A tribute to Eagle Pennell by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 1/Oct. 2002)

first published in Arthur No. 1 (October, 2002)

By Paul Cullum

“Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Like punk legends, indie film pioneers are going to start dying off soon. And in a microcosm defined by perpetual youth, dissolution and decay don’t have much room to ramp up, making it harder to get used to the idea. I guess it’s never pretty.

Eagle Pennell was politely called a regional filmmaker by those unaccustomed to his kind, and like many in his native Texas, he had an outsized impression of his own identity that ultimately destroyed him. In 1978, when A-list Hollywood was made up of veterans of Roger Corman’s shoestring epics, and everyone else in America with dreams to burn now worked for Corman to replace them, the first inklings of what we now think of as independent film came courtesy of people who were too clueless or inept to follow that simple protocol. One of them was Eagle, whose shaggy dog buddy comedy The Whole Shootin’ Match pioneered that Austin-specific sort of epic underachieverdom that Slacker later turned into an anthropological treatise. But Eagle’s laconic dreamers, drunk as a lord and impossibly balanced on the thin line that separates ambition from nostalgia, were more than just literary conceits. They were Eagle in a nutshell. Like we used to say about him, the man belonged in the Alcohol of Fame; he put pop alcoholics like us to shame.

The Whole Shootin’ Match, based on an earlier 16mm short called Hell of a Note, starred Lou Perry (nee Perryman) and Sonny Carl Davis as a couple of perpetual fuck-ups trying to work as insulation blowers or something equally improbable, and retiring to the comfort of cold beers and fevered dreams once the going gets tough. (In Hell of a Note, they laid asphalt, until they were fired for not realizing you weren’t supposed to pee on it until it had cooled off.) This woozy testament to the comically disenfranchised, made for twenty grand in borrowed money, was also historically significant in that it was the film that Robert Redford was famously watching at the 1978 inauguration of the U.S. Film Festival in Park City, Utah when he had the epiphany that it was strays like this who could best benefit from such a festival, or something like his soon-established Sundance Institute.

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"The Gelded Age" by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 14/Jan. 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 14 (January 2005)

The Gelded Age
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum

CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.


Discussed herein:

Bill Hicks Live
(featuring One Night Stand, Relentless and Revelations)
(Rykodisc DVD)

Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines
By Bill Hicks
(Soft Skull Press)

Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story
Directed by Woody Allen
(unreleased, 1972; available at UCLA Film Archives as part of a preserved PBS special, The Politics of Woody Allen)

* * *

“So that’s what this is about—a fucking robbery?”
—Bruce Willis in Die Hard

I know all the stages of Kuebler-Ross. I know that denial precedes anger, followed by bargaining, depression and acceptance. I know that conspiracy is a word applied by those in consensus to marginalize attempts to find solace in patterns.

But as I write this 100 hours after a collective pole-ax to the expectations of half this country and the whole world beyond, I’m wracked with the queasy suspicion that the bloodless coup dreaded by Sinclair Lewis in It Can’t Happen Here, Nathanael West in A Cool Million, George Orwell in 1984, Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle or even John Milius in Red Dawn has happened on our watch, with our complicit ambivalence.

Already, blood is starting to seep through the hairline fractures in the body politic. Greg Palast estimates 110,000 spoiled votes in overwhelmingly Democratic precincts in Ohio, one of the last punch-card voting states, hobbled once again by hanging or pregnant chads. Heavily Hispanic areas of New Mexico, favored 2-to-1 for Kerry, are reporting a Bush landslide of as much as 68 percent. Exit polls in all the swing states are at variance with the final tally, in ways that uniformly favor the incumbent. Counties using Diebold’s optical scanners in Florida went overwhelmingly for Bush, regardless of party affiliation. In fact, Diebold and ES&S control 80 percent of the electronic voting machines in use, and their technical porousness and capacity for manipulation is legion; ES&S was established with crypto-right-wing Ahmanson family money, and the two brothers who founded it now sit atop both companies.

This doesn’t include the 155,000 provisional ballots in Ohio, which are overwhelmingly Democratic, since no one was challenging Republican voters, nor those driven away by all-day lines, bottle-necked by a lack of available voting machines. Reports are trickling in of door-to-door campaigns in black neighborhoods in Pennsylvania steering voters to the wrong polling stations, spreading disinformation, lying and intimidating. It’s only the 3 million-vote point spread which makes this seem inconceivable (1.5 million of it from Florida, province of the next Republican president). But this is Karl Rove in a nutshell: “The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack.” (To quote him quoting Napoleon.) In time, we may recognize this as the most massive electoral fraud in the history of the republic. In a month, we may be calf-birthing deep into Constitutional crisis.

Which means that all the gushing liberal guilt you read—the thumb-sucking, head-holding, hand-wringing, soul-searching—is wrong. It’s working backwards from a conclusion, which is what journalism does. It’s re-legislating the ’60s. It is Rove’s bandwagon theory taken macro: In the final moments of a race, people fall in line behind the most likely winner. Two or three more elections like this, and rationalists will begin rethinking the Enlightenment.

