PRINT January 1997


Box-Office Campaigns

IT WAS A STIRRING vision of interplanetary danger in which America’s youthful president, a slick neo-lib waffler married to an intimidating warrior-woman, reversed his fallen approval ratings by taking a firm stand against the aliens: “Let’s nuke the bastards!”

Can it be only six months ago that this cold latka—in which a bunch of hopped-up flyboys of varied ethnic persuasions made believe to join forces and decimate a horde of computer-and-latex extraterrestrial locusts—had all Terra in its thrall? The overlong, vaguely camp appreciation of blood and guts, God and country, ultimate sacrifice and cheap thrills copyrighted throughout all universes known and unknown as Independence Day seemed to evaporate from the mind faster than the memory of the Steve Forbes juggernaut. Did the premise of last year’s top-grossing movie leave room for a sequel? (And, having pretended to join the Republican Revolution to hold the line on Medicare in the parallel-universe production Dependence Day, what can our reelected Bill Clinton possibly do by way of an encore?)

A celebration of American military and cultural hegemony (not to mention the formula PR + F/X = USA #1), Independence Day was the pure filmic expression of that which The Nation had dubbed the National Entertainment State—the spectacle for which the Republican attack on the Clinton White House and the revelation that life had once upon a time existed on Mars were but part of a three-month publicity buildup.

Yet another spin on the War of the Worlds scenario, Independence Day looked tacky enough to suggest a megamillion-dollar remake of Ray Harryhausen’s 1956 Earth vs. the Flying Saucers minus the cold war subtext. This was a feel-good Armageddon that knowingly quoted R.E.M. (“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine”) and cleverly rewrote Dr. Strangelove (a Slim Pickens look-alike drafted to replay his rip-roaring nuclear suicide).

For Americans, it’s a patriotic duty to be entertained. Among other things, Independence Day afforded the key negative moment in the year’s other Show Biz extravaganza—namely, the interminable presidential campaign (which, given its estimated $800 million budget, cost out at roughly $8.50 per vote, or the price of a first-run movie ticket in New York). Mired in the polls, Bob Dole had created a midsummer media event out of his wife’s sixtieth birthday by treating her to a box of Goobers, a basket of popcorn, and a matinee showing of Independence Day in a nearly empty Century City cinema. What did the candidate see? Accurate as far as it went, Dole’s thumbs-up review (“Leadership—America—Good over evil”) only underscored his cultural cluelessness. By failing to comment on the movie’s money shot of the White House blown to smithereens, Dole served notice that he had never caught the most successful trailer in recent memory.

Dole’s hapless attempt to appropriate Independence Day underscored a campaign predicated largely on successful Show Biz mergers. With voters indistinguishable from consumers, publishers subsidized potential presidential candidates (and vice versa) in the early days of the campaign. Colin Powell’s and Newt Gingrich’s lucrative book tours amounted to privatized, profit-making test pilots underwritten, respectively, by S. I. Newhouse’s Random House and Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins.

Even as Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village supplied a ready-made campaign issue, Bob Woodward’s campaign book (The Choice) appeared mid-campaign, and the hubbub surrounding the initially anonymous Primary Colors (Random House) provided a substitute for the actual primary season, the campaign itself was now understood by pundits and pols to be a representation (a “campaign opportunity” in the words of Murdoch employee and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol). Bill Clinton posed as the president while Bob Dole invented a fictional “Bob Dole” as his real self explained to reporters, after embarking on his first post-senatorial campaign swing, that “We’re trying to get good pictures. Don’t worry very much about what I say.”

Historical depth had already been provided by the “Richard Nixon” thoughtfully resurrected by Oliver Stone (for the Walt Disney Company) just as the campaign (for which Disney contributed $532,000 to the Democratic Party) got under way. As former Nixon henchmen from William Safire to candidate Dole himself cast the president and first lady as Nixon redux, predicting a Clinton II as scandal-ridden as Nixon II, so the loser would be lambasted by conservative cheerleader Peggy Noonan as the last Nixonian. The crafty Clinton, she bemoaned, won only because he had contrived to run as her former boss Ronald Reagan.

True enough. As predicted by The American President, Clinton had simply merged with Hollywood. “The biggest contributing zip to Bill Clinton is 90210,” Variety bragged (not referring solely to the Murdoch-produced television show). “Politicians and movie stars spring from the same DNA,” Jack Valenti crowed. Never mind the polls showing that the professions American parents wished least for their children were president and movie star: by the time the conventions rolled around, even erstwhile Bushman Kevin Costner had switched his allegiance to Clinton. And as the president was reelected First Celebrity, The National Enquirer opened a bureau in the nation’s capital: “We refer to Washington as Hollywood East.”

The two parties were now in effect rival studios—the respective producers of Clinton’s Twister and Dole’s Mission: Impossible. To the dismay of Nightline, which found its convention reportage reduced to the level of E! network publicity, Democrats and Republicans had joined forces to merge the aesthetic of daytime TV with the hoopla of the prime-time conventions. Where else could it end, if not with stars staging public squabbles with their screenwriters and directors? Dole’s speechwriter, novelist Mark Helprin, stalked off the Republican set after the candidate rewrote his dialogue; Clinton was upstaged by his chief imagemaker Dick Morris—first on the cover of Time and then, thanks to the Star, during the convention itself.

Pundits complained but, in fact, these spectacles (complete with scandalous interruptions) were as redolent of American might as any blockbuster. Indeed, in the midst of the US election, Time was pleased to report how a cadre of American advisers used polls, focus groups, and negative ads to help the living corpse of Boris Yeltsin win reelection to the presidency of the former Soviet Union. In the most spectacular coup, a onetime Dick Morris associate (with White House connections) stage-managed the April summit meeting as a Yeltsin photo op: the American president was directed to just grin and bear it while the Russian leader lectured him about great power prerogatives . . . for teleconsumption by the folks back home. Bringing Independence Day to Moscow: in the New World Order, That’s Entertainment II.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum.