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Bryan Miller Presents:


Miller’s Crossings: The Intersection of Politics and Pop-Culture

A Supposedly Enlightening Thing I Hope They Never Do Again

“The other thing I’d note is…what McCain’s [2000] candidacy and the brief weird excitement it generated might reveal about how millennial politics and all its packaging and marketing and strategy and media and spin and general sepsis actually makes US voters feel, inside, and whether anyone running for anything can even be ‘real’ anymore — whether what we actually want is something real or something else.” — David Foster Wallace

With the election looming like a national appointment with a proctologist, the instinct is to cut the main breaker to the house, board up the windows and sit in the dark holding a shotgun in case somebody tries to slip an informative brochure under the door. The campaign commercials, the debates, the analysis: it’s pouring out of the radio and the computer machine and even the godforsaken teevee. When the reliably stupid teevee starts vying for your vote, sputtering out policy arguments like a lobotomy patient suddenly wiping the droll off his chin and reciting Byron with whole-brained vigor, it’s time to start a-fearin’.

When the booze runs out (damn Sunday blue laws!) and the Fed Ex guy keeps your pot for himself, the temptation strikes to seek those good-old fashioned numbing agents: Robitussin, mouthwash, entertainment. Stick with the Scope and the Tussin, I say, the machines have turned against us. The Entertainments have been infiltrated. Obama has bought whole half-hour blocks of TV time — he’s running for president and he’s going to cut us a hell of a deal on some steak knives that will slice right through a motherfucking shoe. The politicians are at the picture show, and even, god help us, in the funnybooks. And right in the middle of Secret Invasion, the bastards!


Faith No Moore

Have you noticed anything missing this election season?

I’ll give you a hint: smarmy stunts have gone unperformed, a substantial amount of pathos has gone untapped, and various catering trays and buffet spreads remain undecimated.

Yes, Michael Moore has left the building. Or rather he’s now outside the building, keyless and unwanted, pounding away on the doors and windows like The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock trying to interrupt a wedding. The omnipresent, self-appointed ambassador for democratic populists has practically vanished from the political scene, and usually only David Copperfield can make something that big disappear. What can explain this absence?

The paucity of Michael Moore in 2008 is no thanks to Michael Moore himself, who recently released a one-two punch of a new film and a new book. Presidential election season is, after all, Moore’s bread and butter time (not that he passes on the butter otherwise). But his entrees into the political discussion this year haven’t been met with roaring applause or even a chastening hush, but rather the sad vacuum-silence of someone speaking only to himself.

The first of Moore’s 2008 offerings is posited as a gift. Slacker Uprising, a concert film documenting his voter registration rallies in 2004, is available gratis online.

In the disclaimer banner above the film, Moore declares, “I'm giving you my blanket permission to not only download [Slacker Uprising], but also to email it, burn it, and share it with anyone and everyone (in the U.S. and Canada only). I want you to use Slacker Uprising in any way you see fit to help with the election or to do the work that you do in your community. You can show my film in your local theater, your high school classroom, your college auditorium, your church, union hall or community center. You can have your friends and neighbors over to the house for a viewing. In other words — it's yours!"

Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, eh? Wait until you see the film before you bubble over with glee. The footage used in Slacker Uprising looks an awful lot like the raw material for an artistic victory lap. Moore was riding awfully high in 2004, with Fahrenheit 9/11 having earned over $100 million at the box. Pundits and talking heads everywhere wondered aloud how the film might impact the coming election.

Moore, meanwhile, embarked on a nationwide tour. He filled arenas with whooping crowds and offered to give the so-called slackers free ramen noodles and clean underwear in exchange for their promise to vote. It’s a funny gag that serves an admirable goal.

Unfortunately, George W. Bush kind of won the election.

Which renders the title of the documentary inaccurate. The slackers didn’t rise up and nothing changed. Moore’s movie and his tour didn’t change America, although, despite his side losing, he notes at the end of the movie that “54 of the 62 stops of the Slacker Uprising Tour went for [John] Kerry.” What an astounding consolation.

The real question is, why release this movie now? Moore’s political discourse has never been particularly deep or nuanced, so seeing it four years past the expiration date is hardly inspiring. Bush-bashing is so widespread that watching Moore engage in it now is like seeing video of people doing the Macarena at a sporting event: everyone knows how to do it now, and it’s so astoundingly easy it’s not going to impress anybody.

His timely book, Mike’s Election Guide 2008, is at least moderately more relevant. The last section of the book is a field guide to democratic senators and representatives who have a good chance of overtaking incumbent republicans. But the rest of the book is all ego-stoking and back-patting. Moore’s self-aggrandizement has never been subtle, but consider this passage from the section entitled “How to Elect John McCain.” Number six on that list, which is addressed directly to Barack Obama, warns Senator Superman that he’ll lose if he says anything nasty about Moore.

