Beyond the Multiplex

The Bush-assassination mockumentary "Death of a President" may change your take on our nation's misunderestimated leader. Plus: Robert Wilson explained. Miami's coke economy explored.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 26, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Last week I urged you to rush out and see Stanley Nelson's "Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple," which feels like the documentary of the year so far. (Admittedly, that could be my Bay Area childhood damage talking.) Just in case that wasn't enough Golden State despair for you, this week brings us Eric Steel's documentary "The Bridge," which is just about as amazing.

Still need cheering up? We've also got the British-made mockumentary about the October 2007 assassination of George W. Bush, which is a lot more ambiguous and interesting than I expected, and a movie arguing that the epidemic of cocaine and murder in '80s Miami both destroyed the city and helped rebuild it. How do you start out a Southern Baptist kid from Waco, Texas, and end up as the hottest avant-garde theater director in Europe? Well, I don't really know, but "Absolute Wilson" details that it actually happened. Last (and possibly least), there's a new Werner Herzog film this week, which he describes as a "science fiction fantasy." If you suspect that's not a totally straightforward or trustworthy definition, you're getting warm.

I covered "The Bridge" extensively at Tribeca last spring, so I won't repeat all that. But yes, this is the movie whose makers trained a series of wide-angle and telephoto cameras on the Golden Gate Bridge for an entire year (it was 2004), and photographed most of the 24 people known to have jumped off it during that year. Much has been written about the juxtaposition of awesome scenery and personal despair that has marked the history of that impressive work of engineering, and Steel's film imparts that message as pure image.

"The Bridge" isn't pure horror, although we do indeed see people, several of them, plunge off the bridge's eastern pedestrian walkway, against a spectacular California sky, for the four-second drop into infinity. Steel tells the stories of several of 2004's jumpers, and forces us to face the most painful facts about suicide: Sometimes it seems completely unnecessary, the semi-random result of a depressive or psychotic episode; but in other cases -- the people who plan for years, building their lives around impending death -- it seems nearly inevitable. This is a shocking film, but in its own way a profoundly humane one.

"The Bridge" opens Oct. 27 in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with a national rollout to follow.

"Death of a President": The assassination of George W. Bush considered as a downward spiral into tragedy
Much controversy has surrounded British director Gabriel Range's TV docudrama "Death of a President," which purports to report, from some future date, on the assassination of President Bush outside a Chicago hotel in October 2007. Inevitably, most of it is made-up controversy, fomented by possibly well-intentioned people (but also by boobs and morons) who haven't seen the film and who ascribe powers to mass-culture products that they don't actually possess. Nobody's going to kill Bush because it happens in a movie. Any lunatic who may have such aspirations already possesses them, and Range does not depict the assassination or its aftermath as positive events for anyone.

CNN and NPR are refusing to carry ads for the film, and several of the country's biggest theater chains are refusing to show it. That's their right, of course; it's not censorship. It's just chicken-hearted, pants-pissing cowardice (and free publicity for the filmmakers). All that said, of course this is a hot topic: Range ingeniously blends actual news footage with fictional elements and "Zelig"-style digital insertions to depict the killing of the current, real-life (and widely disliked) United States president by -- well, by somebody.

In the film's universe, Bush is shot after giving a standard speech (one of his better ones, actually) defending his aggressive posture to the world before a group of Chicago business leaders. The assassination itself is a blend of familiar elements: a sniper in an office-tower window (à la JFK), a moment of exposure amid the random crowd outside a hotel (à la Reagan). The event itself is surrounded by angry protesters (drawn from images of real Chicago protests over the last few years), some of whom have successfully broken through police lines and entered the Secret Service "containment zone." It's chillingly and convincingly rendered: A couple of loud pops, a man falls to the ground amid chaos and screaming, a limo squeals away at high speed toward the nearest hospital.

I can state with some authority that Range's depiction of the antiwar movement is rather thin, and to pretend that a demonstration of 10,000 to 12,000 people for a presidential visit is a large protest is nonsense. (There have been at least two antiwar marches in the United States since 2003 that drew upward of 500,000 people, probably larger than any comparable events of the Vietnam era.) But it isn't entirely misguided to suggest that a tiny, hateful minority exists within the antiwar movement, and it's clearly true that the weight of law enforcement would come down hard on anarchists, radicals and other nonconformists in any future 9/11-level national disaster, as happens here.

