06 August 2009

Spoiler Alert: The Assassinatin of Richard Nixon is super depressing

I watched The Assassination of Richard Nixon in the van driving back from Boston last weekend, after opening for Katy Perry, which was a surreal experience. It was definitely a weird movie to see after what was probably the most ridiculous performance of my life, being one of the more depressing things I've seen/read in a long time. I'd rank it up there with Dancer in the Dark, which I saw in the theatre with my Dad when I was probably fourteen or so, and haven't been able to watch again since, though I loved it. Um, anyway...

If Assassination of Richard Nixon hadn't been based on a true story, it would come off as someone just trying to create the most depressing movie possible. The above still is Samuel Bicke, the protagonist played by Sean Penn, toward the end of his downward spiral, standing half-naked in the post office, waiting to receive a loan from the government which is ultimately denied. The movie basically just follows Bicke as his life falls apart, ending in his suicide after murdering a bunch of people in a totally stupid plot to assassinate the president, who he equates with the system of power that has opressed him and kept him from his rightful happiness.

Bicke is a case study in paranoia. His downfall is a direct result of his inability to compromise himself. His loan is denied because he checks the box for "Negro" on the business owner application, indicating his partner and best (only?) friend Bonny Simmons, played by Don Cheadle. He intended to use the load to start a dilivery tire service with Bonny. He lost his job at his brother's tire shop because he couldn't bear lying to the costomers about the cost of the tires like his brother asked him to do. He lost his job selling furniture because he couldn't lie like that boss expected him to. His wife left him and took the kids, presumably because he couldn't hold a job. And his wife is seeing some new guy, and treats him like a nutcase (which he is). So, basically, everything sucks, and Bicke, who has nothing to pass his time with but television, develops paranoid theories about the system of opression in America that keeps people like him and Bonny from succeeding.

Bicke begins to equate his struggle with that of African-Americans, and the civil rights movement. While his relationship with Bonny seems based on something real, it becomes distorted by his desperation to succeed and his increasing paranoia. Bicke attempts to join the Black Panthers, suggesting they change their name to the Zebras, which he claims will double their membership. He is aware that he is not exactly welcome, and offers the idea and one hundred and seven (or six?) dollars before leaving. He says, "Slavery never really ended in this country."

I recently read Flaubert's Memoir of a Madman, which I actually blogged about here about ten minutes ago, which proposing a sort of useful dichotomy: Flaubert's narrator, a thinly veiled Flaubert, claims he would "rather be a madman than a fool." Bicke embodies this idea. He is powerless against the American system, for reasons that he cannot understand, and paranoia becomes his only way of having power over his life. By believing that the world is unfair and possibly even bent on his enslavement and destruction, he makes himself an outsider. He refuses to be a "fool," excepting his fate and bending to fit into the system, by lying about the price of furniture and reading "The Power of Positive Thinking." But in the end, Bicke really is little more than a madman. His paranoia takes over and he resorts to taking power in the only way he has left, violence.

That Cheadle's character is the source of his gun creates a most likely unintentional editorial on the part of the director or writer or whoever made that decision, assuming it isn't absolutely faithful to the actual story of Samuel Byck. I really doubt that it is true, because so much of the movie is speculative fictions based on a very bizarre and obscure news story and life. Anyway, the fact that the Bicke of the movie gets his fire power from a black man is difficult to interpret without some sort of reference to the Panthers and civil rights movement, and the association of black Americans with violence by the news and white America.

Whatever the film's intended politics, the character of Samuel Bycke provides an interesting model of a conspiracy theorist. While Bycke isn't necessarily a theorist himself, he believes in a vague, vast conspiracy, and focuses that conspiracy on a figure head, Nixon, to which he attributes his lack of power. This is probably similar to the what happens in the evolution of a conspiracy theorist like an Alex Jones, or your average YouTube video maker. Bycke's act of recording his actions and sending the tapes to Leonard Bernstein (a minor fact that the movie turns into a greatly important thread and narrative device, in fact Byck in real life sent tapes to other public figures as well) is reminscent of the radio shows and documentaries made by conspiracy theorists that have become part of the culture.

Also, this is random and weird:

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