Across the country, images from this summer’s early pop-culture hits are flickering in our heads. In one, a sinister plague has emptied Britain’s streets, and the survivors find military “protection” even more malevolent than the fast-moving zombies who have wiped out most of the population. In another, an adolescent wizard battles his own deceitful government, which has taken control of his school and the press.
And soon, audiences will finally see a long delayed film about a high-level cover-up of drug running, illegal arms sales and murder in the U.S. military.
It wouldn’t be paranoid to suggest that, after a hiatus of nearly two years, anti-establishment paranoia is back.
The stories in question-Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later , J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Gregor Jordan’s upcoming Buffalo Soldiers -diverge in mood and genre. But they are all just one Cigarette Smoking Man short of sounding like an episode of The X-Files , the television show that defined anti-government conspiracy-theorizing in the years between the Cold War and Sept. 11.
Of course, The X-Files left the air just in time. Post-9/11 patriotism has brooked no suspicion-from television, movies or rock stars. War protesters Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins were shunted from an event at the Baseball Hall of Fame; fellow traveler Janeane Garofalo’s sitcom was not picked up; the Dixie Chicks were assailed for an anti-Bush remark; Martin Sheen ran into some trouble over on The West Wing ; and the New York Post ran a list of stars to boycott because of their “appeasement-loving” views.
Collateral Damage was waylaid on the way to multiplexes because of a plotline that involved terrorism. The Quiet American , about America’s escalating clandestine involvement in Vietnam, was repeatedly held, finally getting a limited release before Christmas 2002. And while audiences have safely wallowed in vats of cinematic candy-floss like Maid in Manhattan, Two Weeks Notice and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days , war movies have been stout-hearted and America-loving: Black Hawk Down , We Were Soldiers , Tears of the Sun .
Gregor Jordan, the writer and director of Buffalo Soldiers -which was delayed for over a year because of its negative portrayal of the military-told The Observer , “We kind of knew people aren’t interested in seeing this right now, but a time will come when they will be.”
Now that a barrage of questions has emerged about Iraqi W.M.D.’s (or lack thereof), the fate of Saddam Hussein and what the Bush administration knew before it launched the war, the mainstream media has finally found a comfort zone from which to release a spate of critical-if not exactly subversive-fictional works, all of which were conceived (and, in some cases, produced) before the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It is actually a return to the default position,” said Alan Wolfe, a professor of sociology and political science at Boston College and the author of One Nation, After All , who argues that there “has always been a latent anti-government theme in Hollywood, but [since 9/11] there has been a conscious effort to make movies more patriotic.”
28 Days Later is not a film that will be accused of patriotism. In the thriller, which opened on June 27, a “Rage” plague sends “Infecteds” into homicidal seizures and wipes out Britain- all of Britain.
“But there’s always a government,” says a confused survivor as he’s being filled in on why London is deserted. “They’re in a bunker or a plane somewhere.” But in 28 Days Later , there is no bunker, no plane, no undisclosed location.
“That comes straight out of a sense of the British people having lived under this very ineffective, slightly deceptive government,” said 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland, who wrote the script in 2001, in response to the government’s handling of mad-cow disease. “There is something about not being able to trust the group that you have put in place in order to protect you.”
In the film, the systems designed to protect us are destroyed, along with the civilian population. And the soldiers who remain-bleating out radio broadcasts promising salvation-are no beacons of hope, just a Lord of the Flies –inflected pack of dim, brutish rapists.
“It is a paranoid film. It’s broadly distrustful of everyone,” said Mr. Garland.
Buffalo Soldiers , on the other hand, is distrustful of the American military, pure and simple. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn and Anna Paquin, the film was shown at the Toronto Film Festival and purchased by Miramax on the evening of Sept. 10, 2001. Its release was pushed back first by the aftermath of Sept. 11, then by the invasion of Afghanistan, then by the war in Iraq. Buffalo Soldiers will finally see the light of day on July 25.
A Nietzsche quotation provides the coda for the movie: “When there is peace, the warlike man attacks himself.” The poster, which has already attracted some press attention, reads “Steal All That You Can Steal.” But these nuggets of controversy-which Miramax is nervously spinning as “sexy” in its marketing materials-don’t scratch the surface of the abrasive film, which depicts the arms-dealing, heroin-cooking American soldiers occupying West Germany in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall came down.
The movie is perhaps as aggressively critical of the military as anything released since Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb , which it evokes in its opening sequence, when Joaquin Phoenix imagines himself falling through what look like bomb-bay doors-he might as well have Slim Pickens on his back. The first moments of the film also include visual nods to both Patton (a screen-filling American flag) and Apocalypse Now (a phalanx of helicopters).
