Hollywood, the Bush Years, and America’s Memory Hole [Current Affairs]

Few films have tried to interpret the Bush era, but the ones that have are worth examining in detail. W.Vice, and The Report are some of the few major films about the Bush administration that Hollywood has produced, and despite their different approaches to history, each speaks to an important truth: to the personal moral character of George Bush; to the moral character of Republican Party in the decades before Donald Trump; and to why, exactly, America chooses to forget. 

I wrote about W., Vice, and The Report for Current Affairs. You can read it here!

Saint Lady Bird of Sacramento

I have a very hard time articulating why I’m (still) Catholic. It’s a question that other people ask me not infrequently – it’s a “do you mind if I ask you a question?” question, an inexplicable part of myself that does not seem to vibe with my weirdo androgynous socialist persona – but nowhere near as often as I ask myself. The Church has committed legions of crimes, and besides, preaches lots of things I don’t believe – that I find positively repugnant, particularly when it comes to teachings around gender and sexuality. Of course gay people should be allowed get married; of course trans people are the gender they say they are; of course women should be ordained as priests. Traditionalist Catholics and the non-religious alike are quick to write off my Catholicism as more or less bullshit: maybe it’s a lie I tell to please my parents, maybe it’s a lie I tell to please myself, a pathetic refusal to admit that all it amounts to is a cultural affiliation. But it’s not bullshit, I know it’s not. I’ve tried not being Catholic, but it’s something I can’t shake, something deep down in the bones of me.

The only answer to the question of why that feels like the full truth is a tautology: I’m Catholic because I am Catholic. My religious feelings – that seem to resonate right in my core, that seem as real as any part of me – are so hard to articulate, even to myself, that I don’t know how to even begin to express them to someone else. And so the best I can do is a kind of scrapbook religion, pointing to other people’s articulations in the hope that a collage of all of them will make me understood: Franny and Zooey and how everyone is Christ; Leo Tolstoy and the Christian imperative of nonviolence; how deeply, impossibly I believe that ‘Anarchy, My Dear’ by Say Anything is a hymn. Most of the best and brightest entries in my scrapbook, the ones that set my heart on fire, are Catholic – more or less. Liberation theology, St. Francis, St. Joan of Arc, St. Oscar Romero, The Exorcist and The Omen, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Brighton Rock, Gerard Way scrawling Catholic across his neck and his arm, Dogma, The Blues Brothers, stained glass windows and Gregorian chanting and what Stewart Lee once described as Catholicism’s love of inane seaside tat. Hitchcock for guilt, Ford for redemption, Rossellini for saints. That I think making fun of transubstantiation is hack when it is so much funnier to make fun of consubstantiation. My favourite director is Martin Scorsese, and a big reason is that no artist’s work has ever resonated quite so strongly with the religious part of my heart: felt Catholic in all the ways that I am Catholic, saturated in everything from The Last Temptation of Christ down to his most secular-seeming genre pictures.

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Michael & Me

I figured I’d kind of missed the boat on Michael Moore. He was a really big deal when I was growing up in the 2000s – somehow becoming that most unlikely of things, a blockbuster documentary filmmaker – but I never saw any of his films. Though he’s always been divisive, over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency the tide of public opinion seemed to turn against him. We seemed to think of Michael Moore in the same category as JNCO jeans or bucket hats: a terrible fad that we are embarrassed to recall having once indulged.

So I’ve spent longer listening to Michael Moore being treated like a punchline than like a serious cultural phenomenon: Michael Moore, the manipulative liar; Michael Moore, preaching to the choir; Michael Moore, who can’t understand that things just aren’t that simple. Like the left-of-centre equivalent of Dinesh D’Souza. As I got older and my political opinions developed, I figured that Michael Moore must be a certain irritating kind of liberal, who roots for the Democrats like a football team, who, at best, was – like Jon Stewart on The Daily Show – more concerned with hypocrisy than justice. That’s not true at all, but it’s what I extrapolated as the only thing that made criticisms of Moore make sense: because if he was preaching to the choir, it must be the choir of Beltway and Hollywood and Silicon Valley liberals, who are more terrified of tax hikes than oligarchy.

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I Went to the Marches, Nothing Happened: Obama in Little Sister

If I describe 2016’s Little Sister, it will sound like a quirky-for-quirk’s-sake, typical and self-important indie film: Addison Timlin plays Colleen, a former goth who is now a novitiate in Brooklyn close to taking her first vows. She visits her estranged family in Asheville, North Carolina where her brother, Jacob (Keith Poulson), has returned from the Iraq War, his face horrifically burned. There are countless indie films about a twenty-something returning home to a family from whom they feel alienated, where they learn something or other before returning to the big city, and if Little Sister just swapped the personalities involved – a stuffy conservative young person and their free-thinking liberal parents – it would be really boring (I know because I’ve seen Smart People and it was really boring).

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