"The Outsiders" by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 10/May 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004)

The Outsiders
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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Works discussed in this column:
Nashville (1975), directed by Robert Altman, written by Joan Tewkesbury (Paramount Home Video)
Tanner ’88 (1988), directed by Robert Altman, written by Garry Trudeau (HBO Home Video)
Tanner “Fireside Chats” (2004), (The Sundance Channel)
Secret Honor (1984), directed by Robert Altman, written by Donald Freed and Arthur Stone (Vestron Video)
The Nashville Chronicles, by Jan Stuart (Limelight Editions; http://www.limelighteditions.com)

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“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”
—Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver

“New rule: You can’t be an outsider if you’re already president.”
—Bill Maher

Was it Richard Nixon who invented the outsider in American politics? Nixon, the festering Quaker, who so resented the Kennedys, the liberal Harvard elite, the charismatic cabal of ineluctable privilege, that he made his presidency an armed encampment, and codified his enemies into the world’s most exclusive guest list?

Before him, the century’s presidents were patricians and gentleman intellectuals, academics and company men, generals and crooks and tentacled leviathans rising from the Senate. Aprés Nixon and his designated stand-in Ford, we got Carter, the peanut farmer-nuclear physicist; Reagan, the rancher-statesman, and his stand-in Bush; Clinton, the wonk-lothario-honorary black president; and now Bush Redux, the Jim-Bowie-at-the-Alamo president. Trailing behind them was a comical retinue of apron-clad inepts and third-party spoilers—H. Ross Perot, the Weenie King from Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story; Ralph Nader, the stooping Jimmy Stewart from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Their only thing in common was that they were somehow outside the institutional cesspit of D.C. power–“in,” but no longer “of.”

Nixon was certainly the unsung inspiration for ’70s cinema, the flailing windmill against which the disaffected tilted. It’s not just that the ’70s were the ’60s on film, the natural bridle of adolescence against authority. The decade is a bell-shaped descent converging on the vortex of Watergate and Nixon’s flight from power in 1974. A Shakespearean figure who screened Patton repeatedly the weekend before he ordered the bombing of Cambodia, Nixon was the role model for Michael Corleone in the Godfather Trilogy, the dissembling mayor in Jaws and the Emperor in Star Wars, and the literal heavy of Hearts and Minds, Medium Cool, Shampoo (staged on the day of his reelection) and All the President’s Men. His tenure directly inspired the agitprop of M*A*S*H, Catch-22, Coming Home and Apocalypse Now; the political paranoia of Taxi Driver, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man; and the institutional corruption of Serpico, Chinatown, The Conversation, Sugarland Express, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Night Moves and Network. But no more political allegory survives the decade than Robert Altman’s Nashville—conceived during the Watergate hearings, filmed during Nixon’s resignation and released in time for the Bicentennial.

In honor of the election year, Altman’s six-hour miniseries Tanner ’88, originally made for HBO with Doonesbury satirist Garry Trudeau during the 1988 election, is currently being rebroadcast on the Sundance Channel, complete with recently-filmed one-minute “Fireside Chats” with the original cast to accompany each episode (which hopefully will show up on the rumored Criterion DVD due this fall). But Nashville, available in widescreen format with plenty of extras from Paramount Home Video, is where the director first explored the nexus of politics and celebrity. Altman’s putative masterpiece is contractually the story of the country music capital of America, although like Taxi Driver, it is revealed in its final moments to be a pathography of political assassination. In Jan Stuart’s The Nashville Chronicles (Limelight Editions Books), an artfully researched volume of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and historical context, Altman calls the film his “Grand Motel.”

Coming off of Thieves Like Us in Northern Mississippi, Altman sent writer Joan Tewkesbury to nearby Nashville to sop up the city and keep a rigorous journal. Working from instinct, Tewkesbury charted two dozen characters on a grid and compiled a 175-page script, which despite numerous memorable lines (Ned Beatty’s Delbert, the local fixer, tells Michael Murphy’s John Triplette, the oil-slick California advance man, “Well, I admire your optimism, I was just wondering if it was regional.”), Altman tossed in the air, hoping through improvisation to hew closer to an America they all felt was about to redline.

“It was set up like a rug,” remembers Tewkesbury, “like you were weaving a rug. And when he told the actors to throw away the script and forget the dialogue, there were actors who did every stitch of dialogue as it had been written, and then there were others who had this magnificent other stuff. What you find out is that the words are nice and dialogue is great in plays and on television, but what these kinds of films really are about is tone and behavior. And so the words, in a funny way, are like clues. But you cast for behavior and cast for tone, or against it, to bring it to life.” (Tewkesbury is currently a consulting producer on CBS’s The Guardian, which is doing some interesting stuff under the radar.)

The finished film follows Tewkesbury’s script scene for scene, beat for beat, and she constantly worked with the actors to keep their improvs on point. Altman, who had hired real Vietnam draft dodgers living in Vancouver to populate the mining camp in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and who would use ex-addict Synanon members as casino gamblers in California Split, packed real country-music fans into every frame, and added session players like fiddle phenomenon Vassar Clements for, in Tewkesbury’s elegant phrase, “unencumbered authenticity.” And politics, which hung like an ominous cloudbank, seemed to infuse everything. Tewkesbury patterned Triplette after John Dean and other Watergate witnesses, which Murphy expanded to include a college acquaintance who became a ratfucker, one of Nixon’s dirty tricks team. Music City patriarch Haven Hamilton (initially written for Robert Duvall), based on country-music titans like Hank Snow, Conway Twitty and Tex Ritter, was played by Henry Gibson based on Henry Kissinger, for the power, and Bob Hope, for the longevity. It was Gibson who, wounded in the final assassination scene, improvised the line “We’re not Dallas.” (Murphy starred in Tanner ’88, and both actors showed up in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia as an Altman homage.)

Looking for a way to unify the film’s emerging politics, Altman added third-party candidate Hal Phillip Walker, whose radical platform is voiced via a loudspeaker mounted atop a campaign van that segues between scenes. To handle the rhetoric, narration and logistics of the campaign, Altman approached Thomas Hal Phillips, a novelist who had been invaluable on Thieves Like Us as the head of the Mississippi Film Commission, and whose family was heavily involved in state politics. Phillips identified himself as an FDR Democrat, but had run his brother Rubel’s campaign for governor of in 1963, which virtually invented the Mississippi Republican Party. Once on set, his family’s political connections proved invaluable: He pulled strings so the British Chaplin could get her work visa, got permission to close down Interstate 65 to film the opening traffic jam and recruited extras for the political smoker and striptease (and confirmed that such things occurred when cast and crew were horrified by the reaction). With Denver political operative Ron Hecht, acting on Altman’s instructions to “invade my movie,” he set up an actual campaign office and strategy in the midst of the primary election for Tennessee governor.

With a voice like warm syrup, in the manner Shelby Foote or David McCulloch (the Ken Burns/Seabiscuit guy), Phillips recorded his voiceover in a single 18-minute speech–which, in some sort of karmic transfer, is the exact length of the missing portion of the Watergate tapes. Full of folksy palliatives and Old Testament constructions like “It is the very nature of government to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel,” his declarations were considered extremely prescient when Jimmy Carter mounted a similar down-home populism to win the Presidency a year later. Consequently, many interpreted it at the time as Altman’s cynical jab at soft-headed demagoguery. Yet, viewed three decades later, in once again newly politicized times, Walker’s platform seems to push Howard Dean or Dennis Kucinich-style progressivism toward a new militancy, in a way that is less modest proposal than common sense. His call to ban lawyers from Congress may be a legislative stretch. (“A lawyer is trained for two things and two things only: To clarify, that’s one; and to confuse, that’s the other. He does whichever is to his client’s advantage. You ever ask a lawyer the time of day? He told you how to make a watch, didn’t he?… Congress is composed of 535 individuals; 288 are lawyers.”) And replacing the National Anthem with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” might border on the comical. But taxing the churches’ “vast holdings of land and corporate investments” or abolishing the Electoral College is long overdue.

