The Sunday Cult Film Corner: “Bob Roberts (1992)”

31 Mar

Ahh, Easter – a wonderful time in Iceland. Mostly because it allows to have a 5 day weekend and overdose on slightly icky milky chocolate. But it’s also a time to sit back and relax for a few days. At the behest of Mrs  Sex Farm,, we have decamped to our in-laws in the country, where there is no banging warehouse action for 100Km in any direction. But there are mountains. And sheep. and wind.

Now one of the things that has been discussed within the UK critical circles is the following question “Is Pop Too Posh?” Essentially are we seeing a decrease in the social mobility of our cultural world, where people from poorer backgrounds have a harder time to make it in the arts compared to people from more comfortable social strata?

One of the most compelling example is that of faux folk band Mumford And Sons. In particular the appropriation of sounds that have been the preserve of the working class for many a year, into something that is watered down, anodyne, even conservative. It was also the way the appropriate imagery and fashion from a bygone age – waistcoats and collarless shirts for example –  to give the impression that they are stout yeomen of the land (To be fair – they are not the only ones that do this). I remember having a discussion with a friend who was really into that old folk punk thing. He said that he liked their beery sound and wondered if it really mattered where they came from. I said in terms of the discussion regarding the wearing of working class “Authenticity” as a robe to hide your obvious privilege was almost as bad as the shitty music they made. I have him some videos from The Men They Couldn’t Hang instead. 

It’s this idea of twisting the idea of the music of “the people” for more nefarious means that leads to this week’s episode of THE SUNDAY CULT FILM CORNER. A political satire that sees a canny operator pull the wool over everyone’s eyes with his hoedown charm and populist posturing. Ladies & Gentlemen, I give you  BOB ROBERTS.

Directed in 1992 by Tim Robbins (His directorial debut), it also stars him as the title character of the film, a conservative folk singer turned politician who is followed by a documentary crew as he fights an election campaign for Senate against the democratic candidate (Played by Gore Vidal). The film shows Roberts as a charming, charismatic “Man Of the People,”  who uses country music , sleek presentation, and populist language to run rings around his opponent who, despite being intelligent and with strong policies, comes across as elitist and out of touch. But as the film progresses, we see the dirty tricks laid out bare,  as the mask starts to slip a little and we see glimpses of the true nastiness hiding under Robert’s smiling veneer. Add to the mix an obsessive journalist determined to expose the truth behind Roberts, and you have a pretty explosive mix that ends in tragedy.

One of the things about BOB ROBERTS that intrigues me is how incredibly prescient it is when compared to the politics of today. Twenty years ago, this film had an air of truth but seemed slightly outlandish. But look at the politics of the US (And to a lesser extent, the UK & Iceland), with its overload of ogreish, aggressively anti-intellectual, and rabble rousing pond-life such as Santorum, Bachmann, Palin and Gingrich, and BOB ROBERTS seems more like a Nostradamus-style warning for the future. Empty posturing to the baying tea party masses, preying on their own fears and prejudices for maximum political effect, no matter what the cost to the general public.  All sharks teeth and dead eyes. The scenes with the documentary crew interviewing the grass-roots fans of Roberts could so easily have been taken from a YouTube video form a Tea Party Rally of a CPAC conference. It also lays barbs into the “Good” guys such as crusading journalist John Raplin (Played by Giancarlo Esposito) who is portrayed as obsessive, twitchy and a little paranoid. Even if he is shown to be right in many ways, he comes across as someone who is almost unbalanced in his search for the truth about Roberts, and whose claim could easily be dismissed as insane rantings..

But at it’s heart BOB ROBERTS is a satire. The films suffered a bit commercially and critically on it’s initial release when people tried to pin the message of the film again Robbin’s own political leanings (He is an avowed progressive and democrat), but it’s not really about  left Vs right as such. It’s a much more universal message about the dangers of democracy being usurped by people with wield the tools of populist power for their own nefarious ends. As well as politicians, Robbins also takes a swing at society and the general public. How we seem to be drawn to snake oil salesmen who comes across as strong leaders with all the right words to make us feel better about ourselves. People who can manipulate mass media to their advantage. Tony Blair was a class example of this – utterly charming and poised, but in reality who can really claim what he STOOD for. Indeed he was actually scary when he occasionally lost his cool and the real Blair came to the fore.

And this goes for Robbins as well in the role of Roberts. He is brilliant in this film as he exudes charm and the air of a someone who  can get you doing what he wants, even if you don’t realise it. He’s also helped by the fact that he also wrote the script as well, which is fast paced, intelligent, sharp and completely nails the language of the politics ans mass media. Props should also go to Gore Vidal as the slightly crumpled and aloof Democratic candidate.

What also interesting to note is that the songs, written by Robbins and his brother David, are also rather witty and nails the aspirations of country music to be all about “authenticity” but being just as empty as any other pop song. You see similar biting songwriting with Trey Parker and Matt stone on “Team America” with their pisstake on the gaudy stars and stripes rinsed nationalist country sound. Hey all y’alls!

So if you want to be entertained, yet slightly disturbed by the state of modern politics and the meedya, then get your Jon Stewart hat on and watch this with cold dread…


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Posted by on March 31, 2013 in Film


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