“The Outsiders” by Paul Cullum (Arthur, 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.

“This Is the Way the World Ends (Or, Don’t Say I Didn’t Try Dystopia)” by Paul Cullum (Arthur, 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)

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“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.

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“YOU AND WHOSE ARMY?: Is George W. Bush Addicted to Cocaine?” by Paul Cullum (Arthur, 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.

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PAUL CULLUM on LARS VON TRIER’s more obscure work (Arthur, 2004)

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

Originally published in Arthur No. 11

Discussed herein:

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


o The Five Obstructions (2004), directed by Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier
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)

“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.

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