Those parts of the speech excised or indecipherable in the film itself, but included in the full text available in Tewkesbury’s published script, make the point all the more:

“With proper leadership and effort, we can wipe out crime as surely as this country wiped out polio or smallpox… Today in America, with its unmatched resources, it is exceedingly ridiculous, a total absurdity, that any citizen with any ailment, mental or physical, should go medically unattended… Can it possibly make sense to regiment farms and farmers when people are ill-fed, if not downright hungry?… To tax the salaries of people on poverty-level incomes, then turn around and give back in food stamps twice the amount of the tax?… Every community needs special programs for the mentally ill, the aged, the retarded, the handicapped. To fall short in these areas is to bring disgrace on all our houses.”

Tracked down at his rural home in Corinth, Mississippi, Phillips, now 80, claims he was totally sincere.

“I more or less believe what I wrote,” he says. “I don’t know where they got that, because I had my whole heart in it. It was different, but we were running a different race. The things that I believe in, a Republican or a Democrat could both say them. Carter hadn’t come on the scene yet, but that was what I was thinking of. And I really took it seriously, that any candidate that would come out and say some of those things would get a lot of attention.”

At Altman’s behest, Phillips revived the Walker character once more in 1987’s O.C, and Stiggs, but by then he had slipped into parody, more Wally George-style Orange County wrestler-Republican than aging idealist. Walker just published his first novel in two decades, Red Midnight, and claims he’s a Hillary Clinton supporter in 2008.

And Altman and Nixon’s paths crossed once more, in Secret Honor, a one-man play starring Philip Baker Hall as a paranoid, suicidal Richard Nixon with raccoon eyes and Eddie Munster hair who looks like Robert Blake in Lost Highway. Nixon’s “secret” is that he faked the Watergate tapes “to lead Congress to the tip of the wrong iceberg,” hiding the fact that his superiors planned to keep him in the White House for eight more years and the war going indefinitely, ensuring a steady flow of heroin to the Mob and kickbacks of U.S. aid from Saigon into CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President.

These days, they just give the money back in tax cuts and cut out the middleman.

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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 Golden Notebooks" by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 8/Jan 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (Jan. 2004)

The Golden Notebooks
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.

DVDs/videos discussed in this column:
The Work of Director Spike Jonze (Palm)
The Work of Director Chris Cunningham (Palm)
The Work of Director Michel Gondry (Palm)
Schizopolis, directed by Steven Soderbergh (Criterion)
K Street, directed by Steven Soderbergh (HBO, not available on DVD/video)

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“There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.” —Franz Kafka

“One day I found a big book buried deep in the ground. I opened it, but all the pages were blank. Then to my surprise, it started writing itself….” —Bjork, “Bachelorette”

K Street is getting really good.

The half-hour HBO series, which just completed its initial 10-episode run, features a real James Carville and Mary Matalin at a fake D.C. lobbying firm on the real K Street inside the Beltway, with fake characters, real cameos and real events driving the plot. Working from sketched outlines by screenwriter Henry Bean, whose The Believer is the most politically provocative film in recent memory, each episode is directed, shot and edited by Steven Soderbergh five days before airtime in furious run-and-gun fashion, literally buzzing on instinct and the exquisite threat of failure.

When Soderbergh directed Schizopolis, his $250,000, quasi-incomprehensible, bilingual absurdist farce, virtually everyone was mystified. He rigorously defended the film at the time, citing the need for raw experimentation to reenergize his filmmaking. And with the effervescent Out of Sight, the almost Cubist The Limey and Oscars for Traffic and Erin Brockovich following it up, it’s hard to argue with him. More recently, the dismally received Full Frontal was, in retrospect, merely a working template for the callous immediacy, oblique editing and telegraphed detail of K Street, now much improved from the watertight op-ed pieces of its earliest installments.

The freedom to experiment and fail has been bred out of American movies—or, rather, reversed: filmmakers are free to experiment only after they fail, on their own time and their own dime. Studio fare has become largely critic-proof precisely by courting diminishing expectations, just so it can rise incrementally above them.

Which is one of the incidental pleasures of viewing the collected short works of music-video mainstays Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry, being released simultaneously on DVD through the Directors Label, an imprint at Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures. (Blackwell, whose Island Records brought reggae to an unwitting world, remains the consummate billionaire-fan—financing short-film magazine RES and the touring RESfest, or releasing the 10-hour Cremaster cycle.) Working from a shared lexicon, with often the same bands (Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers, Bjork), Gondry in France and Jonze as part of the crew at Satellite, the vanguard subsidiary of Propaganda, are credited with reviving the moribund music video form in the early ’90s. And the British Cunningham, with a pedigree that includes heading up the FX crew for David Fincher’s Alien 3 at 19 and doing animatronic design for Kubrick’s abortive A.I., is arguably the most famous filmmaker under 30 who hasn’t yet directed his own feature.

Viewed together, these compilations of music videos, short films, commercials and documentaries—each with a 52-page booklet of interviews, photos and drawings—all demonstrate a surprisingly coherent style, whose permutations may well play out over dozens of features. It’s easy to spot the world view of Jonze’s Being John Malkovich or Adaptation in Daft Punk’s “Da Funk,” in which a guileless innocent with a giant dog’s head and full leg cast hobbles his way around a Taxi Driver Manhattan, or the seeds of Michel Gondry’s Human Nature in the fairy-tale forest imagery of “Human Behavior” and his five other Bjork videos. (All three features are written by Charlie Kaufman, as is Gondry’s upcoming The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) And it’s fun to speculate how Jonze’s formal goofs might have informed Harold and the Purple Crayon or his upcoming Where the Wild Things Are, or how Gondry’s ambulatory cartoons might have presaged his Green Hornet, from a script by Robocop’s Ed Neumeier. Cunningham’s long-gestating Neuromancer, in particular, written with author William Gibson, which the Matrix trilogy is only the latest to desecrate the memory of, might have been an extrapolation of any number of his dread-filled universes on display—from the Manhattan where a crack addict’s limbs shatter like porcelain in Leftfield’s “Afrika Shox,” to the creepy Osaka Home for Mentally Disturbed Children in Squarepusher’s “Come on My Selector,” to the 2001-inflected assembly line in Bjork’s icy, autoerotic “All Is Full of Love.” Cumulatively, each seems like an accidental narrative, strangely driven by autobiography.

The Spike Jonze DVD, like its creator, is affable, garrulous, slightly ADD perhaps, but enthusiastic and generous to a fault. The former Adam Spiegel took his professional name from Spike Jones, the 1940s satirical big-band leader whose most famous hit was “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” to accommodate an already pronounced trickster ethic that would one day dream up Jackass. In addition to documentaries on Houston bullriders and Fatlip, formerly of the Pharcyde (who deserves a standing part in any future Spike Jonze film), there are 16 videos included (of the 40-plus he has directed). These are invariably conceptual one-offs (the Pharcyde rap backwards in “Drop”; Christopher Walken dances and flies in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”; kids play Biggie and Puffy in “Sky’s the Limit”) or outright jokes (M.C. 900-Foot Jesus mails himself home in a box in “If I Only Had a Brain”; the Beastie Boys mix cop-show cliches in “Sabotage”).

This is the side of him apparent in Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” where “B-boy choreographer” Richard Koufay (actually Jonze himself) and the fictional Torrance Community Dance Troupe descend on the Mann Bruin Theater in Westwood for a live performance of stupefying execution—a conceit taken all the way to a performance at the MTV Music Awards (dutifully chronicled in a third half-hour documentary, where emcee Chris Rock can be heard saying, “Fatboy Slim? Looks more like White Boy Retarded.”) Along the way, we discover that’s Axl Rose getting off the bus as the guy runs by on fire in Wax’s “California”; that the dancing mailbox in Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” (the inspiration for Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark) is the voice of Ernie on Sesame Street; and that Anson Williams (Potsie on Happy Days) refused to appear in Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” video (which places the band inside a composited episode) until David Geffen wrote him a personal letter.

