US election puts the satirists in overdrive

Everyone wants to say something about the United States presidential election, even Matt Stone and Trey Parker, co-creators of the crudest, rudest show on television, South Park.

That must be why they have temporarily abandoned the relative comfort of a hit television series to produce a loving feature-length epic about the war on global terrorism, all depicted with latex puppets suspended by visible strings.

Team America: World Police sends up Jerry Bruckheimer action movies, Thunderbirds-style, and sees how funny it is to force its anatomically incorrect dolls to have wild sex, chuck their guts up, undergo botched plastic surgery and have various body parts blown to bloody smithereens.

And it has unmistakable fun at the expense of the Bush Administration's real "war on terror", as the eponymous crack team of commandos carelessly destroy the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Pyramids and the Sphinx - all in the name of saving civilisation.

"We protect, we serve, we care," reads the slogan on the side of their red-white-and-blue chopper as it descends on a busy Cairo market street, squashing everything and everyone in its way.

Team America has its top-secret headquarters inside Mt Rushmore, where presidential mouths, ears and crania retract or flip open to reveal secret entrances and landing strips.

The key to the operation is a super-smart talking computer called I.n.t.e.l.l.i.g.e.n.c.e., which still manages to get crucial pieces of information lethally wrong.

The anthem for this brave vanguard against a world of troubles: a pounding, up-tempo hard-rock number with the refrain: "America - F - Yeah!"

It seems that nothing in this most hotly contested of presidential years is too weird, twisted, satirical or provocative for the country's artists, writers, singers and film-makers to take on.

Nicholson Baker's novel Checkpoint has two friends fantasising about assassinating President Bush.

Philip Roth's The Plot Against America imagines a crazy, anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh winning the 1940 presidential election instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and moving the country in alarmingly dictatorial directions - a story with obvious, if unstated, contemporary overtones.

In music, country-rocker Steve Earle has taken over from the now-defunct Rage Against the Machine as the most frankly political performer now working.

His latest album, The Revolution Starts ... Now, is a searing indictment of the Administration, with wittily scathing attacks on Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser ("Condi, Condi, I'm beggin' on my knees/Open up your heart and let me in won'tcha please"), and Michael Powell, the censorious head of the Federal Communications Commission (in the song F the CC).

Similarly foul-mouthed sentiments fall from the mouth of Eminem, whose song and video Mosh exposes a hotly anti-Bush political sensibility.

When it comes to celluloid, the screens of New York and Los Angeles - if not the heartland - seem to offer politics at every turn.

There have been some overtly political feature films, one being John Sayles' idiosyncratic study of corruption, Silver City, in which the bumbling scion of a political dynasty runs for governor in Colorado, only partly aware of the sleaze all around him.

Chris Cooper plays the politician with witty nods to George W., while at the same time creating a persona all his own.

It is in the documentary field, though, where the real explosion has occurred.

Michael Moore kicked it off with the monster commercial success of Fahrenheit 9/11, but that was followed by all manner of smaller projects tackling every conceivable subject, from the Republican attacks on Bill Clinton (The Hunting of the President, which opens at the Academy this week), to a portrait of the Machiavellian senior White House political adviser Karl Rove (Bush's Brain), to the Fox News Channel (Outfoxed).

Alongside the thirst for political entertainment has come an even greater thirst for political information, especially in a country where the mainstream media has become so bland, and so afraid to challenge the received wisdom of the political elite.

Very often, the two have become hopelessly jumbled up.

The most popular political film of the year, Fahrenheit 9/11, is a documentary that doesn't exactly respect the genre's traditional aspiration to fair presentation of the facts - the New York Review of Books perceptively described it as a "film that uses documents" rather than a documentary per se.

Likewise, the most popular source of day-to-day information in the US is not a network news show. It is a satirical take-off of the news hosted by Jon Stewart, called The Daily Show, which airs on cable on Comedy Central (and on CNN in New Zealand, at 5.30am Monday and Sunday), and has acquired cult status.

The blurring of entertainment and politics is a hardy theme.

Sixteen years ago, director Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau (the man behind the Doonesbury comic strip) made a television series dedicated to that proposition, a fly-on-the-wall account of a fictional presidential campaign, called Tanner '88.

This year, Altman and Trudeau returned with a sequel of sorts called Tanner on Tanner, in which the erstwhile candidate's daughter decides to make a documentary about the experience of running for office.

In the new series, which has been screening on the Sundance Channel in the US, everyone is shooting film of everyone else and seeking to make cinematic meaning out of the political meaninglessness.

Altman and Trudeau, as they did in the original series, blend their characters with real-life figures, many of them shot at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July.

In one hilarious scene, Alex Tanner (played by Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame), the fictional candidate's daughter, finds herself in competition with Alex Kerry, daughter of the real-life Democratic candidate John Kerry, over an interview with Ron Reagan, the son of former President Ronald Reagan.

The two Alexes and their rival documentary crews try to alternate their questions, but soon bicker and, eventually, cause Reagan to get up and leave before he has said anything.

It's a wonderful encapsulation of the narcissism, triviality and blank incomprehension that have abounded in Election 2004.

- INDEPENDENT

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