More than any other presidents the two Bushes have used war to stay popular. It is so high school. And yet their profound cruelty has not put them behind bars. The son is so bad that the idiot father seems a genius.
How to portray them in art? The anti-Nazi Germans George Grosz, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Jooss are good models. Luis Bu ñuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini are others. Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood could be about them.
Now comes Oliver Stone's film about the 43rd president, W.
Stone has assembled a game cast to play the characters who have wrought so much destruction upon the world in these past seven years. I will only say that except for two or three, they are bland and vague versions of the real. Richard Dreyfuss is particularly miscast as a schlubby Cheney. Where is Dick's baritone growl? Jon Stewart does him better (JSDHB), but then he has had years and years of practice.
Thandie Newton, however, is a hoot as Condoleeza Rice. She gets Condi's posture, always about to tip over on those stilettos, and her place in history: someone trained in a nonexistent geopolitics, of the vanished Cold War, and always trying not to tip over into the real world.
As the title character, Josh Brolin throws himself fearlessly into the part. He tries on an accent but it's not really Bush's. JSDHB. But it's not Brolin's fault. The movie was rushed through. It could have used a month's more rehearsal.
It is hard to erase from the mind the real Bush crew with these pallid approximations of the actors. It is impossible to make the docudrama Mission Accomplished event as insanely unreal as the one that actually happened. The real W. is more satiric; and the real Chris Matthews was more appallingly orgasmic about the real Bush on Hardball than the fake Matthews is on Stone's Spinball.
One could take the flawed script by Stanley Weiser and use documentary footage for most of it to better effect.
Stone has said he wanted to show us Shrub the man, but I do not think anyone who knows much about him will learn more. The script gives us some high points, but the film falsifies for sentimental effect, particularly in the final scenes, centering on a famous presidental press conference of April 13, 2004, in which Bush was asked if he could think of any mistakes he had made since 9/11. He replied that he could not think of a single one. Anybody who saw the press conference could only wonder at Bush's inability to reflect.
In the real press conference, Bush went on for several minutes verbally scratching his head trying to think of a mistake he had made. Stone uses the event as a symbol of W. losing grasp of reality, with shots of a press corps looking concerned and puzzled and a presidential entourage looking concerned for the sanity of their great leader, and sentimental music welling.
At the time, however, April 13, 2004, the real mainstream media concluded that this was yet another example of Bush's willful ability to focus, his ability to be Archilochus's hedgehog, who knows only one big thing. Bush after all then went on to re-election, propagandizing his one big thing, which was essentially "Vote for me or die!" In the next four years, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis continued to die in his war of choice. The world's climate deteriorated. Then came Katrina. Then came economic collapse. And we're still stuck with the worst president in our history, if not in history, period. So the sentimental ending is simply untrue to the world as we know it.
There is a question at the center of our current presidency: how could someone destroy so much in so short a time without actually launching all-out nuclear war? W. doesn't help us much in finding an answer.
But artists should respond to cataclysmic events such as the disastrous Bush regnum, and Stone has. As I watched W. Sunday afternoon, I knew I would be attending a reading the next evening of a play that might help put the film in context. And Stacy Keach, who plays the preacher in W. who brings W. into the born-again fold, premiered the title character four decades ago.
In 1965, Barbara Garson started writing what became MacBird! about the career of Lyndon Johnson. It was Macbeth transposed to America. Published in various versions by samizdat presses and then by Grove Press, it opened in January 1967 at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. It was a proto-semi-star-studded show with not just Keach but also Willam Devane as the RFK character, Rue McClanahan as Lady MacBird, and Cleavon Little as a witch.
The reading last week was at (suitably) the Brecht Forum in Greenwich Village. Garson was there, to introduce, with actors performing for free, reading on book, and a director, Jim Nolan, a high school teacher from DC, who had recently directed the play at his school.
The sense of the play came through. It was a reading, so two hours of rehearsal for a 90-minute play sufficed.
It was written in 1966 and premiered in early 1967, so its take on the actual events of those years was of necessity limited. The reading had an intermission that neatly divided the play into pre January 1967, a recognizable historical tracing, and post January 1967.
The first half shows the Ken O'Duncs (Kennedys) choosing MacBird (Lyndon Johnson) for vice president then the MacBirds plotting to kill John Ken O'Dunc and succeed him.
In the second half, with John assassinated, Robert Ken O'Dunc plots to succeed MacBird. About to duel, MacBird dies of a heart attack, and Robert becomes king.
The audience could only wish that Garson's second half had predicted reality, and Robert Kennedy had indeed succeeded Johnson. So the second half gives an extreme, almost savage sense of unreality.
The first run of the play closed immediately after RFK's assassination in June 1968.
The 1960s were a time of experimentation in the arts, and surely MacBird!, long out of print, should be published again.
Meanwhile now, a few words about a third way of looking at the kind of political sadism embodied by Bush 43, Salò: The 120 Days of Sodom,the Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini's final work. (Note: I co-translated a volume of Pasolini's poetry.)
The Criterion Collection has just released on DVD a restored edition of this film, which sums up the values of the party of the Bush gang. It is, most appropriately, roughly based upon a work by the Marquis de Sade.
In Salò, four rulers of the society kidnap sixteen teenagers and subject them to increasingly vicious, dehumanizing treatment: boring stories, being treated like dogs, having to eat excrement, finally being raped, tortured and killed.
Salò is arguably the most scandalous movie ever made. It is one of those legendary artworks difficult to see, to look at, to forget, and until now, even difficult to find.
Pasolini (1922-1975) called Salò "an allegory of the anarchy of power." He considered consumerism to be the new fascism. As he said, "You can't have ideas like mine and expect to be left alone." In his last years, he had made so many enemies--the neofascists, the Mafia, the CIA--that no one really knows who murdered him. But, on November 1, 1975, shortly before the film's release, Pasolini was bludgeoned to death.
Pasolini hated the docu-drama, exemplified by films like W. His final film is an X-ray of the way power works. He expanded the limits of free speech to the edges, and beyond, and became in the process, to paraprhase Antonin Artaud, a poet homicided by society.