“We live in a political world
Wisdom is thrown in jail
It rots in a cell
Is misguided as hell
Leaving no one to pick up the trail.”
-Bob Dylan, “Political World.”
Even if I think you’re hot, vile garbage, if you wrote about politics this year, I have to applaud your courage. That might not be the right word. Whatever it is, I don’t have it this time around. I’ve never been fully comfortable in writing about political matters. I’ve scratched together a few loose thoughts over the years. I always wind up wishing I hadn’t. Keeping depression and terminal cynicism out of my heart is hard enough these days. Researching and writing an article on the 2016 Presidential Election, or on just about anything else happening right now, feels like spiritual suicide.
I’m not turning away from these stories and things. I have opinions. Black lives matter. Donald Trump is so contemptable, I can barely manage to stutter. Hillary Clinton is the depressing status quo, but will most certainly do more good than any other major candidate. Help the refugees, help the people who live here, or take down the fucking Statute of Liberty. Colin Kaepernick is goddamn right.
I can go on. The point is, I’m keeping up with things. Unfortunately, that’s all I really have the energy for.
And that’s fine. One of the few upsides to living in these hopeless, heartless times is the fact that there is a lot of great social/political material out there to read, watch, and listen to. This politics-themed issue of Drunk Monkeys is an embarrassment of fantastic writings from some of the best working today. There are better, braver people out there to help you get a grip on just what in the hell is going on.
But I do have this column. And I’ve seen a few dozen political films over the years.
So let’s run through a few of my favorites. This is not some sort of all-time best list. It’s just the ones that I’ve enjoyed over time. If you asked me to suggest some movies about politics, elections, or just the brutalized times, these are the ones I’d run by you.
Movies give me perspective. They sometimes prove to be invaluable at making sense of whatever’s going on at the moment. Sometimes, they’re just an essential distraction. I love that there are movies that you can apply to just about anything.
Politics is no exception.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Arguably, A Face in the Crowd was the last truly great film Elia Kazan directed. Adapted from a memorable short story by Budd Schulberg (by Schulberg himself), A Face in the Crowd is insightful, feverish, and steeped in manic laughter cynicism. It also features a decidedly darker turn from Andy Griffith, compared to anything else he did during his long career. Watching this will leave you with the impression that he could do more than just play Matlock, or a good-natured backroads sheriff.
In telling the story of a redneck country singer (Griffith) rising to an astonishing degree of fame, first with a radio show, and later, through a disturbingly influential variety show, A Face in the Crowd offers frightening commentary on celebrity and politics. The scary part is that every crazed heartbeat of this film is as relevant as today, as it was when the movie was released to middling interest almost sixty years ago. Griffith’s Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes is one of the ghosts in the machine that today defines an interest in celebrity so intense, it has long since crossed into fetishism. His rise to a degree of power that makes him an attractive political inside, and eventually a candidate, is a story that can easily be told in the present.
I’m not surprised Donald Trump is a serious political challenger in 2016. Movies from an allegedly different era prepared me for him.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Another classic that continues to compel and haunt with its relevancy. Dr. Strangelove essentially imagines how our leaders would handle the potential threat of a nuclear holocaust. What we get is something packaged as broad satire, with over-the-top performances from George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Peter Sellers (in any of the three characters he plays). What we actually experience is something that manages to be the kind of broad satire that brilliantly assumes that anything is actually possible.
Do we actually live under the absurdist terms that define this film’s universe? Most definitely. Living in the age of viral video has made believers out of us all. In other words, the world is a sprawling slaughterhouse metropolis, currently engulfed in waves of fire. As we watch the elaborate series of misunderstandings between individuals and whole governments unfold in Dr. Strangelove, we can laugh at the momentum of the chaos, directed with singular disdain and dark amusement by Stanley Kubrick. We laugh because it’s silly. We also laugh because we’re scared.
The War Room (1993)
I was pretty pleased to see Documentary Now! tackle this film for their recent 2nd season premiere. If the episode interests you in the source material, go with it. The 1993 documentary in question (from Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker) indulges our voyeuristic wonder. Even in controlled settings, people still reveal themselves. The documentary’s subjects (James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton, and others) offer plenty on that front.
The War Room reveals the lunacy of the current political machine in a charming, also disarming way. It also provides a century’s worth of electricity for our imaginations. Most of all, where it concerns what really goes on behind closed, important doors.
They Live (1988)
Let’s be honest with ourselves. They Live is absolutely perfect. Even so, its satire isn’t particularly deep. Nor is the film’s response to the deep, unshakable roots of suppression, corruption, and apathy that grips this film’s world. Guess what? None of that matters. In terms of both of those things, They Live is a considerably more satisfying film experience than what you’ll get with the pretentious, overreaching V for Vendetta. Or whatever films might be somewhat similar to what They Live offers, in terms of entertainment and political commentary.
Then again, maybe one of the great things about Roddy Piper, some sunglasses, a planet full of aliens, and a few iconic lines of dialog is the fact that it has no equal. Beyond They Live offering vintage John Carpenter action sequences and pacing (and one of the greatest fight scenes of all time), the film features a brand of optimism that we can get behind. People can fight. People can resist. A lot of movies tell us that. They Live offers that sentiment in straightforward, surprisingly realistic terms.
Being There (1979)
There is definitely a type of political film that appeals to me. Based on a novella by Jerzy Kosiński, and directed by the notoriously underrated Hal Ashby, Being There is more than a stunning, final flash of brilliance from Peter Sellers. It’s also another disturbingly believable parody of celebrity and politics. We will never be able to separate the two. I honestly don’t know if that’s even a viable idea. What I do know is that their constant, piggish fucking has created a mutant that also functions as the parameters of our daily lives. And I’m just talking about the democratic societies.
Being There is brilliant for how it consistently raises the stakes with its story of a simple-minded gardener’s first forays into the real world. Then it turns the stakes into the status quo. In other words, the weird makes way for the even weirder at a steady, sobering clip.
Due to space, I can’t get into why the following additional picks are worth your time. Just trust me.
•The Fog of War (2003)
•Goodnight, and Good Luck (2005)
•Bob Roberts (1992)
•Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)