“So, Barack, by denouncing me you can help McCain get elected. Because when you denounce me, it’s not really me you’re distancing yourself from — it’s the millions upon millions of people who I agree with and who feel the same way about things as I do. And many of them are the kind of crazy voters who have no problem voting for a Nader just to prove a point.”

If you don’t like Michael Moore then you must hate America? Gee, who does that sound like?

Not everyone appears to have gotten the memo that explained Moore’s increasing irrelevance. While democrats were busy forgetting to remember that they never think about him any more, Republican satirists made a whole entire movie about what an asshole he is.

An American Carol is a riff on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for people who live in red states and eat red meat and hate Reds. In the film, an obese, America-hating filmmaker oh-so-subtly named Michael Malone leads a liberal charge to ban the Fourth of July. But when he’s visited by the ghosts of America’s past, including Georges Washington and Patton (Jon Voight and Kelsey Grammer, respectively), he learns to stop worrying and love the flag.

Alas, the film only grossed a fraction of what Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous earned on a per-screen basis, and that ain’t much. On the upside, at least Sean Hannity has something to masturbate to now, other than that naked photo of Sarah Palin with Alan Colmes’ head photoshopped onto it.

But An American Carol did prove an important point: republicans sure do hate Michael Moore. In fact, that’s what Moore appears to be best at: generating anger. One wonders whether his low-information, high-smarm missives do nearly as much to rally the leftists as they do to rile the opposition.

Or maybe Moore is just trying to engorge his own base.

It should be noted that Moore has done some admirable work. Roger and Me is a nifty documentary, and Sicko helped shed light on the real disparities between the American healthcare system and that of pretty much every other notable developed nation. Nobody else was springing forward to defend the increasingly abused working class in 1989, and there’s yet to be another high-profile documentary on the American healthcare system this millennium despite the fact that it’s one of the most pressing issues facing the country.

But Moore is a polarizer. To mangle the words of the Word Mangler in Chief, he’s a divider, not a uniter. He turns critical political issues into sneering matches and indulges in cheap tricks, stat-juking and selective forgetfulness. In acting out so publicly, he (along with the increasingly egomaniacal Keith Olbermann) helps cede the high ground liberals have won by dealing with facts, policies and reality. (It’s about the only thing they’ve won in the past 30 years.)

Ultimately the Michael Moore phenomenon of the first half of the decade was merely a byproduct of the times. With a polarizing president and a wildly uninspiring alternative, liberals were left leaderless. There was an intense amount of untapped energy and unaddressed anger in the country and, in lieu of a true representative, we got a rabble-rousing entertainer.

The fact is, democrats don’t need a spokesperson when they have an actual leader. With Barack Obama heading up the charge, a documentarian’s mischief making is just a sideshow. True progressives may find fault with Obama’s centrist politics, but shallow chants of “Bush sucks!” (or “McCain sucks!” or “Palin sucks!” for that matter) won’t help realign the country’s rightward-canted views.

Liberals are on the cusp of what could potentially be a major restructuring of American foreign and domestic policy. The revolution might be televised, but we know who won’t be filming it.



(I didn’t say I was going to stop making fun of the president.)

Michael Moore could give Oliver Stone some advice. Not dietary advice, as he tries to give America in the chapter of his book “Ten Presidential Decrees for His First Ten Days.” Therein Moore, with apparently no sense of irony or self-awareness, demands that the president issue a ban on high fructose corn syrup. Check out the labels of the food you’re eating, Moore warns, and you’ll find that high fructose corn syrup is in everything and it’s making people fat.

No shit?

But Moore could impart this nugget of wisdom on Stone: perhaps it’s best not to try and influence voters with a popular consumer film a couple months before the election. There are highly paid political consultants who try to predict how particular scenarios will affect voting patterns, people who do nothing but think about this kind of thing all day long, and they’re lucky to get it right half the time. Maybe your movie inspires, or maybe it just inspires retaliation. (Fahrenheit 9/11 definitely didn’t win the election, after all.) I’m not eager to put that kind of power in the hands of a guy who thinks JFK’s assassination was perpetrated by Kevin Bacon and Tommy Lee Jones, all crazy and painted silver.

The fact that Stone released W. in the bug-eyed and sweaty weeks of October, when campaign fatigue has nearly given way to campaign delirium and even the debate moderators are starting to think Fuck it, let’s just flip a coin and go home, renders any denials of a desire to have an impact pretty silly.

It turns out W. isn’t likely to drive people to do anything other than ask for their $9 back.

Americans voted for George W. Bush for president because they thought he was the kind of guy they’d like to have a beer with. As it turns out, you don’t so much want to have a beer with Bush as break the bottle over his head. That joke pretty much sums up Oliver Stone’s oddity of a biopic, which traces George W. Bush’s ascendancy from privileged goofball to goofball leader of the free world.

Stone doesn’t cover all of #43’s 62 years. Instead he limits his scope to Bush’s adulthood, such as it is, stopping at the third year of his first term as president.