Cunningham’s DVD is darker, colder and vastly more cerebral—the mimetic equivalent of Goya’s famous title “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (depicting a collapsed poet beset by bat-winged cormorants). Like J.G. Ballard, Cunningham returns repeatedly to images of council flats, industrial landscapes, eroticized technology and human anatomy, particularly its numerous pathologies. Originally trained as a painter and sculptor, he worked for several years as an illustrator for Britain’s 2000 A.D. comics before specializing in prosthetics and then robotics–in his words, “the evolution from flesh to machine.”

But it’s his two videos for Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, that are his masterworks. “Come to Daddy,” against an onslaught of harsh industrial drones and urban collapse, uses ghostly video images and gangs of angry children, all of them with James’ bearded face superimposed, to sustain a deep irrational fear—tapping into the same disturbing imagery as Don’t Look Now or Cronenberg’s The Brood, or the same sudden terror that David Lynch used to access so effortlessly. Following up with “Windowlicker,” his stated effort “to make a more commercial video for Aphex,” he opens on a strident parody of hip-hop stereotypes, rolling in a low-slung convertible on the freeways of downtown L.A., where two players are well into the launch trajectory of an incessant monologue that employs, by my count, 47 “niggas,” 21 “motherfuckers,” 11 “bitches” and 21 free-floating “fucks”—it starts out, “I hope we find some motherfuckin’ bitches, nigga, man, I’m horny as a motherfucker, nigga—you know what I’m sayin’, nigga?” and progresses accordingly. Four minutes and 22 seconds into the video, everything screeches to a halt as a ridiculously long stretch limo displaces them in frame and disgorges Aphex Twin, who performs a crotch-grabbing, pirouetting dance with parasol—ZZ Top meets Michael Jackson—leaving the gentlemen and their two prospective consorts to stare in wide-eyed wonder. (Also intriguing is a teaser for Rubber Johnny, a powerless figure with a giant head in a wheelchair, described by Variety as “a live-action underground comic about a guy who lives with a mean dog.”)

By contrast, everything in Gondry’s endlessly inventive body of work can be summed up in the title of the 80-minute documentary he prepared especially for the DVD: I Have Always Been 12. Combining the technical and conceptual, he fashions a row of dancers into a live-action video effect in the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be,” somehow forces the industrial imagery from the window of a commuter train into the rhythms of their “Star Guitar,” creates a split-screen symmetrical Moebius strip of continuous action in Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water,” replicates the White Stripes in Legos in “I’m in Love with a Girl” and then makes them into stop-action human time-trails in “The Hardest Button to Button.” A born inventor (his grandfather, Constant Martin, invented one of the earliest synthesizers, the Clavioline, which can be heard on the Beatles’ “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”), he is constantly shown attaching wires to Bjork’s fingers to create a keyboard-triggered Spirograph or scratching into the groove of a record and yelling, then playing back his own voice. (Bjork is clearly the unsung hero here, having discovered Gondry, championed the others early on and introduced them all to each other. At their L.A. premiere at the Egyptian Theater, Bjork was the guest deejay.)

Gondry’s images seem mostly rooted in a pre-adolescent scatology and the fear of sex: The disc includes animations about farting and a short film where David Cross plays a life-size, papier-mache turd. (Even the name of his former band, Oui Oui, is a homophone for urination.) And according to his mother, four times a week between the ages of five and nine, Michel had the same nightmare, where the letter I enters the letter U. As George Carlin once said about the train going into the tunnel at the end of North by Northwest, “You don’t have to be Fellini to figure that one out.” In fact, much of Gondry’s raw material appears undigested from his dreams. Actively ridiculing Freud (even as his work resembles an open case study), he attributes a survival function to dreaming: Natural selection has carried it through half a billion years to release deep forgotten emotion at night, which re-bonds monogamous mates every morning, thus preserving the structure of the family across the millennia.
Dave Grohl, whose Foo Fighters video for “Everlong” features a couple’s dueling dreams, recounts how Gondry justified the giant prosthetic hands he was forced to wear by admitting he was once plagued by similar nightmares.

“It was insane and ridiculous and inane,” says Grohl in the documentary, “and it didn’t seem like it made any sense. But then after he explained it to me, I thought… Maybe every one of his videos is some crazy nightmare or phobia or something inside of him that he’s afraid to tell anybody else, and he just makes videos or puts it into film. It’s a head trip.”

In raptures it will writhe before you.

A second trilogy of discs from Mark Romanek (One-Hour Photo), Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) and Sanji (Propaganda) is reportedly in the works.

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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.

"Blacks Off Earth Now!" by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 7/Nov 2003)

Originally published in Arthur No. 7 (Nov. 2003)

Blacks Off Earth Now!
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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“A rat done bit my sister Nell with Whitey on the moon.
Her face and arms began to swell and Whitey’s on the moon.
I can’t pay no doctor bills, but Whitey’s on the moon.
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still, while Whitey’s on the moon.”
—Gil Scott-Heron

When William S. Burroughs completed his paranoid masterwork Naked Lunch in 1959, not even his closest friends—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso; born cheerleaders all, and no slouches in intuiting the teleology of social control—would have labeled it out-and-out prophecy. And yet a mere half-century later, we’re confronted with a totalitarian state that insatiably advances its influence and exports its dissatisfaction; a quisling media reduced to advocating these imperial ambitions; religious zealots as the new carnival barkers; a police apparatus bent on self-perpetuation; universal surveillance; lawless outlands designated as zones of amoral commerce; and addiction masked as consumer need. Not to mention a far-right party (which Burroughs labeled the “Liquefactionists”) dedicated to liquidating everyone but themselves.

Visionaries, it would seem, often turn out in retrospect to be mere stenographers who have become somehow temporally misfiled.

The same may well prove true of free jazz pioneer and denizen of Saturn Sun Ra, whose legendary 1974 cult film Space Is the Place has just been lovingly restored by Plexifilm in a special 30th anniversary edition. This chronicle of interplanetary black colonization, NASA conspiracy and an epic Manichean poker match for the fate of the world-kind of a quasi-documentary Buckaroo Banzai filmed in the middle of proto-revolutionary, Cointelpro Oakland-contains 20 minutes of newly restored footage (mostly interracial sex scenes), interviews with the director and producer (middle-aged white men) and home movies of Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Myth-Science Solar Arkestra goofing and playing in front of the Pyramids in Luxor, Egypt in 1972 (at roughly the same time that Kenneth Anger, equally besotted with Egyptian imagery, was shooting scenes for Lucifer Rising with Donald Cammell and Marianne Faithfull at the same location).

In 1971, Sun Ra and his band had traveled west from Philadelphia at the invitation of Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party to Oakland, California, where they lived in a Panther house and Sun Ra taught at Berkeley. By 1974, amid increasing factionalism, no less than Eldridge Cleaver had kicked them out, and they were headed back to “the City of Brotherly Shove.” But not before producer Jim Newman and director John Coney lured him into a prospective half-hour concert for the local PBS affiliate, which somehow mutated into one of the oddest documents ever committed to celluloid.

The film opens amid a welter of space jazz, on what looks like a yellow Sony Playstation controller drifting through space-actually Sun Ra’s spaceship, captured in pre-digital blue-screen on 16mm film. As the mothership lands on a lush tropical planet (in reality Golden Gate Park), Sun Ra and his entourage stroll through an enchanted garden the equal of the fantasy sequences in Heavenly Creatures-with floating bubbles and hovering trilobites topped with red orbs encased in glass and exotic flowers bearing fruit of orange hands and wine glasses. Draped in flowing robes and an Egyptian headdress topped with a large sun dial, Sun Ra (who wrote all his own dialogue) proclaims, “We’ll set up a colony for black people here-see what they can do on a planet all their own, without any white people there… Another place in the universe, up under different stars.” Then as he conjectures relocating them via “isotope teleportation,” “transmolecularization” or simply teleporting the entire planet through music, we see Sun Ra suddenly spinning clockwise away from us into deepest space, like the lifeless Gary Lockwood, Jr. in 2001. All this before the opening credits.

