August 26, 2004
Polito-tainment: Movies as Diatribes
When Canadian Jewish filmmaker Mark Achbar decided which talking heads would discuss business history in his new, capitalist-critiquing film, "The Corporation," the lineup was a quartet of four Jewish left intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.
"And that wasn't done consciously," Achbar told The Journal by telephone from his Vancouver home. "It's just that these happened to be the most articulate spokespersons for this critique."
"The Corporation" is part of a summer of left-of-center political and anti-corporate documentaries, some by Jewish filmmakers, who have found boosted audiences after the success of Michael Moore's anti-Bush film, "Fahrenheit 9/11." This Friday sees the Los Angeles debut of producer-director Robert Greenwald's Bush foreign policy critique, "Uncovered: The War In Iraq," at the Landmark in West Los Angeles and at Laemmle theaters in Encino and Pasadena.
"People are responding to them in that they're doing a remarkable amount of business," said Ray Price, Landmark head of marketing. "There are times in which showing political films can be like trying to offer free leprosy; people just go away. You have people booking them for normal business reasons, because at the moment it's very viable in the market."
"The Corporation" and "Uncovered" join similar films on Laemmle and Landmark screens, Southern California's main documentary film homes. Laemmle screens have been showing, "The Hunting of the President," about some conservatives' long campaign against President Bill Clinton. On Sept. 24, Landmark shows MGM's R-rated documentary, "The Yes Men," about two anti-corporate activists pulling pranks at global trade conferences. On Aug. 20, two Laemmle theaters began screening, "Imelda," about the Philippines' infamous first lady, Imelda Marcos, and Sept. 10 has Laemmle's Music Hall theater debut of the Zinn biography, "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train." This month, two Laemmle theaters are showing the anti-Bush comedy, "Weapons of Mass Destruction," and opening Sept. 3 at three more Laemmle theaters is the documentary, "Bush's Brain," about White House adviser Karl Rove.
Art house theaters, said Laemmle president Greg Laemmle, can be a venue for leftists and progressives who feel shut out by more conservative-driven talk radio.
"It can't come close to the penetration that the right-wing point of view has on talk radio," Laemmle said. "So the left wing point of view finds this forum to make a point and reach a market."
Because many of his Southern California theaters are in heavily Democratic areas with noteworthy Jewish populations, Landmark's Price knows it makes sense, on the weekend before the Republican National Convention, to use the Westside's Nuart Theater for a midnight screening of "Bob Roberts," actor Tim Robbins' 1992 political satire.
"We service, in large, a particular constituency, which tends to be a very liberal, Jewish left-leaning audience," Price said. "In general, our audience has a certain set of values; we do well when we cater to those values."
But problems can arise with left-of-center political documentaries finding audiences beyond Westside liberals.
"The dilemma here is that there is a dynamic between speculation and progressive criticism, which is then converted into claims of fact by a vast audience of conspiracy mongers," said Chip Berlet, an analyst at Boston's Political Research Associates, which tracks far-right extremism and conspiracy theories.
"They'll take a claim that is in the Michael Moore film; suddenly it's a proven fact and they build layer on layer. It's a dynamic of piggybacking on speculative films," said Berlet, adding that conspiracy theories eventually involve some anti-Israel or anti-Semitic sentiments. "Where conspiracism flourishes; anti-Semitism flourishes."
Conservative Jewish and Israel-allied non-Jewish filmmakers also are finding homes for their films -- not on the Westside but in Dallas. Longtime Los Angeles filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd's 2003 Showtime documentary, "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," on the nine days between Sept. 11 and Bush's Sept. 20 national address, will be shown at the Sept. 10-12 American Film Renaissance festival in Texas.
Under a festival logo of "Doing Film the Right Way," Chetwynd's film joins other conservative-fueled documentaries, such as, "George W. Bush: Faith in the White House," "Beyond the Passion of the Christ: The Impact," plus both "Michael Moore Hates America" and "Michael and Me," the latter by pro-Israel radio talk show host Larry Elder. But that one conservative film festival contrasts with the often well-funded, generally left-of-center independent film festival circuit from influential Sundance to small college town venues.
"We don't have a George Soros," Chetwynd said of life as a conservative documentarian. "We don't have someone with messianic zeal. Republicans raise their money in small amounts by large numbers of donors. Republicans are very lame in terms of understanding the power of popular culture and film. They approach political debate in a very sober fashion. The problem is not finding a distributor once you get the film; the problem is getting there. It may be a plastic medium, but it's very expensive plastic."
For more information, visit www.landmarktheatres.com and www.laemmle.com .