"Bush-Era Culture" (Shudder)

At the blog newcritics, Chuck Tryon points out something I would have missed otherwise, given the need to avoid national news magazines in the interest of anger management:

Newsweek, of all places, has a fascinating intellectual exercise in which they ask several of their film and media writers to name one popular culture text that "exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush." Obviously, the idea of capturing the zeitgeist of eight often turbulent years with a divided electorate and a fractured media landscape is an impossibility. No single text can encompass the tragedy of September 11, the war in Iraq, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the housing bubble and collapse, and our news media's often vacuous response to all of these events. But the Newsweek writers offer some interesting choices, ones that collectively seem to move toward capturing some sense of Bush-era culture.

I tend to think Battlestar Galactica wins, hand's down. (Per earlier item.) See the rest of Chuck T's entry here.

(Crossposted at CT)
December 17, 2008 12:48 PM | | Comments (5)



[Jonathan Rosenbaum on "Bushwhacked Cinema":]

Not having seen Saw (2004) or any of its three sequels, all of which featured torture as their main attraction, I can’t pinpoint precisely what connects them to the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, which came to public light the same year that the series started. But the fact that the films’ popularity peaked with its first sequel in 2005 (Saw II grossed $87 million domestically), the year after the infamous photographs of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse first appeared online, does strongly suggest a connection. Those images quickly entered the public imagination, and Hollywood was waiting to exploit them.

Given that the overwhelming majority of Iraqi citizens sent to Abu Ghraib have never been convicted of any crime, and that expert advice tends to confirm that any information acquired from even guilty prisoners as a result of torturing them tends to be useless—-precisely because people under this kind of pressure are apt to say anything, especially whatever they think the torturers want them to say—-raises the question of why Bush has been willing to break treaties and other international agreements and tarnish American prestige simply for the sake of inflicting needless cruelty. The only plausible explanation I’ve come up with for this is that expert opinion on this subject, like the prediction or prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline, hasn’t yet reached the Oval office, apparently because second opinions of any kind aren’t being sought.

Given the cultural remoteness of most Americans from the everyday lives and fates of innocent Iraqi citizens, it’s hard to shake off the suspicion that Bush’s indefensible position on this subject may be typical rather than eccentric—-that a good many Americans may not really mind if innocent Iraqis undergo torture, just as long as the facts of such injustices aren’t shoved in their faces. Given the overall willingness of the American press to accommodate this desire for avoiding the facts, the process by which torture becomes a box office staple may indeed not be too difficult to understand. After all, it’s been demonstrated repeatedly by the TV series 24–launched around the same time that Bush became President and still popular today–that government-sanctioned torture continues to be dramaturgically sound and therefore saleable even if it remains questionable on practical as well as ethical grounds.

This may help to account for how Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew with English subtitles, managed to come in third among the top-grossing releases of 2004, just behind Shrek 2 and Spider-Man 2 and ahead of Meet the Fockers and The Incredibles—-how, in short, the only feature among the top ten not made chiefly for kids and teenagers offered a veritable orgy of cruelty and suffering, complete with slow motion and masochistic point-of-view shots. Despite the title, I assumed this drama about the last 12 hours of Jesus’s life would include something about his teachings, at least in flashback. But the Sermon on the Mount was reduced to two sound bites, and miracles and good works barely got a glance. The charges of anti-Semitism and homophobia hurled at the movie seemed too narrow; its general disgust for humanity was so unrelenting that the military-sounding drums at the end seemed to be welcoming the apocalypse (rather like the mass slaughter following the Mexican rebel’s torture in The Wild Bunch).

According to the trade magazine Boxoffice, on 30 March 2008, The Passion of the Christ in fact placed 11th in its list of “all-time domestic blockbusters,” on the heels of (in descending order) Titanic (1997), Star Wars (1977), Shrek 2 (2004), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestial (1982), Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), Spider-Man (2002), Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), and Spider-Man 2 (2004). It’s a sobering thought that six of these came out during Bush’s eight years and the only other films on the list that didn’t qualify as fodder for kids were made during previous decades. But this infantilism can be ascribed to the preferences of the film industry as much as those of the audience, and this audience was plainly as Bushwhacked as the movies it attended. In more ways than one, its mind was elsewhere.