Suddenly it’s 1943, in a Chicago nightclub, where a local gangster (the Overseer, played as a kind of satanic pimp by Ray Johnson, one of the bank robbers in Dirty Harry) demands that Sun Ra-then a piano player known as Sonny Ray-be ejected for his discordant style. Sonny’s jazz arpeggios quickly escalate into overpowering chord inversions, as glass shatters, smoke billows from the piano, the dancers are blown out of their tops and the crowd riots and stampedes toward the exits. Just as quickly, Sun Ra and the Overseer are faced off against each other across a red velvet table in the middle of a vast desert, where they compete in an arcane card game using a modified ghetto-fabulous Tarot deck (featuring Cadillac Eldorados and nude sirens) for the fate of the earth.

From there, Sun Ra wanders through contemporary Oakland as the contest plays out-convincing the locals he’s a galactic emissary, opening a storefront “Outer Space Employment agency,” and generally using music to cure the addicted, raise the drunken, reform the exploitive and search out the enlightened.

“Are there any whiteys up there?” asks a skeptical youth at a neighborhood rec hall.

“They’re walking up there now,” says Sun Ra, with his implacable hipster academic delivery. “They take frequent trips to the moon. But I notice none of you have been invited.”

Meanwhile, two field agents from NASA (including Morgan Upton from comedy troupe the Committee) sit in cramped, smoke-filled rooms hunched over reel-to-reel tape recorders, combing through his every word for some sign of conspiracy. After an attempted tryst with a couple of the Overseer’s call girls-where, pointedly, they can’t get it up-the NASA gumshoes kidnap Ra and hold him hostage in an abandoned warehouse. “Come on, Ra,” one of them says, “how do you convert your harmonic progressions to energy? There’s a black space program, isn’t there?” As a specialized form of torture, they leave him trussed up and trapped in headphones that play an endless brass band rendition of “Dixie.” But Ra escapes, the chosen are beamed out of their settings as economically and decisively as the luckless beauties in Mars Needs Women and all are led aboard the spacecraft, in what seems very much a template for the last scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind three years later. (In fact, the five-tone melody used for alien contact was lifted from the intervals in Sun Ra’s “Lights on a Satellite,” recorded in 1960. “Did you ever see Star Wars?” he once asked an interviewer. “It was very accurate.”) As Sun Ra’s spaceship seeks the new black world, the earth supernovas behind him.

Threaded throughout the narrative are live performances of the Arkestra, which were actually filmed at a soundstage on the Embarcadero owned by the Mitchell Brothers, who were just then in pre-production on their breakthrough feature Behind the Green Door. In fact, the two projects shared production costs, a platform built for the band was used to mount a sex contraption in the porn film, and Space Is the Place cast member Johnnie Keys appears as one of two black studs who pleasure Marilyn Chambers using an elaborate pulley system in the latter.

Director Coney, in the accompanying interview included on the DVD, claims the film was “an homage to cheesy science-fiction films of the ’50s and ’60s” like Rocketship X-M (1950) and Cat Women of the Moon (1953). Traces of Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, LeRoi Jones’ (later Amiri Baraka’s) play The Black Mass and Black Muslim theology can be detected-notably the concept of the Mothership, in which Black Scientists were to return to earth to mark the end of the 25,000-year reign of the white mongrel race, and which was in turn appropriated wholesale by George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. Clinton name-checks Sun Ra in the liner notes to the 1974 LP Standin’ on the Verge of Getting’ It On; other noted acolytes include Pink Floyd, the MC5, the Grateful Dead and, perhaps oddest, Bobby Beausoleil—star of Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother, inspiration (through his nickname, Cupid) for Arthur Lee’s band Love and confederate of Charles Manson (and convicted murderer)—who toured California throughout the mid-’60s in a copycat group called the Orkustra.

The Overseer can be one of the Celestial Overseers from The Urantia Book—inspiration to Stockhausen, Elvis and Gene Roddenberry in his creation of Star Trek-which Sun Ra reportedly was reading from daily. The robed, hooded, mirror-faced being accompanying him in the opening scene seems taken from Maya Deren’s Meshes of an Afternoon, shot in 1946 but unavailable until much later (although with the extent of Sun Ra’s readings in arcane and secret texts, who knows?). Or the cosmology could just as likely have come from outer space itself. Biographer John Szwed, author of the exhaustive Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, puts him, in his East Village days, in the same company as Moondog and Joe Gould—legendary eccentrics who walked the streets to the delight of an uncomprehending public. One of Sun Ra’s favorite stories, commemorated in the song “Advice for Medics,” was that when he played a mental hospital in Chicago in the ’50s, a woman reputed not to have moved or spoken for years walked slowly to the piano and screamed at him, “Do you call that music?”

Sun Ra rarely slept, lived on vitamins, fruits and food supplements, and ardently believed he had been abducted by aliens at an early age, through a process he termed “transmolecularization.” He considered music a physical, celestial force capable of transforming governments, enlightening races, curing disease (Norman Mailer once claimed a Sun Ra performance cured his cold) and, yes, propelling spaceships, for which he and his band were merely the collective antennae. Gibberish? Pseudo-science? Mumbo-jumbo? Exactly what they said of Burroughs and his Mayan scholarship, South American miracle drugs and language-as-a-virus theories around the time Space Is the Place was first gestating. And yet, just this week, no less than NASA has detected a pressure wave traveling through space from a black hole in the Perseus Galaxy Cluster 250 million light years away—a sound wave 57 octaves below middle C on the piano, with a frequency of once every 10 billion years. According to scientists, it is a B-flat.

“It is possible,” says Andy Fabian of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England, “that other galactic clusters are singing in other tones.”

Nothing to do now but wait.

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

"This Is the Way the World Ends (Or, Don’t Say I Didn’t Try Dystopia)" by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 6/Sept 2003)

Originally published in Arthur No. 6 (Sept. 2003)

This Is the Way the World Ends (Or, Don’t Say I Didn’t Try Dystopia)
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.

DVDs/videos discussed in this column:
o The Dead Zone (1983)—directed by David Cronenberg, written by Jeffrey Boam; based on the novel by Stephen King (Paramount Home Video)
o Starship Troopers (1997)—directed by Paul Verhoeven, written by Ed Neumeier; based on the novel by Robert Heinlein (Columbia/TriStar Home Video, Special Edition)
o The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)—directed by Volker Schlondorff, written by Harold Pinter; based on the novel by Margaret Atwood (MGM/UA Home Video)
o Death and the Maiden (1994)—directed by Roman Polanski, written by Rafael Yglesias; based on the play by Ariel Dorfman (New Line Home Video)
o The Designated Mourner (1997)—directed by David Hare, written by Wallace Shawn; based on his play (Image Entertainment)
o The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2002)—directed by Kim Bartley & Donnacha O’Briain (Power Pictures; VHS available for $29.99, please specify NTSC or PAL)
o Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death (2003)—directed by Jamie Doran (Atlantic Celtic Films; VHS available for £19.99/approx. $32.00 from http://www.acftv.net, please specify NTSC or PAL)

* * *

“I only want to say this once: If America insists on flirting with a fascist future, I shall give them one.” —Paul Verhoeven (director of Starship Troopers)

“By the time they came for me because of my liberal views, it was too late—there was no one left to speak up.”

That’s Pastor Neimoller, German Christian cleric, famously lamenting the blind eye he turned toward Communists, Jews and union leaders during their respective Nazi roundups. Words like “Nazi” and “fascist” are loaded ones these days—packed with C-4 and strung with tripwires, to dissuade the hapless malcontent from trampling across them too casually. But a mere 36 months in the life of the republic has turned us into a nation of screenwriters, imagining more and more implausible reversals of expectations in our long march to the third-act twist: stage-managed coronations, Wall Street intifadas, Zionist cabals, prophylactic invasions, the treason of superpatriots. The one thing it teaches you, living here in the heart of Hollywood (as if such a thing exists), is speculative reality: All things are true until they’re not. Best to follow these branches out to their logical ends, lest we be caught unawares.

