“Divide & Conquer — The Story Of Roger Ailes” and “Vox Lux”–Reviews

by on December 11, 2018

Towards the end of Alexis Bloom’s documentary “Divide And Conquer: The Story Of Roger Ailes,” there’s a moment that will draw less than mournful feelings from certain Bay Area viewers.  It’s an announcement on Fox News, the media juggernaut founded by Ailes, of the network founder’s passing. Clips show several members of Fox News’ broadcast talent shedding on-air tears.  Those who loathe the toxic legacy of Fox News would probably prefer to mark Ailes’ passing by defecating heavily on Ailes’ dead face before burning his remains and then smashing whatever bones were left with a ball peen hammer.

Less militant readers may admittedly find such a sentiment both extreme and offensive.  But as Bloom’s documentary shows, Ailes’ commercial successes wound up inflicting on America such disasters to democracy as Mitch Mc Connell and Dan Quayle.  Fox News and its stars Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly poisoned America’s public discourse with hysteria and anger.

Given such a Superfund site-like political legacy, Bloom would have been perfectly entitled to create a biographical portrait which loudly and openly damned Ailes.  But a viewer will look in vain for criticism from Norman Solomon or some representative from FAIR during “Divide And Conquer”’s running time. The criticism that Bloom’s film delivers is the condemnation of remembrance and the damnation of honest accounting.

Whatever else can be said about Ailes, the charges of witlessness and stupidity could never be laid at his feet.  Ailes successfully sold himself to Richard Nixon as someone who could work television to turn Nixon into presidential material.  As history unfortunately showed, Ailes’ claims were not empty promises.

While wit and intelligence are certainly worthy talents to possess, how those talents are used matter as well.  This part is where personality plays a role, and it’s also where the viewer starts to see what a monstrous person Ailes was.

Distrust of others turned out to be one of Ailes’ operating principles in life.  One of his favorite beliefs is that “everybody has an agenda,” which might be called self-interest on steroids.  Another belief, that nobody can be trusted and everyone’s out to get you, was rationalized with a claim that Ailes’ father allegedly let young Ailes fall and injure himself to teach him a twisted lesson about trusting others.

Paranoia, another cornerstone of Ailes’ personality, had a grounding in reality.  Ailes was born with hemophilia, which meant he lived with a constant fear of bleeding to death.  This awareness could have made Ailes more empathetic to the plight of those who lived in fear daily for a variety of reasons.  Yet as Fox News’ screaming clips show, the network found greater profit in exploiting viewers’ fears via riling them up as much as possible.

Even the people who worked under Ailes weren’t spared their boss’ paranoia.  The Fox News founder carried a gun at all times. He had the entire Fox News facility bugged, which is an admittedly extreme way of insuring “negative” people didn’t work for him.  Access to Ailes’ offices involved passing through an area having bulletproof glass and a steel reinforced door.

Examples of Ailes’ massive egotism provide moments of unintentional comedy.  After being greeted by President Obama as “the most powerful man in media,” Ailes re-told the encounter as saying Obama called him “the most powerful man in the world.”  The success from the free hand Rupert Murdoch gave Ailes in running Fox News definitely didn’t encourage Ailes’ modesty. The most ridiculous example of Ailes’ egotism would probably be his evidence-free belief that he was important enough to be on Osama bin Laden’s hit list.

“The business known as show,” as “Hedwig And The Angry Inch” called it, was a perfect match for Ailes’ egotism.  A clip of Ailes’ chatting with Cyndi Lauper shows him enjoying the experience despite their obvious difference in politics.  Tap dancing, Ailes’ favorite form of exercise, probably looked cooler than the boring repetition of weight lifting..

America’s Talking, the first talk news network founded by Ailes, provided a dry run for the mix of show business and political commentary that would become Fox News’ hallmark.  Hosts were encouraged to offer outrageous opinions to attract viewers. Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly came to Ailes’ attention through America’s Talking.