Except that there may not be any more election—at least not ones that will matter. Because the House is controlled by Tom DeLay, who is on record as saying that “Democrats are irrelevant”—shut out of committee meetings, starved out of floor time, ignored and forgotten. Because Bill Frist controls the Senate—put there in the White House-engineered putsch that sidelined Trent Lott as a racist and reactionary. Already, they’re floating the idea of “streamlining” Senate procedure: Striking down the cloture rule, which mandates a two-thirds vote to end a filibuster, or bypassing the seniority “tradition” in naming committee chairmanships. What happened to Arlen Specter after he counseled against trying to get anti-abortion judges through the Senate Judiciary Committee is just the opening salvo in the battle they’re fighting now: Near right vs. far. And without the filibuster, you won’t see a Democrat on C-Span for the next four years.

Republicans are up two seats in the House because of redistricting in Texas, a move they will roll out to all 50 state legislatures—particularly Democratic strongholds with Republican governors, like New York or California. Legislative districts reshaped as fingerprint whorls means they won’t even have to steal elections anymore. Suddenly, aberrations in the political landscape that seemed inexplicable at the time—the California recall, Patriot Act II, Rehnquist’s mysterious illness—seem strategically prescient in retrospect. “Look who they wanted to run against,” says Deep Throat in All the President’s Men. Howard Dean taps the progressive youth motherlode, and he’s impaled on his own scream. Dan Rather turns his folksy paranoia on his co-Texan demagogues, and he’s sandbagged by a reliable source. Tom Daschle publishes a book telling how they make the sausage, and they hunt him down to the ends of the earth, like Stalin did Trotsky.

Rove, the bastard son of a Mormon bounder, has spent his entire 57 years wanting to be Mark Hanna, the strategic visionary who insured Republican Party rule (with the exception of Wilson during WWI) from 1898 to the Depression 30 years later. Barbara Bush, far more the genetic cauldron of her son than his pusillanimous father, is the only public figure I know of to call Roosevelt a traitor to his class. Repealing the ’60s is just warming up for this crowd: They want to dismantle the New Deal—privatize Medicare, Social Security and public education; shift the tax burden downward; loot the treasury; strip the common from the wealth. Think Pottersville with carcinogens and gated communities.

And just as the Pentagon screened The Battle of Algiers as a training film for tracking insurgents, someone has broken down 1984 as a how-to manual, a mere two decades late. This finally explains the war: Why they jettisoned contingency plans, failed to quell looting, laid off the Baathist army, left arms caches unattended, ostracized Sunni clerics. The goal is not to win the war or the peace. The goal is to perpetuate conflict, a misdirection to mask the great gravy train robbery here at home. Already, the election is off the front pages, replaced by Tallulah. Deep Throat said that too: “Follow the money.”

Conservative enforcer Grover Norquist, in typically gracious fashion, said of the Democrats as the new permanent minority: “Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they’re fixed then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful. They don’t go around peeing on the furniture and such.” (This is the man who gave us “Bipartisanship is date rape.”)

Welcome to the Gelded Age.

Laff Riot

“You have a sense of humor. I’m in favor of jokes. They have a political value. They are a release for the cowardly and the impotent.”
—Graham Greene, The Comedians

The Gilded Age—the first one—was coined by Mark Twain and incubated the likes of Will Rogers, muckraking, Yellow Journalism and the Progressive Movement to begin with. Laughing in the maw of disconsolate fear is an American institution, albeit a lonely one. Lenny Bruce comes to mind, delivered to the cool respite of bathroom tile. Mort Sahl, finally barking himself inside-out. Garry Trudeau, whose Tanner ’88 (currently revived and updated on the Sundance Channel) has much improved with time, and whose script Zoo Plane, on the Washington press corps, is once again relevant. You won’t find them on stamps, and a quarter-century of Saturday Night Live’s loutish corporate apologia would indicate otherwise, but there are comedy heroes and martyrs out there. And at the top of the list is Bill Hicks.

Raised a strict fundamentalist in Houston and then Austin, Texas, Hicks was the architect of the angry liberal persona eventually inherited by Dennis Leary, Dennis Miller (briefly), Bill Maher and, most notably, Chris Rock. (“It’s weird, those are the guys I really miss,” Rock told me once in an interview, remembering their days together at Catch a Rising Star in New York.) Until his death in 1992 of pancreatic cancer, Hicks remained resolutely apoplectic over flag-wavers, Bible-thumpers, ad weasels, marketeers, television, government malfeasance and the first Gulf War (“There never was a war. A war is where two armies are fighting.”). This DVD collects his half-hour standup from HBO’s One-Night Stand, his breakout 1991 performance at the Montreal Comedy Festival (Relentless) and Revelations, his crowning performance at London’s Dominion Theater, plus an excellent Channel 4 documentary titled It’s Just a Ride. In addition, Soft Skull Press has published Love All the People, a collection of interviews, performance transcripts (many of them available as bootlegs), the John Lahr New Yorker profile which chronicled his expulsion from the David Letterman show (and Hicks’s 31-page cri de coeur to Lahr detailing the specifics) and Lahr’s extended foreword. They’re both great. Buy them. Tell others.

Here’s Hicks on the value of drugs, and how he closed his Montreal show:

“How about a positive LSD story, just once. That would be newsworthy, don’t you think? ‘Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively; there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.”

