Academic journal article CineAction

Allegorical Figurations and the Political Didactic in Bulworth

Academic journal article CineAction

Allegorical Figurations and the Political Didactic in Bulworth

Article excerpt

Warren Beatty's Bulworth is a political film in a long line of recent popular political films that have come out of Hollywood, films such as Dave (Ivan Reitman, 1993), The American President (Rob Reiner, 1995), Nixon (Oliver Stone, 1995), The Rainmaker (Francis Ford Coppola, 1997), Primary Colors (Mike Nichols, 1998) and Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh, 2000). These films feign political commentary but often something more banal (romance, biography, suspense) materializes. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. deftly articulates this sentiment when he says that "there are Hollywood films about politics and there are Hollywood films about love affairs, but the former are hardly more likely to have actual political content than the latter are to depict actual sexual penetration. Instead, both genres have evolved elaborate cinematic vocabularies of indirection." (1) However, I would argue that Warren Beatty's Bulworth reproduces the serious popular political films that came out of Hollywood in the late 60s and early 70s. Unlike that transitional period of filmmaking, when Hollywood took more risks--testing the counter-culture waters, trying to find material and styles that would consistently lure audiences, and willing to give power to "auteurist" (political) visions--today Hollywood commodifies to such a degree that almost all mainstream Hollywood films coalesce around profit (safe) formulas: blockbusters franchise films (sequel mania!), popular genre films, event pictures, and prestige pictures. Currently, with some exceptions, substantive political projects are typically "off-Hollywood" (e.g., Happiness, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Requiem for a Dream). And the exceptions usually either come wrapped in a disguised (genre) package (American Psycho) or get made by "stars" with clout (Bulworth, Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock).


Bulworth's similarity to the films of the late 60s/early 70s offer us another important insight. Like many of the films of this period (e.g., 2001: A Space Odyssey, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Medium Cool, Little Big Man, to name just a few), which registered the radical ruptures going on at the time, Bulworth also reveals historical conditions at large presently. More specifically, Bulworth offers us a political treatise that "maps" the postmodern condition and the dominant order of "late capitalism."

For my analysis of this film I offer a three-part model that I have developed for a larger project that I am working on, a project that supposes the viability of an oppositional popular cinema. My proposal does not displace but rather complements the still reigning critical paradigm for the political in film, the avant-gardist polemic of the post-'68 French film groups e.g., journals such as Cahiers du Cinema and Cinetheque, filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, and organizations such as the Dziga Vertov group. In short, that paradigm viewed an oppositional aesthetic largely from a marginal position: Texts that positioned themselves "outside" of the dominant social order and that eschewed the "illusionist" cinema of Hollywood could best oppose the dominant social order. However, I argue that though this paradigm is still important for us today, it does not address concerns brought on by the changing political landscape, as I will show in a moment.

I call the first part of my model the "political didactic." At present, most scholars and critics view the didactic in art derisively. However, this attitude has not always been the prevailing one. Indeed, the didactic aesthetic was seen as a natural part of classical antiquity art (split between two traditions, Hesiodic piety and Lucretian science). Moreover, political content suffused much of the art at this time. It wasn't until the onset of modernity that the political didactic diminished significantly, exchanged for a more expressive aesthetic (i.e., Kant's "purposiveness without purpose").

Today, though, because most spaces in society (art, academic, religious, familial, political) have become commodified and reified, and thus neutralized as spaces of real opposition or debate, a return to a didactic aesthetic is needed. …

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