Friday, October 24, 2008

The Politics of Film in October 2008: Part II: W

Oliver Stone's W (2008) is the second controversial pre-election docu-genre film that I will explore. Although it is inappropriate to classify this film as a documentary, it remains an interesting comparison to Mahr and Charles' Religulous because it uses real footage and accurate re-enactment in attempting to satirize the real by presenting it as faithfully as possible. To clarify using a different example, Tina Fey's rendition of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has achieved a similar effect. In each case, the media producers merely hold a mirror up to their object of scorn and allow the results to speak for themselves. Naturally, this is more the case in Fey's Saturday Night Live performance than in Stone's film, because the latter must yield to the constraint of presenting a feature-length drama.

Before delving directly into an analysis of the film's mechanics, I want to direct the reader to the diagram featured on my homepage ( This diagram is the outcome of an extensive research project investigating film adaptation and is taken from my recently completed dissertation, Found in Translation: Structural and Cognitive Aspects of the Adaptation of Comic Art to Film (Jones, 2008). The theory of adaptation expressed through the diagram is relevant here because it shows the pathways that exist between original source material and adaptation. In this case, the reality of Bush's presidency represents the source material, and Stone's film represents the adaptation.

Looking at the film from the perspective of this General Model of Adaptation (Jones, 2008), we can say that it is a structural adaptation (Jones, 2008) which selects a specific series of events and modifies them through reorganization, condensation, and extrapolation (see pgs. 114-116 for definitions). Using this framework, I will now trace the migration and modification of content from source to adaptation in Stone's W.

The foundation of this "adaptation of reality" is the actual events that occurred in the life of George W. Bush. Like any personal history, no matter how recent it is, some aspects are clearer and easier to discern than others. Certainly the least ambiguous aspects of the film are those lifted straight from reality in the form of archival television material. These clips, taken directly from the media contemporary to the events being dramatized, ground the film, no matter how tenuously, in the realm of actuality. The brief television clip of Bill Clinton's victory over the elder Bush, the invasion of Iraq, images of worldwide protests, and the destruction of the Saddam Hussein statue are examples of the infusion of reality into the context of the story. Of course, these scraps of authenticity are quickly modified to fit into the narrative through the context surrounding them. For example, the reality of the Bill Clinton victory as it was presented on television is immediately placed in the service of making a point about the relationship between George W. Bush and his father: As the elder bush weeps softly at his loss, his son gets angry and exclaims that he should have gone all the way and unseated Saddam from power. This troubled father/son relationship and the argument over Iraq are elements that are central to the entire film; however, the seam between reality and fiction is barely detectable because of the credibility lent by the real-life television excerpt.

Beyond these archived images of the recent past, the film also features re-enactments of actual media events. Similar to Tina Fey's performance on Saturday Night Live, humor and criticism are achieved through fidelity, not hyperbole. Two outstanding examples of this technique, as it is used in W, are the press conference where Bush struggles to explain what mistakes were made leading up to the war, and the "Mission Accomplished" photo-op in which Bush lands a fighter jet on an air craft carrier. Both of these scenes augment the real events they portray by recreating them for the film narrative. For one thing, being re-enactments, these scenes do not present a recycled, previously interpreted version of reality the way the television clips described above do. Instead, they serve to remind viewers of key moments that inform the film's perspective on the Bush presidency and comment upon those moments through their reconstruction by presenting the viewer with a slightly different version of events that serve as a prompt for re-examination within the context of the film's narrative. For example, by exploiting cinematic devices such as the close-up shot and montage editing, these scenes are explored in ways that would be impossible if a completely faithful representation or their original media sources were used instead. To illustrate my point, imagine the press conference without close-ups or the "Mission Accomplished" scene without camera movement.

A step further away from the "documentary" quality of the previous examples of archived footage and re-enactments is the dramatization of anecdotal stories that compose the scenes of Bush's youth which are intercut with the first term of his presidency. Depictions of his life as a Yale "frat-boy," his relationship with Laura, and, especially, his relationship with his father, George H. W. Bush, are dramatized based on anecdote and interspliced with the core of story that explores the events surrounding the invasion of Iraq. The most interesting thing about these anecdotal dramatizations is how they form a parallel story to the Bush presidency and, in the process, attempt to lend insight into the psychology of George W. Bush. As in the case of Religulous (Mahr & Charles), parallelism is used to structure the film's plot in the form of an argument. As Manohla Dargis explains: "The story repeatedly shifts between scenes of the younger Bush meandering through his life, and the older Bush navigating through the early stages of the Iraq war. This shuttling across time and space undercuts the drama — the story doesn’t so much build as restlessly circle back — but it puts into visual terms Mr. Stone’s ideas about the present and past being mutually implicated" (New York Times).

One telling example of how parallelism occurs happens when we are witness to Bush's envious response to his father's support of his brother, Jeb, during his campaign for governor. Upon witnessing this exchange, we are left with the impression that much of Bush's motivation is to earn the respect and approval of his father. In light of this, the war is framed as a misplaced attempt to win approval by completing the job his father started. Parallelism, in this respect, is similar to the adaptive operation that I call "reorganization" in the diagram of the general model of adaptation because events are presented in an order that supports the new plot rather than retelling the story in the literal sense.

In addition to reorganizing history in the service of the film's plot, much of the recent past is also omitted. As noted by McCarthy, "Stone and Weiser make no attempt to cover historical bases; major episodes, including political campaigns, business alliances and elections, are completely omitted" (Variety). Cutting to the chase in this way by elimonating extraneous information not directly relevant to the film's central plot is akin to the adaptive operation of "condensation" in which nonessential material is dropped in order to unify the plot. One major example of condensation in W was the omission of the 2000 presedential race against Al Gore and its highly contested outcome.