But who actually did it? Is the shooting in fact the work of left-wing antiwar agitators, a conspiracy by al-Qaida and various Axis of Evil states (as the newly enshrined Cheney administration is eager to assert), a disgruntled lone nut or somebody else? Range's whodunit is reasonably clever, even if most viewers will guess right away that the Syrian-born software engineer who's immediately arrested is the wrong guy. But the mystery really isn't the point of "Death of a President." Range has a marvelous feel for the clichés and conventions of TV-news documentary, and the tone of mournful elegy he strikes here is both convincing and -- believe me, I'm shocked to be writing this -- moving.

Range deploys elements of Ronald Reagan's state funeral for his own purposes, even editing Dick Cheney's oratory on that occasion so that it appears to be that of a new president mourning his fallen predecessor. I don't imagine this will make the film's conservative critics any happier, but it forced me to consider certain things about George W. Bush I am generally reluctant to face. Watching this film in late 2006, when Bush is already "dead" in the political sense -- a lame-duck president, likely to lose his congressional majorities -- carries a particular, painful pathos.

I find myself agreeing both with the Bush-hating demonstrators and with Cheney, and if I read the film correctly, Range is inviting us to make that bizarre leap of imagination. Bush has been partly responsible for a historic decimation of the U.S. Constitution and for an unnecessary war that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, but he did so because he is/was a man of profound personal conviction, and misunderestimated intelligence, who firmly believed he was doing the right thing for the future of his country. If the assassination of Bush might lead America, as in the film, even closer to becoming a police state, wouldn't that be a fulfillment of his vision, and that of many others among our fellow citizens?

"Death of a President" opens Oct. 27 nationwide.

"Absolute Wilson": From the Texas prairie to the toast of Paree
If you don't know who the theater director Robert Wilson is, or if you know him only as some shadowy über-aesthete behind a series of expensive and largely incomprehensible artistic collaborations, don't feel bad. You're definitely in the majority on point 1, and 100 percent correct on point 2. Wilson is the auteur behind a distinctive brand of gestural, opaque and mostly nonverbal staging whose roots lie in puppet theater, architectural design, Futurist art, Freudian dream imagery and silent film, but not at all in the mainstream of Western drama.

I've never much cared for Wilson's work, to be honest, even when -- as in the Philip Glass opera "Einstein on the Beach" or the Tom Waits-William Burroughs collaboration "The Black Rider" -- it was obviously original and brilliant. For me, theater is always rooted in human interaction and human language (I know, how desperately old-fashioned) and whatever Wilson's theater is about, it isn't about that.

Katharina Otto-Bernstein's film "Absolute Wilson," on the other hand, is about that: It reveals Wilson as a personable and highly engaging fellow in late middle age, still carrying within him the desperately shy and unhappy boy from Waco, Texas, he used to be. His directing style emerges as not quite a conscious, aesthetic decision but something much more personal. Wilson believes he was a learning-disabled child, perhaps borderline autistic, and what's more he was a dreamy kid who always understood that he was gay, growing up in a strict Southern Baptist household with a distant mother and a disapproving father.

The stark, exaggerated, non-realistic or surrealistic character of Wilson's theater, and its highly slowed-down sense of time, emerged, then, from the artist's desperate need to express himself, free of those impediments. In Otto-Bernstein's images of Wilson's early work -- from a solo dance performance he did as a student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., to the Paris sensation "Deafman Glance" (starring Wilson's deaf adopted son) to the notorious seven-day-long performance commissioned by the Shah of Iran's government -- you can feel that urgency even when the content, in any normal sense, is utterly unavailable.

