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August 20, 2004

Art and Politics in America

Bloggers and journalists are still talking about the number of political (read "liberal" or "left") documentaries and plays that have been making the rounds this year. The New York Times uses the upcoming release of John Sayles' latest film (IMDB), which I can't wait to see, as an excuse to revisit this topic one more time and to review many of the key films that comprise this cycle. For the most part, the article focuses on the documentaries, most of which were made and financed outside of Hollywood. At the same time, in the blogosphere, Chris of Left Center Left, reports that David Adesnik of Oxblog still seems to buy the myth of "liberal Hollywood." Chris then patiently explains why this characterization of Hollywood is wrong (note: Adesnik's comment was prompted by Kevin Drum's list of eleven anti-Bush or anti-conervative films that have appeared in the last year).

From Caryn James' Times article: Sayles' Silver City is a political satire, which focuses on a candidate running for governor Colorado who bears a remarkable resemblance to a certain former governor of Texas, and uses this framework, according to the article, to reflect on campaign finance, corporate corruption, journalistic responsibility, and other important political issues through a detective plot (while you're in the neighborhood, the film's official site, set up like a campaign home page, is lots of fun). Other upcoming explicitly pro-Kerry (or anti-Bush) films include Bush's Brain, a documentary about Bush strategist, Karl Rove, and the pro-Kerry doc, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, which honestly sounds less interesting.

James is no doubt correct to note that the degree of opposition to the president is due in large part to the fact that he is in power. The Republican right wasn't exactly silent when Bill Clinton was in power, as Jerry Falwell's The Clinton Chronicles, to name one notorious example, illustrates (I remember watching an infomercial in which Falwell was selling this film and getting chills--and not because of anything that the film alleges about the Clintons). But I think James' article and most characterizations of this phenomena have been far too reductive to characterize it as mere "Bush-bashing," as James does. For most of these documentaries, especially the better ones, the political commitments run much deeper than dislike for Bush, a trend I expect to continue in Silver City.

For the most part, these left political commitments are incompatible with Hollywood's focus on profits over personal statements, something that no doubt also effects TV's potential for producing edgier political fare (a problem that James discusses), and most of these films have been produced outside of Hollywood. And as Chris notes, the center of documentary production in in New York, not Los Angeles. Whether this is a new phenomenon, I'm not entirely sure. Certainly, the 1970s saw an incredible rise in activist documentary filmmaking, with the work of D.A. Pennbacker, the Maysles, and Barbara Kopple, most prominent among many others, but it seems clear that something is happening. Whether this is because "distributors are seeing a niche market and are filling it," as Chris suggests, or because of cheaper and lighter equipment allowing more people to make and distribute films (the MoveOn phenomenon), I'm not sure. I'm certainly happy to see all of these new films becoming available and raising arguments that are often neglected in nightly news broadcasts.

Finally, many conservatives have mused that these political films have made little difference (see Adesnik's comment). I'm not sure how "effectiveness" would be measured when talking about a documentary film. If we're talking mere quantitative numbers, F9/11 clearly had a massive audience, while other documentaries, such as Control Room, have done quite well. If we're talking about changing the election, I think that's pretty much impossible to predict. There are too many variables at stake to make any credible determination that this cycle of political films has made a clear difference. If we're talking about changing the national political conversation, however, I think the answer is obvious. Moore's film has been in the media spotlight for months, and even if he has taken a beating from the right (and some people on the left), political filmmaking has been in the news for months. The arguments raised by this diverse body of films have clearly shifted the political discourse, especially about the role of the media in covering politics, and I think that's a pretty big deal.

Posted by chuck at August 20, 2004 11:27 AM

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I'm glad you ran with this topic, as you've actually seen more of these than I have. Some more thoughts...

I'm not sure how "effectiveness" would be measured when talking about a documentary film....If we're talking about changing the election, I think that's pretty much impossible to predict.

Good point. I'm reminded by all those social-psychology studies in the late 40s trying to poll whether Gentleman's Agreement changed racist attitudes. Such studies seem naive now, but yet some political scientists still show a Lazarsfeldian view of film as instrumental manipulator of opinion.

...I like your argument about the role technologies changing documentary production. So, too, does cheaper video projection change film distribution, allowing non-theatrical alternatives to showing these films.

...Without doing any heavy lifting research, I'd say that documentary filmmaking has been centered in New York since the 60s, becuase of its close connection with broadcast news television. (Boston has been a secondary center because of the role of WGBH in producing public television.) The rise of an independent filmmaking culture around NYU, Columbia, et al. only solidified this connection into a separate documentarist subculture.

Posted by: Chris in Boston at August 20, 2004 1:39 PM

Oh, you're absolutely right about New York and Boston being hubs of documentary filmmaking. Those kinds of instutions and the intellectual communities that gatehr around them are crucial to the documentary "industry."

Nice comparison to the 1940s studies. I hadn't been thinking about in those specific terms.

Posted by: chuck at August 20, 2004 2:03 PM

i know this is late notice, but i just found out.
the republicans are opening their victory center at 11:00am at 5600 Roswell Rd at the prado.
lets harass em

Posted by: smm at August 21, 2004 10:19 AM

I'm not convinced that harrassing Republicans is the best way to score votes, the only currency that matters right now when it comes to steering things in the right direction.

Plus I woke up too late.

Posted by: chuck at August 21, 2004 11:59 AM

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