Talking Movies: The War Room & The Alps

James Carville and George Stephanopoulos in D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room

It took 190 years of American political history and all the creative capabilities of the 1980 Reagan campaign to distill, finally, the fundamental question facing every American electorate: Are you really better off than you were four years ago? If yes, vote for the incumbent; if no, throw the bum out. We are seeing shades and flashbacks of this same sen- timent throughout the current election season, whether in the Democrat’s résumé-polishing or in Paul Ryan’s harping on the rising unemployment rate in Biden’s hometown.

Bill Clinton, the Gipper’s Democratic counterpart, is also haunting the current campaign. Despite their blatant and sometimes shocking shortcomings as leaders and as people, Reagan and Clinton are enshrined as political game- changers of their respective eras. Clinton’s re-introduction as campaigner-extraordinaire at this summer’s Democratic convention underscores this fact. Even Newt Gingrich is afraid to criticize him, so entrenched is his reputation as bringer of prosperity and scion of bipartisanship. We did not hear a promo for Clinton’s first movie in his convention address, but Criterion’s timing of its recent re- release of D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, a documentary about the run-up to the ’92 presidential election, surely had the current election season in mind.

This documentary in many ways established the standard tropes of all subsequent political filmmaking. The flawed but righteous candidate, the hyper-active staff of eccentric geniuses, the constant time in front of various video screens: all are components of every political campaign and every campaign film since 1992—just ask Ryan Gosling or Philip Seymour Hoffman. The new edition of this film only adds to this sense of the epic and the nostalgic; the bonus features now include reflections by the main players, George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, on how their political careers have changed since the ’92 campaign and how, inevitably, campaigning has changed as well.

It would be easy to cynically see this documentary as one big career move for everyone involved, but what transcends both the mercantilism of the film’s protagonists and the 20 years of political history since its original release is the undeniable sincerity and humanness of many of the moments Pennebaker captures. The best may be at the end of the film, when Carville gives a heartfelt thanks to all the war room staff; he very tearfully explains that “the only thing you can give to a cause that is bigger than your love, is your labor,” and he sincerely thanks the canvassers, fact checkers and sign painters for their individual roles in the Clinton victory.

Pennebaker may always be best known for his 1967 documentary of Bob Dylan’s British tour, but he may also be the American film- maker who most convincingly reminds us that good politicians are themselves rock stars.

Americans are surely not alone in our nostalgia for a calmer, simpler political past. Greece, one would imagine, has a lot of longing for the past right now: the good old days of unemployment rates below 50 percent, of the 35(ish) hour work week, the comprehensive welfare services and optional taxation.

Though Giorgos Lanthimos’ new feature film Alps does not deal with Greece’s economic difficulties directly, it certainly addresses the more general issues of loss, longing and nostalgia. Lanthimos, here as in his previous work, explores the way in which life-altering experiences—education, sexuality, death it- self—are flattened and integrated into day-to- day existence.

In the case of Alps, this exploration centers around a small business in which clients are offered substitutes for their lost loved ones in order to help them cope with the pain of their recent loss. (Mitt Romney will be pleased that the entrepreneurial spirit in Greece seems alive and well.) The Alps take on the form of lost husbands, daughters and girlfriends, approximating clothes, voice, hairstyles and mannerisms in order to give the client a chance to re-live parts of the relationship they had with the deceased.

Cinema Scope has described this film as a “masterpiece of contemporary existential- ism,” and it indeed forces the viewer to ask some pretty unsettling questions about wheth er life’s relationships—romantic, familial, or just friendly—have true and unique human meaning, or whether they are simply a set of social rituals and interactions that can be approximated by other, non-specific characters who may enter to fill the required role. The members of the Alps group themselves are un- sure about their response to this question, and over the course of the film at least one of them attempts to take on clients outside the group as a way to explore more personally the in- dividual emotions surrounding death and loss. One member hopefully suggests that “death is not the end. On the contrary, it can be a new and often better beginning.”

Lanthimos is also not without humor, ironic though it may be; he gives the Alps a list of fifteen rules for their organization, the tenth of which is that “Alps should always be smart, clean, punctual and in complete control.” His grief counselors, in their weird and creepy way, may be asking a similar question as our politi- cal leaders: Were we truly better off in the past? Or do we just imagine that we were?

Alps is showing at the Bijou Theater Nov 3-8. The War Room is available from the Criterion Collection, 2012.

Warren Sprouse likes movies and is outraged by the new MLB playoff system. 

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