it). They’re hardly just another new band with an animal name.

Favorite track: “Blue Ridge Mountains”



2. School of Seven Bells, Alpinisms

Where Fleet Foxes may be my favorite debut band of 2008, my favorite debut album has to be School of Seven Bells’ Alpinisms. Ben Curtis, former drummer of The Secret Machines, loses the engrossing but redundant heavy beats that established the limited appeal of his former band for this oh-so harmonious electro-charm outfitted nicely by the singing duo of twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, whose haunting melodies forcibly take your mind somewhere else than exactly where you are sitting. Despite the dense and sometimes challenging layering of music, the surprisingly effective fit with the corresponding vocals creates a sound complex in its execution but so pleasurably easy to listen to (“Half Asleep” is probably the best example of this approach). Alpinisms does seem at first listen to tread on darker territory (“White Elephant Coat”), but SVIIB somehow manage to retain a pleasant, inclusive sound even as their music challenges, experiments, and changes mood. The Brooklyn-based band often retains the danceable electro-pop fun of an artist like Ladyhawke, but rejects the current trend of kitchy 80s nostalgia in favor of attempting aural transcendence. Seriously, if you’re open to it, Alpinisms can change time and space. By the end of “Sempiternal/Amaranth,” you won’t even notice that eleven minutes have gone by.

Favorite track: “Connjur”



1. TV on the Radio, Dear Science

It seems too easy to put TV on the Radio on the top of my list. Their Return to Cookie Mountain was undoubtedly my favorite album of 2006, and they continually find themselves at the top of far more reliable top-10 lists than this over and over again. I’ve had endless debates with friends on where Dear Science stacks up to Cookie Mountain, whether or not it is on par with that masterpiece, and the fact that such a debate even occurs shows how incredible this follow-up is. No doubt, it’s a completely different approach. Where the recording of Cookie Mountain was reportedly as tortured a process as the sound of the album itself, Dear Science favors a lighter approach in mood, favoring harmony over their previous acts of meticulous disruption and the almost overwhelming density that characterized Cookie Mountain, but this is not to say that Dear Science is somehow without immense weight. Dear Science can be experienced both as a list of individual tracks, each with their own irresistible hooks and packed evolution of sound to the extent that each track seems to cover enough material to fit an album all its own, and as a fully collective album experience, each track fitting together in perfect sequence and creating an astounding unified whole. It’s hard to pick out the best individual tracks not only because they are each oh-so-good, but because the experience of listening to the album as a whole is just so satisfying. Just when you think you’ve heard the best song on the album, another one follows that is just as brilliant. Every member of the band seems to be working on the same level, creating a sound in each song that could not have been more perfected with change. Like my experience of listening to Cookie Mountain, I enjoyed the first tracks on this album so much that I only stuck to listening to them, until weeks later realizing that the rest of Dear Science was just as brilliant. If Cookie Mountain was TV on the Radio’s brilliant manifestation of torture, Dear Science is an illustrious return to peace.

Favorite track (if I have to choose one): “Love Dog”



THE MOST DISAPPOINTING

Sigur Ros, Meo suo í eyrum vio spilum endalaust

Takk was an amazing album, and would have been the perfect way for Iceland’s favorite minimalist mood band to retire their penchant for deliberately lustrous sounds. Their newest album seems at first to be pointing in a bold new direction with the uncharacteristically peppy opening track, “Gobbledigook,” which sounds almost like an inventive collaboration with Animal Collective, but then it all devolves into the same old sound, ringing of uninspired carbon copies of their tracks from Agaetis Brutin, and the whole thing seems more redundant and tired than ever.

THE WORST

Bloc Party, Intimacy

I love Silent Alarm. My copy is worn out from listening to it so much. But I know very well that it’s not 2005 anymore. Bloc Party didn’t seem to get that message, rehashing identical rhythms that sound like early versions of the far better songs from their debut album (“One Month Off”). I know of no other band I’ve liked so much in recent years whose successive releases have been so exponentially and increasingly inferior to their initial effort. To make matters worse, Bloc Party inexplicably continues to attempt the forced profundity and poignancy of their ballads (“Signs”) that characterized the very worst tracks of A Weekend in the City (“I Still Remember,” “Sunday”) but somehow worked in Silent Alarm (“So Here We Are”). It doesn’t help that their lyrics are paper-thin and that Kele Okereke’s already limited vocals seem to be receding in range. The whole thing falls flat. Intimacy is simply a non-event.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The South Will Rise Again...with dinosaurs?

No, you’re seeing this correctly, it is indeed a model of a Union soldier being attacked by a dinosaur. It can be seen as a roadside attraction off of highway 11 in Natural Bridge, VA, part of an exhibit developed by “Professor” Mark Cline called Dinosaur Kingdom. If you’re driving on a road trip across Virginia and you see an advertisement for a roadside attraction called Dinosaur Kingdom, you’d probably expect some aging, unimpressive model dinosaurs this side of the La Brea tar pits—they might even be slightly animatronic if you’re lucky. But what you wouldn’t expect is a thoroughly envisioned and charismatically ludicrous still-life narrative that attempts to retell the story of the Civil War and in the meantime make it much more awesomer than your boring high school history textbooks ever made it sound.

Cline’s inspiration follows this narrative: the Union have discovered dinosaurs still living in an isolated area of America and decide to use them as a secret weapon against the Confederacy, training the dinosaurs to attack southern soldiers. But the plan backfires, and the Yankees themselves are attacked and eaten by the ancient reptiles from various geologic periods, thus enabling the South to win and—we can only assume—give rise to the Confederate States of America.

