Remembering cinema’s Bush years

Posted by · 5:20 pm · November 3rd, 2008

As the world prepares to bid farewell to George W. Bush following tomorrow’s election, I came across an apt article in the new edition of Sight and Sound, in which critic Michael Atkinson evaluates how the Bush presidency affected American film, and how the period might be interpreted by future film historians. As always with S&S pieces, it’s not available online, but it’s an insightful (and occasionally contentious) piece worth tracking down if you want to give a cinematic spin to your sense of closure.

As has been noted before, Atkinson believes that the sense of public panic and political insecurity that  characterised the presidency has been most clearly manifested in the resurgence of the superhero movie:

It’s easy to imagine that in a decade or two, the Bush years will be viewed as the discouraging ebb in the pop-cult continuum when everyone from eight to 80 was excited about ‘super powers’ … Clearly, a preadolescent bout of night terrors required succour, producing a trend that’s bound to date as badly as the Spielbergian blue light and Rambotics of the 1980s.

This is the kiddie-escapist paradigm tinctured with memories of 9/11; today, the vigilantes in primary-colour tights we hanker for don’t confront the conjectural fears of the Cold War, but the all-too-tangible, falling-bodies verities of the new millennium. In “The Dark Knight,” Christian Bale’s Batman has to wrestle, as the Bush administration didn’t, with the necessity of being perceived as evil for the sake of what’s construed as the common good.

Further on in the article, Atkinson moves away from fantasy, and ponders the relevance of the wave of bleak, socially conscious dramas made in recent years, which he terms the “Crash” microgenre, also encompassing such films as “Mystic River,” “Babel” and “Little Children.” He concludes that, in future years, they will reveal far more about the country’s political state during these years than the various Iraq-themed films that have been made:

No historian will typify the Bush years with “Redacted” or “Rendition,” but the monuments to our narcissism may still be standing. Few ‘serious’ subjects moved Americans more than their neighbours’ imperfections; the “Crash” microgenre may well represent an unconscious effort to understand how we — or they; the rich, the immigrants, the upwardly mobile blacks, the addicts, the paedophiles — allowed the Bush administration to form in the first place.

Interesting stuff, and a well-timed bit of commentary. Hell, if by some miracle you’re still undecided about who to vote for, maybe think in terms of which president will make for more interesting cinema. No, maybe don’t.

Happy voting, America.

1 Comment Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

1 response so far

  • 1 11-04-2008 at 12:05 am

    Eunice said...

    The Bush years in terms of American cinema were actually pretty interesting. There’s always that underlying current of responsibility, dissatisfaction, and struggle. Dissatisfaction just pierces right through, whether it’s a superhero movie (where we all hope to be saved or be taken cared of as well as Superman can), a war ot political movie, or even something as domestic as ‘The Hours’.

    American cinema during the Bush years was also really escapist. The surge of animated and superhero movies, as well as happier musicals like Hairspray and Mamma Mia!, might have been an answer to the public’s own need for a distraction from the chaotic mess that was the Bush administration.

    Also, the Bush years can also be the years where cinema was most interested about the minority. Everything, from the African-Americans, Asians, and Latinos, the handicapped, to the LGBT community (‘Brokeback Mountain’) has been represented in film in some shape or form. Hollywood wasn’t always respectful to the minorities it depicted, sometimes it wasn’t even accurate, but the fact that they were given screen time is an achievement in itself.

    I think what characterizes or defines the Bush years in terms of American cinema is the fact that movies were so reflective during this time. If they’re not looking at the future, they’re looking at the past and the present. I don’t think American cinema has been this reflective of its government and society since the Cold War period. American movies during the Bush years just had this self-assessing nature. Are our people contented? Is the government doing its job? Do we treat people who differ from us equally? Is the society fragmented and self-serving or does it actually bind people together? Hollywood actually asked some of the questions that people might have been asking themselves and it produced a lot of movies that provoked its audience to actually think about their own situation. Oh, and of course, parodies made the self-assessment more disgestible.

    Last, but not the least, American cinema pushed its boundaries technically. With ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Iron Man’, ‘Finding Nemo’, ‘Ratatouille’ and ‘Transformers’ paving the path for more believable movies (through CGI, of course.), and with the period’s penchant for showcasing lives and plots through costume and set design, as well as through music, I think American cinema in the Bush years actually gave us more life-like and more entertaining movies to watch.

    So here’s hoping that Obama wins, and that Hollywood turns more corners in future.