Saturday, September 03, 2005


Counterfeits and Sugar

Two films have surprised movie buffs this summer--March of the Penguins and Murderball. The former has earned $74 million and become the second-highest grossing documentary of all time. The latter just a paltry $1.4 million. The former is a confection in the Discovery-channel mode. It seeks to "humanize" emperor penguins, casting their annual effort to procreate as a triumph of monogamous love. Maggie Gallagher, one of Bush's paid journalists, said it was "hard not to see the theological overtones in the movie." Waxing Biblical, Maggie went on: "Beauty, goodness, love and devotion are all part of nature, built into the DNA of the universe." Surely these penguins are evidence of the grand design of our creator--and confirm conservative social mores in fundamentalist American protestantism.

Contrast that picture with the one offered by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro in Murderball, a documentary that seeks to humanize quadriplegic rugby players. Ah, but here the directors really are trying to humanize--rather than create a hagiographic schmaltzfest. One of the central characters is an aging star of the sport--Michael Jordan in a wheelchair--named Joe Soares. Joe, who's been disabled since boyhood, is a mean, aggressive, compulsive competitor so driven that he shudders when confronted with his own unathletic son. Joe, an egomaniac, preens for the camera as he describes his tough-love approach to his son--who is, it emerges, an exceptional student.

In one movie, we are offered a counterfeit that pleases. In the other, a portrait so truthful it leaves us in tears. Is it any surprise that the pleasant counterfeit, like an afternoon ice cream cone, is the treat Americans have sought out this summer? We don't like honest as much as we like sweetness.

Of course, on this second weekend of Katrina, we're learning the price we pay for pleasant counterfeits. For five years, we've opted for them. Bush offered tax cuts with no consequences, and Americans slurped them up. Following 9/11, Bush said we didn't need to make any sacrifices--we could cut taxes further, in fact, and it would still be great. To the diffuse, scary specter of international terrorism, Bush brought us a tidy, can-do war, no sacrifices necessary. When the war turned out to uncover not great danger (but in fact create it), Bush said not to worry--we'd bring democracy to the land. When Kerry sounded the alarm about our failures to combat real terror, our sagging economy and ballooning deficits, Bush countered with more confection: democracy is on the march, the economy has never been better, Kerry is a dangerous traitor. At each stop, Americans took their counterfeits with a spoonful of sugar. It was easy going down.

Well, here we are, looking at a reality-based disaster. Bush is trying to offer condolences, but it turns out that when we're actually doing the dying--as opposed to Iraqis on the other side of the planet--those sugary lies aren't so tasty. But what else does Bush have to offer? He's never been about leadership--he's been about reassurances. If we hired him to deliver hard truths, man, did we get the wrong guy.

We should blame our leaders for the catastrophes we now see blooming all around. But as a liberal who has fought long and hard to elect leaders who prefered hard truths, I have to say that we didn't do our part. Politicians are like movie producers--they try to figure out what we want and then give it to us. I just saw Murderball this past week, and I can verify that it's exceptional art. It is unpredictable and revealing and one of the most honest pieces of film I've ever seen. March of the Penguins is a nice way to spend 85 minutes. It's as affirming and sweet as Morgan Freeman's liquid voiceover. It's also not very honest. It creates a fake kind of perfected human emotion and ascribes it to penguins. It's a pleasant story, but not a very honest one.

With politicians and art, we keep going for the sugar. Eventually, we're going to have to grow up, face the tough choices, and look for real leaders with real human personalities who care about real human constituents. This may be one of the many great realities Katrina left in her wake.

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