This strange and hilarious exhibit works brilliantly on several levels. For one, it fits well into the strange culture of roadside attractions that inhabit the long stretches of land in the American South, allowing those southerners who celebrate the confederate flag as a sign of “heritage” while ignoring or refusing to articulate the problematic ideological implications of such a statement to pass through and temporarily engage in a ridiculous, humorous form of wish-fulfillment, permitting them to temporarily imagine a Confederate victory...with the help of dinosaurs. It’s a whole new way to rewrite southern history again, like a 21st century Birth of a Nation but not as boring/racist. At the same time, it reads as a criticism of Christian fundamentalism whose strict religious and political beliefs are often reflected in the red hue of the southern states.

Certain schools of fundamentalism are, of course, well known for reading scripture as a document of empirical historical evidence rather than a theological text, and thus seek to uncover, manipulate, or frame historical and scientific evidence affirming that the Earth was created in six days ending with the birth of the first man, and that our planet has since aged just over a few thousand years. Thus, we end up with Creationist museums that argue the coexistence of dinosaurs with human beings, exhibiting often-hilarious historical justifications for such cohabitation like this dinosaur with a saddle for human riding from the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, or the alleged dinosaur fossils in Jerry Falwell’s museum at his Liberty University that are dated as only about 3,000 years old.

Dinosaur Kingdom seems to celebrate southern heritage and the wish-myth of the South’s resurgence while at the same time criticizing the selective re-telling of histories necessary for that celebration (for instance, the South’s frontier myth and agrarian culture are celebrated as signs of honorable heritage while conveniently ignoring the region’s tattered history of racism and slavery). This careful historical framing is realized in its greatest extreme in the ridiculous historical juxtapositions that aim to justify an impossible retelling of all history from the religious right as manifested within Creationist museums. While not all fundamentalists are from the South, not all southerners are fundamentalists or of the religious right (in full disclosure, I’m originally from Texas), and not all religions are fundamentalist, there is certainly a political connection between the retelling of history in the celebration of southern heritage and the retelling of history in Christian fundamentalism that is being playfully parodied here. (Cline’s other exhibits also playfully engage historical icons, like his life-size replica of Stonehenge completely made of styrofoam, aptly called Foamhenge.)

When Cline’s website read that he also resides in Glasgow, it took me a minute to realize that it was referring to a nearby town in Virginia whose occupants exceed barely more than 1,000, rather than the better-known city in Scotland. Yet Cline seems strangely connected to that other Glasgow, as both Glasgows seem to be linked by an odd way of showing appreciation for southern heritage and culture as well as an affinity for bizarre historical juxtapositions.


If you could hear the people speak in the picture above, you would likely be surprised to hear them speaking with Scottish accents rather than southern ones. I took this picture this past July at Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, UK, near the University of Glasgow. The caption above the left corner of this collage describes a love affair had by the citizens of Glasgow with the culture of the American South, from western films to bars like these that feature hoe-downs and line dancing. What struck me most was the presence of the Confederate flag in this Scottish bar, a symbol of dense ideological weight representing America’s long history of institutionalized racism that seemed here to represent nothing more than part of the spectacle of “being southern.”

From the same museum, the picture below is what appears to be a WWII-era fighter plane inexplicably planted above the natural history exhibit, and surrounded (outside the frame) by Scottish aristocratic art.


Either Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum is schizophrenically seeking an eccentric (but more head-scratch-inducing than funny) juxtaposition of history, science, and culture comparable to Cline’s Dinosaur Kingdom, or they were simply making use of limited space.

"Professor" Mark Cline

…And this has officially been my most random and meandering post. Sorry for the dearth of posts this and last month. I promise get back to this in full swing by the end of the month, and the beginning of 2009 should be a more fruitful time for blogging, schedule-wise. Cheers!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

46th New York Film Festival

The wonderful people of cinemattraction were kind enough to ask me to review some films at this year's New York Film Festival, where I saw some pretty good films, some pretty underwhelming films, and a couple of brilliant films. On their website you can find my reviews of Arnuad Desplechin's A Christmas Tale, Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, Clint Eastwood's Changeling, Wong Kar-Wai's Ashes of Time Redux, Sergei Dvortsevoy's Tulpan, João Botelho's The Northern Land, Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, Derezhan Omirbaev's Chouga, and Gerardo Naranjo's I'm Gonna Explode, as well as plenty of other reviews. Also, you can hear me talk a lot and say nothing about NYFF from my guest spot on the Screen Junkies podcast (also available for free on iTunes). Having seen ten films in about a week and a half, the experience was both exhilirating and exhausting. Thanks to the people of cinemattraction for giving me a very memorable first-time festival experience.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

'W.' and the Bush Legacy

I was understandably skeptical when I first heard of Oliver Stone’s plans to make a George W. Bush biopic while the man was still in office, at first relieved that Stone had seemingly returned to making incisive movies about controversial political figures after the huge missteps that were World Trade Center (2006) and Alexander (2004), but doubtful that the notoriously left-leaning filmmaker would be able to say anything new and insightful that hasn’t been said elsewhere (however, I should say that I never feel that it’s “too soon” to make a movie about any given subject, and while this may contradict an argument I made on this blog a year ago, I think “too soon” arguments are total crap because they imply some identifiable future date in which a mass of people are collectively, simultaneously prepared to revisit a given subject). But once I saw W.’s inventive advertising campaign, it looked like a dark comedy or satire more in the vein of Dr. Strangelove rather than a continuation of Stone’s dark sagas (marked often by his characteristically overwhelming visual bombast) into the annals of corrupt American history. The film, however, turned out to be neither.

W. is a surprisingly straightforward, unpretentious biopic that operates mostly around a contentious family drama between father and son, and Stone accomplishes here the last thing I ever expected him to—he actually gets into the psyche of a fascinatingly humanized interpretation of George W. Bush.

