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Absurdism At It's Finest: ELVIS & NIXON

In ELVIS & NIXON (2016) directed by Liza Johnson and produced by Amazon Studios tells the story of the iconic picture and meeting that took place between the notable duo. The film is an hour and 25 minutes but could probably be cut down to 40-60 minutes as the heart and meat of the film is in the last 20 minutes where Elvis and Nixon actually meet and the rest is just built up around minor character’s trivial drama. This probably could have been better achieved as an actual theatrical play than movie as the story relies heavily on the actor’s performances. As much as I enjoy seeing archival footage from the 70s it’s crucial to stick with the style of the times for authenticity purposes. However, there were some awesome exterior archival footage of Washington D.C. and Los Angeles possibly in 8/16mm format which really brought a warmth to my heart. Film is alive!

My favorite scene is where Elvis shoots his television set apparently disturbed by the news of all the violence going on in the world. He shoots the thing three times and then sets off for the airport while still carrying his gun hoping to catch the next flight to Los Angeles at 4 in the morning. The opening has great gusto not with just the dazzling opening credits streamed along the hip music of Sam and Dave’s, “Hold On I’m Coming" really sets the tone and atmosphere for the film. Also in the opening shot of Nixon (Kevin Spacey) we see the back of his head in the Oval Office discussing his schedule with advisors and as he turns to face the camera it pulls back. When we’re introduced to Elvis (Michael Shannon) it’s similar but with the opposite camera movement. Elvis is sitting in his T.V. room at Graceland where we also get the back of his head but instead of the camera pulling back it pushes in. It’s an interesting dichotomy between the two characters as they’re alike but also very different personality wise.

As of late, I’ve been on a Michael Shannon kick, and as far as the casting well, it’s kind of an abysmal train wreck so much it was half the entertainment. I’m conflicted on whether or not I liked Shannon in the role of Elvis mostly because he looks noting like Elvis but let’s not get caught up in the details. As an interpretation of him, Shannon had this strange, inconspicuousness vibe thing going on where on one hand left intrigued me but on the other gave me the creeps. Nonetheless, I respect and took to the fact Shannon recognized the pathos within Elvis in his monologue about his identity that was actually deeply insightful. Kevin Spacey does a decent job playing the role of Nixon, however, I kept confusing him with his Frank Underwood character from House of Cards. Silliness aside, Kevin Spacey can get away with playing just about anyone.

From a historical context, if this event wasn’t recorded or documented with the exception of the photo then I can understand why the filmmaker has to conjure up some feasible entertainment behind the iconic meeting. And when the two collide it’s almost like they’re trying to emulate a pissing contest in terms of who has the biggest influence, prestige, and distinction. For instance, the two compare the square footage of their properties and both have the same type of moon rock given to them by astronaut Buzz Aldrin. It’s just surface chat, until Elvis attempts to clarify his true purpose for being there. America is a mess, with drugs corrupting kids, and anti-American organizations running amuck all the while enlisting the help of Elvis, but in all actuality he receives an honorary undercover government badge (more prestige) which gives him permission to fulfill his quest on making America great again. Couldn’t resist. If only Elvis were still alive to see how America turned out? Ughh! Okay rolling into a totally different tangent.

Where was I? Oh, yes two icons chit chatting about the splendor of having power an exercising that power to do “good” which is the equivalent of two superheroes enjoying an afternoon of sunshine and tea. There’s no major conflict to this narrative and when it is mentioned it’s vaguely tossed aside like something not indispensable for something shiny and materialistic. If I had to guess the real conflict here is Elvis’s mere observations on how the America dream is gradually transforming or at least is on the precipice of becoming a breeding ground for scandal, corruption, and inequality. I’m going to take an egotistical dip here and quote my own tweet from earlier last year that, “The American dream was interrupted by corruption.” Just my humble opinion and given this was the 70s, the age of innocence has long past transpired and gaining traction into global corruption, basically married the birth of conspiracy theories. Boy, I legitimately love studying history. Okay, going into another tangent again. Whoops.

Liza Johnson is an American female director, who’s fairly unfamiliar to me however, she presents a wholesome satire rather than just a parody. In an interview she stated, “There’s no denying that there’s an absurdism to the clash of style between these two men. We all really liked the way that the project acknowledges the absurdism of that situation.” I like that. I like that a lot, in fact as I can imagine having complete and utter fun with that concept especially when it fuses personality and history in the medium of cinema.


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