Another rarefied example of political humor is the little-seen Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story, written and directed by Woody Allen, Hicks’s acknowledged main influence. A parody of the CBS series Men of Crisis (as well as possibly the 1972 Richard Leacock Cuban Missile Crisis documentary Crisis), this half-hour short, shot in 1972 in four days for WNET in New York, mixes the documentary format of Take the Money and Run with the newsreel gags of Zelig to profile a Nixon advisor—a Kissinger wolf by way of John Dean nebbish—given to goofy rationalizations (“We decided to bomb Laos for a very strategic reason—we were not happy with the way it was spelled.”). Louise Lasser is on hand as his first wife, as is a painfully fresh-faced Diane Keaton to ridicule his sexual prowess. In the wraparound WNET studio interview, broadcast under the ironic title The Politics of Woody Allen, Allen rejects the mantle of activist comic. “My personal feelings don’t enter into this, they’re so hostile,” he says. But that’s not to say he is without valid political instincts:

“The good cartoons,” he says, “are where mice beat the hell out of cats. I like that.”

* * *

DVDs/videos courtesy of Cinefile, the official video store of Arthur. Contact Cinefile at (310) 312-8836 or http://www.cinefilevideo.com.

"The Concrete Wilderness" by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 13/Nov. 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 13 (November 2004)

The Concrete Wilderness
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum

CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.

* * *
Discussed herein:

Medium Cool (1969)
Directed by Haskell Wexler
(Paramount Home Video)

Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real (2001)
Directed by Paul Cronin

Tell Them Who You Are (2004)
Directed by Mark Wexler
(currently awaiting distribution)

Soldiers Pay (2004)
Directed by David O. Russell, Tricia Regan and Juan Carlos Zaldivar
(DVD extra with Uncovered: The War on Iraq, directed by Robert Greenwald, available through http://www.cinemalibrestudio.com).

* * *

“This is a potential throw of the dice that could bring the media on our heads and cut the Democratic Party in half; my view is that we would have by far the larger half.” —Speechwriter Pat Buchanan in an internal 1972 White House memo advocating confrontation as policy

In these last dark days before November, as we count down to occupation or deliverance, rage or terror, the mind reclaimed or compulsory reeducation from the soles of the feet up, one film lights our way clear. In 1968, John Wayne directed The Green Berets, which famously ends on the beach at Da Nang with the sun setting in the east—a special effect of such audacity that it rivals the scripted ways we’ve choreographed combat ever since. Superman could sooner circle the earth and turn back time.

But that’s not the film I’m thinking of. I am thinking of its polar opposite.

In 1968, Haskell Wexler took his reputation as A-list cinematographer, respected documentarian, verité pathfinder, his Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and his good-faith line of credit at the studios and rolled them all on one admitted act of madness. Hired to direct a film version of the novel The Concrete Wilderness by the inmates running the institution at Paramount—Peter Bart, Robert Evans and Charlie Bluhdorn—Wexler wrote a script, drew up a budget, hired a cast and then, without telling anybody, junked it all to make the movie he wanted. So instead of a young boy cultivating pigeons in Central Park, we have Robert Forster playing a news cameraman oblivious to his role in the news around him, documenting the pigeons drawn to Lincoln Park in Chicago in August, 1968—the ones who would justify the police state being advocated inside the Democratic Convention hall to clamp down the era. In the process, Wexler managed to capture the one battle royale at the crest of the culture war on 35mm film. With the Clinton brain trust (Carville, Begala) now steering Kerry to port, highlighting the war hero-turned-agitator, and with the Reagan brain trust (Peggy Noonan, Michael Deaver, possibly Lyn Nofziger) reportedly guiding Bush to starboard, with its “Swift Boat Veterans” and “Hanoi Jane” alarmism, that war is still being fought today.

What paralyzes film as a medium of topicality is that it is automatically at least three years past its sell-by date by the time you see it—the time it takes a script to gestate and gel, executives to deliberate, actors to commit, the big trucks to roll, months of editorial synthesis and the media to be alerted. You’d have to look to Soderbergh and Erin Brockovich or Traffic, or before that David O. Russell’s still underrated Three Kings, nominally about the first Gulf War, to find studio directors willing to engage the topical issues of the day. If conflict is the crux of character, and the world today stoked with conflict to burn, no wonder so many four-wheel-drive studio vehicles wind up rusted and abandoned, axle-deep in mud.

Medium Cool remains the one narrative feature which proves the exception: Conceived in January during the Tet Offensive, it was constantly deflecting off the times throughout production. As such, it marks a kind of travelogue of the ‘60s: Lyndon Johnson declined the nomination in March, throwing the August convention into free-for-all. Martin Luther King is shot in April, the ghettoes burn and Forster and soundman Peter Bonerz (later of The Bob Newhart Show) are sent to “Resurrection City,” the tent city on the Washington Mall housing the remnants of King’s Poor People’s March, or to debrief black activists in their Chicago apartment. Campaign workers are interviewed outside Kennedy headquarters; when Robert Kennedy is assassinated a month later, the film recreates the interior of the Ambassador Hotel kitchen where he was shot (off the line, “So it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there”) and sends its fake news crew to the actual funeral. We get probably the first discussion of the Kennedy assassination (the first one) in a Hollywood film, and certainly the first mention of the dangers of artificial sweeteners.

