Idol Chatter

Interested in some President Bush-bashing? Two new films–one about the Dixie Chicks’ grudge match with the president, and the other a mockumentary about the fictional assassination of the president–were released on Friday.

I haven’t seen either, but both are being positioned as “talking points” for November’s midterm elections, according to a article. “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing” covers the fracas between the popular country-music trio and conservatives after lead singer Natalie Maines told London concert goers in 2003 that the Chicks were ashamed to be from the same state as Bush.

With the remark coming at the start of the U.S. war in Iraq, when American patriotism was at a high, Maines’ remark triggered fallout as album sales dropped, many radio stations banned their record, and some fans boycotted them.

But perhaps more intriguing than “Shut Up and Sing” is “Death of a President,” which has courted controversy from the get-go. Through creative film editing, the movie imagines the assassination of President Bush after giving a speech in Chicago in October of 2007. It shows Vice President Dick Cheney being sworn in and then hustling an even-stricter Patriot act through Congress.

And as these two films are hitting the theater, “The Road to Guantanamo” is coming out on DVD. This documentary tells wrenching story of British Muslims, who through a series of unfortunate events, found themselves held without charges for two years at the notorious U.S. military prison in Cuba. This documentary, more than any other, points a glaring spotlight on horrors of Gitmo and the ruthless way the Bush Administration allowed for the endless detainment of thousands of “terrorist suspects” without real evidence.

Rent “The Road to Guantanamo.” You’ll learn the price some people are paying for the U.S.’s no-holds barred war on terror. As for the other two films, I wonder if they will really affect the upcoming elections. Faith and politics have walked hand-in-hand through President Bush’s two terms, and these films all explore its manipulation to attain some sort of bottom line.

Two years ago, Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” opened up to big audiences nationwide. This movie had some major buzz and was a box-office draw. But President Bush was reelected to a second term, so in that sense the film did little more than make the president look like a buffoon.

But it sure was a great ride while it lasted.

Though “The Simpsons” was a repeat last night, it was new to me, and–though I am not sure why this fascinates me as much as it does–I couldn’t help catching what was at least the second reference to Barbra Streisand’s 1983 gender-bender drama “Yentl” in the animated series’ history.

For those with all-too-short memories, “Yentl” was the story of a young Jewish woman in an Eastern European shtetl who, lacking educational opportunities because of her gender, is determined to study in an all-men’s yeshivah, so she covers up in traditional Orthodox men’s garb–white shirt, black suit, black coat, black hat, dangling side-curls–and enrolls as a man.

The so-bad-it’s-funny movie first appeared on “The Simpsons” in an episode focusing on Nelson and his search for his father. Believing no one is around to hear him, the supposedly hard-hearted bully breaks into a heart-wrenching (or gut-busting, depending on your perspective) rendition of the movie’s song “Papa Can You Hear Me?”

Then, in the episode rebroadcast last night, the kids’ school is separated by gender, in order to give the girls an empowerment boost in math and science. Fed up with her touchy-feely math class–“How does a plus sign make you feel?” the teacher asks–Lisa decides to take a play from Babs’ book and attend the boys school in drag. Discovered, one of Nelson’s bully friends calls out disappointedly, “We’ve been Yentled!”

Indeed they had been.

There’s a new version of an old mini-series that’s sure to be a ratings grabber for the next week or so. The stakes are high, the subplots are numerous, and the cast features old stars and emerging new characters. As a nation, we’ll tune in with interest until it runs its course and ends. And this one is not only on one channel.

There’s something about the drama of the election that creates national interest that goes beyond politics. It’s a story that interests Americans, with its many possible twists, turns, and mysteries:

• Will the Democrats take over the House?
• Will the Republicans lose the Senate?
• Will Hillary Clinton run for President?
• Will Barack Obama run for President?
• How will this election effect the war?
• What will happen in my local congressional district or county commission election?
• How will other races effect the one(s) I’m interested in?

What makes this interesting for me is the degree to which the national news media is perceived as an information-distributor, when in fact they are as much a “player” in the plot as anyone. Ratings and advertising dollars are being fought for, audience share is the prize, and all stops will be pulled out by the news networks to “win” their battles during this high viewership season.

Consider some quotes I heard last week:

On Fox: “You are correct that this is an issue of national importance, and that’s why viewers will need to keep it on Fox, because, indeed, if the Republicans win that seat there is little chance the Democrats can gain control of the Senate.”

CNN: “Thank you for that report, and I remind viewers that CNN was the only national news network to have a reporter live on that scene.”

