Seems Like Just Yesterday
Revisiting the 80s and 90s at The Tribeca Film Festival
The documentaries at Tribeca this year covered many of the world's current ills, from the perennial destruction of the environment (The Last Animals, A River Below) to the cataclysmic Syrian Civil War (Hell on Earth). The program also included films exploring the goings-on in the more libertarian to right-wing-leaning sections of American culture, shown most chillingly in Grey State (executive produced by Werner Herzog), the story of a young Iraq War vet-turned-ambitious filmmaker who strived to make an action feature about domestic government power but ended up – through his own psychosis mixed with his immersion in a conspiracy-laced world – killing himself and his family. The program included films about some of society’s softer ills including the relatively hard-hitting Blurred Lines which investigated the art world as a constructed economy of value and collusion (but we won't talk about that here!).Yet a group of films emerged that, while sharing themes of police violence, spectacle, and media manipulations with others in the program, stood out as revisiting and deconstructing some of the Media Moments of past decades (and hopefully thereby giving some fresh perspective on our own world).
While The Reagan Show felt relatively anodyne it certainly is a reminder of the now almost pleasant beginning of the Age of Stagecraft that the Ronald Reagan White House engineered. The doddering old fellow is almost refreshing to see as, even when not playing to the camera (or did he ever not play to the camera?), he seems genial and somewhat clueless. But therein lies the chilling reality of the 1980s where neoconservative political and economic forces grinded away at regulation and pumped billions into absurdist arms schemes like the Strategic Defense Initiative—better known as “Star Wars.” Using only archival footage, the film takes as its theme this very escalation of the arms race that conventional wisdom points to at least partially contributing to the fall of the Soviet power structure.
In this current Age of Screens, The Reagan Show offers what feels like a manageable and strangely hollow presentation of late 20th Century political power – almost like floating in a low-resolution video feed of 4:3 aspect ratio Presidential Press Room blue. Given our current White House situation it almost feels as if nothing happens. But perhaps that is the point. During the Reagan Era, the press was smaller and more obsequious, inasmuch as journalists were manipulated by the new power dynamics of an emboldened White House press office that were attempting more than ever to control the visual messaging. Journalism was more contained and Reagan also made sure that his geniality was part of his relationship with reporters to the point that, when Ronald got angry because of a tough question, everyone felt kind of bad. But by accident or, some would say, design, that Reagan stagecraft was the defense shield covering up a highly conservative agenda that emboldened and enriched the military, industry, finance, and intelligence sectors in ways that have never been reversed. The Reagan Show, while imparting irony, doesn’t help reveal the enormity of that era.
Fast forward a decade or so, well into Bill Clinton’s own brand of media handling, and we come across the story of Elián González, the Cuban boy found floating on a tire after his mother had drowned trying to get him to Miami. He was quickly taken into the Miami-Cuban community and the spectacle ensues. Elián’s father, once he found out his son was alive, said he wanted him back in Cuba and that he had no intention of emigrating.A standoff then grows that eventually leads to the iconic photo of a paramilitary-looking U.S. Marshall with an automatic weapon coming to take the screaming Elián at the behest of Attorney General Janet Reno—a photo no doubt often used in the anti-government tirades of Alex Jones and the like.
Elián is a story that would be hard to tell without all the video shot during the media circus that came to surround it and the film successfully represents how a community that had become nearly fascist in its intolerance of dissent nearly self-immolated from its own irrationality. Of course, when Castro saw that the spectacle might benefit him he stepped it up as well. But the moments that really linger are the news footage of a frothing community with great political power who call Elián a “gift of god,” see apparitions of the Virgin Mary as proof that he belongs there, ply him with huge American-style toys, and try to surround the house to protect him from being “kidnapped” and taken back to his father. The filmmakers include the present-day Elián who, while not having too much to say, seems content on having gone back to Cuba to grow up with his father (and is surely well taken care of). One thesis that the film posits towards the end is that the discontent over the Elián affair pushed those in the Cuban-American community who were moderates to vote staunch Republican, thereby filling out the margins in the disputed 2000 election that came down to, yes, Florida.
LA92 is like living or reliving a trenchant Betacam (with maybe some ¾” tape) static-laden nightmare of the dark side of the American Project. The LA Riots and what led to them is an historical slice that represents the systemic economic, racial, and social justice ills of the United States at volcanic intensity. In the unfolding of events there is a palpable feeling of what it must feel like when society, social norms, and laws break down and there is a free-form movement of random acts and irrational violence. When looking back at the LA Riots, the casual historical memory is not enough. The early 90s seem like the late 80s in their aesthetics but, unlike The Reagan Show, LA92 pulls no punches in drilling down into the utter collapse of one node of American society in the Spring of 1992.
In one sense, LA92 represents a feat of what an archival-based film can achieve: historical continuum, aesthetic texture, a pure raw intensity, and the highlighting of moments that encapsulate the surreal, disturbing, and sometimes inspiring nature of what happens during social breakdown. On that last point these clips come to mind. An older Chinese woman standing at the entrance of her store, pleading for it not to burn repeating “This is America, This is America.” A crowd of casual looters silently listening to a man excoriating them, “I came from the ghetto. What are you doing?” The acid exchange outside the Simi Valley courthouse between an old taciturn white man who brought cookies for the defendants and an eloquent African American who rips his stance apart. And then you have the burning, the looting, and the wanton violence – including both the iconic King video and images of riot police beating people – but also a random white hippie setting palm trees on fire and the horrible beating of Reginald Denny and others who were unlucky enough to be at that intersection when the simmering discontent with the Simi Valley court decision came to a raging boil.
Thankfully we can look at footage of, for example, destroyed Syrian cities and tell ourselves that that is on the other side of the world. But while watching LA92 is a trying experience, it also gives some historical context and truth to how fragile this – or any – society is as long as there are simmering divisions and injustice.
And now that nearly anyone can film everything around them on their phones, the material available to future filmmakers focusing on specific historical events will surely be vast. Whatever happens there will be video of most everything that happens going into the future. One can only hope that wealth of imagery adds to the collective understanding. But in order for this to happen, we’ll need filmmakers and archivists to sort through all this media and create narratives that tell us something about ourselves.
Williams Cole is a founding contributing editor of the Rail and a documentary filmmaker. His most recent film is Rebel Rossa.