Much of this context is to be found in a fine companion piece inexplicably left off the DVD—Paul Cronin’s Look Out Haskell, It’s Real: The Making of ‘Medium Cool’, a 55-minute documentary currently screening on the Sundance Channel. Cronin has contributed to books on Cassavetes and Herzog and made films on Alexander Mackendrick, the director of The Sweet Smell of Success, and Amos Vogel, founder of New York’s Cinema 16. Here, a cavalcade of ’60s action figures sit for interviews—Studs Terkel (listed in Medium Cool’s credits as “Our Man in Chicago”), SDS activist-turned-author Todd Gitlin, Chicago 7 lawyer Leonard Weinglass—or are visible in outtakes: Allen Ginsberg wanders through the frame in Lincoln Park; Jesse Jackson stands atop a car in D.C., fist raised.

Buried beneath Medium Cool’s breakneck speed and ruthless experimentalism are any number of lean-to set pieces that could have been—and sometimes were—movies in themselves Buried beneath Medium Cool’s breakneck speed and ruthless experimentalism are any number of lean-to set pieces that could have been—and sometimes were—movies in themselves (last-minute floor passes to the convention hall were arranged by Warren Beatty, and similar shots found their way into The Parallax View; a subplot of a TV station forwarding demonstration footage to the police and FBI is basically the dramatic engine of Under Fire, relocated to El Salvador).

But it was the Chicago riots that earn the film its purple heart. In the face of Mayor Daley’s mandate to police to “Clear the fuckers out of the city,” and armed with hipster recon from producer Jonathan Haze (Seymour in the original Little Shop of Horrors), who was partying with the future Chicago 7 every night, Wexler put his first-time actress, Verna Bloom (Dean Wormer’s wife in Animal House), literally in harm’s way—in a manner that makes Herzog seem restrained. At the very moment that Russian tanks were rolling through Prague, we can experience U.S. armored personnel carriers and Jeeps mounted with fully-loaded 50-caliber machine guns subjugating the Windy City and hippies in football helmets piling up park benches, medics at the ready. Chants of “Pigs eat shit” and “Pigs are whores” are intercut with a cop clubbing a protester, shouting, “You stinking commie!” (giving a whole new cluster of meanings to Carl Sandburg’s “hog butcher of the world”). And through it all snakes Bloom in a bright yellow dress, as incongruous in her surroundings as the little girl in red in the otherwise black-and-white Schindler’s List. In the aftermath, we see the carnage in real time, while a disembodied woman’s voice wails on the soundtrack, “You motherfuckers!” Among the victims are Wexler himself, his eyes being flushed out with water, debilitated by a tear gas canister fired point blank at the camera.

Yet for all its celebrated verité, the film is awash in Godard. A poster of Belmondo from Breathless hangs over Forster’s fireplace; the bookended car crashes are airlifted straight out of Weekend; and the final shot is Wexler himself, who turns the camera on the audience—the tracking shot that closes Contempt, superimposed over the old Paramount newsreels—to a chant of “The whole world is watching.” Forster’s character is named John Cassolaris as a concession to John Cassavetes, who was originally slated to play the part under his own name, and Bloom’s character can be glimpsed in the opening cocktail party scene, an hour before she is introduced (she precedes the line “beaten to death by a mob”). And a death is foretold on the radio minutes before it occurs.

This extends to the line that gives the documentary its title—“Look out, Haskell—it’s real!”—which appears before the CS canister goes off in their face. It was, by Wexler’s own admission, added in post-production, since war zone conditions prevented them from shooting synch sound. And the speaker of that line? Haskell’s son Mark Wexler, who has just directed a reportedly irascible portrait of his father called Tell Them Who You Are, in the fashion of Aiyana Elliott’s The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, so new that it has only shown twice at the Toronto Film Festival (where Roger Ebert raved about it). This is the Haskell Wexler who was fired from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Conversation, who famously clashed with Michael Moore on Canadian Bacon and who risked industry condemnation by interviewing the Weathermen in Underground, which was subpoenaed by the FBI, and following Jane Fonda to North Vietnam to shoot Introduction to the Enemy (he also joined her for both Coming Home and Klute, for which he won his second Oscar). Can’t wait to see it.

* * *

And where are the cinematic rabblerousers of our own day? Well, on the verge of releasing I Heart Huckabee’s, his first film in five years, Three Kings director David O. Russell has taken the occasion of Warner’s planned re-release of his 1999 film to make a half-hour documentary on Iraq, The Sequel.

Soldiers Pay (declarative, not possessive), co-directed with Tricia Regan and Juan Carlos Zaldivar, catches up with Three Kings bit players, real-life Kelly’s Heroes, armchair Ottomans and fruit-salad generals who somehow got sucked into Operation Desert Nam. Between the water-rationed Marines describing Haliburton mercenaries who pull down $300K, or supply sergeants out “requisitioning” computers to play videogames on, we get the occasional 1,000-word picture, like a khaki-clad warrior squatting next to graffiti that reads: “Ha Ha—Our God’s Better Than Your God.”