News anchor to expert commentator in the field: “Usually the off-year midterm elections are sort of boring, but this year seems to be anything but…”

These are classic examples of the self-promotional aspect of the news cycle:

1. The networks assert that this election season is exciting and not boring and that more and more people are interested in it;

2. A certain percentage of the audience believes that there’s something special going on and they don’t want to miss out;

3. Audience share goes up as (whaddya know?!) more and more people get interested in it.

In a poll released yesterday, Barack Obama is in a statistical dead heat with John McCain (41%-38%) for the 2008 election. Am I the only one who notices that the only reason for such polls now is the creation of subplots and stories to juice up an election? Neither McCain or Obama is in a close race in this election, and most Americans don’t really know much about Obama’s leadership record or his stand on every issue. But we know his image, and a bit of his story, and that is how the media drives our election processes and influences the results while posing as a bystander.

It all comes down to this: A spiritually-driven person who wants to cast a responsible vote needs to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to watching TV news, to identify what is of relevance and close to factual, and what is really just the media’s efforts to win in its own piece of the drama that is Nationally Televised Election Season.

Like the Olympics, this ratings-grabber will be gone in two weeks, but the repercussions of our votes will last much, much longer.

Conversations with God“–the true life story of Neale Donald Walsch, the bestselling author of the book series of the same name–hits screens nationwide this weekend. The books have sold more than 7 million copies worldwide, and the first one sat on the New York Times bestseller list for well over a year. (You can watch a clip from the film here.)

As the films in the “spirituality” genre are wont to be, “Conversations With God” is verrrrry slow at points. There are lots of “reflective silences”–gazing into space, at a lake with surrounding mountains, sitting on the couch during one of Walsch’s particularly down-and-out moments. This slowness–rather than coming off as artistic, moving, or even suspenseful (see “Whale Rider” as an excellent film with little conversation but electric intensity)–comes across as cheesy. Viewers are supposed to experience these silences as pregnant with meaning, but they verge on the awkward, if not entirely boring.

That said, once the film starts really exploring the juxtaposition of Walsch’s current life and success as a bestselling author with his earlier experiences as a homeless man living in a tent, the film picks up and audiences will find themselves wanting to know the bits and pieces of this rags-to-to-riches story. In other words, I did eventually watch with interest as Walsch’s transformation unfolded, but it was hard to lose the feeling that the makers of this movie were trying to manipulate me, wanting me to cry, and most of all, to buy the book.

I must admit, I have not read any of the “Conversations with God” books–though Book One has been sitting on my shelf since the late 90’s, a gift from a friend who thought I should read it during a difficult time in my life. At the very least, seeing the movie has sent me searching through the mountains on my shelves for my copy of that book. I’m now curious to read more than the snippets and excerpts the film offers viewers–it did whet my appetite (score one for the producers!). I imagine movie-goers still uninitiated to the series will feel a similar curiosity.

And the religion scholar in me couldn’t help but ask, while watching Walsch’s story unfold: Is Neale a modern-day mystic? One whose relationship with God is so intimate, so intense, that he cannot help but feel compelled to share this profound knowledge with the world? Neale’s sensibility of the divine is as friend, and even more so as Love–a portrait not unfamiliar within the history of Christian mysticism. Hadewijch of Antwerp, believed to have lived in the 13th century, wrote many poems and lyrics inspired by her intimate encounters with God, which evoked Love as the proper divine address.

Yet it is not quite right to compare someone like Hadewijch with Walsch. Hadewijch’s portrait of Love/God is far more nuanced and complicated–her God can break your heart over and over and She (God) is undoubtedly Christian. Walsch’s God seems to be one who loves you, yes, but who also wants to fulfill your every desire, whether monetary or otherwise, and seems most suited to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. Most striking of all, though, is that Neale’s God and Neale himself seem to be more or less one and the same. (This certainly launches him away from claiming a spot within the history of Christian mysticism–though it’s not as if he’s lobbying for one, either.)

Watching the film made me wonder: Walsch’s claims, his publications, and his speaking/preaching tours do mimic (at least to a degree) what we know of many mystics across history–so why aren’t scholars wondering about his status as modern-day mystic? Is it his lack of association with one religious tradition? Is it that our skepticism is too strong? Or is it the fact that perhaps, ultimately, his “Conversations with God” are too much about serving the “me” in all of us, and lack that ethical component–a sense of justice–evident throughout the history of mysticism?

Viewers and readers will have to decide for themselves.