Having grown up in an area of Texas only twenty minutes away from Bush’s Crawford ranch, I was always under the impression that the cowboy iconography and fake-sounding accent Bush appropriated was more of a means to fool voters into thinking this Ivy League-educated political royalty was an average American simpleton rather than any accurate reflection of his actual life and values. W. argues instead that it is Bush’s presidency that is the façade, and his simple love for the easygoing times of rural Texas culture is where he genuinely feels most at home. Stone and Josh Brolin’s Bush is presented here, unlike Stone’s Nixon, as about as far from evil as one could get. Bush here isn’t depicted as stupid, just in way over his head. The occupational and generational conflict between W. and his father could have been substituted for many other contexts had these characters been fictional and with different last names—Bush here just so happens to have been born into a political family, and with his connections just so happens to become Governor of Texas without having ever held office before, and just so happens to become President of the United States.

Bush’s presidency is depicted as circumstantial and serendipitous—he simply jumped in with the right friends at the right time, but ultimately found himself in one of the last places he’d ever feel comfortable being in. At one point Laura tells him, “One day this war will be over and our lives can go back to normal,” and you can’t help but think that this is exactly what’s going through his mind in the last three months of his miserably long two terms.

Bush is an undeniably unique personality in an absurd situation. Despite his privileged upbringing, he’s a man of simple tastes and pleasures (in one of the film’s funniest moments, Laura reveals that W.’s favorite play is Cats). The film, once again, doesn’t portray Bush as stupid, just the last person anybody (including his own family) would ever expect to become President of the United States—twice. If Stone wanted to portray Bush as an unforgivable ignoramus, he’d have plenty of material to work with. But here we don’t see Bush continuing to read My Pet Goat several minutes after hearing about the attack on the World Trade Center, nor do we see his entrance into the White House paved by a stolen election, his daily flubs that have been fodder for late-night comedy, or his many embarrassing public moments with foreign leaders. Stone knows how easy it is just to ridicule Bush, and furthermore that the “idiot Bush” is how we already know him best. The filmmaker thankfully instead gives us a protagonist we can actually care about. When Bush stumbles at a press conference, we, for the first time, get inside his head rather than laugh at him from the safety of the seats in front of the podium.

This is not to say, of course, that the film forgives a Bush presidency—it’s simply a character study chronicling how his institutionalization of fear, his politicization of the Supreme Court, his pushing forward of dishonest motives for an unjust war, and his culture of paranoia dividing America in two could have happened. And what’s so refreshing about W. is that it allows us to find humor within what has panned out to be one of the darkest chapters in American history. The humor is hardly ironic or cynical—instead it’s surprisingly rather genuine. Stone allows us to see the absurdity of our given situation, and laugh at how incredibly ludicrous—and how undeniably American—it is that such a man could find his destiny in the seat of the most powerful person in the world.

It is the man’s environment that is posited here as what determines his political career, and Bush’s relationship with Karl Rove (played by Toby Jones) takes a straightforward look at these particular circumstances. Bush here is portrayed as authentically “southern” and sincerely religious; it is Rove who sees the character traits already there as political opportunism ripe for his type of propaganda, rather than creating Bush into something he is obviously not (after all, W., as we all know, is not good at faking anything). Bush knows what he wants to say, Rove simply tells him how to say it (even when he’s around his own cabinet).

And the connection between neo- conservatism and religion is presented here as tenuous. The neoconservative domestic and foreign policies characteristic of the Bush administration are depicted as result of the collective political ideologies of Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, played by Richard Dreyfuss as exactly how we perceive him to be—an impenetrable mastermind of government bureaucracy and the real power behind the throne. Yet Bush and Rove are the ones who have utilized religion to support these policies—the real government power meanwhile seem turned off by Bush’s insistence on prayer after meetings (after all, we never think of Cheney, the ultimate neo-con, as a fundamental Christian). The connection between religion and politics so seemingly inherent to neo-conservatism are instead presented here as a coalition between the desires of those members of the cabinet with a hunger for power and the (seemingly) genuine but misguided religious spirit of the Commander-in-Chief, in which he believes it’s God’s will that he be President and invade Iraq (W. at one point tells his religious adviser that he doesn’t even want to be President, but he’s heard the calling and must follow, which could explain quite a bit of Bush’s disassociated behavior at press conferences and such).

Most of the cast approach their characters within varying degrees of basic imitation and actually attempting a three-dimensional embodiment of the given person. Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, and Rob Cordry seem to present half-impression, half-character interpretations of the real-life counterparts they portray, with varying degrees of success (as W., Laura Bush, Colin Powell, and Ari Fleischer, respectively—and Powell is thankfully presented as the lone voice of dissent in Cheney’s war room, overcome and compromised by the coalition of the willing working against him). Meanwhile, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Scott Glenn, and Ioan Gruffudd seem to be making no attempt whatsoever to physically resemble George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Tony Blair respectively, choosing instead to approach the roles as characters on their own, once again with varying levels of success (you really have to stretch your imagination for Glenn and Gruffudd). However, Thandie Newton’s shockingly spot-on portrayal of Condoleeza Rice seems to suggest a different film entirely, one that could have been completely embedded in biting satire, one with a serious actors articulating perfect impersonations of the many eccentric quirks of those mysterious figures running this country, without approaching the psychology of several of these truly impenetrable figures.

The film feels as hurriedly jumbled together as was, transposing some of the more famous Bushisms into different contexts in an economy of effort and a condensation of time. It is not, by any means, one of Stone’s more carefully envisioned works, nor does it seem to achieve any convincing cohesion regarding the events portrayed with how they panned out in reality. But Brolin’s W. is Brolin’s W., and his face is not so much substituted for the President’s as it is used as a vessel for a character study all its own, thereby forming a jumping-off point with which to attempt approaching the man himself and his confounding place within our nation's history.

