Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Jonathan Rosenbaum: Bushwhacked Cinema

Bushwhacked Cinema
Jonathan Rosenbaum

When the history of American movies during the eight-year reign of George W. Bush (2001-2009) eventually comes to be written, one might hypothesize that the commercial development of the mobile phone during the 1980s and 1990s and the introduction of the iPod during the first year Bush took office were crucial in setting the stage for some of the basic conditions of that era. Arguably for the first time, one could easily sustain one’s ignorance about and indifference to one’s fellow citizens even while sharing the same public space with them–on the street or in other public locations dedicated to some form of transport: terminals, buses, subways, trains, planes, fairgrounds, theme parks, and, above all, cinemas.

So the phenomenon of a U.S. President who, to all appearances, preferred to remain blissfully (and strategically) ignorant about the news and the overall state of the world, and ran his office accordingly, was part and parcel of this growing trend to eliminate the public sphere from American life and subdivide the entire culture and society into `special interest’ groups and niche markets. Not that the news itself as it was reported in the U.S. was necessarily indicative of what was happening. In the freedom-of-the-press rankings done annually for 169 countries by Reporters Without Borders, the U.S. plunged from 17th place in 2002 to 53rd in 2006, with only a minor upswing to 48th place in 2007. (By contrast, the U.K. fluctuated between 21st and 28th place over the same period, with the Scandinavian countries, Ireland, and Canada leading all the others.)

During the same period, mainstream moviegoing continued its gradual shift from being a community activity, which it was during roughly the first half of the 20th century, to being for the most part either a public activity for teenagers and preteens or a private activity conducted in homes. Yet at the same time, outspoken films critiquing the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan–popularly known as “the war in Iraq and Afghanistan”—-began to proliferate. Some of these were documentaries such as Iraq in Fragments, The War Tapes, The Torture Question, and Gunner Palace, which, like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, performed the essential task of reporting basic information that the U.S. news had mainly failed to report. Some fiction films, such as Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah (which featured arguably better and more detailed work by both cinematographer Roger Deakins and actor Tommy Lee Jones than the more Oscar-friendly and apolitical No County for Old Men), mainly decried the devastating effect that the horrors of the occupation was having on American servicemen; a few others, notably Brian De Palma’s Redacted (which borrowed a page or two from his 1989 Casualties of War), protested the inhuman treatment of innocent local citizens. There were still other important features that dealt with the occupations indirectly—-perhaps most notably Clint Eastwood’s memorable diptych Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iowa Jima, which arguably wouldn’t have materialized when they did if there hadn’t been a pressing need to rethink some of the basic postulates regarding American idealism in relation to warfare.

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