When Warner’s caved to political pressure and scrapped the whole thing, microdistributor Cinema Libre stepped in and offered to piggyback the featurette onto Part 3 of Robert Greenwald’s Anti-Bush Tetralogy, Uncovered: The War in Iraq (Unprecedented and Outfoxed are on DVD; next up is Unconstitutional, on the Patriot Act). Meanwhile, as a land bridge linking the two (films and wars), consider this scene from a New York Times profile that ran September 12, 1999, two years before you know what:

“After listening to Mr. Bush’s remarks to the Hollywood crowd, Mr. Russell decided to tell him that Three Kings would be coming out just before the primaries and did not reflect favorably on his father’s leadership in the Gulf War. ‘You could see this look of uncomprehending concern and panic wash over his face,’ Mr. Russell recalls. Mr. Bush again seemed to be studying Mr. Russell’s clothes. ‘And then he immediately snapped into Presidential mode, and said, ‘Well, am I going to have to go finish the job?’”

* * *

DVDs/videos courtesy of Cinefile, the official video store of Arthur. Contact Cinefile at (310) 312-8836 or http://www.cinefilevideo.com.

"Rove Elephant" by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 12/Sept. 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 12 (September 2004)

Rove Elephant
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum

CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.

* * *

Directed by Michael Paradies Shoob and Joseph Mealey.

“The whole art of war consists of a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defense, followed by rapid and audacious attack.” — Napoleon

“Controversy? … What controversy?”

Such is the tagline in ads for Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, his excoriation of the Bush imperial presidency—devised in guilt and darkest rancor, nutrient-fed at Cannes and currently growing geometrically on the steroid hash of raw media frenzy. Although it’s not widely remembered, Moore may have tipped not one, but two national elections now with his last-minute full-court antics. His very public support of third-party candidate Ralph Nader had a decisive effect in 2000, regardless of how he parses it now. But back in 1998, three weeks before the mid-term elections, Moore sent out a series of mass e-mailings on his frustration over the impeachment proceedings, and urging angry young disenfranchised liberals to hold their nose and vote Democrat. That was the election that unseated Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America foot soldiers, and a woozy punditocracy attributed it to a last-minute appearance by Clinton on Black Entertainment Television, which supposedly energized his latent black base. But everybody I know saw those e-mails; they managed, like they say in Network, to articulate the popular rage:

“Yes, most of the Democrats suck,” read Michael Moore Newsletter #11 from TVNatFans@aol.com on October 8, 1998 at 21:44:47 EDT. “I rarely vote for the sorry, wishy-washy losers. But this election is not about how I feel about them—it’s about us using them to whack the right wing for good. Imagine if the Democrats are voted in by overwhelming numbers (when all the pundits are predicting a Republican landslide). The message would be loud and clear to all these new Democrats—the American public wants the agenda of the Christian right removed from the halls of our United States Congress!

This led, in a straight line, to Moore’s career as author, propagandist, gadfly, jester, freedom fighter and hero to the French. And power to him. Except now it looks like he may be sucking up all the oxygen in the room. Because another political documentary which could be of crucial benefit to an undecided electorate—more than Control Room, the Al-Jazeera doc; more than The Hunting of the President, about open season on Clinton—is apparently not slipstreaming into theaters behind him, but is instead perilously close to going unreleased in time for November’s election.

Bush’s Brain, co-directed by Michael Paradies Shoob and Joseph Mealey, presents in horrifying, clarifying detail the sinister ministrations of advisor-without-portfolio Karl Rove, who occupies the post position on George W. Bush’s speed-dial, and who his enemies liken to no less than a co-president of the United States. Politics as policy, the Big Lie, junkyard dog attack ads, means justifying ends, operating out beyond the event horizon—all are part and parcel of what the film calls “the mark of Rove.” Based on the book Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential by reporters James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, the film features a who’s who of talking heads—Molly Ivins, Joe Wilson, Sen. Max Cleland—even Bill Clinton from a 2000 California recall photo op—in charting Rove’s rise and rise from the Texas of Ann Richards and Jim Hightower to one that is remorselessly Republican. And while the two-decade-old extranea of Texas electoral politics may seem of limited interest to a country with bigger problems on its plate right about now, it is said that Washington, D.C. is run by just three individuals—George Bush, Karl Rove and House Majority Leader Tom “The Hammer” DeLay—each of them angry Texans with a taste for wetwork. This shows where they come from. As with the Moore film, there may not be much new in the telling, but as we’ve just learned all over again from the Hallmark cards coming out of Abu Ghraib, one picture really is worth 1,000 words.

“You meet him, he’s one of the most intelligent, gracious types of people you can have a one-on-one conversation with,” says author James C. Moore. “I enjoy being around him because he’s so bright, and because he knows so much about American history. But there’s a dark part of Karl. There’s this thing that moves within him that the average person I don’t think has. It’s one part power, one part manipulation and control, and another part of him that absolutely demands that he destroy his opponents.”

Rove first streaked across the political firmament in 1973 when he ran for president of the Young Republicans National Federation as a “part-time undergraduate” against an older friend and erstwhile mentor. That election was so rancorous that the Washington Post reported at the time “the convention ended in confusion and dissension.” With Watergate burning a hole in its legacy, the Republican National Committee sent new head George Bush Sr. down to arbitrate. He ruled in Rove’s favor, then returned with Rove in tow, who began working for the RNC, traveling the college circuit as a protégé of legendary knuckleball operative Lee Atwater—teaching ratfucking and dirty tricks to student politicos as part of a kind of homegrown al Qaeda. Soon enough, Bush Sr. sent Karl to drop off the car keys with his eldest son, and the violins swelled. When Rove was fired from the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 for alleged campaign leaks (to Robert Novak, no less!), Karl followed George Jr. back to the Midland oilfields, and the rest is the stuff of legend.