And so, in curious times such as these, I do what I’ve always done: Turn to the movies. Here are five moments from five films—bleak dystopian visions of an American future, courtesy of a Canadian, a Dutchman, a German, a Pole and a Brit—which these days I find playing over and over in my head. Plus two new documentaries which might explain why. We often find our convictions in popular film, and probably the courage to live by them. If the artists of the age see fit to issue such auguries—field jeremiads from the antennae of the race—then we ignore them at our peril.

The Dead Zone (1983)
David Cronenberg made what turned out to be the best Stephen King adaptation as respite from his more demanding day job. “If you’re used to comedy, The Dead Zone is a heavy picture,” he said at the time. “But if you’re used to Videodrome, it’s not.” Christopher Walken awakens from a coma with the power of second sight, only to face the philosophical conundrum, made explicit in the film, “If you could go back in time—to Germany, say, before Hitler came to power—knowing what you know now, what would you do? Would you kill him?” Hitler appears in the form of populist demagogue and Senate hopeful Martin Sheen, who mixes the whipsnake cracker charisma of his Charles Starkweather-by-way-of-James Dean from Badlands with the quick-tempered, cop-of-the-world bullying paternalism of The West Wing. The result, from his “man of the people” act to the Norman Rockwell-style portraits he poses in front of, is all a little close to home.

The scene in question is a brief 30-second flash-forward, added by Cronenberg (according to screenwriter Jeffrey Boam) to help shift the story to Walken’s point of view. Set incongruously in an Aspen A-frame, lit by a roaring fire right out of Citizen Kane, Sheen and his thug sidekick Sonny flank a general who they are pressuring to place his hand on a laptop scanner, so that they can launch a nuclear first strike.

“You cowardly bastard!” screams Sheen. “You’re not the voice of the people–I’m the voice of the people! The people speak through me, not you! It came to me while I slept, Sonny–my destiny. In the middle of the night, it came to me. I must get up now–right now [quoting Network]–and fulfill my destiny. And you’ll put your goddamn hand on that scanning screen, or I’ll hack it off and put it on for you!”

“May God forgive me,” says the general, complying.

Sheen completes the sequence and goes to the door, as a throng of white-haired men rush pass the armed Marine sentries. “This is not necessary, Mr. President,” one says. “We have a diplomatic solution.”
Sheen fixes them with a thousand-yard stare. “Mr. Vice-President, Mr. Secretary,” he says, “the missiles are flying. Hallelujah.”

Starship Troopers (1997)
On its release, Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant paean to fascist propaganda was lost on critics. What seemed merely a perverse woodenness at the time is on repeated viewings an extremely nuanced social satire of wartime propaganda—particularly the Why We Fight films of WWII—overlaid on a politically correct, gender neutral, genetically maximized future. Lest there be any doubt of their intentions, Verhoeven (whose childhood memories in the Hague include the Nazi occupation and Allied squadrons on fire over the North Sea) and writer Ed Neumeier hammer the point home on the audio commentary of the Special Edition DVD:

“The movie is about the United States,” Verhoeven states unequivocally, “or any superpower, for that sake. One could say it as well about Russia 10 years ago, or China in the future, or for Germany in the past. But it’s certainly also talking about American politics now.”

What resonates most are the interstitial news reports of the military campaign on Klendathu, home of the giant insect invaders from Robert Heinlein’s classic science-fiction novel. “We’ve just landed here on what starship troopers are calling ‘Big K’ with the Sixth Mobile Infantry Division,” an embedded news reporter yells into the camera in the opening scene. “It’s an ugly planet. A bug planet. A planet hostile to—” His commentary is cut short as he is eaten by a huge tiger-striped arachnid. Newsreel footage features patriotic children stepping on cockroaches (echoing the opening scene of The Wild Bunch, where children subject a scorpion to an army of ants, the devouring accretion of history), an enemy of the state (played by Neumeier) executed live on TV, and scientsts probing and torturing a giant “brain bug” (blacked out due to squeamishness from animal rightists). But it’s the zooming, spinning graphics and the recurring, self-precluding tagline—“Would you like to know more?”—that make it, literally, ripped from the day’s headlines.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)
German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff, whose The Tin Drum set the bar on Nazi terror, depicts the Christian fundamentalist state of Margaret Atwood’s feminist novel as an Early American theme park, replete with colonial mansions, red-white-and-blue bunting and public hangings in the town square. Environmental damage has rendered most of the public sterile, and so Natasha Richardson is assigned to the Commander (Robert Duvall) and his barren wife Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway) in a state-sanctioned rite of reproduction. This leads to the inevitable scene (in Harold Pinter’s screenplay) between the younger woman and older man in which political, religious and sexual power are all cross-leveraged. What makes it so creepy is Duvall’s bemused matter-of-factness—a patronizing indulgence right out of Donald Rumsfeld or William Bennett, which masks a subtext of graceless seduction.

“I used to be in market research,” he explains to her during a quiet moment in his study, “then I branched out and became a sort of scientist. Then the guys made their move and asked me to go in with them. I liked most of the things they wanted to do, so that was it. Period.”

“The country was crazy,” he says in response to her questions. “I mean, nobody felt anything—men or women. All they had was—how can I put it?—itches. Sex itches, money itches, power itches. But that’s not enough. There was no common purpose, nothing to believe in, nothing to fight for. Nobody really knew how to feel anything anymore.”

At every step of his speech, his actions contradict what he’s saying—as he moves closer to her, takes her hand, brushes her hair and finally tries to kiss her. He is the perfect bureaucrat turned revolutionary, who imagines himself above his own law.

Death and the Maiden (1994)
Roman Polanski famously lost not only a wife and unborn child to the Manson family, but a mother and unborn sister to the Nazis at Auschwitz. A decade before his reconstruction of the Warsaw ghetto won him an Oscar in absentia, he directed Ariel Dorfman’s play (adapted by Rafael Yglesias) about the aftermath of Pinochet’s 1973 military junta in Chile as a fogbound fairy tale, floating above the specific politics to encompass any right-wing terror state which later thinks better of its excesses. Sigourney Weaver marshals the pluck she once reserved for Alien and its mom in confronting Ben Kingsley, the doctor who once stood by while she was blindfolded, tortured with electrodes and metal bars thrust inside her, and raped 14 times to the strains of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. As she binds him to a chair, he demands to be released. “Are you threatening?” she yells into his face.

“I’m not,” he whines.

“Yes, you were,” she says. “Let me make this clear: The time for people like you making threats is over. Out there, maybe you bastards are still running things behind the scenes, but in here—in here—I’m in charge. Understand?”

The Designated Mourner (1997)
And finally, I think of the final moments from Wally Shawn’s three-handed drama, which chronicles the political decimation of the intellectual class in some weird amalgam of an American, European and Third World state. It’s not even really fair to call this a film at all; it’s a staged reading by director-playwright David Hare at the National Theater in London, with a rather dyspeptic Mike Nichols (of all people) doing for the quisling apologists of lowbrow culture what Andre Gregory once did for the fatuous gadflies of high culture (in My Dinner With Andre). Lighting a small fire at his table at a street café, Nichols recounts how in African tribes, when the last of a clan dies out, someone is appointed to mourn them publicly, since no one from the bloodline remains. “Everywhere I went,” he says, “the leaves had turned–traitors. Had they no shame? …We were all doing better in every way without the presence on earth of our nerve-jangling friends–the dear departed mourners, if that’s the right word.”

By the time they came for me, there was no one left.