I never voted for George W. Bush, and since I started giving a damn about politics around 2003 (I turned eighteen right when we started bombing Baghdad), he’s come to represent the opposite of everything I stand for politically, ideologically, and even spiritually. Yet, three months before he’s left office, I find myself at Union Square on opening night paying $25 for two tickets to see a biopic about him. Even knowing that it’s a film made by a notoriously leftist filmmaker, why should I have cared to spend the money if I despise the man so much? Because W., flaws and all, is without denial a figure of continuing fascination—I believe, left or right, most of the nation feels this way. Even when we’ve got him pegged, even when we can’t fathom him making one more gaffe, he continues to surprise us.

Whether I like it or not, W. the real-life President has defined a very significant part of my life. He took office in an election that brought to light the futility of the electoral process when I was a sophomore in high school, was reelected my sophomore year in college, and will leave office around the time I’ve finished grad school, with his face being inseparable from the destruction of almost every major governmental system that the function of our nation depends on. It’s tough to say quite yet what Bush’s legacy will be like, but I (with a straight face) doubt he’ll go down as one of the most hated men in American history. I think his legacy will be more akin to how he is portrayed in W.: the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, and all the absurdity therein.

Honestly, I’m going to miss Bush when he leaves because, while we do live in undeniably harsh times attributed largely to him, he was such a singularly unique, appallingly odd President during an equally strange political era. I do not doubt his legacy will continue to be reinterpreted long after he leaves office, and W. may not prove to be the definitive work of art preserving the President’s unprecedented place in history, but I think it’s a good place to start.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Nixons of Cinema

A lot of people have made comparisons between Bush Jr. and Nixon regarding who the worst president of the modern era is, citing parallel abuses of power between Nixon’s handling of Vietnam and Watergate with Bush’s war on terror and use of executive privilege. With Ron Howard’s adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon coming out in December, and with Oliver Stone’s much anticipated biopic of our current president coming out next weekend, I think it’s high time to take a look at how several actors have attempted to embody one of Hollywood’s favorite presidents to put onscreen, Richard Millhouse Nixon.

SECRET HONOR (1984)

Like with many careers of great directors from the seventies, the eighties were not a good time for Robert Altman. Between the fiasco that was Popeye and his early nineties comeback with The Player, Altman’s eighties career was littered with largely forgettable films, save for this underrated one-man show featuring Philip Baker Hall (probably most recognized for his work with P.T. Anderson) as a disgraced, post-presidency Nixon who recalls, with great brooding anger and resentment, the trials of his life and career in what is basically a 90-minute monologue.

Altman is perhaps best known for his overlapping dialogue, and while Secret Honor takes a 180 degree turn from the ensembles that defined Altman’s seventies career, Hall allows Nixon’s solitary dialogue to overlap itself, preventing the finishing of one thought or frustration to suddenly move on to another, as if Nixon’s life and character were so complex that not even he could articulate who he is or what he believes in. Nixon here is armed with a revolver, a tape recorder, and a bottle of scotch, wavering between fond recollection of his humble beginnings gone awry and unmitigated anger at those who he believes sought to destroy him at his every move. While the minimalist restraints in such an approach can be claustrophobic (one man, one room), this intimacy allows us to watch a man fall apart as he purges his many demons.

Nixon’s paranoia while in office extends here to his private, secluded post-presidency career, as his study is littered with surveillance material. Nixon narcissistically continues to record every thing he says and does (despite that such self-surveillance is what got him expelled from office in the first place), presuming that all of his ideas are important enough to be recorded, thereby naïvely refusing to admit he now exists alone in a nation that wants so badly to forget him. When Secret Honor ends, the surveillance cameras turn on Nixon himself, suggesting that the person Nixon fears most is the one staring at him in the mirror.

NIXON (1995)

Released not long after Nixon’s death in 1994, Oliver Stone’s elephantine biopic attempts to cover every possible territory in the man’s life and presidency, positing his rise and fall as Shakespearean tragedy. While the film attempts to humanize Nixon, his lust for power is presented as always stemming from an inherent narcissistic God complex that has driven him tooth-and-nail since birth to prove his own innate superiority over all other men. Nixon constantly refers to himself in the third person, and anytime he and Haldeman (James Woods) discuss the myth of the American Dream in respect to their many abuses of executive privilege, neither Haldeman nor Nixon ever seem to believe any of that crap beyond which of their actions it can justify. Nixon’s constituents act as cheerleaders (especially when his presidency begins to fall apart), constantly massaging the president's inflated sense of self while expressing their very sincere doubts as soon as they step into the hallway of the oval office, reflecting the “community of consent” Nixon developed in the White House which only further divided him from the ideology of the growing population that wanted him out of office.

Nixon’s community of consent:



Stone’s biggest attempts at humanization are his use of flashbacks, but these only present Nixon’s habit of altering the truth as having been constant since childhood, and suggest that his self-destructive lust for power was the result of a disappointing performance as a college football player. Still, Stone makes little connection between the younger Nixons and the one who would become president, never showing how his “humble Quaker upbringing” (often his most potent political tool) led to a soulless state of power. This implausible, nuance-free scene (as only Oliver Stone can do it) portrays how Nixon’s presidency had never attempted to reflect the will or enforce the best interest of the American people, with the shadow of Lincoln forever echoing in the background:



However, Hopkins’ and Stone’s Nixon is undeniably smart, presented as having had the rhetorical ability to squash the voices of dissent by his intimidating sheer force of personality. Nixon’s Nixon is made to be the type of slimy politician who could weasel his way into virtually any place of power, who could manipulate even the loudest of dissenters to vote for him against any aspect of their will, while somehow being able to separate himself from the most radical of the right wing. In other words, Stone sees Nixon as one of the greatest politicians in American history.

