But It Makes a Good Point Though....Doesn't
We may remember Al Franken primarily as the guy with the
satellite strapped to his head on "Weekend Update"
during the 1988 Presidential election, or perhaps for his
titanic battle with lisping as Paul Tsongas during "Saturday
Night Live"'s 1992 election coverage, but I will always
remember him for his 1996 assault on the "expanding"
popularity of the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh Is a
Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. The work is offensively
snide, reducing itself to playground epithets like, "Rush
Limbaugh is ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag,"
or the declaration that Dick Armey is "a big dick."
The point being, of course, that the difference between this
and the rhetoric of the real political arena is a split hair.
My favorite chapter, entitled "Apocryphal Anecdotes:
The Republican Contribution to Public Debate", dissects
the annoying habit of "proving" points by telling
absurd, extrapolated horror stories. Franken declares none
other than Ronald Reagan as the master of the strategy, citing
his story of the Chicago welfare queen who had taken the government
for $150,000 (the real figure was $8,000) by creating false
identities. Reagan's heir is Newt Gingrich, who gave us such
whoppers as a Danish heart pump held hostage by bureaucrats
at the FDA (not true), and 800 babies left in dumpsters in
Washington DC in 1994 (the actual figure was four). Franken
also recounts a Dick Armey standard, the "warm yet tragic"
tale of Charlie, the semi-retarded janitor who lost his job
because of a raise in the minimum wage.
Franken stops short of a complete analysis of the strategy,
however. Essentially, the Republican Apocryphal Anecdote is
a rhetorical disguise of prejudicean ethical framework
whose appeals touch conservatives' emotional nerves such that
even the most absurd non sequitur goes unquestioned.
The variables of class and race become irrelevant because,
well, how can you argue in favor of a "welfare state"
with all those scheming welfare queens running around? The
Republican Apocryphal Anecdote has license to make whatever
points it wants, using any statistics it wants to make up,
because it is designed to pander to its core audiencewho,
once enraged by stories of twenty-times convicted DWI offenders
roaming the streets, are galvanized to follow a candidate
wherever he pleases, especially if it means saving our hard-earned
tax dollars from providing social services to poor minorities.
In contrast, Hollywood has a long history of the populist
liberal fairytale, the most recent Oscar-nominated examples
being The Hurricane and Erin Brockovich. These
stories, though powered with undercurrents of social anger,
are primarily appeals to our compassion for victims of injustice,
be they boxers or blue collar families. Yet 2002 has brought
us another brand of angry liberalismthe liberal response
to the violent, irrational prejudice of O'Reilly conservativesThe
Minority Revenge Fantasy. As if Falling Down told by
Jesse Jackson, The Minority Revenge Fantasy gathers the discontent
of the lower and middle class and personifies it in an oppressed
underdogplayed by the two black actors most palatable
to white Americawho channels his anger into a heroic
protest against The System.
No matter what we might think of the politics of John
Q's portrayal of health care coverage in America, it's
impossible to take seriously because, simply, the movie is
too damn crazy to be taken seriously. Denzel Washington's
son needs a heart transplant because it's too big,
and the only available donor is a rich white woman.
Never mind the potential loss of life, crowds cheer John Q
on in his siege of a downtown Chicago emergency room. And
of course, the rich white people in this movie delight, as
if engaging in some sort of heavy foreplay, in enforcing "the
rules" designed to oppress the hero.
Yet no matter how true this may be, the movie strikes false
notes because it descends into binary, polemical rhetoric.
Anne Heche and James Woods are so evil that they aren't even
real, which undermines the integrity of the film's message.
The Anne Heche character is such a caricature that it's the
rhetorical equivalent of Reagan's welfare queen, an equally
fictional invention. The film doesn't seem to trust its own
messageor the audienceenough to create real characters
that, rather than underscore its message, explore the real
moral ambiguities of the situation. By polarizing the characters,
like James Woods' golf-obsessed doctor, the third act moral
revelation is almost always a stretch, thus compromising the
dramatic power of the piece. The existence of such evil antagonists
grants John Q the permission to do almost anything he wants
for the sake of his son, so the film descends into chaos,
like the inevitable conclusion of a segment on "Springer."
The initially justified anger of John Q becomes the
moral equivalent of tossing chairs at the Ku Klux Klan on
an episode of "Geraldo."
Changing Lanes is painted with the same brush, yet
somehow has been mistaken for some sort of morally ambiguous
cross-section of the class divide in America. The purported
"shifting allegiances" of Changing Lanes smells
like a collective purge of liberal guilt, that somehow we
can cheer our earnest minority hero and still find it in our
hearts to pull for the materialistic, obnoxious, adulterous
Wall Street lawyer as well. I've heard arguments that it's
a "nuanced character study," but this movie is so
far overblown that I have trouble taking any of it very seriously:
the obvious symbolism of all this occurring on Good Friday,
Ben chewing out a priest at confessional, even though he's
not Catholic. Sam getting the beat down in the school. The
whole "get the file in by the end of the day" deal. Sam and
Ben both thrusting their arms out in crucifixtion poses in
the rain. Sam tossing the computer into the window. Sam's
rant about the Tiger Woods commercial. And the list could
go on. And on. I won't give a movie the benefit of the doubt
on character subtlety when it doesn't earn my trust by not
insisting on ridiculously overblown action sequences and exceedingly
earnest speeches. Yet, the quality of the casts of Changing
Lanes and John Q attest to the weight of their
message, especially for Hollywood movie stars reviewing scripts
in the comfort of their mansions. But if Changing Lanes
and John Q are what pass for social commentary
in Hollywood, then Hollywood should not complain when its
voice is not taken seriously in the political arena.