* * *

Two new documentaries, both by Celts, present compelling evidence that such concerns are by no means overreaching. In The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, an Irish camera crew who had gone to Venezuela to profile leftist President Hugo Chavez, elected by a landslide in 1998, found themselves trapped inside the presidential palace when a military coup surrounded it with tanks and took over the country and its media. Chavez didn’t endear himself to the Bush claque when he announced that the country’s oil wealth would be redistributed to the four-fifths of the population in poverty (Venezuela is the fourth largest oil exporter, and a member of OPEC), and it probably didn’t help when he showed pictures of Afghan children killed by U.S. bombs on the state-owned TV station. On April 11, 2002, opposition forces rerouted a planned march into the middle of a pro-Chavez rally, where snipers had been planted in hotel rooms overlooking the crowd. Up to 25 people were killed, and private TV stations played endless film loops of Chavez supporters returning fire, blaming them for the carnage—a position parroted by Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleischer and others. (Jesse Helms is shown accusing Chavez of consorting with Colombian narcoterrorists.) But the Irish footage, compiled by Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain, taken from a different angle, easily disproves this claim.

By 9:30 p.m., tanks had surrounded the palace, and a military delegation arrived to demand that the president resign. Chavez refused, but agreed to go with the soldiers to spare further bloodshed, and Venezuelans awoke the morning of the 12th to the news of a bloodless coup. Almost immediately, police took to the streets with tear gas and truncheons to quell any resistance. But by 2 p.m. the next day, more than a million Chavez supporters had collected outside the palace. While the opposition leader is on CNN claiming he is in firm control of the country, we see the palace guard stage a counter-coup, government ministers in hiding return to duty, military garrisons call in from around the country pledging their support, and Chavez return by helicopter—all on camera, in more or less real time. The U.S. denied any involvement in the coup, even though an American-registered plane was reportedly sent to fly Chavez out of the country. The best moment is after the provisional government had fled, though. They had emptied out the office safe.

Even more terrifying is Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, a 50-minute documentary by Scottish filmmaker Jamie Doran which has aired in Great Britain and elsewhere, producing widespread outrage. The film concerns the aftermath of the siege of Kunduz in Afghanistan in October 2001, where 7,000 Taliban surrendered to Gen. Rasheed Dostum, the Northern Alliance’s most fearsome warlord–among them American Taliban John Walker Lindh, shown being questioned on-camera. While the U.S. media followed the misdirection of Lindh and his San Francisco hippie entitlement run tragically amok, the real story was what became of those who remained behind. First-hand observers recount how under the direction of American Special Forces, 2-300 prisoners were loaded into the back of individual storage containers on the backs of 25 semi-trucks for a four-day drive to Scherberghan Prison. Afghan fighters were directed to fire through the sides of the containers to ventilate them, killing all in the bullets’ paths; still, as many 150 per container suffocated or died from the intense heat, often having bitten into the shoulders of those around them to quench their intense thirst. Those who arrived dead, injured or merely unconscious were then driven into the desert, where the survivors were shot and buried in a 1,000-square-meter mass grave at a spot called Dasht Leile. Of the 7,000 originally taken prisoner, it’s estimated that approximately 3,000 died while in captivity—a number almost identical to the victims of the World Trade Center bombings.

The film is not so much an investigative documentary as a pre-documentary—a precis for the legal case to be made, if someone would only marshal the international wherewithal. On-camera witnesses appear with their voices electronically treated and faces digitally blurred, with the proviso that “All witnesses have agreed to appear at any future international inquiry to give evidence.” (Two have already been killed, and more arrested.) Human bones and clothing with Pakistani labels can easily be seen strewn across the expanse of the mass gravesite. Even the filmmakers’ own Afghani researcher was savagely beaten, shown on camera bandaged in his hospital bed.

The Red Cross was denied access to the prison for 10 days, and the Pentagon later conducted its own investigation of the incident, exonerating all its personnel. Making the case for the U.S. military is no less than chairman of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle (since busted to mere “member”), who comes off like a vampire aristocrat: “Obviously, we would much rather be aligned with Mother Teresa, but that isn’t always possible in these situations,” he states, in what should be a T-shirt slogan of situational ethics. So far, this story is virtually nonexistent in the American media.

Why do they hate us?

Because we kill them, I suspect.

"YOU AND WHOSE ARMY?: Is George W. Bush Addicted to Cocaine?" by Paul Cullum (No. 5/July 2003)

Originally published in Arthur No. 5 (July 2003)

YOU AND WHOSE ARMY?: Is George W. Bush Addicted to Cocaine?
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.

DVDs/videos discussed in this column:
o Horns and Halos, directed by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky
o Journeys with George, directed by Alexandra Pelosi
o Uncle Saddam, directed by Joel Soler
o What I’ve Learned About U.S. Foreign Policy: The War Against the Third World, compiled by Frank Dorrel
o Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, directed by Richard Ray PÈrez and Joan Sekler

“If George W. Bush has not used cocaine, he ought to say it. If he has, he ought to say it and then say how he overcame it.” —Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah)

Is George W. Bush a pederast? Neo-fascist? Born-again zealot? Serial rapist? The question itself brooks no compromise; to raise it is tantamount to treason. The exact incidence and degree of oral-genital stimulation tolerated by a standing president may be suitable for the Congressional Record, but try suggesting we have a Crackhead-in-Chief, and see how far it gets you.

Yet given our president’s globally mystifying behavior of the past two months, no less than the paragons of the Fourth Estate have at least flirted with the concept in polite company. Following Bush’s televised press conference on March 7t, Maureen Dowd in the New York Times labeled him “the Xanax Cowboy” and observed that, “Determined not to be petulant, he seemed tranquilized.” Tom Shales in the Washington Post put a finer point on it: “It hardly seems out of order to speculate that, given the particularly heavy burden of being president in this new age of terrorism … the president may have been ever so slightly medicated.” Another New York Times editorial, by Paul Krugman, compares Bush’s pre-war behavior to that of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, famously fondling marbles and paranoidly raging about missing strawberries.

That national leaders can be addicted to drugs may be less an aberration than the historical norm. Adolph Hitler (according to Himmler) received daily injections of amphetamines which increased steadily throughout the war, and was also fond of cocaine after 1944, when he was treated for strep throat by a doctor who may have been trying to wean him from his speed addiction. (Documented in Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography.) In our recent past, Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot reveals that John F. Kennedy had his own “Dr. Feelgood” (Dr. “Miracle Max” Jacobson) who administered amphetamine injections from the 1960 campaign on, came and went at will at the White House and finally had his medical license revoked in 1975. Lyndon Johnson was an alcoholic at the end of his life, if not long before, as was Richard Nixon, who Anthony Summers in The Arrogance of Power reports also took Seconal nightly, amphetamines occasionally, sleeping pills dating back to the 1940s, and frequently abused Dilantin, a prescription epilepsy drug which often slurred his speech and clouded his judgment.

Nor is it much in doubt that George W. Bush has at least used cocaine. Candidate Bush refused in August 1999 to state unequivocally that he had not done so, unlike his 10 Republican rivals. This gave way to a moving line in the sand as Bush sought to reassure a clamoring press, ending with his claim that he would have passed even the 15-year background check in effect when his father was sworn in as president—or 1974, when Bush was a 28-year-old student at the Harvard Business School. As USA Today stated at the time, “Bush has essentially admitted to something, but he refuses to say what.” Bush confirms he was a “heavy drinker” until 1986, when at the age of 40, he found religion and embraced sobriety; details of a long-suppressed DUI conviction later emerged during the campaign.

There is also a secondary body of evidence that Bush was arrested for cocaine possession in Houston in 1972, but that a sympathetic judge and political crony of his father allowed the matter to be suppressed in exchange for six months of public service at Project P.U.L.L., an inner-city program for underprivileged youth. This is essentially the story of Horns and Halos, a documentary on a quixotic book tour for J.H. Hatfield’s Fortunate Son, a controversial biography of the future president which was recalled by St. Martin’s and subsequently published by self-described “left-of-center, punk-rock flibbertigibbet” Sander Hicks and his Soft Skull Press, when he wasn’t otherwise engaged as the super of an East Village tenement building. (The book’s title comes from a quote by Hatfield: A complete biography should present both the good and the evil—‘the horns and halos’—of a subject.) As much as anything, the film demonstrates in real time the consummate media skills of Karl Rove, Bush’s private Cray supercomputer, who is single-handedly responsible for orchestrating both his Texas and national ascendancies. And it’s got one hell of a third-act reveal.