It's clear that Otto-Bernstein means the film to be wholly laudatory, but she also depicts Wilson as a restless martinet who works too much and too hard, flying from Copenhagen to Tokyo to London to New York, drawing inspiration not from intellectual sources but from the constant cultural blur of airports, museums and theaters through which he flows like electrical current. He's a quintessential fusionist: All his work draws on multiple traditions and involves long lists of collaborators (indeed, in the '70s Wilson came uncomfortably close to becoming a hippie cult leader). "Absolute Wilson" changed my views of Wilson as a person tremendously, and at least gave me some useful context for his art.

I still believe that after the international sensations of "Deafman Glance" and "Einstein on the Beach," Wilson's theater declined gradually into more or less interesting Euro-kitsch, and that "The Black Rider" (the closest thing he's ever had to a pop-culture hit) established an unfortunate recipe: Find literary source and hip rock star, swizzle together and dump on the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. If, like me, you sat through "POEtry," Wilson's collaboration with Lou Reed on themes drawn from Edgar Allan Poe, you may agree that we are owed an apology. But "Absolute Wilson" doesn't depend on believing in Wilson's greatness, just on his immense cultural potency and the extraordinary nature of his personal odyssey.

"Absolute Wilson" opens Oct. 27 in New York, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: How the "Cocaine Cowboys" built a new Miami; traveling to "The Wild Blue Yonder" with Werner Herzog
Billy Corben's documentary "Cocaine Cowboys" is an exhaustive, exciting and ultimately exhausting history of how that white powder, and the Colombian crime lords who imported it by the hundreds of kilos, transformed the culture and economy of Miami, for good and for ill. Following a few supporting characters through the boom-and-bust of the coke economy -- from the mid-'70s through the late '80s -- Corben details how what looked like easy money all around, at first, eventually degenerated into vicious gang warfare that turned South Florida into the nation's murder capital.

We hear from a mid-level coke wholesaler, a pilot who flew hundreds of trips from Medellín to Miami, and a hit man for the notorious Colombian "madrina" (godmother) Griselda Blanco, queen of the coke trade, who was probably responsible for hundreds of murders. It was a lot dirtier than anything we ever saw on "Miami Vice," but for a long time it worked efficiently, allowing clubgoers all over this great land to siphon happiness up their noses at a reasonable price.

When the Reagan administration and Florida officials finally got serious about crushing the Colombian cartels in the mid-'80s, the trade, and the accompanying murder epidemic, was finally controlled. But as longtime Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan and many others observe, once all those countless millions or billions had flowed into the Miami economy -- to buy real estate, cars, jewelry and pretty much everything else -- it kept on going. The reshaping of that city as a fashionista destination in the '90s, and the construction of a sleek, new downtown skyline -- well, that money didn't grow on trees. It was harvested off bushes in the Colombian highlands. (Opens Oct. 27 in major cities.)

I suppose in some technical sense "The Wild Blue Yonder" is Werner Herzog's first new fiction film since whenever -- since "Invincible" in 2001, I suppose. But like all of Herzog's recent films (except, I guess, the relatively straightforward "Grizzly Man," which I liked) this evokes a sort of blissed-out, contemplative mood where questions of fiction vs. reality seem unimportant.

There's a plot, kind of, with Brad Dourif as one of the last of a group of aliens from a distant galaxy who settled on Earth, only to discover that they'd lost all their scientific knowledge and couldn't succeed in our society. ("I hate to tell you this," he says to the camera, "but aliens all suck.") Most of the film consists of footage Herzog has pilfered or extracted from real-life NASA space missions and Arctic underwater exploration, all to tell the tale of Earthling astronauts' long and desperate voyage to the Andromedans' home planet, made possible by various discoveries in chaos-theory mathematics that piss the Dourif alien off.

The equations that might make long-haul space travel possible are real, if entirely hypothetical, and the images in this short, witty, dream-state film are lovely. But Herzog and Dourif make no real effort at rendering a convincing science-fiction universe, and such is not the point. The "dying planet" in this parable is not a distant one, and the "disrespect" the human astronauts show for Dourif's world and its lonely, abandoned wildlife hits pretty close to home. Not a major Herzog work or one that will draw a large audience, but a must-see for those who suspect (as I do) that he's one of the greatest talents now working in this medium. (Opens Oct. 27 at the IFC Center in New York; available on DVD in mid-November.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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