Issue 227 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Dir: Warren Beatty
This latest satire on Clinton's America begins with the Democratic senator Bulworth sobbing uncontrollably in front of his television. Behind him, old framed photographs show him posing proudly with black civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. In front, the present day senator is appearing in a television ad with his all-American family, denouncing the 'unfairness' of affirmative action programmes. We then see him arrange his own assassination during the forthcoming final weekend of his re-election campaign. However, even a nervous breakdown doesn't prevent him also arranging a crooked and sizeable life insurance payout for his daughter.
Bulworth is a razor sharp political satire, with believable and well drawn characters, featuring a great script peppered with hilarious moments. The whole thing zips along with a manic glee and energy. It's also miles nastier to Clinton than Primary Colours (although he's never actually mentioned here), and both funnier and sharper than Wag the Dog.
Part of Bulworth's power is that the central character is a veteran insider, cynical and sick of the system he is part of. Convinced his death is imminent, the senator tells a black campaign rally in South Central Los Angeles exactly what the Democratic leadership really thinks of them. Immediately afterwards, impressed by their streetwise attitude and rapid fire backchat, he hires three young black women as campaign workers. Through them, and the beautiful Nina in particular, he rediscovers both his zest for life and his long buried political principles. He uses rap to get his message across.
The plot then thickens as Bulworth gradually breaks from his rich lobbyist backers as well as his campaign team. His increasingly hysterical spin doctor (the wonderful Oliver Platt) struggles along in his wake, desperately snorting coke as he struggles to cope with one PR disaster after another. As Bulworth dodges his unseen hitmen, the movie moves into the black inner city. The comedy intensifies along with the politics as the reborn senator gleefully--and more and more publicly--bites the hand that feeds him.
The film's star and director, Warren Beatty, is one of Hollywood's more interesting mavericks, and undoubtedly there is a lot of Beatty in Bulworth's character--he is crude, childish, arrogant, and fails in love with a woman almost 40 years his junior. The 'reborn' Bulworth is no saint, but rather a charming rogue. On race relations, he declares that 'if we all fucked each other, we'd eventually end up the same colour.'
This is perhaps closest in genre to Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins' film about a reactionary and ambitious Republican politician. However, Bulworth is both more optimistic and contemporary. Whereas Roberts becomes more popular for his apple pie patriotism, Bulworth's popularity rockets when he attacks the ruling class and champions the 's-word'. This more accurately reflects on the real US which, as Beatty himself has said, largely sees the Republicans and Democrats as 'indistinguishable--backed by the same rich people'. Just as Bulworth has been sickened by the system, so have millions of US workers.
Beatty summed up his motives by saying, 'The lower 40 percent of the population are doing worse now than they were ten years ago. I like to get that across in a way that makes you laugh.'
Dir: John Waters
John Waters began his film career making what he describes as 'celluloid atrocities'. Many people will be familiar with his film Serial Mom--shown on television this Xmas--casting the unlikely Kathleen Turner as housewife/mass murderer, it gobbled up all the usual Disney values of homely decency and kept on chewing to the end.
Waters' films are set in Baltimore, and although it would not be possible to describe the on screen craziness as autobiography, he obviously has a deep affection for his home town and its people. They always come out on top.
His latest film, Pecker, takes on the all American theme of instant fame and fortune and the price you pay for it. Pecker is a happy go lucky Baltimore boy who takes pictures with the camera his mother gave him from her thrift shop. She specialises in fashion tips for the homeless. When Pecker holds an exhibition in the diner where he works he is 'discovered' by fashionable New York gallery owner Rorey Wheeler. She decides to make him a star.
John Waters knows the New York art scene well, and has roped in famous friends like Cindy Sherman to play themselves. There is a great moment when the super-cool Sherman offers Pecker's sugar addicted little sister Valium to calm her nerves.
The New York art scene's response to Pecker's pictures and the Baltimore life he comes from is the film's big joke. The cool rich folk see a world that is exotic, even dangerous. A photo of Pecker's girlfriend Shelly is perceived as sultry. This causes her great offence. She does not see herself as a sex goddess but the prim proprietor of the Spin and Grin Laundromat who is obsessed with cleanliness. A close up shot of a stripper's pubic hair is an erotic abstract. It sells by the cartload. When the matt black clad fashion pack drive through Baltimore's run down streets they see authenticity and retro style. It's all antique charm to them.
Fame begins to ruin Pecker's life, cutting him off from the source of his inspiration. No one will let him take their picture any more. His family suffer, even his grandma. She loses faith in her talking Madonna, a cross between a statue and a ventriloquist's dummy. Front page magazine exposure of her oddity provokes a visit from the seriously weird 'Friends of Mary'.
Pecker's larky game of 'shopping for others' has to stop. His shoplifting partner's career has ground to a halt because every shopkeeper in the neighbourhood has seen pictures of him at work. His eccentric family are defined by an art critic as 'culturally challenged', which upsets everyone, and even social services get involved after seeing the sugar mad little sister Chrissie in the press. The stern woman from child protection offers help in the form of Ritalin, and turns her into a drug fiend.
Waters may be the ultimate antidote to Disney, but he has his own honey coated morality. Pecker rejects New York and fame and wins on his own terms. The film may be taking a swipe at pretension and fashion, but there is no hard edge. Waters is as much a part of the New York scene as a son of working class Baltimore and he loves them both. Like Hairspray, it's a cartoon world where all sorts of folk misunderstand each other, but hey, if you stick with decent principles, you can win through.