Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Mythology of Obama/McCain

It bothers me when people invariably hold up so called ‘realistic’ works of art as more important and relevant than science fiction or other ‘genre’ works. For one, ‘realism’ is just as much a construction as ‘subjectivity’ or sci-fi. The Wire is only realistic because that style of writing and acting hews to today’s definition of realism in art. Yesterday’s ‘realism,’ think a 50s Brando performance, can look mannered today, in the way that I’m sure one day The Wire will feel just as mannered.

The Wire tells us a lot about the world we live in, but it’s not all in the ‘realistic’ depiction of events, it’s largely the editing and story construction, which juxtaposes various sectors of society against each other, that reveals the hidden connections and chain of events that hurt people. A work like The Corner can be emotionally devastating, but without seeing the whole picture, the work doesn’t reveal as much about the world.

All of this is a way of saying that sometimes it takes a constructed situation to reveal what’s really going on in the world. It’s hard to make movies directly commenting on the political reality of the world we live in, things change so fast, talking about specific events can seem instantly dated. I think part of that is also a lack of courage on the part of filmmakers. Every Iraq War film tries to take on this ‘objective’ point of view, to be apolitical, which I think is irresponsible. Nobody wants to watch a two hour essay on why the Iraq War is bad, but at the same time, it is bad, and I think there’s plenty of great material about the specific failures of the Iraq War.

For me, the only great war movie ever made is Apocalypse Now. It’s the only film that puts you in the subjective experience of war. Watching the film, you see how people could kill, because they’re in such a totally insane world. The entire film is subjective, a psychological journey as much as a physical one. It’s not necessarily a political film, but the folly of Vietnam is present in every frame. It captured the psychedelic insanity of that war, and I think we need a film that could do the same for Iraq, and the disastrous buildup to the war.

The only work I’ve seen that really got to the core of what Iraq is about is the New Caprica arc on Battlestar Galactica. It’s a work that isn’t explicitly about Iraq, and that lets it cast our heroes as the Iraqis, and portrays the Americans as a vast impersonal invasion force. It’s intensely relevant, but also riveting filmmaking. The whole war in Iraq story is pretty unbelievable, a war for imaginary weapons that was won five years ago but wages on with no end in sight. A war that costs billions of dollars, but no one really cares about. It’s a war that everyone wants to be over, but no one will end. It’s a war that can perhaps best be expressed in mythic terms, we’re in a world that is at the midst of a vast ideological struggle between a progressive force and a regressive, violent force. It’s a war that is eternal, and has taken many forms. It’s the war of The Invisibles, it’s the war of The Fourth World, it’s the war of Star Wars. It’s not a war at all, it’s a rescue mission.

All of this is a buildup to discussing the recent John McCain ad, in which he claims that Barack Obama is “the one.” He quite literally evokes Joseph Campbell’s Heroic mythology to position Obama as the savior come to deliver us from an age of darkness. And, watching the ad, it vexed me. Couldn’t this be an Obama ad, a beloved savior here to make the world better. It’s not until I got to the Moses section of the ad that I realized the whole thing is meant as satire, a sarcastic rebuke of Obama’s rhetoric from a profoundly cynical man. I complained in the past that the Democrats were all Daily Show liberals, happier to joke about Bush’s ineptitude and language slips than to offer an alternative to his policy. But, it seems things have flipped, Obama is the one offering a vision of a better America while McCain is the guy heckling him offstage.

It really bothers me that McCain would choose this tactic because I think it can undermine virtually everything positive that Obama represents. I don’t think Obama is that different from other politicians when it comes to policy, he’s made a few too many compromises for my taste, he’s better than most, but I’d like to see him go further. Still, a while ago I realized that specific policy might be not be as important as the overall impression a candidate makes.

