The Bones of Reagan or the Ruins of Art Cinema in Contemporary American Film
Varga, Darrell, CineAction
A Democratic victory would not change the world, but it would at least slow the momentum of the bombs-and-Jesus crowd. Those people have had their way long enough. Not even the Book of Revelation threatens a plague of vengeful yahoos. We all need a rest from this pogrom. Ronald Reagan is an old man. It will be the rest of us who will face Armageddon.
--Hunter S. Thompson (1986) (1)
A range of contemporary American films including American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), American Psycho (Mary Heron, 2000), American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003) and even the Reagan-era documentary American Dream (Barbara Kopple, 1989) reflect something of the shift in filmmaking practice that is symptomatic of late capitalism, from the counter-culture ethos of 1970s New Hollywood through to the era of the blockbuster and corresponding intensification of neo-conservative hegemony. The films I choose to discuss, acknowledging that the selection is idiosyncratic rather than historically comprehensive, emerge in an era where the direct influence of European art cinema movements has passed, and after the triumphalist ascendancy of Reagan-era backlash against progressive social initiatives on such issues as race and gender equality and worker rights. While the disaster of the American economy and the crime of the war in Iraw suggests the failure of the imperial project The Project for a New American Century, (2) the massive increase in the concentration of wealth and power in contemporary American suggests otherwise, as Naomi Klein's trenchant and carefully researched study of free-market disaster capitalism demonstrates. (3) These "American" titles, as well as important related films such as To Die For (Gus Van Sant, 1995), High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000), The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese 1983), Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000), Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), and Sex, Lies and Videotape (Stephen Soderbergh, 1989), to name a few, are particularly interesting for the expression of the shifts in hegemonic tendencies as a function of the consolidation of dominant culture around a pervasive neo-conservative mass media.
This list of exceptional films from the era demonstrates Stephen Prince's point, against the dominant critical rhetoric, that the art of cinema has not been entirely washed away by the tidal wave of the blockbuster. As he says: "Bad films (however one conceives them--as blockbusters, special effects showcases, teen comedies) did not drive out good films. Special effects extravaganzas did not vitiate good writing. While there is much irrationality, crassness, and timidity in the business, the market did what it does best--it insured that a wide range of films were available for the nation's movie-goers." (4) This populist defense of the laissez-faire market serves the good purpose of testing rhetorical claims against the actual practices of filmmakers and audiences; however, the claim of free market choice elides the broader ideological influence of the schema of the blockbuster in the narrative flow even in independent cinema. What Prince describes in his excellent history of 1980s American cinema is a systemic contradiction between the economic and control-based backlash against the excesses of auteurism, culminating in the fallout from Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) at the start of the decade along with the spectacular rise of the home video market which created a huge demand and corresponding opportunities for independent producers and distributors.(5) In fact, this shortage of Hollywood product mirrors similar marketplace conditions that provided opportunities for the distribution of European art cinema in North America in the 1960s, in turn stimulating the rise of American indie filmmaking and the popular acceptability of the idea of film as art form, not to mention contributing to the legitimization of Film Studies. Yet these similarities and the persistence of intelligent filmmaking, if always under siege, obscures the important transformation from the heyday of art cinema to the indie era--a shift reflected in economic conditions of production, the increasingly global and digital domain of marketing, and in the ideological thrust of narrative. What we have today are no longer to be called art films, but films which trade on the currency of the idea of art and are symptomatic of the marginalized concept of artists in contemporary popular culture.
Sex, Lies and Videotape and Do the Right Thing
To put the American films in context, let us first consider Sex, Lies and Videotape along with Do the Right Thing, two films which represent competing tendencies in independent production between narratives evoking material reality versus the more common tendency to examine the inner life and subjectivity of individual characters. The antagonistic positions of the two filmmakers at the time of release has interfered with an analysis oftheir films from a perspective of inter-relatedness. In brief, when Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape won the Golden Palm award at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, Spike Lee made public his outrage that his film was shut out by the white jury's (as lead by art film icon Wim Wenders) preference for a masturbation fantasy movie about white narcissism (John Pierson details this history and Spike Lee's response in his book Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes.)(6) In retrospect, Lee's film is clearly more interesting for its innovative engagement of form and content in the expression of racism and rage in America. In Lee's film, character and identity are explicitly produced through the nexus of economic conditions and material reality. The class divide, and corresponding backlash has, arguably, intensified since the film's release, with the further decline of inner cities, attacks on affirmative action policies, not to mention the intensified recruitment of black Americans into the military. But what the jury no doubt found important in the Soderbergh film is the pervasive presence of technologies of mass communication, namely video, in the expression of straight-boy desire. More to the point, in this film the mediated image of desire is internalized, providing the main character with a sexual outlet while his physical body is important.
Soderbergh's film fits well with Susan Hayward's useful definition of art cinema as "intentionally distanc[ing] spectators to create a reflective space for them to assume their own critical space or subjectivity."(7) Hayward goes on to remind us that since the 1920s, art cinema has been associated with eroticism. It is the representation of sexuality that probably did more to make art film distribution profitable, and facilitate the subsequent indie boom of the 1980-90s, than all the great thematic existential explorations of meaning. In this way, Soderbergh's film expresses something of the nostalgia for the New Wave era, perhaps unconsciously guiding the Cannes jury, insofar as it positions desire in the image along the lines of how, for New Wave filmmakers, as much as they privileged the gritty materiality of the streets, life is cinema and cinema, resolutely, is life.
Spike Lee's films are, however, populated by characters asserting a claim to the fullness of life in the world. As much as the character Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) may seem, for some white audience members, threatening in Do the Right Thing his presence is an assertion of the right to public space and, while he is largely silent, he speaks through the dynamic energy of amplified rap coming from his boom box. His murder at the hands of the police at once expresses the sad truth of a culture of segregation, state-sanctioned violence, and lynching. The live on-air execution of Manray/Mantan (Savion Glover) a decade later in Lee's Bamboozled can be read as a continuity of expressed outrage at the systemic racism and violence in American society that can be traced back in Lee's oeuvre to the murder of Radio Raheem.
In the later film, the character is executed by the Mau Maus, a group of black activists outraged by Manray's star performance in the gross-stereotype (and overwhelmingly popular) TV show: 'Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show,' based on a litany of references from the embarrassingly racist history of American film and television. The end credits of the film provide a montage of archive footage of blackface representation, serving as a documentary point of reference for the fictional narrative. Manray's execution at the hands of militants …
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Publication information: Article title: The Bones of Reagan or the Ruins of Art Cinema in Contemporary American Film. Contributors: Varga, Darrell - Author. Journal title: CineAction. Issue: 75 Publication date: Winter 2008. Page number: 4+. © 2009 CineAction. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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