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Curious George

An interview with Christopher Jason Bell, director of the George Bush redux “Miss Me Yet”

Less than a month after exiting the Oval Office in 2009, George W. Bush was offered a part-time position as a greeter outside a family hardware store called Elliott’s Hardware in Dallas. Kyle Walters, Elliott’s CEO, published an open invitation in the Dallas Morning News swearing the gig was offered in earnest; the impossible-to-corroborate rumor was that Bush had given it some serious consideration before his handlers stepped in to declare the idea less than presidential. Long repressed, the memory of this path-not-taken crossed my mind while watching Christopher Jason Bell’s new miniseries Miss Me Yet, which draws from hundreds of hours of news footage to front-and-center the forty-third president’s shenanigans across ten episodes in (mostly) chronological order—a historical mosaic that feels dusty and old-world while simultaneously the very definition of too soon. If you were alive and watching television in those years, Miss Me Yet will hit painfully close to home; for those too young to remember, it will serve as a sprawling document of a time of almost indescribable surrealism. 

I had not been expecting a horse pill of anti-nostalgia from Bell, a critic, programmer, and heretofore director of no-budget humanist independent films—both comedies and dramas—made in close collaboration with their stars. But maybe the filmmaker’s appreciation for the callousness of day-to-day life under late-stage turbo-capitalism found its apotheosis in Bush, whose natural gift for the disarming malapropism reads more today like a sinister fig leaf for the re-emboldened military-imperial complex after 9/11. Miss Me Yet goes to show that things can always get weirder: the smoke-and-mirrors selling of forever-wars against something called “terror” gives way to a different plot twist, namely the recent, kid-gloves rehabilitation of Bush’s image in the age of Trump.

Ahead of Miss Me Yet’s streaming engagement on the collectively operated leftist media outfit Means TV, I called Bell to reckon with the task of disentangling so much history-as-spectacle. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

— Steve Macfarlane


Steve Macfarlane: You’re a one-man band, correct? How did you set about the insane task of consolidating eight years into a six-hour miniseries with no research assistant or archival help?

Christopher Jason Bell: Yeah. I had this idea around 2014, 2015. When we saw Michelle Obama hug Bush at the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Bush hawking his art book on the talk shows, it was like—Oh, we like this guy now? Well. What if there was a movie where you saw the stolen election, you saw 9/11, you saw the Iraq War, the Brooks Brothers riot—and it leads up to Bush on Ellen. I was like, Oh, that movie would be really funny. Someone should make it. I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea. I started in earnest 2015 and limited myself to those eight years. Meanwhile, I was doing other things that cost money and working a regular job, so this became a side project. Nobody was necessarily asking for a miniseries about the Bush administration so I didn’t feel a ton of pressure. But Covid happened and I figured, Okay, well, I should probably finish this.

SM: Pressing play on this thing, there’s gonna be a certain “No shit!” factor for people of our age . . .

CJB: But my “no shit” and your “no shit” are not the same as other people’s. I wanted these pieces of disparate material to talk with one another, episodes apart. So the viewer has their work cut out for them. “Why was that put there?” Even if you think it’s stupid, you gotta think it through.

Listening to podcasts, I realized I have to hear the same thing over and over and over to really learn it. Sometimes I stop and I’m just like, Holy shit, wait a second. I should know this already, because I saw it in a Michael Moore documentary when I was a teenager. The question becomes: Why didn’t these things stick?

SM: The series began as catnip for me, but I was properly depressed by the end. I feel you captured a lot of details too quotidian for the official Wikipedia account of that era.

Anyone who presses play on Miss Me Yet is at least open to feeling bad.

CJB: The conversation after the series is hugely important. Ideally, the viewer would leave wanting to learn more, to see what things are like now, and how they took shape. I just wish there was a more robust avenue for these extended conversations. I wanted to make something opposed to the standard liberal issue documentary. I like Jill Godmilow’s book Kill the Documentary. Very, very good book. It’s that whole thing where you watch a documentary and that’s your activism. “I’m a good person for watching this movie.”

SM: Right, the festival-land “impact” industrial complex. But let’s put this in dialogue with your other films—including The Winds That Scatter, an independent film about (and starring) a refugee from the Syrian Civil War. Does it frustrate you that maybe people have a visceral sort of knee-jerk interest in Bush that they may not have for a slower, more contemplative art film?