Finally, some scenes in the film were completely invented, or "extrapolated" for the sake of the plot. Examples include the scene where Bush discovers Jesus after collapsing during a jog, the scene where he dreams of his father sitting in the Oval Office and lecturing him, and all of the scenes of Bush alone in the baseball stadium catching fly balls. As with the extrapolation that occurs in all film adaptations, these scenes serve to stitch the plot together and, in the process, make salient the most important aspects of the story. Take, for instance, the last scene in the film where Bush runs backward to the wall to catch a fly ball just before it disappears, leaving him bewildered in an empty stadium. There is no equivalent of this in reality but the scene works metaphorically, using the disappearing ball to suggest Bush's ultimate lack of control and confusion in the face of the events surrounding him in the wake of the invasion of Iraq.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Politics of Film in October 2008: Part I: Religulous

Over the next three blog posts, I will be examining three politically charged films released in October, 2008; the month prior to the Presidential Election. These include Religulous (Charles), An Americal Carol (Zucker), and W (Stone). One of these is a documentary, and the other two are narrative films that exploit the reputations of real people.

I begin with the documentary Religulous so that An American Carol and W can be compared more directly as narrative products.

To briefly summarize, Religulous is premised upon comedian and social critic Bill Mahr's quest to understand why people maintain religous faith in the face of overwhelming reasons to doubt. He speaks to leaders and believers in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities in order to try to understand their perspectives. At the end of the film, Mahr concludes that religion is dangerous and should be discarded because it will ultimately lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy about the end of the world.

The reader who has seen this film will correctly observe that the previous paragraph of synopsis ignores the fact that Mahr is not really trying to "understand." His mind is obviously made up and he is plumbing the religious leaders, followers, and places of the world for information that will support his position. This is not a new technique, nor is it a dishonest or unethical technique as some might suggest. A film's classification as "documentary" does not mandate a perspective that is fair or unbiased in any way. In the most literal sense, a documentary film documents reality and does not script dialog or stage events for the camera beyond the readily apparant staging of the interview scenario. How that reality is sliced up and reassembled, however, is both a perceptual and ideological task that cannot be avoided anyway. The most obvious evidence of this singular, biased point of view inherent to cinema is that the camera's lens can take on only one perspective. The screen can be split, images can be superimposed and multiple cameras and angles can be employed, but none of this can remedy the basic truth that a camera can only see one thing at a time and that is what the filmmaker chooses to point it at.

Taking full advantage of the power of the medium to focalize events through a single perspective, Charles and Mahr employ several techniques in promoting their anti-religious message. These include "gatekeeping," "reflexivity," "parallelism," "cutaways," and "verite."

Gatekeeping is the most obvious of this or any other documentary's modus operandi. Those interview segments, scenes, and lines of dialog that work in the favor of the documentary's perspective are kept and those that work against it are discarded. Naturally, having seen only the theatrical release of the film, I have no direct evidence that gatekeeping has occured, but it is safe to assume that much footage was discarded in order to arrive at the final product, and that some of the footage may have contained parts that were less than perfect in terms of the film's goal.

The second strategy is actually quite related to the first. Reflexivity attempts to reconstitute some of the context that the viewer knows is missing. Charles and Mahr achieve reflexivity through personal reflections that Mahr offers as the crew moves from location to location. He speaks about is family history and his personal experiences in such a way as to reveal his honest doubts and his motives for doing what he's doing. In this sense he is quite transparent about his perspective and this compensates for the necessary lack of transparency in the filmmaking process.

Paralellism is the third strategy and it is an old technique in both literature and filmmaking. To understand it, one must grasp the difference between story and plot. While the plot is the sequence of events depicted in the film, the story is the sequence of events as they occur naturally in the story that the film tells. The classic example is Citizen Kane's use of Thompson's investigation (plot) to structure the events of Kane's life (story). Using this perspective, I would say that Religulous is "all plot" and is structured more like an essay because it is guided by the logical relationships between ideas rather than the temporal relationships between events. Once again, Charles and Mahr use this to full effect, returning to various interviews repeatedly to remind the viewer of themes emerging among religious responses. For example, in one sequence, the filmmakers revisit virtually ever previous interview to make the point that religion actively promotes and seeks out the "day of judgement" when the world will end.

The most obvious technique employed throughout the film is the cutaway and it is most often inserted during the interview segments to undermine or contradict the factual incorrectness of the interviewee. Michael Moore famously used this technique in Bowling for Columbine during an interview with a Lockheed Martin spokesman trying to claim that the United States uses its weapons only against aggressors. The film then cuts away to a sampling of half a dozen instances to the contrary. Cutaways were used for similar effect in Religulous, such as the instance where a "formerly" gay minister claims that there is no such thing as a "gay gene" just before we cut to a breif interview of Mahr meeting with the scientist who discovered the "gay gene." More commonly, however, Religulous employs the cutaway for comic effect and to guide the emotional response of the viewer. For example, when suggesting that the reason the bible skips the first 30 years of Jesus' life because he had an awkward adolescence, the film cuts to a shot of Jonah Hill from the film Superbad (2007). In numerous other examples, old educational films and classic hollywood cinema (e.g. The Ten Commandments) are used to similar effect.

The final technique I will discuss this entry is "verite" and it refers to those parts of the film that were unexpected and stand outside of the director or interviewer's control. Examples include a parishioner of the "trucker's church" threatening Mahr and walking out of the interview, Mahr being thrown out of the Vatican, and various other points when religious figures get agitated with Mahr's presence. The effect of including these scenes is to stand back and let the viewers observe, as objectively as possible, the craziness, defensiveness, anger, paranoia, and general misbehavior of those under scrutiny. To illustrate, merely watching Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda to speak calls his sanity into question.