As Hatfield tells it, having met Clay Johnson, a long-time Bush friend and gubernatorial advisor, in the late ’80s, he saw this as his ticket to a major publishing advance. Relying on Johnson and then Rove as his chief sources, he firmly documented Bush’s business setbacks, draft avoidance, death row roulette, professional “ratfucking” and dirty tricks in the Bush I campaign (alongside Rove and the legendary Lee Atwater), as well as every black mark against him in the public record. In June 1999, Hatfield describes how Rove takes him fishing on Lake Eustafa in Oklahoma, in a scene reminiscent of both Parallax View , seconds before an assassin’s bomb detonates a private fishing boat, and the end of Godfather II, when Fredo is dispatched out on the lake at his mother’s funeral.)

In late August, a blind item appeared on Salon linking Bush’s cocaine arrest with public service at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Center in Houston, a charge heatedly denied by the center’s director. With his book already in galleys, Hatfield intuited that a cocaine bust would have explained Bush’s tenure at Project P.U.L.L.—an assertion confirmed by both Johnson and Rove—and he highlighted the charges in an ill-conceived Afterword, attributing the claim to blind sources. What Hatfield didn’t figure was that Rove knew about the five years he had served in federal prison for conspiracy to commit murder, “the result of a workplace conspiracy gone horribly awry,” as Hicks later characterized it. When that inconvenient detail was reported by the Dallas Morning News (again from a blind source, it’s worth noting), St. Martin’s ordered the recall and abandoned the book.

The revelation effectively sealed the topic in the popular press. “Ever since the book came out, the cocaine issue has been a dead issue,” says Pam Colloff of Texas Monthly in the film. “And it’s been a dead issue, I think, because of that book.” Dying alongside of it is the consummate portrait of the future 43rd president as a short-tempered, good-time layabout who traded in the entitlement of the rich and the enablement of the cross-addicted for the messianic fervor of the born again, unleashing what Bushisms author Mark Crispin Miller so elegantly terms “the great, glowering Nixon inside of George W. Bush.”

In the parking lot outside the 2001 Book Expo in Chicago, where in a Hail Mary move he has just identified Rove as his blind source, Hatfield confesses, “I’ve known guys in prison, and the thing they always told me is that greed’ll get you every time. And maybe that’s what got me on this. I wanted to get off that mid-list of doing X-Files books. I wanted to write a really hard-hitting biography.” This is what great con men do—dangle the bait, and then wait for the mark to bite. Of course, it’s possible that Rove manufactured the entire cocaine arrest, leaked it falsely to Salon and begrudgingly confirmed it to Hatfield, his designated stalking horse, knowing that if not the speciousness of the claim, then at least the controversy surrounding the author’s prison record, would capsize the book and preclude any further discussion of drugs as a liability. Either way, that degree of manipulation is almost breathtaking in its complexity. As we too often forget, evil never sleeps.

* * *

In Journeys With George, a chronicle of the campaign trail by NBC producer Alexandra Pelosi, we see an altogether different side of Bush—the one that must certainly have appealed to his first constituency, the sundry millionaires and billionaires who comprise the voting body of the power elite, when Bush was trotted out to dazzle them one on one, after Newt Gingrich had resigned in disgrace and the right wing of the Republican Party was in danger of dying off. This is Bush the party animal and affable clown: charismatic, reasonably witty and self-effacing, the Dekes’ most successful rush chairman ever. Pelosi, who grew up inured to political celebrity as the daughter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D.-California), the current House Minority Leader, is able to transcend the deference most of her colleagues are hobbled by in their dealings with the candidate, and the results often border on Abbott and Costello.

“Stop filming me. You’re like a head cold,” Bush tells her early on, in one of their many encounters on the press bus. When he admonishes her to get serious, she counters with the infamous Barbara Walters chestnut, “If you were a tree, what kind of a tree would you be?” “I’m not; I’m a Bush,” he answers immediately. “See, I’m a little quicker than you think, Alexandra.” Noting her fondness for “Newsweek Man,” her fellow journalist and confidante, he takes the camera and interviews her on her love life. When she comes to an impasse with the more convivial revelers in the back of the press plane, it is Bush who brokers an armistice, marshalling his own wild-dog past. “Look, these people were just trying to have a good solid margarita,” he tells her. “They wanted to get hopping here at 45,000 over Nebraska. Innocent fun. And you stepped in and you rained on their parade, man.” Once the peace is restored, Bush brandishes a Buckner’s non-alcoholic beer and proclaims, “These are my people. Back here with the animals. With the tequila drinkers. Yeah!”

“So much of it has been about pack journalism,” admits British journalist Richard Wolffe of the Financial Times. near the end of the film. “And I’ve just got this nagging feeling that the pack wasn’t always doing the right story. The Gore press corps was all about how they didn’t like him, how they didn’t trust him, and that sort of filtered through into the stories. We were writing about trivial stuff because [Bush] charmed the pants off us.” Yet in an odd time-lapse fashion, we see the gregarious Bush fade and a more familiar figure take his place—the stiff, repetitive, pre-fab statesman, who speaks in platitudes and the austere cadences of the Sunday morning sermon, and whose personality is slowly leeched out of him under the weight of encroaching responsibility. “Bush has changed as this election has gone along,” notes one of the boys on the bus. “He has grown much more mature. But now he’s constantly aware of everything he says, his body posture. Sometimes he becomes so self-aware that it’s actually sort of uncomfortable watching him.”

Bush’s most appealing moment by far comes on the heels of the margarita party, after Pelosi’s private poll revealing that most of the press believe Bush will lose is leaked to the New York Post. When her peers ostracize her out of fear of reprisal, Bush makes a point of greeting her the next morning with a hug—an action that seems oddly couched in the recognition of his own slow-leaking transmutation. “When they see me talking to you, they’re going to act like they’re your friends again,” he whispers to her off-camera. “But these people aren’t your friends. They can say what they want about me, but at least I know who my friends are.”

* * *

Extending the benefit of the doubt for a moment, no criticism of U.S. foreign policy is complete without the requisite admission that Saddam Hussein is, in fact, a very bad man. No matter how ill-conceived this latest port-of-call freebooting may seem, it’s quite impossible to champion the opposition. For a litany of exactly how this is true, we need look no further than Uncle Saddam, a cheeky profile of the tinhorn despot and opera buffo dastard du jour, shot mostly inside Iraq at considerable peril to its director, Joel Soler, a French national of Arabic descent.

On a guided tour of Saddam’s 30-year quest to deforest the family tree and erect modern pyramids to himself, we learn that the Butcher of Baghdad is rumored to have almost been aborted by his mother; married his first cousin and murdered another cousin, his brother-in-law and both his daughters’ husbands; systematically gassed Kurds in the north, attacked Shiites in the south and organized public hangings of Jews; routinely removes the teeth of rivals; fishes with grenades; wears goofy, often bulletproof hats; dyes his moustache; insists the entire population go on diets with him; owns 21 palaces (containing private casinos and an underground runway for private jets); has rebuilt Babylon, designed a new Tower of Babel and planned to build a mosque bigger than the one at Mecca (taller than the Eiffel Tower, with a private lake in the shape of his thumbprint, stocked with dolphins); is terrified of germs, and prefers to be kissed near the armpits; and is a stickler for hygiene (“It is not appropriate for someone to attend a gathering or to be with his children with his body odor trailing behind him emitting sweet or stinky smell mixed with perspiration,” he declares on camera). If anything, the film actually downplays the casual sadism of his incumbency.