CJB: That’s an overall problem. The number of people who will devour the filmography of a middling 1990s studio director instead of checking out what’s going on with honest-to-God independent filmmakers working today, people you can talk to right now if you want, that’s what bothers me. (If the person reading this wants to program the series, I would still love to screen it. Contact me!)

SM: I’m assuming that there are some things you knew you wanted to put in from the get-go, but that you incorporated some material that turned up in your research, like a random moment near the end when Bush is in Beijing. He walks over to the door, and he pulls on it, and it’s closed, so he goes, “I tried to escape. It didn’t work.”

CJB: The whole project is really recontextualizing stuff. And I found it all just by watching as much as I could, and trying to order them in a certain way. And it’s like, what do I want to say? And part of that is finding these iconic or funny moments. The Bushes’ annual Christmas videos about their dog Barney, the rise of Soulja Boy, the normalization of bombing civilians in the Middle East, I just kept asking: How does this play given what I already have laid out? How does this play when you give it greater space?

SM: So much of this was reminding me that Bush was basically a meme while he was in office, at least among people who didn’t think he should be president. So I thought you were up something more sophisticated than just relitigating that.

CJB: You had That’s My Bush!, Lil’ Bush, South Park—although I think those guys are more libertarian. Everything fits under capital-L liberalism. Did the satirists really do their job? Obviously, I have included funny stuff in the series—like the photo op of him playing basketball with a bunch of school kids and missing every single shot. But I didn’t want to overdo it. I wanted to make something that would consciously push against this drift of, “He wasn’t that bad.” Do you know how bad it was in Iraq, in Afghanistan?

SM: As a study of the way live video interfaces with power, it reminded me of Harun Farocki’s document of the end of the Ceaușescu regime in Romania, Videograms of a Revolution—except this is the opposite of a revolution. I think it’s the beginning of the 2008 episode, near the end, all the advisers and cabinet guys walk out of a private space and gather around this podium in the Oval Office. And they’re looking at the floor weirdly. And you’re forced to realize or remember just how much scene-setting there is in this racket; it probably it goes on longer than anyone thought it would, even if it’s just like fifteen seconds before Bush enters and starts speaking.

CJB: And there weren’t many times I could do that. Same episode, during the financial crisis, he says something and then immediately walks away from the podium. Reporters are yelling questions at him. Camera pans to the door, but then whips back to the empty podium. And you watch that and it’s so good. I’m just like, thank you.

SM: How did this process influence your understanding of how Bush was covered? So much of it feels like letting him hang himself with his own rope. Then you remember he’s rich and living in total impunity. It’s a trip that some of the hardest questions he faces are from Bill O’Reilly, of all people—saying the government should protect us from bad loans. Bush is just like “. . .”

CJB: Had you seen that before? That was a genuine surprise. And it doesn’t add up to anything obvious. But Bill O’Reilly and Matt Lauer are both pretty hard on him. “How did you not see the financial crisis coming?” And Bush is just like, I dunno what to tell you.

SM: You mentioned people invoking Adam Curtis vis-à-vis Miss Me Yet. I get it, but at the end of the day I don’t see a major parallel there.

CJB: How Adam Curtis will build and tell his stories can be very interesting. He does fun, sometimes musical montages. Sometimes it’s very stimulating, where you are seeing chunks of things and wondering what these two pieces of ephemera have to do with each other. He makes you recontextualize everything and work for it. But I also felt, at least in Can’t Get You Out of My Head, he gave a lot of leeway to certain politicians, like Tony Blair. And then he doesn’t have any leeway for Tupac. So it can be a little confusing when he claims there’s no ideology to his work.

SM: His montages get the synapses firing. He makes people feel as though things happen for a reason. “While Americans watched the sacking of Tikrit, what they didn’t realize was . . .” etc.

CJB: I recently found a filmmaker who might be labeled similar but his politics are much better—and more coherent. Shout out to Scott Noble. But I only learned about him two years ago when I was already deep in the edit. I did look at some Bush-era documentaries. They might have used similar archival footage to make a point or accentuate something but I didn’t like any of them. I don’t want to name names.

SM: People had a lot of faith in documentary’s ability to speak truth to power in those days. Miss Me Yet avoids most of the usual trappings—voiceover, talking-head interview, exegetic music cues—but there is one device you return to, these kind of insinuating text scrolls at the end of certain episodes. Including one that ends with Osama bin Laden watching Bush on TV from his bunker after years of the war on terror.