Except now, when the legend becomes fact, we can go to the videotape. No matter how many times it’s been told, it really is breathtaking to witness Rove, neck and neck at the polls the night before the only debate of the 1986 election for Texas governor, holding a press conference claiming he had discovered a bug in his campaign offices—a claim corroborated by the FBI, in the person of field agent Greg Rampton. A subsequent FBI investigation found that the bug had a half-mile range and a six-hour battery life, a mere 15 minutes of which had been expended, but then was curtailed by a Republican federal judge for fear it would hamper the election process. Sound familiar?

But the best illustration of the damage done by politics-as-usual is in an odd episode in the early ’90s, when Rove and Rampton were allegedly gunning for Hightower and Richards (who, after all, became a rising star at the 1992 Democratic National Convention with the throwaway line, “Poor George Bush—he was born with a silver foot in his mouth”). To discredit the populist Hightower, it is strongly suggested that Rove engineered the indictment and conviction of two agency employees —Mike Moeller and Pete McRae—after it was discovered that two elderly Agriculture Bureau operatives had solicited campaign contributions from farmers and ranchers while out doing agency fieldwork. Moeller and McRae spent a combined 27 months in the federal penitentiary and were fined a cumulative $71,000, and the affair ended their careers in politics. Interviewed today, both remain philosophical.

“I suspect that he gets a plug out of people believing that he played this kind of role,” says Moeller, “that he was actually able to put his enemies in jail.” But it’s McRae’s response that leaves the scar. Asked on camera, “How did your parents feel about it?” he tries to answer, before drawing a sharp breath. “You got me on that one,” he says with an inadvertent laugh. “They both passed away.” He speaks quietly, then starts to choke up, with giant tears welling. “And I think it’s quite likely that the stress contributed to it. My mother died suddenly of a stroke in ’92, then my father died in ’98.”

The film continues through the 2000 election, focusing on the South Carolina primary—the one where John McCain’s Bangladeshi daughter, adopted through Mother Teresa’s charity, was branded a love child by a black prostitute through a well-orchestrated whisper campaign. John Weaver, a former Rove ally (the pair mysteriously split in 1986, in circumstances neither will talk about), who was McCain’s political director, states unequivocally: “No one that I know, no political reporter who’s covered races all the way back to 1960, has ever seen anything like that primary, as far as the nastiness and the things that were said about Senator McCain and his family. It was akin to a thousand tomahawks coming at you. You might be able to fend off two, three, four, five of them. It was unbelievable, really.”

The documentary also checks in with former U.S. Senator from Georgia Max Cleland, a war hero who sacrificed one arm and two legs in Vietnam, and was subsequently defeated after being targeted by a spurious political ad campaign which questioned his patriotism, as well as Ambassador Joe Wilson, who names Rove as having leaked his wife’s status as a CIA agent to Robert Novak. But the final word is given to Glenn Smith, the Austin Bureau Chief of the Houston Post: “Everybody pays for the people they hurt, and Karl Rove will too. Maybe in no visible way. Maybe when he’s 65 or 70, he can’t sleep at night thinking about it. Maybe, like Lee Atwater, he’ll have a deathbed conversion. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

That opening quote from Napoleon appeared in a letter Karl Rove wrote on September 4, 1985 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Clements, the irascible deposed former governor who Rove ushered back into power, and perpetual Republican rule along with him. Rove has always compared Bush to William McKinley, who won the presidency twice against progressive William Jennings Bryan (in 1896 and 1900, the second time by a landslide), ensured a conservative hold on power (with the exception of Woodrow Wilson during WWI) until Franklin Roosevelt three decades later, and helped usher in the era of muckraking journalism.

But as we learn from The Terminal, Steven Spielberg’s squishy multicultural spin on post-Cold War geopolitics, racial profiling and the Patriot Act, Napoleon died alone in exile on the island of St. Helena, having only survived a suicide attempt through sheer egotism, after taking six times the poison recommended to kill a normal man, which was easily expelled from his system. Still, to a student of history, as Rove by all accounts is, that destiny might seem a far sight better than the one which awaited McKinley. He was shot point blank by 28-year-old anarchist Leon Czolgosz nine months into his second term.

“I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people, the working people,” said Czolgosz at his execution. “I am not sorry for my crime.”

(In the interest of full disclosure, I’m friends with Michelle Shocked, who did the soundtrack and closing ballad of Bush’s Brain, and my name appears in the thank-yous – just above Josh Marshall, author of one of my favorite blogs, TalkingPointsMemo.com A version of this story appeared in JAMS, a magazine published by Michelle Shocked.)

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DVDs/videos courtesy of Cinefile, the official video store of Arthur. Contact Cinefile at (310) 312-8836 or http://www.cinefilevideo.com.

"The Rules of the Game" by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 11/July 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 11 (July 2004)

The Rules of the Game
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum

CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.

