Worthless Bul

Washington Times  5.26.98
Balint Vazsonyi

The long and the short of it is that Warren Beatty's Bulworth is a bad movie. All further commentary would be redundant, were it not for the popular Hollywood star's extraordinary efforts to propose it as an important political statement.

During the golden age of the American motion picture, most producers echoed the line attributed (I believe) to Sam Goldwyn, "If I want to send a message, I call Western Union." Times have changed. The "message" has eclipsed the motion picture as an art form.

What, then, is Mr. Beatty's message? One is left to guess because of the confused state both of his politics and of his film making. A safe guess would be that he wants us to see the black underclass as superior, morally and otherwise, and socialism as the salvation of our society.

Whatever his intentions, the sad fact is that - although the refusal of 20th Century Fox to supply a copy made an actual count impossible - more than half of the words spoken and sung in Bulworth are pointless obscenities. One might think of instances in which the judicious use of a four-letter word adds flavor, color, punch, or all three, but such is not the case here. There is only bombardment of the spectator with verbal muck until a self-protective numbness sets in - hardly the frame of mind in which a serious message may be received.

Before the onset of that onslaught, we are treated to the repetitive rhetoric of an election campaign, a pale rehashing of the much funnier 1972 version in Robert Redford's The Candidate. Thereafter, Mr. Beatty appears to propose that relief from the jaded world of corrupt politics comes primarily from people whose chief intake is mind-numbing beat, and whose output is restricted to a few hundred words, mostly depicting the nether-regions of the human body, and what to do with them.

I had to wonder what the well-dressed and well-spoken Vernon Jordan, sitting several places to our left, was thinking. Is this what the enormous effort of the Civil Rights movement was all about? Or is this Mr. Beatty's rebuttal to Bill Cosby's success in showing to America that life in many a black family is no different from a white family?

The world of legends offers countless versions of the powerful going among the humble and wretched, eating their food, wearing their clothes, learning their ways. These tales tell of injustice observed and remedied, of deeply moving humanity encountered, of eternal wisdom discovered. Through the mists of time, we are reminded that rulers must reconnect themselves to those over whom they rule, and that human dignity can be found inside a shack, clothed in rags.

Alas, Mr. Beatty tries to adapt an old saga of universal human validity to a narrowly contemporary, and politically specific message. In the process, he comes close to making the case that integration of white and black America is now farther removed from our horizons than before. I believe he is wrong, but he is not alone in wanting us to equate America's black population with the segment whose ways, habits, speech, and clothing would keep them segregated from mainstream America regardless of skin color. Why?

Perhaps socialism, Mr. Beatty's political message, necessitates those images. Socialism thrives on victims, on unattainable goals, on wholesale accusations aimed at everyone who succeeds. Socialists must accept replacement of certain sections inside their brains with pre-recorded tapes. Example: Mr. Beatty's heroine, who observes silence for much of the first hour, suddenly bursts into pseudo-Marxist gobbledygook in the back of a stretch limousine. A few minutes later, Mr. Beatty's character is heard repeating verbatim the same gibberish in a TV debate.

It would be instructive to hear from the real Mr. Beatty a serious explanation of his views. Is there no current affairs program willing to do that? Unless challenged, most socialists do not even admit to being one, much less explain what makes them believe in their patently disastrous ideology.

Mr. Beatty may have identified with John Reed, whom he portrayed in Reds, to such an extent that he has lived the part ever since, simply acting out his fantasy in Bulworth. The loss of the Soviet dream has hit American socialists very hard - even though they pay lip service to its collapse - and they search perpetually for whatever they think will confirm the theory.

But much of the price is paid by a segment of black America, encouraged to live in a world that recedes farther and farther from the rest of us, especially as "us" includes a constantly growing number of black people. Rich white people, like Warren Beatty, keep depicting that segment as unwilling to work, as living outside the law, and as being terminally at odds with civilized society. That segment is also equated with black music - another tragedy.

Already at the age of five, back in Hungary, I was captivated by the deep humanity of Negro spirituals. Once over here, I heard Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, finally Leontyne Price. I watched Quincy Jones describe his goal as "having black kids stand in line with white kids in front of Carnegie Hall." But haunting melodies, effervescent rhythm, and transcendental art have been displaced by the monotony of beat as background to words of naked aggression and wanton profanity.

Bulworth achieves epiphany with the line "You are my nigger now." Like everything else in the movie, it is a rehash - this time of Gershwin's immortal Porgy singing "Bess, you is my woman now." But Mr. Beatty's version is unlikely to join Bogey's "We will always have Paris," or James Cagney's "Look Ma - top of the world" in the Exit Lines Hall of Fame.