CJB: I was influenced by the use of long scrolls in Metal Gear Solid, the dry linear chronologies of world history interspersing cold information with high, emotional stuff. But then I wanted to use the commercials to break stuff up.

SM: Do you want viewers to feel bad? Powerless?

CJB: You do have to meet people where they’re at, which is easier said than done. This is the broadest film I’ve ever made in terms of potential audience. I feel like anyone who presses play on Miss Me Yet is at least open to feeling bad. I don’t know how you could not. You’re feeling how removed we are, as Americans, from other countries even though we are often responsible for their state of being. The least you can do is bear witness and try to learn something. People already know things are fucked up. Did I worry about people feeling bad? Did I want them to feel bad? The flipside is just, this is how I see it. This is a part of me.

SM: There are too many interstitial bits to talk about. You have Michael Moore denouncing Bush as a “fictional president” at the Oscars, Steve Irwin, Tom Cruise jumping on the couch on Oprah. . . . But my favorite was the one where The WB ceased operations before becoming The CW. A montage of stars saying goodbye—James Van Der Beek, Keri Russell, Tia & Tamera, Melissa Joan Hart—culminating in this mournful silhouette of Michigan J. Frog . . .

CJB: That they felt a need to do that told me a lot. My wife and I were shocked by how sexualized the commercials were—moreso than the ones you see today. There’s one where someone in the shower is basically making orgasm noises because the soap is so good. In another, this guy is eating outside with his girlfriend, but he’s using his camera to check out the women walking behind him. Women treated as objects, meanwhile the halls of power are lined with “compassionate conservatives.” Bush as a vessel for the evangelical Christians. Prayer in public spaces. Do these extremes conflict in your head? I also looked at a lot of bank commercials. I went with the ones I thought were really, really pushy in the run-up to the subprime mortgage crisis.

SM: Another thing that hit me like a ton of bricks: the series begins in television, and it ends on the internet, if you understand what I mean.

CJB: This was when news corporations were starting to shoot more on digital, so you’re in a transition period and the quality is getting better. We’re moving from shitty SD to early HD, that kind of thing. And I thought that would be a very interesting thing to experience without making note of it. In terms of the internet, sometimes you have stuff that’s very grainy because I had to rip it in a way that degraded the quality, or maybe the only version available was tapes by someone else. So the streaming or the buffering was bad.

Television is still a powerful communicator of the ruling class. Of manufacturing consent. I wouldn’t say the internet replaced it, but it quickly became its stronger younger sibling. I chart it just a bit with AOL commercials and Mark Zuckerberg puff pieces, and before you know it George W. Bush is much more plugged in and doing the Ice Bucket Challenge while the algorithm intensifies chaos.

SM: You use a lot of material from Iraq, some from Afghanistan—but almost none from the “embedded” period with the U.S. military. Of course, that material was the bedrock for a ton of documentaries back when this was happening.

CJB: There are a few times that I included interviews of American soldiers. Our society doesn’t talk too much about veterans of these wars anymore. But what we really don’t talk about are the people living in those countries. So that’s why I included more of that aspect. 

Around the time they were pushing Amy Coney Barrett through for the Supreme Court, I had this friend—bless his soul—who was like, They’re not supposed to do that during an election cycle. I said, They’ll do whatever the fuck they want! They’re using their power. That’s what they’re doing. And he was really frustrated. And he’s not wrong to be frustrated.

SM: I know there were massive protests, and memory is an unreliable narrator, but I recall it as a weirdly un-polarized time. I voted for Obama believing he would dismantle some of Bush’s, uh, upgrades to the executive branch, instead of building on that consolidation of power.

CJB: That’s something that made me a little nervous about the project. It can’t be everything. I don’t really want to say one guy did it all. Using a limited selection of footage meant you saw a lot less of everybody else: Cheney, Rumsfeld, et cetera. I preferred to broaden it with commercials and bits of pop culture. Rather than the “great man of history” trope, I’m more comfortable describing it as a portrait of a system which operates on the trope. I think it’s important to remember the massive grassroots organizing that helped Obama come into power: thousands of volunteers and small donors, thirteen million email addresses, something approaching a real movement. Varying degrees of radical, but people were excited. What was next—health care? Empowered union activity? Student activist groups? He had both houses. And then nothing happened.

SM: Trump’s in there too, cameoing in an Apprentice commercial. But the whole thing feels a bit haunted by Trump. Or it’s a case study in a different kind of brazenness.