DICK (1999)

Although the tone of both Secret Honor and Nixon may refuse to admit it, there’s something funny to be found even in a nation’s most troubling hour. Dick asks what it would be like if a pair of airheaded high school girls had an unknowing, unintended role in the Watergate scandal and Nixon being shoved out of office. This film was a hard sell in 1999, a nostalgic political satire disguised as a teen comedy aimed at an audience far too young to know or care about the political history structuring its narrative. But for anybody willing to appreciate either type of film, Dick cleverly uses its protagonists to fill in every gap of the Watergate scandal, from the missing eighteen minutes on the tape to the identity of Deep Throat.

Dan Hedaya, who played a small role as a Nixon constituent in Nixon, here plays the titular president—and I must say, more so than anybody else who has embodied Tricky Dick, Hedaya actually appears somewhat in tandem with the president’s inimitable, cartoonish physical features with relatively little makeup. But Dick’s best surprise is its take on Woodward and Bernstein, which is about as far as one can get from Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men (1976). Berstein is played by The Kids in the Hall’s Bruce McCulloch and Woodward by a SNL-era Will Ferrell, and they’re hilariously interpreted as egotistical, immature, conceited man-children who seek to implicate Nixon in Watergate not for social justice, but in order to reign victor in a childish pissing contest between themselves.

But perhaps Dick’s smartest move is the very presence of the oblivious high school girls, who are still in the patriotic public school history class mode of treating the President of the United States as an a man of uncontested honor and dignity while being completely unaware of his questionable policies. We first meet these characters on a field trip to the White House, where the students are portrayed as equally ignorant of any protest going on outside as they are of the history on display within (and, in a great jab at the American state of mind, never showing excitement until they take a break at McDonald’s). Nixon’s presidency emboldened a new kind of skepticism amongst American voters, where the men of power are no longer seen as innocent until proven guilty, where America stopped believing that the White House always worked in the best interests of those outside rather than the personal interests of those inside.

Nixon destroyed the myth of the American President—a myth our current President has done nothing to restore—by proving that the righteous, moral, honest, decent, virtuous, noble, trustworthy role the Commander-in-Chief played in the stories learned in our first history classes is never the same as the man himself.

Manufacturing Consent Continued: Gay Marriage



I’m sure I’m not the only one to say this, so I’ll keep it brief. This was a pretty astounding moment at last week’s Vice Presidential debate. Compared to the droning repetition of economic and foreign policy talking points and sound bites in the first two of three Obama/McCain debates (what exactly was the difference between the first and second debate besides the setting?), we got to hear talking points and sound bites regarding just about every election-deciding issue from Biden and Palin. While this is definitely a result in part of the McCain campaign’s attempt to deliver a gaffe-free Palin by instituting a strict debate format (notice her disdain for "nuance" as articulated in this clip), both Biden and Palin came prepared to talk about all issues briefly and, in terms of political language, thoroughly. These are still televised soundbites, which as I argued before prevents progressive discourse in recorded media. But where the relative freedom offered in the Obama-McCain debate style resulted only in time-wasting compliments to the opponent or thank-yous to the questioner and a clearly flustered Tom Brokaw, Biden and Palin very quickly delivered their stump rhetoric. They even had time to talk about Darfur! (Biden, in one of the debate’s greatest moments, was even able to challenge the dominant opposing rhetoric, calling out McCain’s self-ordained maverick status.)

But the same-sex marriage moment was so revealing, because it really illustrated the emptiness of campaign rhetoric. Each candidate revealed what was ultimately the exact same position on the issue, but with rhetoric characteristic to each of their alleged political viewpoints. Biden delivered a clearly-articulated a common-sense stance on same-sex marriage that certainly appeals to voters who consider themselves progressive, while Palin played to the homophobia of her conservative base while balancing an appeal to voters who might take a more moderate stance (she seems to think that “tolerance” is a more progressive word than it sounds), but their rhetoric lost all its worth as soon as they realized their concurrence on the issue. This illuminates the very important role that rhetoric and spin play in this election (especially with an arguably moderate Democratic ticket), where politicians remain astute in delivering campaign talking points that may sound like a breath of fresh air, but, out of fear of upsetting the status quo (i.e., more voters), are probably not so different from current policies.

Notice how frequently in the debates the candidates have stumbled over their words, almost saying other obvious words. They aren't thinking about the issue when they answer a question, they're thinking about finishing their sentence in the best way possible. Notice how quickly Obama's once-inspiring rhetoric has gotten so tired. This is why the years-long presidential campaign process can hardly contain radical vessels of proposed change (byebye, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich), because anything signifying drastic change gets normalized and reconstituted into the political mainstream in order for the candidate to have any hope of becoming elected. And this ridiculously long process can't help but cause any unique, elevated language to eventually resonate as empty rhetoric.

The words you have seen so far, and will once again see on Wednesday night, have been thoroughly prepared and cleansed for unthreatening television viewing. So sit back, enjoy, and watch the democratic process at work.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mad Men as Media Criticism

If you don’t know me personally or haven’t already gleaned by my writings, in interest of full disclosure I should share that I am currently seeking an academic career in media studies. If you don’t know exactly what that means, you’re not alone. When most people think of film school, they think of actually making movies, not the classroom lectures and seminars that characterize most other academic programs. But myself and many like me believe that studying film/media involves a whole lot more than learning how to set up a C-stand or where to put a key light. Understanding the way media operates in our society is integral to understanding how ordinary people by and large receive visual information and how this shapes not only our ideas, but how we perceive daily life. To implement media studies into university programs implies a general goal of expanding an understanding of the way such media operates and influences not only our own ideas, but the structuring norms of society itself, thus (hopefully) creating a society not so blindly influenced by media.