Images of George Bush the elder appear in dozens of scenes, while Joaquin Phoenix’s voice-over describes the post-conscription U.S. Army as an organization that appeals only to criminals, since after Vietnam, “Who wants to play for a losing team?”
“This was not any sort of direct critique of America or its military,” said Mr. Jordan, the film’s Australian director and screenwriter. “The film is less about the politics than it is about some human truths.”
Among those human truths is the assertion that, when left alone in peacetime, soldiers will kill a coked-up comrade while playing football, throw his body off a roof and then claim that he fell “while making technical repairs to the antenna that we use to guard against the enemy.” There is also a sequence-based on an actual 1982 incident in Mannheim, Germany-in which American soldiers high on heroin drive their tank through a civilian town, over a Volkswagen Beetle, and finally blow up a gas station, killing several people.
But the most jarring moment of the film sounds all too familiar. After an arms deal and a drug-cooking project end in a massive explosion, the radio news report says, “Army spokesmen have blamed the blast on a gas leak, although Pentagon sources have not ruled out the possibility of a terrorist bomb.”
A manipulated press takes a similar beating in the fifth Harry Potter installment, published on June 21, in which the threat of Harry’s evil nemesis, the Dark Lord Voldemort, pales in comparison to the obfuscating goons at the Ministry of Magic. Determined to tamp down rumors of Voldemort’s evil uprising, the wizarding world’s government takes over the mainstream press outlet, the Daily Prophet . Harry and his friends must resort to placing news in The Quibbler -the equivalent of granting an exclusive interview to The National Enquirer because The New York Times can no longer be trusted.
While neither war nor terrorist attack would have stopped the long-awaited publication of Ms. Rowling’s blockbuster, it seems felicitous that it has dropped into our laps this summer, as we puzzle over what actually happened in the rescue of Jessica Lynch. Harry’s suspicions about his government-like so much of the rest of the book-will send frissons of recognition down the spines of readers who, on the same weekend that the book was published, found The New York Times asking: “Bush May Have Exaggerated, but Did He Lie?”
Ms. Rowling has not disguised her allusions to the rise of the Third Reich during the period between the two world wars. It would be naïve to pretend that somewhere in her tales of a secretive ministry purposefully deceiving its people, there isn’t some embedded critique of Tony Blair and George Bush.
But not necessarily a partisan critique.
“Suspicion of government unites the right and the left,” said Mr. Wolfe. “And in terms of box office or grosses, that’s a good thing.” Mr. Wolfe also pointed out that a text that is obliquely anti-government can easily translate into a text that is anti-American.
“And if you’re seeking a worldwide audience, anti-Americanism is going to be really popular these days,” he said.
Mr. Jordan also sees a certain serendipity in the delay of his movie’s release: “Now is probably a better time than even before Sept. 11. Now it has a topicality that it never had before.
“The concept of the subject matter of a film being too close to current world events, being seen as somehow insensitive or-perish the thought-subversive, is pretty unique,” Mr. Jordan continued. “The last time such things were thought about was during the McCarthy era.
“Not that I am drawing any comparisons,” he added quickly.
Since he started working in Coney Island, Matt Behan, a 22-year-old graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, has noticed a widening gap between himself and his Manhattan-centric friends.
“They don’t understand the way people are here in Brooklyn,” he maintained. “Here in Brooklyn, people like to shoot guns.”
Mr. Behan knows this because of his employment as a “live human target” at a boardwalk attraction called “Shoot the Freak.” Seven days a week, visitors perch themselves on a platform and fire downward into a lot where Mr. Behan and his professional peers dodge paintballs.
“I put my heart and soul into each day,” declared the Cincinnati native. “I’m an actor, but what I’m playing is myself. As a kid, I used to get chased home from school, so this is nothing new.”
As the newest kind of entertainer to be called a freak, Mr. Behan is continuing a tradition blazed over the last century by legends like Zippy the Pinhead, Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy and Koko the Killer Clown. “I’m contributing to culture,” he said.
“Shoot the Freak” is the brainchild of Anthony Berlingieri, the 39-year-old Bensonhurst impresario whose prior careers have included running a muffin van, a carpentry business and a hot-dog wagon. “This was not created to make any kind of statement,” he emphasized. “This is a paintball game. If I was doing it in Disney, it might have been called ‘Shoot Mickey.’ I’m in Coney Island, so it’s called ‘Shoot the Freak.'” Shouting over a headset, Mr. Berlingieri beseeched patrons to blast the performer in the head; it looks good when paint splatters all over Mr. Behan’s motorcycle helmet. For safety, he also wears a chest protector, cup, leg guards and shoulder pads. “It doesn’t really hurt,” he said, describing the jarring sensation when a projectile meets his helmet. “But it’s like I’m getting smacked in the face all day long.”