In many ways the film is like a partly completed puzzle. Stone and writer Stanley Weiser (who also penned Wall Street) spend a lot of time lingering over a few particular pieces. Much attention is paid to the Shrub’s post-collegiate business flailings, the failure of his first campaign, his tumultuous relationship with his father and the lead-up to the Iraq War.

What’s left out of the movie is far more telling than the footage that made the final cut.

Occasionally the omissions are curious. According to almost every Bush biography, his sister Robin’s death from leukemia at the age of three, when Dubya was just seven, had a massive impact on the family and her oldest brother in particular. But Robin’s name is never once mentioned. It’s all but a certainty that Bush did drugs and bailed out on his Texas Air National Guard service. Both subjects get a single throwaway line. You could credit this particular omission to Stone being charitable, but consider what else is missing from the film: his campaign for president, the tense weeks in Florida when behind-the-scenes dealings ultimately finagled the 2000 election, and the entirety of 9/11.

The Bush legacy is not suitable either for political distortions or polite pussyfooting. Conspiracy-obsessed Stone indulges in a bit of the former — he’s unable to resist having Cheney actually claim out loud that the Iraq War is part of a world domination scheme. But in playing loose with the relevant facts and, worse, totally avoiding the most important ones, Stone has merely added confusion to what is already the most secretive presidency in American history. The truth of the matter is, we don’t know why we went to war in Iraq, we don’t know what Bush was thinking while he flew aimlessly around America on September 11 trying to avoid the physical danger looming over the rest of America, we don’t know how he handled the sudden shift from do-little governor to most powerful man on the planet. The only thing we do know is that Stone doesn’t know, and for the film’s purposes, that’s probably all that matters.


The Big Two

Gimmick, public service, publicity stunt, cash in, civic duty — I’m not exactly sure what the IDW dual bio-comic Presidential Material is supposed to be. Probably some combination thereof. Years of covering local and state level politics left me a bit of a civics geek, and the notion of interesting new people in policy and government holds a certain naïve appeal for me.

If drawing unlikely participants into the political arena was the goal, both Presidential Material: John McCain and Presidential Material: Barack Obama — available in a prestige flipbook for eight bucks — probably fail. The two candidates lives are condensed into 28 page-stories that hit all the familiar high points of their touted personal histories, as well as a few lesser known bits.

The comics version of the Fairness Doctrine, giving each man 28 pages, proves an immediate difficulty for the creators. McCain is nearly a quarter century older than Obama, which leaves the Johnny Mac writer Andy Helfer struggling to fit a big story into a small space. That largely explains why his section of the book is the weakest, even though McCain’s bio is a lot more comic book friendly. Four-color fun and splash page excitement are better served by a tale about a guy who escapes numerous explosions and battles his way through torture at the hands of the enemy than one about a guy who studies hard and tries to organize disenfranchised minorities. Even Denny O’Neil remembered to have Greens Lantern and Arrow punch a slumlord or two in the mouth after extolling the virtues of rent control. Obama biographer (I guess that’s what he’d be) Jeff Mariotte stubbornly clings to history, abstains from showing Barack karate chopping racists and fatcats, and Mariotte refuses to even acknowledge Obama’s trademark cosmic power ring.

And yet the Obama comic is the better of the two stories. Helfer, trying to condense the average total human lifespan of seventy years and some change into a few pages, winds up clogging the pages with text. Both comics are compressed enough to make Brian Bendis’ eyes bleed — an Ultimate Barack Obama comic bio would probably take 45 or so issues, and he’d be white and pre-movie cast as Sam Neil — but the McCain story particularly suffers from the treatment. McCain artist Stephen Thompson does a fine caricature, but his renderings are as stiff and posed as Tony Harris’ but without the stylistic tweaks (and kick ass coloring) that makes them pop.

Both books do a pretty admirable job of acknowledging the candidates shortcomings. Helfer makes note of the Keating Five scandal, McCain’s various policy reversals, and his marital troubles. (He points out that Cindy McCain used to steal prescription drugs from the charity hospital at which she worked, which I didn’t know. I also never realized McCain injured himself during his infamous Vietnam plane crash by making basically the same mistake that kills Goose in Top Gun. So McCain’s not a Maverick, he’s Goose.) Obama’s own drug use is mentioned, and Jeremiah Wright is ever present.

The dual bio is a nifty novelty item, but it’s unlikely to inspire anyone. It’s campaign Cliff’s Notes with pictures, and it’s every bit as dry as that sounds. I had a hard time slogging through each story, and I actually care about this stuff already. By all early indications, McCain is only going to get a miniseries, but I’d buy an Obama ongoing.


Send complaints, kudos, complaints, suggestions, and complaints, as well as inquire for contact info to send review copies of your comic, ‘zine, DVD, CD, etc., to me.

Bryan Miller is a former newspaper editor who now works as a writer and comedian in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in The Comics Journal, Left Turn, CityLink, and Nightlife and online at Bookslut, Savant and SeqArt. Read more at Carbondalerocks.com.

Bryan Miller



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