[from his review of _No Country For Old Men_:]

Adapted from what is generally considered a minor Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Men is a very well-made genre exercise, but I can't understand why it's been accorded so much importance, unless it's because it strokes some ideological impulse. [....]

The picture of human nature in No Country for Old Men is by contrast so bleak I wonder if it must provide for some a reassuring explanation for our defeatism and apathy in the face of atrocity. [....]

Early in the film (and in the novel), Sheriff Bell recalls arresting a boy who killed a 14-year-old girl. Some people described it as a crime of passion, but Bell says the boy had wanted to kill someone for as long as he could remember, that he knew he was going to hell, and that he would kill again if he could. The story brings to mind the Misfit, a character in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" who randomly wipes out an entire family in a comparable act of nihilistic desperation.

In O'Connor's vision, perfectly captured in a mere 16 pages, the Misfit is an emblem of religious despair, but in the less considered genre mechanics of Cormac McCarthy and the Coens, religious despair is nothing more than an alibi for violence. It's invoked as a way of covering all the bases, tapping into fundamentalist fatalism without really buying into it. Bell's wounded sense of morality in the face of so much bloodshed frames the action, but one reason why I suspect some critics reject this device while embracing everything else is that they intuit how little conviction the Coens bring to it.


But just because the Coens are hip enough to know the contemporary audience they're addressing doesn't mean they have anything to say we don't already know, about Abu Ghraib or anything else. What I suspect they're really offering us is a convenient cop-out: we can allow dog collars to be used even while we hypocritically shake our heads at the sadness of it all.


Worth remembering that 2008 was the year that Michael Haneke released his English remake of Funny Games to America, which felt like a reproach of the audience for complicity with torture.


I don't know, Shane -- by all accounts, it was shot-for-shot the same as the German film, which was from the late 1990s. More an indictment of "spectacular" culture in general than that of the US under Bush in particular. I liked the original (well, "like" is the wrong word; it made a powerful impression) but felt no desire to see the remake.

Someone at CT argues for The Wire. I'm not persuaded that this was a specifically Bush-era artifact. On the contrary, there is a terrible possibility that it may be prophetic of what's just ahead.

Thanks for picking up on my newcritics post. Battlestar is certainly a top choice for me, but I just wanted to reinforce your reading of Funny Games. I don't know whether to see it as a Bush-era artifact, especially given its origins as a German film. There is certainly some complicity with the violence, especially when the bad guy "rewinds" the film in order to continue torturing the family. The original is an excellent film, and I've been planning to see the remake but haven't had time lately.

Yes, but I wondered if the American remake was a repurposing, as they apparently say in the self-help industry. That is, the same material is repackaged and resold for a different purpose.

Personally, I think The Wire should be considered the defining Bush-era show. Not because it’s a brilliant critique of the war on drugs — that farce was rolling long before Dubya toddled into the world stage, and will continue to grind up lives and laws for decades to come. Not because it’s a dauntingly ambitious, multi-leveled study of an entire city — again, the forces it examines so closely were at work before Bush arrived. Not even because the second season shows a major drug investigation thrown off the rails because a key villain is valued by the FBI as an anti-terrorist asset — stories that deal with the complicated morality of undercover operations go back to Prince of the City and even further.

The Wire is the perfect Bush-era show because it depicts law enforcement fighting a real problem — rampant, socially corrosive drug abuse — in deluded ways that ensure the problem not only persists, but intensifies . . .


Leave a comment

Recent Work

Fidel Castro: My Life 
A review from Newsday
40 Years of "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual" 
Marking the anniversary of Harold Cruse's great book
Style and Grace 
A review of a book by the late, great Grace Paley from ... sheesh, almost ten years ago.
Oh, Canada 
National identity -- going south?
The LaRouche Tabernacle Choir 
An interview with me about the LaRouche movement, on Pacifica radio in Los Angeles
Open Library 
An interview with Aaron Swartz, one of the developers....
Sailing From Ithaka 
The new report calling for a digital platform for scholarly publishing deserves a wide audience


Battle of the Titans 
Dinesh D'Souza and Alan Wolfe debating? Imagine a slime mold in conflict with a patch of mildew. It's just that inspiring.
To the Tehran Station 
Not about Edmund Wilson
more picks


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Quick Study published on December 17, 2008 12:48 PM.

Duly Noted was the previous entry in this blog.

Television, "1880 or So" is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

AJ Ads

AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.