Tom Sutcliffe: Nixon's crisis makes good drama

The week in culture

Click to follow

I don't know exactly how you'd establish a league table for this kind of thing, but I've occasionally wondered whether any American president could beat Richard Nixon when it comes to cultural magnetism. What I mean is some measure of the frequency with which real political figures appear in fiction and film – a way of reflecting the mark they left on our collective imaginations. And you'll have two obvious rivals right away, I imagine, in this field at least: Lincoln and Kennedy.

If you were simply to do a head count of the books, plays and films in which Lincoln appears, he'd be miles ahead of Tricky Dicky, it's true. But he does have a 103-year head start, counting from his assassination to Nixon's election in 1968. And he also has the assassination, a curtailment of the historical story which also gives Kennedy an extra edge. Handicap the league leaders for those advantages, though, and I think there's a fair bet that Nixon would outstrip them.

The conventional explanation for this would usually have something to do with Greek tragedy and the idea of hubris. What fascinates, the argument goes, is the narrative of self-destruction, the idea of a man brought down from the very highest peak by his own inherent flaws. And it's true that that ancient template will have helped Nixon's statistics.

But I found myself thinking that he might have another advantage while watching the most recent contribution to Nixoniana – a short film for Sky Arts' Playhouse Presents series called Nixon's the One. Starring Harry Shearer as the President, with heavy latex make-up and a very good vocal impression, it simply restages edited highlights from the Oval Office tapes.

Strictly speaking, you might rule this out of contest, given the pure documentary source for the film. There is no artistic refraction here, really, since the actors involved appear to have matched their performances to the original audio recordings, complete with "ums" and "urrs" and meaningful throat clearances. But it's my competition so I'm going to let it in.

And it hints at another reason why Nixon is so arresting for writers and directors, which is the gap between the grandeur of the office and the inadequacy of its occupant (I'm not talking about political achievement here, which is a separate argument, but private character).

One of the most compelling sequences in Nixon's the One features a conversation between Kissinger (brilliantly played by Henry Goodman) and the President immediately after a big speech he'd given in April 1971 about withdrawal from Vietnam. To say that Nixon is anxious for reassurance is to understate it. Though Kissinger piles on the flattery ("Dis voss the best speech you have given since you vere in office"), Nixon keeps coming back for more: "No actor could have done that well, not even Reagan", he says, critiquing his own performance. "I thought that was done well ... didn't you think?"

All that has been imagined in the film is the surveillance cameras that add the visuals, and which give the whole thing the odd feel of a clip from a reality-television show. Nixon was sometimes accused of Big Brother tactics in his secret bugging of the Oval Office, but what he also anticipated was a time when banal conversations and the minutiae of social intercourse would offer a prime-time fascination.

Here, rather brilliantly, the concentration is not on skulduggery or conniving, but the inadvertent revelation of character – the very thing that made the Big Brother house so compelling when it first appeared. It never really occurred to him, as it never occurred to Big Brother's participants – how much we give away without knowing. What you get is Nixon's neediness, his vindictiveness and his bigotry.

It's a caricature. But it's a caricature drawn by the man himself, in his own words – and it sits so precisely inside the cartoon villainy that was ascribed to him by his political enemies that it's utterly fascinating. Quite a bit of Nixoniana, tellingly, goes against the grain of its creators' own political sympathies (both Oliver Stone's Nixon and John Adams's Nixon in China make the case for a reviled figure, rather than simply refining the revilement).

But I think that's only possible because they think of themselves as extending the magnanimity of a victor. There never was so small a giant or so powerless a monster – in political terms at least – which is why he may yet knock Lincoln off the top spot.

'Nixon's the One' is broadcast on Thursday at 9pm on Sky Arts 1

What a futile way of fanning the flames of anger

In the annals of pointless gestures I hope a chapter will be set aside for a recent demonstration by a contemporary art museum in Naples in protest at cuts to government subsidy. Earlier this week, Antonio Manfredi, the director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum set fire to one of the gallery's paintings (with the permission of its artist) and has promised to burn three paintings a week from now unless his financial circumstances improve.

Quite how Mr Manfredi selects the candidates for immolation wasn't made clear – though one presumes that he won't actually torch a canvas against the wishes of its creator, whatever the museum's legal rights in law. And one can't entirely suppress the feeling that his eye is unlikely to fall first on the museum's most important works. Perhaps artists are rushing to volunteer for aesthetic martyrdom, but it surely would be an ambiguous honour to have your phone ring and find Mr Manfredi on the other end asking you about the burnability of one of your works. And what's he going to do when nobody in the government actually gives a damn, which seems overwhelmingly likely?

There is a history of auto-destructive art, from Gustav Metzger's acid-sprayed sheets of nylon to Michael Landy's wonderful installation Break Down (in which he shredded virtually all his worldly possessions, including several paintings by other artists). But I don't think anyone's done it with a whole gallery before. I do hope he's keeping the ashes for an installation.

More than just another teen movie

I've never actually made it into Pseuds Corner (more down to luck than lack of natural aptitude I'd venture). But perhaps I can have another shot by praising the Delphic ambition of Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's tongue-in-cheek take on the teen slasher movie. It's been quite interesting reading reviews of this, if only to see what knots critics have got themselves into to avoid giving away salient plot points (some, it has to be said, remained defiantly unknotted about that difficulty). But I've been puzzled to see people complaining that the film isn't frightening enough. This isn't because I think it's terrifying. I fold like a deckchair at the first hint of ominous music on a film soundtrack, and even I managed to watch nearly all of it. It's because being frightening isn't really the point. What Cabin in the Woods is about is gnothi seauton, the ancient Greek injunction to "know theyself", which was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo. And that's not just because Cabin in the Woods delights in allusions to the genre that it adds to but because it goes one step further. It doesn't simply want you to know that it knows the same stuff you know. It actually wants its audience to think a little bit about why they enjoy watching coeds get dismembered. I don't think I'd go quite so far as to say that it's dialogue is Platonic – but at some level (basement and below) its method is.