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DVDs/videos discussed here:
The Kingdom of Credibility Trilogy:
o The Humiliated (De Ydmygede) (1998), directed by Jesper Jargil
o The Exhibited (De Udstillede) (2000), directed by Jesper Jargil
o The Purified (De Lutrede) (2002), directed by Jesper Jargil
[Contact the filmmaker at Jesper Jargil Films, jesper.jargil@mail.dk, Fax: +45 3314 2655; PAL tapes only available]
o The Five Obstructions (2004), directed by Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier (currently in general release)
o Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (available on the Criterion DVD release of von Trier’s The Element of Crime)

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“In the rain forest of the Cameroon in West Central Africa lives a floor-dwelling ant known as Megaloponera foetens, or more commonly, the stink ant. On occasion, one of these ants while looking for food is infected by inhaling a microscopic spore from a fungus of the genus Tomentella. After being inhaled, the spore seats in the ant’s tiny brain and begins to grow, causing changes in the ant’s patterns of behavior. The ant appears troubled and confused; for the first time in its life, it leaves the forest floor and begins to climb. Completely spent and having reached a prescribed height, the ant impales the plant with its mandibles. The fungus continues to consume first the nerve cells and finally all the soft tissue that remains of the ant. After approximately two weeks, a spike appears from what had been the head of the ant. This spike is about an inch and a half in length and has a bright orange tip, heavy with spores, which rain down onto the rain forest floor for other unsuspecting ants to inhale.” —The Museum of Jurassic Technology

Were he not already so ubiquitous, this might seem like the season of Lars von Trier. Dogville, the first part of his “USA Trilogy” (to be differentiated from his “Europa Trilogy”—The Element of Crime, Epidemic and Europa/Zentropa; and his “Golden Heart Trilogy”—Breaking the Waves, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark) appeared earlier this year to begin the excoriation of the American character by European cinema, a process just put to decisive referendum by the awarding of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Stephen King’s The Kingdom Hospital, an adaptation of The Kingdom I and II, von Trier’s successive miniseries on Danish television, appeared as a much-touted ABC series and suffered mightily by comparison. And The Five Obstructions, co-directed by von Trier and his mentor Jørgen Leth, equal parts documentary, experiment and intervention, currently scuttles its way around the arthouse circuit.

The latter presents von Trier at his comical best. Resembling Fassbinder refashioned as a Muppet (Fassy Bear?), he is at once imperious and cuddly, using his private empire to force Leth, his former film instructor at the Danish Film Institute, into repeatedly remaking The Perfect Human, the film von Trier rates closest to perfect. “This little gem,” as he calls it, is a 12-minute 1967 black-and-white short that marries an insouciant formal abandon to a faux anthropological take on upscale hipsters, in the manner of Peter Sellers’ The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (which handed Richard Lester his directing style on a platter) or, more pointedly, title designer Saul Bass’s Why Man Creates. Leth is the one who famously introduced “the rules of the game” into von Trier’s way of thinking, the intense penchant for order which, as we know from Tranceformer, a 1997 documentary by Stig Björkman, implicitly appealed to this son of radical academics who was raised free of restraints of any kind. (Tranceformer also informs us that at age 12, “Lars Trier” was the child star of Clandestine Summer, a winsome Swedish-Danish TV series, and that he added the “von” in film school—as in “Erich von Stroheim,” Teutonic tyrant and classical sadist—in much the same way Francis Ford Coppola appended his signature to exchange the quotidian for the epic.) The Five Obstructions is justified as homage and a form of therapy, von Trier’s magnanimous gesture to force his mentor out of his “provocative perverse perfection.” Yet it ultimately borders on autobiography, as von Trier judges and rejects not only his patriarch, but his own aesthetic foundations, subjecting them to outsize pressures as if to test their structural worthiness—like Steven Soderbergh did in interviewing his mentor, Richard Lester, in Getting Away With It.

This is the Lars von Trier—whimsical ideologue, benevolent autodidact, goofball despot—on display in three documentaries by Jesper Jargil, which he collectively labels “The Kingdom of Credibility Trilogy.” Jargil, who shot von Trier’s The Idiots and has directed over 500 commercials, is a kind of unofficial biographer of the Dogme masters class: The Humiliated (1998) is a behind-the-scenes look at The Idiots, arguably von Trier’s best film; The Exhibited (2000) chronicles his similar assault on the theater; and The Purified (2002) documents a summit meeting of the four Dogme founders, as well as their separate peace with procedural orthodoxy. None are currently commercially available, and all are ripe for international exploitation. Jargil is currently working on a documentary on D-Day, Dogme 95’s simultaneous four-channel improvised docudrama that was broadcast on New Year’s Eve 2000, with the working title 4-D.

