In his compelling 2008 book X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, director Alex Cox delivers a powerful insight about modern movie audiences that helps illuminate the bizarre, amnesiac nature of modern political audiences as well.
The book as a whole provides a riveting account of the circumstances surrounding the making of ten films shot by the Liverpudlian director, from his film school days at UCLA in the late seventies to his groundbreaking "microfeature," Searchers 2.0, in 2006. One of the films put under the microscope of Cox’s affable, witty but hard-hitting analysis is Three Businessmen, from 1998. A work of hyper-realistic surrrealism, the film tells the story of two vaguely and dubiously employed salesmen who meet in a Liverpool hotel then set off to find a place to eat — and somehow traverse the entire earth in a single night, popping up in such places as Tokyo, Rotterdam, and the Spanish desert (where they meet the titular third companion), yet believing all the while they are still just a few blocks from their hotel.
Falling outside recognizable genre categories, the film puzzled many viewers — and more importantly, many movie execs and money men. Looking back at its reception, Cox writes:
This brings me to the bigger problems of Three Businessmen — the way we watch a film. Consider the scenes with Benny and Frank (Miguel Sandoval and Cox) aboard the Metro. While we’re aboard the train, it’s pretty similar to the Liverpool Merseyrail: a Metro interior is a Metro interior, after all. The train that Miguel and I boarded in Liverpool was painted yellow; the train from which we emerged in Rotterdam was green. You might think this was a pretty clear visual clue: trains don’t change colour, after all. Yet almost no one in the audience noticed it. This taught me that people watch films on a shot-by-shot basis. What they see now, they accept as ‘reality’ within the frame; what was on the screen five minutes ago is already forgotten.
This passage is a near-perfect description of the mechanics of political perception in our day, especially in the land that Gore Vidal famously dubbed the United States of Amnesia. And how could it be otherwise? For almost all of us, politics exists largely (if not solely) on the screen — the television, the computer, the Blackberry, the iPhone. The electorate is almost entirely an "audience," and nothing else; actual political engagement is left to the "experts": the vicious in-fighters of power-gaming factions (and the witless sycophants who dance attendance on them in the media, the think tanks and academia), and the handful of "cranks," on both right and left, who still raise hell at public hearings and sometimes even take to the streets — where they are invariably herded into nice, neat "free speech zones," far from any point where their "unserious" opinions might inflict discomfort on the powerful.
The flattened images, the passing wads of constantly updated, continually washed away digital text, throw up their limited frames — without depth, without history, without context — and imprint them on our chaotic mental receptors with the frantic, primeval urgency of "now". Now is all there is, now is all we see, now is what we are relentlessly conditioned to accept.
What color is the train? It looks green today. Wasn’t it yellow yesterday? Maybe not. Maybe it’s always been green.