Yet it would be Ailes’ previous successes selling Republican political candidates through Ailes Communications that would play a crucial role in Fox News’ growth.  Viewers will be shocked to learn Mitch Mc Connell used to be a North Carolina judge long before he built his political career undermining democracy in the U.S. Senate.  The late George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign may have been an Ailes client, but Ailes Communications had nothing to do with the original Willie Horton ad. Yet Ailes’ PR group made sure the public was constantly reminded of the Horton ad’s harping on fearing black men and revolving prison doors.

Fox News’ so-called merry media pirate band would show their first success in mixing hysterical commentary with their wall to wall “coverage” of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.  One former Fox News anchor described it as rocket fuel for their fledgling network’s ratings. The success of Fox News-style coverage would unfortunately also be aped by allegedly more serious minded media outlets.

Ailes’ successful exploitation of Clinton’s extramarital affairs was born out of hatred.  Having extramarital sex with Lewinsky didn’t bother Ailes; getting caught doing so stuck in his craw.

One might say, as the film shows, that Ailes spoke from experience.  Despite being married, the media mogul had spent literal decades using his power in entertainment and political circles to try obtaining sex from women who caught his eye.  Kellie Boyle found a plum job in a political party’s PR division suddenly vanishing after she refused Ailes’ sexual proposition. Aspiring reporter Lidia Curanaj found her refusal to twirl for Ailes or have sex with him meant an end to her dreams of a job at Fox News.

The Fox News founder’s attitudes towards women also influenced who got hired at Fox and got airtime.  Beautiful women were more likely to get the nod. Anchor Gretchen Carlson, for example, used to be a Miss America.  The female on-air talent were usually shown in short skirts and have the shapeliness of their legs emphasized for Fox’s audience.  Bloom leaves it to viewer speculation to wonder which of Fox’s female on-air talent took up Ailes’ sexual proposition and prospered.

A sexist attitude towards women provided one point of connection between Ailes and Donald Trump.  The current “POTUS” supplied attack dog support to Ailes when the media mogul attempted to fight off a sexual harassment claim.  Both men inculcated a cult of personality among their employees. Trump’s obsession with loyalty is well documented. But who knew Ailes had inserted a poison pill clause into several on-air talents’ contracts ensuring that his departure would also trigger the talent’s departure?

Some viewers will have a nice slice of schadenfreude pie watching an account of the wonderfully unceremonious manner in which Murdoch’s sons arrange Ailes’ exit.  The mogul’s unlamented demise feels as if Ailes showed less grace than Bill Clinton in handling being publicly caught. A sense of viewer victory, though, is tempered by the film’s noting just how far back Ailes’ sexual harassment practices ran….and the unknown number of secret settlements made to quash public revelation of those practices.  Were those secret settlements treated by Ailes’ employers as part of the normal cost of retaining his talent?

The more disturbing takeaway from Bloom’s film is that Ailes’ departure didn’t bring about a sea change in Fox News’ culture.  Sure, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck may no longer be associated with the network. But Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson do a bang-up job pumping out toxic GOP-slanted spew.

More disturbingly, Fox News’ legacy of discouraging respect for different viewpoints and degrading the virtue of finding common ground still lives on.  From the perspective of passive and not too politically engaged viewers, Fox’s presentation of the news feels exciting and entertaining compared to the dry detail of more restrained information outlets. But that continual tickling of viewers’ Ids comes at the cost of spreading misinformation and ignorance to these viewers.  Continual consumption of Fox News-like media sources, as many media critics have noted, remains a long-term danger to the health of American democracy.

Bloom’s film lacks answers for de-toxifying citizens’ minds poisoned with fear by Fox News.  The saying goes “those who live in courage must lead the way for those who live in fear.” But knowing how to translate such leadership into accessible journalism will be the big challenge.

***

“Vox Lux,” for those of you whose knowledge of Latin has grown rust spots, more or less means “Voice of Light.”  Yet Celeste, the protagonist of Brady Corbet’s film, often seems lost herself despite being her fans’ cultural beacon.

Is irony intended in the film’s subtitle “a 21st century portrait?”  It would if the film tied its bog standard “behind the rock celebrity curtain” storyline with a twisted reflection of the story’s period.  Instead, Corbet settles for turning Celeste’s life and career into a dramatic ellipsis, with the viewer struggling to fill in the blanks.

