Bush's gift to American culture.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Oct. 29 2004 8:05 PM

Bush's Gift to American Culture

Plus, Jamie Foxx's Ray.

The Truth About Charles: David Ritz's article in Slate convincingly documents the ways in which Ray Charles' life has been oversimplified in Taylor Hackford's Ray, although it's worth saying that the film is rich, elegant, and enjoyable by the (admittedly debased) standards of that most dull-witted of all genres, the biopic. (The biopic of someone still living—as Charles was when the movie was written and shot—is in a special vapid class.) At its best, Ray makes you appreciate the musical instincts that could trace an emotional link between r&b and black gospel—instincts that can be felt in even the overfamiliar, Liberace-ish hits that would make Charles his fortune. The acting by Regina King, Clifton Powell, Harry Lennix, and Aunjanue Ellis is startling; and Curtis Armstrong and Richard Schiff are uncannily convincing as Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. (Schiff sounds so much like the real Wexler I forgot he was Schiff.) What's most fascinating, though, is how Jamie Foxx's bravura performance manages to embody nuances that aren't in the script.

Foxx's Ray has its peculiarities. As a young man he sways side-to-side as he talks—something I'd always attributed to the ecstatic element in Charles' later music. Once or twice, Foxx's metronomical blurting reminded me—uncomfortably—of Dustin Hoffman's Raymond: He's supposed to be blind, not autistic. But as Ray achieves power, the performance settles down and becomes frightening. Ray doesn't put Charles on a pedestal: He's presented as a deeply—and, at times, sadistically—avoidant personality, a man who routinely escapes into junk, booze, sex, and, last but not least, his music. Fame allows him to stay remote, and it solidifies the chip on his shoulder.

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The interesting thing is that the roots of his personality aren't in the movie, which blames it all—affectingly but insultingly—on the accidental death of Charles' young brother. (The worst part of the movie by far is the last ten minutes, in which Ray handily dispatches his guilt and his junk habit with a Freudian fantasy that would embarrass even the makers of A Beautiful Mind.) You need to read Ritz to know that Charles was formed by two maternal figures, one who goaded him while the other indulged him. Even though she's nowhere in Ray, it's the indulgent mother you can feel in Foxx's great performance: The one who said that he was the center of the universe, and endlessly entitled.  ... 5:06 p.m.

Left Behind: Having passed up the opportunity to inflict my politics on you in Slate's recent round-up of its contributors' presidential preferences, I probably should refrain from tub-thumping in this space. But before we vote him out of office, I want to pause to celebrate George W. Bush: He has done more to revitalize the popular culture of the left than anyone since Dick Nixon.

Four years ago, I was just another liberal fed up with the Village Voice (my old stomping ground) for indiscriminately applying the same shrill PC litmus tests to works of art. I read a few pioneering blogs (all Clinton-hating), Slate, and Salon; settled for the mostly toothless impressions of politicians on Saturday NightLive; avoided the vacuous, posturing discourse on Bill Maher's cringeworthy late-night ABC show; and gave up reading the so-called liberal mainstream media in anger at the phony objectivity that favored reflexive liars like Bush and his minions. Progressive documentarians had an occasional home on PBS (when it wasn't keeping the Three Tenors in strudel and fighting off right-wingers eager to kill its funding), but were marginalized everywhere else. It was, culturally speaking, a bleak, washed-out, empty life.

Now, it's full to bursting. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 topped $100 million and has helped to create a market for the likes of Bush's Brain, The Hunting of the President, Outfoxed, and more more more to come. Jon Stewart gave us smarter news than CNN and created a firestorm of approval when he denounced Crossfire on home turf for its failure to create an environment for meaningful debate. (The proof: "Jacuzzi Boy" Carlson—so named for labeling John Edwards a "jacuzzi cases" lawyer, for a suit on behalf of a young girl disemboweled by a malfunctioning pool drain—was incapable even of debating the charge.) Bill Maher got kicked off ABC and acquired stature as a commentator on HBO. Air America brought Al Franken, Randi Rhodes, and other terrific radio personalities into our homes every day: In addition to marshalling actual facts, they replayed the most telling bits of Limbaugh (shrugging off systematic torture as a frathouse prank), O'Reilly, and Hannity, exposing the mendacity behind the bluster. Here online, there were too many incisive bloggers to keep track of—an explosion of scathingly brilliant (as Hayley Mills would put it) commentary from the likes of Marshall, Kos, Atrios, Drum, Alterman, Gilliard, Digby, Wolcott, Rosen, Brock, Ailes the good, the King of Zembla, TBOGG, and on and on and on. Every day, Bob Somersby's Daily Howler kept me company in my anger at the media's faux objectivity. With found footage and computer programs costing next to nothing, passionate political artists assembled commercials and parodies that rose to the level of art. It's true that we lost Pat Boone and Dean Jones, but we somehow made do with a revitalized Springsteen, Stipe, and Green Day. And Eminem has taken it to the next level—and the country into the mosh pit.

Thank you, Mr. President, for giving us back our energy, our passion, our creativity, and our sense of humor—which we've needed to keep from going insane at what you've done to this country and the world. Your political legacy, alas, will live long—but so will the vital counterculture you have spawned. May we never, never forget you.  ... 1:59 p.m.

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