In the words of a media studies professor delivering a paper on trends in beginning credit music sequences in Hollywood, “it’s not exactly curing cancer.” And that’s a common reaction when students and professors in cinema and media studies explain what it is exactly that they do to people unfamiliar with such programs, after correcting the obligatory confusion over the fact that we don’t actually “make movies” (after six years of university education, much of my family still think I want to be a director). Even other academic humanities programs scoff at the idea of film/media studies under the presumption that cinema is a popular, inferior art, thus unworthy of serious study. In the words of a film studies professor who will go unnamed, “it’s as if they think 14th century French literature is somehow more practically important than studying how contemporary visual media actually affect people's everyday lives.”

I could defend my eventual career choice all day, but instead of using this blog to purge those demons, I see something in contemporary popular media itself that seems paradoxical to the idea that visual media studies has no practical importance.

The world of Madison Avenue ad companies has not been the most respected of career choices, but in many circles it is an envied goal for a lucrative career, and degrees in advertising and public relations seem to be, like business administration, that degree that allowed people you know from undergrad to work 100-hour weeks straight out of school but make more money than you’ll possibly ever see. Unlike academia, it’s a business that will certainly pay off those college loans rather than escalate them.

AMC’s popular drama series Mad Men exhibits this world in all its staged glory. And while these superficial, sleazy, sexist characters are never a dull to watch, they also display a profound understanding of the way media operates in society. And keep in mind, this is 1960, about a decade before media studies had any place at all (respected or not) at the university (and this being the post WWII era, only the youngest characters supposedly have actual degrees in advertising). Don Draper, the show’s uncharismatic but engrossing lead character, exhibits the deepest understanding of how media works, and is thus the most successful salesman. While these are fabricated characters, the show’s depiction of Draper’s successful salesmanship and his understanding of media's operations are not presented as mutually exclusive traits, in the television world or real world of advertising.

Each episode of Mad Men displays how visual media is used to communicate ideas, dissuade opinions, and manipulate emotions in our everyday life (perhaps most powerfully in its depiction of fashion advertising, which preys on giving the spectator a feeling of inferiority, and then a helpless need for the product). One of the last episodes of the first season depicts how a radio commercial is constructed under the direction not of a “director” but an ad agent, thus making a connection between the practices of advertising and PR with filmmaking. In displaying the processes of creating media to influence the consumer/spectator, perhaps a show like Mad Men can be useful in informing the average television spectator as to how contemporary media (almost fifty years later) is used to manipulate them in similar ways.

Mad Men was at one point pitched to, and rejected by, HBO before it transformed AMC into a prestige cable network for original series. Had Mad Men stayed at HBO, it would have aired uninterrupted by commercials, but as it stands on AMC, it reads as a show about the men that create commercials to convince consumers to buy products they don’t need, only to be interrupted by commercials. Coming from a corporate television network, this reads either as a delicately subversive, anti-capitalist, deconstructivist jab against the powers that be, or (more likely) a network continuing to capitalize on a popular show with its advertising revenues, unaware of the conflict in its presentation alongside this show.

Check out one of the most memorable scenes of the first season’s final episode, where Don Draper displays the power of images in full, emotionally manipulative force:



I only wish an HP commercial aired right after this.

Besides the obvious, how does a career in advertising involve a “practical” understanding of the way media works, and media studies does not? As Don Draper’s career argues, advertising only works because people don’t understand how media influences them. His job is to understand how media creates and influences ideas, while constructing more media in a way that continues to make consumers/spectators passively unaware of such influence. According to the Don Draper model, there’s no money in educating people on how media works—the money is in making sure it continues to.

Manufacturing Consent

Party conventions are a funny thing. Where they used to serve the practical function of actually voting for and nominating their candidate, because of the growing importance of primary elections, the conventions of modern elections have been reduced to a party for the parties. And unlike the primaries or the post-convention debates, the DNC and RNC seem to be the only places where the respective parties can converge to deliver their talking points uncontested (and as Palin’s speech during the RNC displayed, this allows for the delivery of empirically false information and convoluted interpretations of policy without dispute). That protesters at the RNC were silenced, even jailed, so quickly displays the dearth of equitable discourse at these conventions.

The outright lies, partisan interpretations, and exhibitions of uninhibited party devotion at the RNC gives Americans a glimpse of what their nation would be like if they adopted a one-party totalitarian platform. (Not to say that the DNC was less one-sided, but at least they didn’t make chanting “USA” at the first sign of dissent sound like an Orwellian angry mob, and the Republicans have had a history in the last eight years of being the party that thrives on unquestioning support.) The lack of fair grounds for discourse at either debate altogether seems quite antithetical to the idea of a democratic nation. And the media, whose role many would think would be to dissect the content of conventions and provide a healthy ideological counterbalance against each respective platform, seemed too quick to praise the form of the speeches rather than their content, regurgitate the talking points already brought up by the party, or simply comment on the decorations: the pillars during Obama’s speech, or the plethora of balloons after McCain’s. The Daily Show was the only place I saw these past weeks where talking points were challenged rather than regurgitated.

My most recent post discussed a common form of election propaganda, the campaign commercial, but the unabashed, uncontested one-sided rhetoric of both party conventions these last two weeks have displayed the most obvious incarnations of propaganda in the American political system. But now that the candidate love-ins are over, and each party received their expected post-convention boost, I want to focus on a less obvious form of loaded dissemination of partisan ideas that will inevitably take place during the next major election events next month: the debates.