Celeste’s story properly begins in 1999, when as a teenager (Raffey Cassidy), she survives a Staten Island school shooting perpetrated by a friend.  A song she and older sister Eleanor perform at the public memorial service winds up making Celeste famous enough to be groomed for possible rock celebrity.  9/11 presages the film’s jump to 2017. At this point, 31-year-old Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) has hit rough patches in both her life and career.  She’s returned to her Staten Island hometown to launch a concert tour for her anticipated new album. However, pre-concert stress and highly strained family relations make for an uncomfortable combination.  Meanwhile, some shooters apparently inspired by one of Celeste’s songs have taken to slaughtering unwary beachgoers.

What the viewer hears of Celeste’s music feels like a fictional example of music as a receptacle for public projection of personal desires and anxieties.  The song at the funeral comes across as lightly religious codswallop. The concert performance demonstrates that Portman can credibly create a rock singer’s swagger to cover the actual songs’ empty bombast.

It would be the height of laziness to classify “Vox Lux” as a musical.  The songs the viewer hears offer no real insight into Celeste’s personality or feelings.  A more accurate, if wordier, description of Corbet’s film would be a “drama with some singing and occasional mass murder.”

A caveat, though, should be inserted about the film’s mass murders.  The 1999 school shooting plays a seminal role in Celeste’s story. The 2017 beach slaughters, by contrast, turn  out to be gratuitously chaotic events without even the payoff of a shooting at Celeste’s climactic concert.

As a commentary on turn of the millennium America and beyond, “Vox Lux” feels content to take the broad and obvious shot.  Of course Celeste’s loss of virginity happening the night before the fall of the Twin Towers goes for the American loss of innocence allusion.  Better dramatic material might have been mined out of explaining how Celeste’s music career doesn’t get derailed by her potentially scandalous night of sex.  When the World Trade Center is destroyed, simple arithmetic reveals Celeste is 15 at the time.

Is it also a coincidence of Proustian proportions that Celeste’s teenaged daughter is named Albertine?  Or that she’s played by Cassidy? Or does Albertine’s relative innocence serve as a dramatic yardstick to show how much her mother has changed since 2001?

Portman, however, delivers a performance showing with little explanation her character’s personal changes in the intervening years.  Adult Celeste now sports a broad New York accent her younger self may have adopted from Jude Law’s semi-recognizable Manager. The conservative-looking teen’s reserved sensible personality has been replaced by hair-trigger foul-mouthed aggressiveness, an androgynous page-boy haircut and fashionable leathers.

The film’s lack of detailed explanation makes Celeste’s estrangement from her sister Eleanor feel less painful than it should be.  The older sister used to be Celeste’s confidante, cheerleader, and even creative support. But Eleanor’s undescribed display of scruples has reduced her in her sister’s eyes to little better than a glorified nanny.

It’s oddly fitting that Celeste has little regard for scruples.   The time period covered by the film was marked by such high profile incidents of corruption as the Enron collapse and the Abramoff bribery scandal.  The closest the film comes to showing how corrupt Celeste herself has become is the cover-up of a fatal auto accident the singer was involved in.

Despite being set in the recent past, social media doesn’t play as omni-present a role in the story’s latter half as a viewer may expect.  Sure Celeste appreciates being able to talk to Albertine without having the teen stare at her smartphone. But wouldn’t she worry about somebody armed with such a device making a video of the music star’s dust-up with a restaurant manager and posted it on YouTube or the like?

Illumination regarding the meaning or lack thereof of life in early 21st century America will not be found in “Vox Lux.”  Unless its bouts of empty showmanship is precisely the story’s point.

(“Divide and Conquer: The Story Of Roger Ailes” is now at the Clay Theatre (2261 Fillmore, SF) and the Shattuck Cinemas (2230 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley).  “Vox Lux” is now at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas (2550 Mission, SF) and the AMC Metreon 16 (135 4th Street, SF). For further information on “Divide And Conquer,” go to www.divideandconquerfilm.com.)

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