CJB: Looking back on Trump, people have ceded a lot of goodwill to Bush. Even if Bush was goofy sometimes, I think there’s a lot of footage where he is very serious, even saying or doing a lot of stuff you don’t agree with or whatever, there is that decorum, and Trump does not have that. Which was part of his appeal. You have to consider what changed under Bush’s administration, the deaths, the injuries; this is what decorum gets you. Now, if I did an Obama series in the same way . . .

SM: If you followed any president for eight years, in terms of how they exercised power—you’d see the same changes?

Looking back on 9/11, the administration definitely had designs on what they wanted to do. They wanted to destabilize the Middle East for material reasons, and they succeeded.

CJB: Obama has a massive amount of goodwill. Bill Clinton has a lot too, but it’s still marred by sex scandals. To really think about the way Bush took 9/11 and used it to project his own image onto the world—he speaks to Congress and says, They must close the terrorist training camps. But we built the training camps! Even without that context, you can clearly see that wasn’t a priority for them. The Taliban said they would offer Osama bin Laden up for trial in a neutral third-party nation if the U.S. provided evidence he planned the attacks and ceased bombing Afghanistan; Bush said no. You don’t really hear about that today.

SM: The 2003 episode is remarkably dense, with just tons of stuff happening. I thought it would be the most predictable.

CJB: I showed draft cuts to a bunch of people for feedback. And one of my friends who’s younger, in her mid-twenties, was pretty lost. She’s politically active, but not a total news junkie per se. So I had to expand context. I hated the idea of a voiceover . . . I wanted the footage to breathe, like you’re just watching things unfold. But how do I come to terms with that? Am I now explaining capitalism? Am I now explaining imperialism? Where do you start? You have to set those limits, and be honest with them and embrace them, and try to do something interesting and still try to get certain points and ideas across. You and I are about the same age, right?

SM: 9/11 happened in my second week of high school.

CJB: Right. So we were young but not super-young. I wonder if you felt different watching Miss Me Yet than you did seeing this stuff in high school. Did you like Bush?

SM: No, but I was naive. Growing up in Seattle, the liberal consensus against him was so intense that I felt there had to be a more nuanced explanation why things were the way they were. On the one hand I was being contrarian to the people around me; on the other, it was like Candide-level naivety. And especially after the war started it was just like, Oh. I guess it really is another Vietnam.

CJB: Some of my juxtapositions are obvious if you lived through it. But there’s kind of no way to make something about this person that isn’t obvious.

SM: Maybe I’m still naive, but one takeaway I got from Miss Me Yet was the idea it didn’t have to go the way it did. It could have been different, you know? And there’s a weird optimism there . . .

CJB: Well, right. But just to cite two examples—there was the Business Plot against FDR. And Kennedy was killed. We can’t say things went exactly the way Bush wanted. But what did he want? Let’s bring it back around to Obama: What were his actual policy goals? Who is this type of person who wants to be elevated to such a position where they could take those reins of power, then what do you do with the power? Do candidates actually change the direction of that power?

SM: I didn’t think the point was to give the world the most crystalline HD images of George W. Bush but rather to study the articulation of power, or the distance between political theater and its consequences. Did this make you more of a conspiracy theorist? Less?

CJB: I don’t know if I was necessarily on that wave. Looking back on 9/11, the administration definitely had designs on what they wanted to do. They wanted to destabilize the Middle East for material reasons, and they succeeded. But what is a conspiracy? Did we intentionally train the Mujahideen to evolve into al-Qaeda? What about Operation Gladio—staging terrorist attacks and blaming them on the left because they were afraid communists would take power in Italy? Whether Bush et al. got everything they wanted or not. But basically my interest is, how this thing was taken advantage of, what they did with the power they got—to Americans and to the people outside this country. But there’s a lot of cranks out there.

SM: There’s a moment where Bush is talking about “the blessings of liberty” and how low forms of popular culture are not among them. I had no recollection of this speech. This is not a Bush-ism that had been stuck in my brain. I don’t think of him as commenting much on pop culture.

CJB: Presidents and pop culture . . . I mean, there’s a reason I didn’t make one of these about Clinton. Clinton, yes, Reagan for sure—the Bushes, not really. And now Obama makes his best-of lists every year, that’s a new thing. Which rules—imagine Miss Me Yet is on this year’s.