Four weeks ago, Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren moderated at his Saddleback megachurch in Southern California the closest thing to the first debate between the parties’ expected nominees. For what would seem like such a major political event, the “debate” was overshadowed by coverage of the Beijing Olympics. Warren, an outspoken pro-life “values” Republican, asked Obama a set of pre-written questions, attempting to have, in his words, an honest, nonpartisan conversation about issues deemed at “values voters,” then had McCain, who supposedly was in a “cone of silence” that did not allow him to witness Obama’s answers, subjected to the exact same questions.

Like with the convention, the media commented merely on what the form of Obama and McCain’s answers rather than their content.



Anybody who has followed Obama’s campaign knows that the Obama seen in interviews has quite a different demeanor than the Obama who gives speeches. Both can articulate complex liberal ideas in an undivisive, approachable manner, but the Obama of interviews seems largely more introspective, often pausing to give thoughtful consideration to questions rather than blurting ready-made answers that would inevitably put him in a corner. Obama has been subject this last year to many out-of-context soundbites that have rendered him unfavorable. By now, Obama understands how the media works, which means understanding how it can very easily work against him, so he chooses to think before he speaks.

Now, despite that Warren’s question was astoundingly reductive, erroneous, and too loaded with distressing implications that reflect Warren’s outspoken worldview to come anywhere close to objectivity, Obama’s answer treated the question with both solemnity and due regard, intricately explicating various interpretations of the word “evil” and respectfully outlining that a reductive definition of such a powerful word can have deplorable results, even in the name of “good.” McCain’s answer, by contrast, gives into the simplicity of the question by giving an even simpler answer in merely two words, as if Warren’s questions were a multiple-choice examination rather than an essay, without regard to the implications of his answer (defeating evil is a pretty lofty goal to set out for one's first term).

And as you can hear, the crowd loved it. And the media, rather than analyzing exactly what each candidate was actually saying, instead followed the direction of the crowd, claiming that McCain was “on his game” simply because he was able to give short answers to what were (albeit loaded) admittedly complex questions. (I also find it interesting that the evangelical crowd considered McCain a more favorable candidate because of his briskly worded ideas on abortion and gay marriage, when Obama was the only one who actually quoted scripture—but my problems with religion in politics in general opens up a whole other bag of issues we won’t go into here…but I will say this: a presidential debate held literally inside a church is an insult to both the necessary secularity of government and the sanctity of places of worship.)

Why McCain’s answers seemed favorable relates to a concept that is anything but new when it comes to political media discourse. Noam Chomsky has been theorizing for most of his career about how television has been manufactured to limit discourse on complex, challenging, or unpopular ideas, commercials being the most obvious example since they literally interrupt opportunities for prolonged attention given to any issue.

(While I love the satire of The Daily Show, it is also subject to this rule, as Jon Stewart seems to struggle to keep any substantive discussion going as most of his interviews rarely stretch pass the five-minute mark. Though The Daily Show might be funnier, Real Time with Bill Maher has shown to be a more productive place for humorous political counterpoint; Maher deliberately tries to avoid Chomsky’s trappings by having discussion take place without commercial interruption, live, and on a network free from censorship, thus (in theory) allowing for a prolonged discussion free from private interest. But being on the premium cable channel of HBO, of course, severely limits his viewership.)

Thus, McCain’s short answers look better on television than Obama’s longer ones. And any pretense of objectivity is shattered by the clear agenda of the audience. Obama’s pauses read as dead air rather than introspection necessary to assess a multilayered question, and McCain’s blurting of (pun intended) “Sunday school answers” read on television to some audiences as confident and decisive rather than a frightening quickness to judge.

From June 2007 to the beginning of the primaries, CNN held several debates among the 8-10 people running for President from each party (the “YouTube debates” perhaps being the best-known), and it was very entertaining to see the network correspondents attempt to juggle their questions for so many nominees, while their audience refused to mute their own opinions to the candidates’ ideas. They never even pretended to achieve objectivity. In this chaotic environment, it was impossible to assess any question with care, and it was the candidates who either made the shortest answers or said the craziest things (these were often one in the same...I'm looking at you, Tancredo) that got the most attention.

By the time the official debates happen in October, the farces of the CNN and Rick Warren “debates” will be long gone, replaced by a tightly moderated session and an audience forbidden from disruption. But the circuses of these past debates won’t be forgotten, and because of the strict time constraints of the upcoming debates, short answers will likely still look better than intellectual musings, and smart people will continue to be silenced. How can we ever expect to progress if the format is already rigged?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

To Leni Riefenstahl, With Love...

Former Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn recently praised McCain’s overblown campaign commercials, saying that they will likely be an effective strategy in helping the Republican senator win the presidency. Penn was one of very few media commentators to have positive things to say about the now-infamous Britney/Hilton ad and the sardonic Obama-as-savior ad. While most of the media criticized these ads as vapid, devoid of any substantive political argument, Penn argued that despite their content, such extreme commercials have a tendency to dissuade voters. To “prove” his point, Penn referred to the Hillary Clinton “3am” ad, Walter Mondale’s 1984 “red phone” ad, and Lyndon Johnson’s iconic, fear-mongering “Daisy” ad from 1964.

But what I don’t understand is Penn’s assertion that McCain’s ad successfully “worked” like Clinton’s considering that she lost the nomination. Of course, one can argue that the ad helped scare up votes for Texas and Ohio when it aired there in March, but Obama’s success after Pennsylvania and Super Tuesday would argue that it had no lasting effect. What Penn doesn’t acknowledge is the media scrutiny and criticism those ads came under that hardly had a parallel when the Mondale or Johnson ads were released.

Parodies of the Clinton "3am" ad showed up on YouTube just days after its airing, just like the Paris Hilton “retort” showed up days after McCain’s ad. The mainstream media and online communities dissected these ads to no end. There was even a local television news report detailing the young girl sleeping in Clinton’s ad, who is now of voting age, revealing herself as an Obama supporter. This informed voters who would otherwise not know that such ads are largely made up of stock footage assembled together into the context that the creator pleases.