Obama’s presentation, the invocation of a new era can be more important than any policy. Bush’s genius was to create a political world in which his ideas were right, and anyone who disagreed with him was un-American. It became difficult to present new ideas because he could claim that anyone who disagreed with him was with the terrorists, or was disgracing the memory of 9/11, or something like that. The Democrats had to play the Republican game, claim that they were stronger than the Republicans on security. That’s why we went to war in Iraq, because politicians were afraid to oppose it, fearing being called weak when it came time to run for higher office. The poetic justice of John Kerry or Hillary Clinton’s votes on the war is that they voted for political reasons, and that vote wound up destroying their campaigns. It’s fitting that they should find that fate, having chosen politics over principle.

So, Obama is giving us a new hope, a vision of a better world. What is McCain offering? “Experience?” Yes, McCain has experience, experience of failing. His implicit message is vote for Obama and be attacked by a terrorist. But, he already betrayed our so called ‘war on terror’ by supporting the war in Iraq. He chose to vote to go to war on a lie, so he either got duped by Bush’s pitch, or he for some reason chose to invade a country that was no threat to us. If he was sold by Bush’s pitch, that means he can be easily swayed by lies, and is likely to put America in danger again. If he really thought it was smart to invade Iraq for no particular reason, then he’s a rash extremist, prone to violence. Or, perhaps he really does think it’s America’s duty to spread democracy to the rest of the world, by any means necessary.

In that case, isn’t it a noble calling, something to be proud of? Of course, that’s not really it. McCain has no backbone, no beliefs beyond perpetuating the military industrial complex. And that’s why he’s become the guy in the back of the movie theater throwing wisecracks at a serious film that people are listening to. His goal seems to be to so thoroughly shred Obama that by the end he doesn’t win, he makes Obama lose. He is the Archons from The Invisibles, trying to preserve the status quo through fear, not wanting things to be any different, any better than they are now. He is literally fearmongering, making people think that any change in their lives is invariably going to be for the worst, that we’re perilously clinging to the way things are.

If Obama really is “the one” as McCain says, isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t a good thing to be loved by the rest of the world, isn’t it a good thing to want to change the world? Isn’t this what the country’s ‘forefathers,’ so beloved by Republicans, intended. America is an experiment, it should evolve and change with the times. That’s what Obama is trying to do, and that’s why the cruel heckles of McCain are perhaps the greatest endorsement of Obama. The movie trailer practically writes itself: “In a nation’s darkest hour, one man will rise to save them all.” Obama, incarnates a twenty-first century vision of progress, a blend of races and ideas, he has transcended all manner of obstacles to come this close to the presidency. To elect him will send a message to the world that we’re ready to make the world better.

Distilled to its essence, this story is a myth as old as time. He is a messiah figure, a contemporary incarnation of a classic archetype, caught up in an eternal struggle. To simply depict the reality of events doesn’t tell the whole story, we need to look at it in the context of the eternal human mythology, which McCain has conveniently done for us. Cast in that light, who’s going to vote for Darth Vader instead of Luke Skywalker? Who's hoping the sentinels will destroy the X-Men? Who wants the past to stop the future coming?


Anonymous said...

Um, in a related story - I FINALLY started watching the first season of The Wire yesterday and I. AM. IN. LOVE. Five episodes down and there's this lyrical beauty in its portrait of Baltimore and it's very interesting that you mention a discussion of its realism. You see, many years ago there was Homicide: Life on the Street (WATCH IT!) and it was praised for its realism. And yet, in reality, it had two devices that both competed and complemented each other - it was shot on 16mm, but its dialogue was this rich kind of ultra-realism: a study in eloquence. Whereas The Wire is shot 35mm (correct me if I'm wrong) and its dialogue is considerably more realistic because many of the cops are not eloquent - and the amazing scene wherein the only dialogue is "fuck" both breaks that mould and fits it to a tee.

I agree with what you're saying politically.

Patrick said...

At last you've picked up The Wire. I'm looking forward to hearing what you've got to say on the show, it's great throughout, and changes and grows in interesting ways as the show progresses.

I've seen the first episode of Homicide, but I think I was too close to The Wire and couldn't really appreciate it. The difference in shooting style was striking, when I first saw The Wire, it felt like a 80s or 90s network drama, while Homicide's shaky, 16mm style made it hard to believe this was a network show from the mid 90s.

But, I'm going to check out more pretty soon.