The Campaign

Gen X Review The CampaignWe’re a society of masochists.

This is the only explanation for something like The Campaign, a mostly unfunny satire which doesn’t even begin to touch the cruel comedy of this election year. There’s a term for people who want too much of a bad thing and it rhymes with “sacks of shit.”

Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a creature of politics, the sort of guy who has mastered the spin. A career politician from North Carolina, Cam’s Congressional campaign is all-but locked up when he suddenly makes a gaffe of epic proportions. As his poll numbers nosedive, a pair of 1%ers (the Motch brothers played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) decide to put forward an opponent to keep their interests in the Tar Heel state.

Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) is the fruity son of a former political strategist. A small-town nobody, Marty runs the local trolley tour business and waxes poetic about the virtues of nowhere USA. Sounding a bit like Stuart Smalley from SNL and living the perfect American nightmare with his chubby, unlikable family, Marty is less a character than an excuse for Galifianakis to wear bad sweater vests.

The debates and political games that follow run the gamut from mostly stupid banal fart humor to slightly less stupid banal fart humor. By the end both characters are utterly unlikable stereotypes, which isn’t as bad as it sounds since they begin as utterly unlikable stereotypes.

Ok, ok, ok – The Campaign isn’t a bad movie, it’s just worse than it has to be and it really doesn’t need to be very good to begin with. Most of the jokes are recycled from real life political mishaps, Ferrell has simply reused his George W. Bush impersonations from SNL, and the message of the film – that we can win if we stay true to our values – is so trite and stupid that it doesn’t just insult our intelligence, but water boards it into submission.

As cynical and manipulative as the film is, it isn’t nearly cynical enough. In this alternative world, the bad guys are easily identified, like the Motch brothers, by how deeply they are embedded in the political machine. Because there is an inside to this system, there is also an outside, a place where organic communities survive and people “speak from the heart.”

In the real world, politics infiltrate every aspect of everyday life. It shapes communities into voting districts, frames questions in ways that predetermine their answers, even defines the legal meaning of the body. There is no pure and organic exterior to politics just as there is no real beyond ideology.

The candidates in The Campaign are basically sock puppets for agents that understand how to wield true power. Even Cam really only succeeds when others tell him what to do and how to gain public support. But the tactics they use – Marty tricking Cam’s son into calling him dad, Cam seducing Mart’s frumpy wife – seem absolutely grade school compared to the smear tactics of our real-life political operatives.

And speaking of grade school… Apparently Cam and Marty went to the very same school, although they obviously didn’t run in the same circles. The impetus for Cam to get involved in politics, a rusty jungle Jim at that school, also left its permanent scars on Marty in more than one way.

So again we’re dealing with a previous time that stands in stark contrast to the now with all of its cynicism and spin control. In the long imagined innocent childhood Cam ran on what he thought was right; now he merely works as a cog in the political machine, in many ways indistinguishable from any other congressman.

Which is how I feel about the film: it is essentially unremarkable.


Dark Knight Rises (Part 2)


Gen-X-Review-Dark-Knight-Rises-Part-2The joker may be gone, but the joke remains in the Dark Knight Rises.

The film finds Batman retired and his alter ego Bruce Wayne a recluse in his sprawling mansion. The hero was unable to save the love of his life in the last film and he has spent eight years nursing this injury, fixated on his impotence in the face of madness and violence.

Paradoxically, the city has thrived without its dark hero, largely because it has embraced the model of a police state under the emblem of its former district attorney Harvey Dent. (Dent, like Batman’s former lover, became a victim of the Joker’s insanity in the end of The Dark Knight.)

Superficially sanity has regained its hold, both of the masked crusader and of Gotham, but really both are on the brink of a mental breakdown. The city has not learned to listen to the clown and as a result inequity has flourished. Those social anxieties fester underground, where a paramilitary group of zealots are training under the tutelage of Bane, one of the last living men trained by the League of Shadows, Batman’s old fraternity.

Bane sings in the same tune as the Joker, who said in the Dark Knight, “Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!”  This is essentially the same logic Bane applies to a captured Gotham when he tells them that their liberation is inseparable from their destruction.

The project for both villains is a fool’s palace on earth.  For the Joker, this world is the natural result of removing the artificial barriers introduced by culture. By showing the civilization where it hides its madness, he hopes to demonstrate the basic insanity at work beneath our culture.

Bane seals away Gotham’s law enforcement officers in the sewers of Gotham and separates the city from the rest of the world in an attempt to create a culture freed from the operation of the state. “Behold, the instrument of your liberation! Identify yourself to the world!” he announces to the city after telling them that they’re all going to die.

The end is near. No one can stop you from reinventing your world. What do you deny yourself at this moment?

For the Joker and Bane the answer is obvious. Given the power to do anything, you deny yourself nothing. The veneer of civilization with its complex rules of law, logic of the market, social graces and other niceties do little more than mask the seething desiring machine at our core, and the ultimate appetite is a hunger for oblivion and destruction.

This is why they wear masks. By coming out in drag, these villains show the culture itself that it, too, is a fabrication. Beneath the masks are brutal men (and women) who would do what they’d want, if they had access to their desires. The masks give them strength and power, but they also makes them less than fully human.

“No one cared who I was, until I put on the mask,” Bane says sneeringly. But Bane’s mask is also a life-support system. It keeps excruciating pain at bay and puts his vulnerabilities – tiny tubes that supply his oxygen – on display.  To wear a mask is to admit that you’re a nut, that you need the mask to manage a personality that otherwise would be babbling nonsense.

Ultimately the mask is a face that bears the scars of psychological battles. Insanity rises up out of the unconscious and collects in the face. For Dent, the Joker and Bane, the face doesn’t conceal the troubled nature of the insanity beneath it. For Batman (Wayne), the mask is more than a face: It’s a fully formed identity that threatens to possess him, an alien being in his mind.

But really very little separates the superhero from the supervillains. The presence of the mask (even as face) shows that they’ve ascended out of darkness broken and disfigured. They have not been able to adjust to a normal life and have an unhealthy attachment to fetish objects.

The fetishist doesn’t love the whip because it brings pain; he loves it because it focuses pain into a form that’s manageable. Release comes, not from the object, but by turning away to it at a crucial moment, averting your eyes from something that would cause excruciating psychological pain.

This pain can be subverted into pleasure, but not for Batman. He can only experience pleasure in negation, as a martyr. The fool’s promise of liberation will only make him confront whatever it is that lurks behind the mask, a psychological force he fears will destroy him.

The fool’s palace Bane hopes to create will display everything on the other side of the mask. It will lay bare the brutality at the heart of the city, put its hypocrisy and contradictions on public display, and reveal the anarchy that gives state power its meaning.

The problem with the fool’s palace is it does not undo the logic of a corrupt state; it inverts it. New masters emerge to take the place of old masters and new hypocrisies replace old ones, but the same basic logic is at play. The problem is not of will, but of imagination.

The irony is the clown speaks the truth. Historically the jester – with his direct experience of insanity – is the only one who could tell the king the truth. These truths, so difficult to communicate within the state’s bureaucracy, could be conveyed concealed in a joke, spoken by a madman.

The culture is sick. Like our own world, inequity and corruption have become institutionalized and the institution is the last place to look for solutions.

The world needs a Joker to reveal these realities, but only if the punch line comes at the end of a joke and not the barrel of a gun.  

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