I believe the growing trend of dissecting political campaign ads by both the online community and the mainstream media (but primarily the former) will prove itself to be helpful towards creating a more objective (or, at least, cynical—and I mean that in the best possible way) political discourse. The fact that young people are showing that they understand that these ads as mere juxtapositions of text, audio, and images that can be arranged to mean any damn thing the author wants exhibits a new understanding of how visual media can manipulate public opinion. Thus, fear-inducing (“3am”) or mudslinging (“Paris/Britney”) can be taken in with their respective grains of salt as anybody with access to the web or iMovie understands that they can create such propaganda themselves with relatively limited materials.

Whether its used for political discourse or just a mind-numbing diversion, YouTube has been critical towards displaying the ease with which images can be manipulated and restructured in ways that alter their meaning. Take this fake trailer for The Shining for example, which uses new music and certain clips taken out of context to give a completely fabricated impression of what the movie really is:



Political ads, just like movies, are mere assemblages of visual and aural information, and their meaning can be reengineered just as easily.

Now, let’s take a look at the evolution of political campaign ads, starting with a famous 1960 John F. Kennedy ad (featured in the first season of Mad Men):



The ad feels just as old as it is, and works no differently than a commercial for cereal or cigarettes from the same era. There’s absolutely no information regarding Kennedy’s policies or why he should be President, simply an annoying jingle that will inevitably make you remember his name as you hear yourself humming along to it the rest of the day.

Now, take a look at LBJ’s aforementioned “Daisy” ad four years later:



This ad demonstrates the basic ideas of juxtaposition used to create meaning that we see in contemporary political advertising, just on a more nascent level. Cutting a shot of a cute girl with several shots of an atomic bomb, all with LBJ’s prophetic voice, pretty much slaps the viewer in the face with the message, “If you don’t want this to happen, vote for this guy.” This practice is not unlike showing an image of Obama juxtaposed with Paris and Britney, but McCain’s ad favors derision rather than LBJ’s blatant fear-mongering. That being said, LBJ’s ad is simultaneously so simplistic and over-the-top that it would never fly today. This was still the early 1960s, a time where middle America at large still believed what politicians and newsmen said—before the healthy dose of cynicism brought by student riots, hippies, and Watergate.

But, in contrasting Kennedy’s ad with Johnson’s, we see a huge difference in the operations of ready-made TV-friendly political discourse in four years. Kennedy’s ad contains the residue of Norman Rockwell’s 1950s, while Johnson’s reflects the era of a nation being divided inside by the Civil Rights movement and inducing fear of the outside through the threat of Communism—not to mention reflecting the fear of a nation that had seen the man whose name was in that catchy jingle die before their very eyes a year before.

Here’s a 1972 George McGovern ad, running against Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign during the worst days of the Vietnam War:



While this documentary-like ad gives the impression of an objectivity or straight-forward attitude lacking from most political campaign ads from then and now, the care and subtlety with which onlookers’ faces and McGovern’s words are juxtaposed suggests a new measure towards complexity in political campaign advertising (but then again, is there anything that feels less constructed than the "town hall meetings" of 1960s and 70s presidential campaigns?). It is also refreshing to see a politician attempt to say something that doesn’t sound like the bullshit rhetoric people simply want to hear. But McGovern lost in one of the biggest landslides in modern election history, so maybe there’s a reason such ads are rarely seen today.

Furthermore, even “non-bullshit rhetoric” can become rhetoric in itself. Notice how McGovern’s campaign used the word “change” as the theme of the ad. And just like with Obama’s campaign, once-inspiring words like these can lose meaning with their overuse, even to the politician himself.

The Candidate, a movie released during the same year of McGovern’s run stars Robert Redford as a no-bullshit politician running for senator in California, and chronicles how the no-bullshit guy becomes just like the rest. After his refreshing, original ideas have started to attract voters, Redford’s character goes on a campaign tour where those ideas turn into stump speeches, and have been repeated so much that they have become totally arbitrary to the politician himself. Check out this scene where the talking points for the politician have completely lost their meaning:



Here’s Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” ad from his 1984 reelection campaign:



This ad is interesting because it juxtaposes a word with dense ideological weight, “America,” with images that suggest what such a word is supposed to mean. This ad clearly defines what the Reagan idea of America means, totally oblivious to the possibility that it might be shutting out alternative interpretations (for instance, everybody in Reagan’s America seems to be white). “America” is a word that contains different meaning depending on who you are and where you’re from. Here’s a fascinating scene from the film The Parallax View (1974), starring Warren Beatty, that demonstrates how differing meanings can derive from the same word:



Here’s another Reagan campaign ad from ‘84:



I must admit, Reagan’s ads are quite fascinating and effective, much more interesting than most of today’s. What’s most surprising about this ad is that, unlike both the “Morning in America” ad and Reagan’s presidency, it acknowledges the multitude of opposing ideas, ideologies, and interpretations regarding issues that affect all Americans. Yet it suggests that we all conform to one just in case one side is right (and I think I know which side they’re referring to). This ad is indeed one intended to motivate fear, but not the same type of fear that LBJ would have us jump on board with. It’s subtler, calmly asking you to cross the fence, even helping you over, while saying to you, “I understand that you disagree, but I’m still correct.” But the ad, of course, doesn’t allow us to see the bear get shot. Some people say that Karl Rove’s tactics were effective, but even Bush Jr’s very own Goebbels wasn’t this clever.

Now, to conclude this brief history lesson, let’s look at the ads referred to at the beginning of this post:







So intent with meaning, yet so utterly meaningless.

NYC’s Museum of the Moving Image is running a feature on their website containing all the major Presidential campaign commercials since 1952. Definitely worth a look.