As the salvos fly, Mr. Behan weaves around a brightly painted lot wedged between two buildings and adorned with tin drums, rusty shelves, a discarded gumball machine and an Elmo doll propped on a white wicker chair.
Finding the freaks has been a relatively effortless process, said Mr. Berlingieri. “They come to me. Look, there are so many people with so many fetishes, maybe some of these guys like getting hit with paintballs. But they’re also paid well. They have to be; they are the game.”
Mr. Behan left a dreary job as a telemarketer to find liberation on the boardwalk, less than a year out of acting school. “One of my buddies is going to be on One Life to Live ,” he said. “Some other people from school are starting their own theater company. But I’m the one who keeps getting his name in the headlines.”
On a recent drizzly afternoon, a dozen or so spectators watched Patty Morrison, a 38-year-old marketing rep, riddle the lot with paintballs, while Mr. Berlingieri offered encouragement. “Look at her,” he told the crowd. “She’s like a sniper here!”
“For the nerdy person, this game may seem cruel and unusual,” Mr. Berlingieri conceded later. “You can’t please everybody, but I am pleasing the majority of the people. We have kids firing off of milk crates. My oldest customer was a 92-year-old woman. I have steadies who come here and do this after work, before they have to go home and face the family.”
When the summer heats up, there are plans to arm the freaks with Supersoakers as a way of infusing more competition into the amusement. The rain has hurt business this season, but Mr. Behan used the time to familiarize himself with his Coney Island surroundings. “I know every stray cat around here,” he said. “I see guys running away from the police, under the boardwalk. If they get away, the cops come up to the platform and start shooting at me.”
Perhaps it’s no wonder that Mr. Berlingieri characterizes Mr. Behan’s tale as nothing less than inspirational. “He came to New York to become an actor, and he’s onstage,” Mr. Berlingieri said proudly. “I made my freak into a superstar.”
-Keith Elliot Greenberg
Checking In With The Underminer
Liz! Liz Phair! Hi, it’s me! Oh my God, I haven’t seen you in so long! But I feel like I saw you yesterday, what with your poster everywhere. Wow, those posters are so omnipresent. Good for you! Good for you!
Did you pick out your own clothes for the shoot?
And all the press you’ve been getting! What is up with The Times ? They’ve been so caustic to you. God, you think they would have more important things to gripe about …. But you are as irreverent as always with that long Chicken Little letter in Arts and Leisure. How cool that they let you go on so long.
Well, I see you got a good review in People . That’s great . No! Really! It’s very, very, very cool.
Screw those stodgy Times writers saying you have “surrendered to clichés” and are “desperate or clueless.” And then Slate had to pile on! Screw them-it’s all their own mid-life crises. I think it’s so cool that you are trying to appeal to pre-teens and you are a 36-year-old mom! I mean, you’re just you .
Me? I’m fine, I’m fine … you know, working with Robert Wilson and Philip Glass and Tom Waits ….
You didn’t know? Oh. I guess I’ve been sort of mellow and unpromotional about it. They just liked my compositions, and we’ve been working on a four-part retelling of Cherokee legends. You know those guys-always trying to do something that will be timeless and sustaining, yadda yadda.
I don’t know how I hooked up with them, really. I just thought to myself, ‘I am in my 30’s now, and I need to sort of evolve and do grown-up work,’ you know? And it was one of those things where you think it and then you are it? Because that next week my boyfriend Viggo introduced me to Rob, and the next thing I knew I was in rehearsals five nights a week. So there you go! We’ve both been so busy!
Actually, I wish I had seen you about a year ago, because I was at South by Southwest and, weirdly, became good, good friends with Danny Lanois. I needed a place to stay, and he said, “Why don’t you just stay with me up at Lucinda Williams’ house?” So I did, and we had a great time just drinkin’ Pabst and shooting tin cans and stuff. She is really as cool as she seems. I helped her with the lyrics on her new, widely praised album. Actually, you came up in conversation! Lucinda told me how she would have loved to work with you on something. I e-mailed you about it, but your account was down ….
Meanwhile, remember Charlie? He was in our Folk and Myth seminar back at Oberlin? I think you had sex with him? Well, he has a daughter who is 11 (can you believe it? We’re so old! Hahaha!) and was just signed to Arista. Apparently she is so musical, and she composed an entire cycle of songs on her little Buffy the Vampire Slayer BlackBerry Beeper. Kids these days! It’s almost like we cynical Generation Xers should just hang it up and let Gen Next bulldoze over culture with their talent and uncomplicated facility in the marketplace. And see? You paved the way for them! You’re like the crazy great-aunt of tween pop!
Anyway, I’ll see you soon! Bye!