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 V.17 No.44 | October 30 - November 5, 2008 

Film News

The Politics of “Boo”

Scary election-time cinema

Be afraid. Be very afraid. This year, Halloween and Election Day will fall within the same five-day period. A coincidence? Actually, yes. But let’s pretend it’s some dark act of symmetry designed by a cruel and mocking universe to taunt us. Behind one of these doors lies a beautiful maiden. Behind an other lies a hungry tiger. Choose well, America. The entire future of our country depends on it. No pressure or anything.

Given the historic significance of the 2008 presidential election, how about we skip the horror movies this Halloween night and peer though our fingers at something truly terrifying? We’ll just stop by our favorite video store and rent a few shiver-inducing political films. Then we’ll imagine all those ghosts and goblins who show up at our door looking for candy are middle-class voters begging for tax cuts, and it’ll be a perfect pre-election fright fest.

Election Day (2007)

This street-level, on-the-fly documentary, screened on PBS’ “P.O.V.” series, gives us some none-too-encouraging insight into the 2008 presidential election by examining a day in the life of the 2004 presidential election. More than a dozen camera crews stationed across the United States dispassionately observe the calm as well as the chaos. We get brief portraits of voters, campaign workers, polling place officials and other ordinary Americans, all trying to get their vote counted. But the big picture exposes rampant cheating, hopeless red tape and institutional racism. The film is now enshrined alongside several other previously unavailable DVDs in Arts Engine’s Ten Year Anniversary Collection. Also included are Deadline (an Emmy-nominated look at capital punishment), Outside Looking In (exploring the complexities of trans-racial adoption), Nuyorican Dream (a chronicle of a Puerto Rican family’s struggle to overcome poverty) and two short film collections, Good Food and the eighth annual Media That Matters Film Festival.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

This adaptation of Richard Condon’s Korean War thriller remains the mother of all political paranoia films. A farfetched fantasy when it was first released, the film only grows more plausible with each election cycle. Laurence Harvey is a decorated soldier and senator's son who returns to America only to fall under the political manipulations of his domineering mother (Angela Lansbury, in a role that surely influenced the career of Dick Cheney). Oh, but that’s just the beginning! Turns out our hero and his entire platoon were brainwashed by Chinese communists bent on influencing America’s political process. Tense and cynical as all get-out, the film posits a world where America’s future is under attack from enemies both domestic and foreign. Imagine John McCain in the Laurence Harvey role (not much of a stretch, actually) and you’ve got a film that will scare the bejabbers out of you.

The Candidate (1972)

Most electoral films tend to attack conservative politicians. This one’s a notable exception. Robert Redford is a young, handsome, notably liberal U.S. Senate candidate from California. He doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning against the Republican incumbent, so he just goes out and tells people the truth. Suddenly, the gap starts closing. But in order to win over undecided voters, our candidate has to master certain political skills—namely soundbites, spin and the fine art of answering questions without saying anything at all. Just goes to show that about the only way to win in modern American politics is to sell out big-time. Redford’s Bill McKay, complete with his optimistic “There’s Got To Be a Better Way” slogan, has a lot of similarities to Barack Obama--which means McKay’s famous final line should send a chill up the spine of any dedicated Obama fan.

Duck Soup (1933)

The Marx Brothers? Scary? In a political sense, sure. Despite all the fine political satires Hollywood has produced over the years (Bob Roberts, Bulworth, Wag the Dog), Minnie Marx’s boys did it first and best. Groucho stars as the immortal Rufus T. Firefly, president/dictator of Freedonia. He gains his lofty position thanks to the backing of wealthy dowager Mrs. Teasdale and saves his country from bankruptcy by declaring war on neighboring Sylvania. How, exactly, does this differ from today’s reality? Notorious dictator Benito Mussolini allegedly banned this film from Italy, believing it to be a direct attack on him. Let that sink in, why don’t ya: This film scared Benito Mussolini.

Street Fight (2005)

This little-seen, Oscar-nominated documentary is the work of brave cameraslinger Marshall Curry. It concerns the 2002 re-election bid of Newark, N.J. mayor Sharpe James. James is challenged by upstart city councilman and community activist Cory Booker, who exudes the educated oratorial style of Barack Obama. That doesn’t stop James from pulling every dirty trick in the book and even using stiff-arm police tactics to keep Curry and his nosy camera off the subjects at hand. It’s hardly a surprise that James bullies the filmmaker and slanders his opponent (calling the light-skinned African-American “white,” “Jewish” and—worst of all—“a Republican”). The shocker is that voters tolerate the man’s boorish shenanigans—proving Americans’ call for “change” is more rooted in talk than action. Street Fight more or less proves the unsettling concept that smart, clean-living, idealists don’t stand a chance against corrupt, well-entrenched politicians. (Although the 2008 postscript to this story provides some mighty sweet karmic justice—Google James and Booker to find out where they are now.)

 
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