The Idiots is the story of middle-class libertines who form an intellectual commune dedicated to “spazzing,” or rejecting societal confines by emulating the mentally unhinged, and the ramifications of their actions when taken up by the true believer. Kind of a Dumb and Dumber as scripted by Ibsen or Strindberg (although in the documentary, they strangely resemble the Beatles in the Richard Lester films). But as The Humiliated makes clear, this parody of cult behavior and dogma run amok could just as easily be about the Dogmetists themselves, with its constant debates over purity of actions and degree of dedication. In a defiant breach of Dogme etiquette, Jargil slathers his portraiture with the Ennio Morricone score from Days of Heaven (also appropriated for Todd McCarthy’s cinematographer documentary Visions of Light), painting von Trier as variously sullen or testy. “I fear I have cancer of the balls,” von Trier confides to a video diary. His nickname from the cast is “Sulker,” even as he confronts their criticisms with totalitarian disdain. Finally he snaps, his manic-depression overloading him like a circuit breaker, and he is physically bedridden for two days. “No one can blame me for not admitting my mistakes,” he says afterwards, by way of apology. It is specifically this self-reflexive shame which keeps him interesting as a director. “I’m afraid hubris will strike like a fist from the sky and annihilate me,” he admits when only the camera is watching.

The same warring impulses guide him through The Purified, a come-to-Jesus meeting of von Trier and his field lieutenants—Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Soren Kragh-Jacobsen (Mifune) and Kristian Levring (The King Is Alive)—where they review Jargil’s making-of footage from each of their first Dogme features and bust each other on violations of principle. While the others sheepishly agree to do better, von Trier reacts viscerally when an actor in Mifune smears dirt on his face, yet when caught on camera smuggling an extension cord in to the set of The Idiots, snaps, “Did I write the rules or did you?” Stalin himself could not have put it better. Along the way, we learn that the Dogme 95 manifesto took no longer than 45 minutes to write, and that its signatories originally considered it an intellectual prank. But by far the biggest revelation is that the notorious orgy scene in The Idiots, where the actors carry their “spazzing” conceit all the way into on-camera sex, was a sham. That is, “porno models” were brought in and strategically placed beneath the mound of actors to provide the verisimilitude of plunging genitals.

“You can give all the reasons you like, and good ones at that,” says von Trier in The Humiliated, discussing a character’s motivation, “but you can’t compare reasons and feelings. Any time feelings and theory meet, theory always loses.” This seems the crux of Dogme, this “demand for lack of control,” in von Trier’s elegantly self-defeating phrase. Every stipulation of the Vows of Chastity—an abstinence from props, sets, non-synch sound or music, tripods, dollies, cranes, opticals, filters, special lighting or effects, flashbacks, dramatic inserts, murders, weapons, genre conceit or director’s credit; this militant Lumiereism—seems designed to keep filmmaking out of the way of the emotional truth of a scene, whose secular emissary is the actor. This is ultimately the subject of The Exhibited, the most provocative film of the three.

In 1996, von Trier conceived his first theatrical event, titled Psychomobile 1: The World Clock. Staged at the Arts Society Building in Copenhagen, this entirely improvised drama took place in 19 rooms over 50 days, and starred 53 actors (the performance lasted three hours a day). Each actor was assigned to a room and given a character name, loose back-story and final agenda. But to interject an element of spontaneity, ultimate authority was handed over not to a director, but to a colony of ants near Los Alamos, New Mexico. That is to say, a video camera was set up on a remote anthill, and its image broadcast 8,000 miles via videophone and satellite uplink to the installation site. There a computer program registered when at least four ants had crossed one of 19 on-screen sensors, which triggered a change in the red, green, yellow and blue traffic lights mounted in each of the 19 rooms, and for which each actor was given a corresponding emotion. In the film, each light change is signaled by an emergency warning sound like the one at the end of Alien, when Mother shuts down the Nostromo, and the actors freeze and recalibrate. “One day,” says one of the actors, “that guy running the Mexican ant heap or wherever it was gave them a French fry, and the lights changed nonstop. It was very hard to work; you could hardly get a word in before the lights changed completely.”

For practical purposes, Jargil focused on a dozen characters using 16 cameras, from which he amassed 70 hours of footage. What emerges in is an entire universe of actor’s moments—War and Peace meets Tony and Tina’s Wedding. The action is dominated by drug overdoses, suicide attempts, schizophrenia, incest, rape and self-administered miscarriages—“a world full of drugs, drink and scary men,” in the words of one actress. But as the actors’ tricks and technique are depleted, they rely more and more on their real lives. Relationships are forged, grudges harbored and enmities incurred. Characters wander from one reality into another that suddenly clashes violently, as emotions turn on a dime, suggesting a possible new form of drama that draws absurdly from Bollywood musicals, Hong Kong pastiches and Cassavetes. One character, Starseed, is a kind of deus ex machina or dramaturgical cop on the beat, summoned to settle metaphysical beefs, and any character he touches must stay frozen until the next light change. Toward the end, a real-life hypnotist was introduced into the cast. “There were light changes that saved lives,” says one actor. “Another month and we’d have all gone stark raving mad,” says another. The last day is filled with major revelations, breakthroughs, epiphanies and radical agendas which are somehow magically completed with the appropriate light change, as if the collective intelligence which governs insect populations had found some biogenetic way to accommodate the artistic impulse. It’s as if von Trier had inverted Keats’ famous maxim: Here the antenna is the artist of the race.

“Destructiveness is very important,” says von Trier in Tranceformer. “It depends on what you want to destroy. But there should also be something you create. You can compare it to an anthill. When you poke a stick in it, it’s vital sometimes, because then thousands of ants can come and rebuild it exactly alike.”

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DVDs/videos courtesy of Cinefile, the official video store of Arthur. Contact Cinefile at (310) 312-8836 or http://www.cinefilevideo.com.