But note Soler’s capsule description of his profile subject, taken from a separate interview packaged as a special feature on the DVD: “I think Saddam’s weakest point is that he doesn’t know anything about the world. He didn’t really travel outside of Iraq. Yeah, he went to France in the ’70s, to India, but he doesn’t know much about the world. And because the people around him are always praising him, I think he’s disconnected from reality. And I think also his weakest point, and what’s going to lose [it for] him, is his ego. He has such a big ego that he’ll never admit he’s wrong. Or he’ll never admit, okay, now it’s time for me to give up. He’ll fight until the end.”

Who does that remind you of?

(For his next project, Soler promises to reveal links between Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Stay tuned.)

* * *

In a larger sense, Bush inherits a military-steroid state and perpetual expansion machine that is—according to the title of Joel Andreas’s cartoon expose—Addicted to War. As is cogently outlined in this 70-page primer and its companion DVD, What I’ve Learned About U.S. Foreign Policy: The War Against the Third World, compiled by the book’s publisher, Frank Dorrel, the extent of U.S. military incursios lays successfully camouflaged in the mists of history. Made up of excerpts from Bill Moyers’ The Secret Government, Coverup: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair, The Panama Deception and more, the tape labels this ongoing piecemeal invasion “the Third World War,” since it is literally an incidental war waged against Third World bystanders, with an estimated six million casualties over the last half century. Nor is addiction an ill-chosen metaphor. Drug smuggling repeatedly surfaces as a means of financing U.S. covert operations—against China in the ’50s; Cambodia, Laos and Thailand in the ’60s and ’70s, via the Golden Triangle heroin trade; Afghanistan in the ’80s, which created the Golden Crescent; and the contra war in Nicaragua. As intensively detailed in Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance and elsewhere, the latter not only capitalized on, but in effect created the crack epidemic in South Central Los Angeles in the mid-’80s. Until his death in 1993, Medellin cartel head Pablo Escobar maintained he possessed a photograph of George Bush, Sr. posed in front of suitcases full of money, which he regarded as a get-out-of-jail-free card. It was taken when Vice-President Bush was the head of Reagan’s War on Drugs.

When the possibility of George W. Bush’s cocaine use was first raised, it was always in the context of his drug and prison policies, and the hypocrisy such an admission would belie, or else just the wasted opportunity—that of Bush’s own “Nixon in China,” the one issue he was amply qualified to make his own, and now never would. A recent column by Alan Bisbort in American Politics Journal suggests Bush might be what Alcoholics Anonymous terms “a dry drunk,” someone who exhibits the behavior of an alcoholic in every way but imbibing.

“Of course, he may just be an immature bully who will gladly sacrifice thousands of lives to get his way, even against the advice of the most respected and mature members of his own party,” the column posits. “[However], the question is begged, and seems to at least deserve some pause for pondering: How did he, at age 58, get so fumble-tongued, incapable of stringing more than two coherent sentences together, snippily irritable with anyone who dares disagree with him or even ask a question, poutily turning his back on the democratically elected president of one of our most important allies because of something one of his underlings said about him (Germany’s Schroder, of course), listlessly in need of constant vacations and rest, dangerously obsessed with only one thing (Iraq), to the exclusion of all other things (including an economy that is slowly sucking the life from the nation as well as the retirement savings of anyone reading these words)? Furthermore, why is Bush so eager to engage in violence and so incapable of explaining why?”

But what if this complex of behaviors can be attributed not to addiction in the abstract, but to a specific addiction—one which can at least be circumstantially tied to the president’s past, his social milieu and his family legacy?

The National Institute of Drug Abuse claims that in the short term, “large amounts [of cocaine] may intensify the user’s high, but may also lead to bizarre, erratic and violent behavior.” It lists as among the short-term side effects of cocaine abuse “increased energy, increased heart rate and blood pressure and dilated pupils.” Long-term symptoms are listed as “irritability, mood disturbances, restlessness, paranoia and full-blown psychosis.” A co-study conducted by NIDA and John Hopkins University found that chronic, heavy cocaine use (defined as two or more grams per week) is associated with long-lasting impaired functions such as “drug users’ ability to make choices and decisions, skill at long-range planning, verbal memory, manual dexterity and other cognitive skills.”

Immediately before his televised speech of March 17 announcing the commencement of combat, the president reportedly took a moment alone to collect and center himself, outside the watchful eyes of aides and Secret Service. Moments later at the podium, according to eyewitnesses, he pumped his fist in the air repeatedly and shouted, “I feel good!” The disturbing incongruity of quoting James Brown moments before launching America’s first unprovoked war was not allayed by his fixed, unblinking stare and eerie intensity, weirdly reminiscent of Oliver North at the Iran-Contra hearings. “Bizarre, erratic and violent behavior” might characterize our nominal allies’ assessment of our latter-day diplomacy, and “irritability and mood disturbances” could easily come from the internal memos of Jacques Chirac or Hans Blix. Under certain optimal conditions, “restlessness” could lead to an expansion of empire, just as “paranoia” might cause one to overestimate or fabricate a foreign threat. “Verbal memory” and “manual dexterity” would both seem challenged if failing to marshal a cogent argument for one’s actions, or even convincingly read a Teleprompter. And a breakdown of the “ability to make choices and decisions, skill at long-range planning and other cognitive skills” is copiously on display in contemporary Iraq.

Just think back to the ’80s, when cocaine recreationally ruled our culture: Wall Street was besotted with greed. Our literature was populated by masters of the universe and brand-name monsters (Bonfire of the Vanities; Bright Lights, Big City; American Psycho); our music was overblown, empty, deeply superficial (Foreigner, Robert Palmer, Madonna); our movies were bombastic and shrill (Heaven’s Gate; Howard the Duck). Arrogance, blind ambition and a carapace-like narcissism were the hallmarks of the era. That’s exactly the character on display in Unprecedented, a 50-minute procedural autopsy of the 2000 election process executive produced by liberal flame-keeper Robert Greenwald (Steal This Movie), and co-directed by Richard Ray Perez and Joan Sekler. From Jeb Bush’s 1994 campaign stump retort on what he’d do for Florida’s blacks if elected (“Probably nothing.”), to dragon lady Katherine Harris’s manipulation of the voting rolls to purge black voters, through the borderline election fraud of butterfly and caterpillar and absentee and military ballots, to Republican congressional staffers for Tom DeLay, Fred Thompson, Don Young and others shutting down the Miami-Dade recount (all identified by name for easy reference)—to the fratboy smirk of the candidate himself—it’s all here. (The DVD promises an extra 40 minutes of material, including interviews with Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Michael Parenti and others.)

This is the institutional face of what might be interpreted in a previous era as a chemically induced hubris. As such, it would represent an irrefutable link between drugs and theft.

Source materials for this column may be located courtesy the following companies:

o Horns and Halos: Currently in limited release; DVD out next year; http://www.hornsandhalos.com or m_galinsky@yahoo.com.
Also: Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President (3rd ed.), by J.H. Hatfield, available for $16.50 + $3.00 S/H from Soft Skull Press, http://www.softskull.com, as well as finer bookstores everywhere.
o Journeys with George: Video only available for $25 from Purple Monkey Prods., 45 W. 11th St., P.O. Box 6D, New York, NY 10011; http://www.journeyswithgeorge.com.
o Uncle Saddam (Xenon Entertainment; http://www.xenonpictures.com): DVD/video widely available at better retail outlets (app. $11.25); http://www.unclesaddam.com.
o What I’ve Learned About U.S. Foreign Policy: The War Against the Third World: DVD/video (please specify) available for $10 from Frank Dorrel, P.O. Box 3261, Culver City, CA 90231-3261;
Also: Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Military Can’t Kick Militarism, by Joel Andreas, available for $10 from same.”
o Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election (Shout! Factory, a division of Retropolis): DVD/video widely available June 24, 2003 (DVD $20, video $15); http://www.unprecedented.org.