Monday, January 24, 2005

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (movie review)

I was thinking maybe to see Ray or Hotel Rwanda, but Matt said he'd prefer something more uplifting, so after an early dinner at McMenamins on the park blocks, we wandered over to Fox Tower for a last economy-priced showing.

Sam Bicke, played very effectively by Sean Penn, is a guy in need of an extreme makeover. If you watch as his guardian angel (the camera's viewpoint), you'll see lots of missed forks in the road. He's another grain of sand determined to make a difference and even has these fantasies of starting a business on wheels (me too). However, unlike me 'n Sean Penn, he's short on skills, and that leads him to shipwreck and disaster.

The easy diagnosis is that, unlike Napoleon Dynamite, he's cowardly; one longs for more measured and proportionate acts of defiance, versus that final inept sicko wipeout ala 911. Trying to sell Black Panthers on his Zebra concept was a promising step, but he should've just taken the initiative and started a chapter. When asked to shave his mustache, he could've pulled a Bartleby and said "I'd prefer not to" -- maybe no happy ending that way, but no hellish climax either.

A deeper reading accepts his basic human integrity and looks to the surrounding culture for better options. The self-help materials he got from his mentor Jack Jones (whom I liked) didn't really speak to his condition, were too intertwined with salesmanship and moneymaking. Had he been younger, maybe growing his hair and joining the counter-culture would've saved his life. A few years later, there'd've been est. Today, he'd've had the Internet.

His brother was too stern and proud of his rectitude to offer any constructive suggestions. Like, hey guy, why not visit a rabbi? If those little sales tricks are so bothersome (shall we deliver this desk tomorrow or the day after?) why not join a religious order? Or the military?

In a parallel universe, Sam might've taken that bitterness at being denied the American dream, and turned it into more constructive hatred for one of America's officially sanctioned enemies: communists and/or satan. At least this would have turned him into a tool of the state and/or church, either of which could have put his anger to work in some more coordinated institutional framework.

Basically, Sam just needed a bona fide community (sangha) -- people who wouldn't turn away when he indulged in crazy talk about wanting respect, dignity and taking on "the system" to improve his lot. Plenty of people were talking that way in his day (those Indians on TV for instance), yet he never found his niche, remained isolated and lonely, with only a faulty guidance system to fall back on. Those around him, even his one friend, weren't savvy enough to point him in the right direction, nor really fathom the depths of his despair (they had their own to contend with).

What some critics might bleep over is that Nixon too felt like a cornered man running out of options. A kind of subtle doubling is going on in this film. True, Nixon was a much smoother operator, and had found his niche, his community -- though not many close friends (Bebe Rebozo comes to mind, and to a lesser degree Kissinger). And because he'd more successfully adapted, he passed enough screen tests to gain long term access to the cockpit (the Oval Office). Nixon, unlike Sam, managed to get a lot of planes to fly low. Angels (or Friends) should've provided better guidance in his case as well.


Speaking of community, just previous to hopping a bus downtown for dinner and this movie, my job was to participate in an Internet Orientation at West Precinct, Hillsboro. I joined a chat room from my Portland office using an alias. Although these kids were all in the same RedHat9 computer lab at the station, they didn't necessarily know one another's aliases (part of the fun), plus only at the end was it revealed that one in their midst had been a stranger.

The purpose of this exercise was to sensitize kids to the possibility of anonymous individuals surfing in chat rooms, perhaps up to no good. We want our next generations to really enjoy the new freedoms provided by high tech, which includes an ability to steer clear of pitfalls. I'm linking to this souvenir snippet of our on-line banter without revealing any true identities but my own (I'm jojo).

And speaking of buses, these days in greater Portland we don't have much advertising inside (outside we do) to catch those wandering passenger eyeballs; we have poetry. Really. I'm so proud of our town.