Politics and Movies

Do you remember in 2004, when it seemed like entire country was going to see-- and then debating-- The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11? Seriously, I can't even remember what other movies came out that year, but a quick look at the Internet Movie Database tells me that I saw two of the top grossing films of 2004-- Spider-Man 2 and Harry Potter and the Magical Shit (or whatever it was called), so I was definitely going to the movies that year.

I avoided both of those movies, though, mostly because I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to get from both of them without ever watching them. Even serious fans of The Passion acknowledge that it doesn't present a narrative so much as a gruesome representation of a story the audience is already familiar with-- that, actually, the visual representation of torture and death is much more important than the story in this case. If I'm going to believe that that's what makes a good movie, then I have to insist that The Passion fans also allow that the same is true of Saw and Hostel-- even if the storylines seem simple or nonsensical, you have to admit that the guy sawing his own foot off and the other guy trying to walk across the room after his Achilles tendons have been sliced open are some pretty imaginative ways to torture somebody-- much more imaginative than the stuff they came up with in The Passion. Therefore, Saw and Hostel are even better movies.

My resistance to the Michael Moore movie is a bit more difficult to explain, as Moore and I are pretty much in sync, politically. And I enjoy documentaries, too-- Outfoxed,Bush's Brain, and Jesus Camp were all great, and related-- thematically and in terms of poltiical inclination-- to Moore's subject matter. And I liked Roger and Me when I saw it in college. At some point though, I started to get the feeling that, while Moore certainly cares very much about the topics he reports on, he cares first and foremost about being famous. There's no reason for Michael Moore to always be on camera during a Michael Moore film-- he has no charisma, his voice irritates, and he seems better at expressing himself through the presentation of images than verbally. And frankly, his sense of humor always strikes me as stupid, his "jokes" uninspired and obvious ("Ha! He totally played the Go-Gos' 'Vacation' while talking about Bush going on vacation!"), and only entertaining to those already inclined to agree with him.

Anyway... all this is to say that, although I'm very interested in politics, I generally steer clear of movies that seem to have a political message or ideology at their core, unless I can be reasonably sure that the movie is either a) nuanced enough to portray at least two sides of a very complicated issue or b) able to tell me something I didn't already know about a person or issue. That's why Jesus Camp succeeds where a Michael Moore film usually fails for me-- that's a movie that showed me a culture I really haven't seen-- even those these people were living alongside me in Missouri just a few years ago-- but the filmmakers very wisely chose to step back and allow their subjects to tell the story rather than forcing them into a predetermined frame.

So in 2004, my resistance to political ideology disguised as entertainment meant I missed the two big movies. Some of my neighbors were saying, wide-eyed, "Wow-- that movie really illustrates what Jesus went through in a way no book ever could. You should really see it." And some of my friends were saying, with a smirk, "You know none of those Washington insiders were willing to enlist their own kids when Michael Moore tried to get them to?" And Emily kept saying, "Should we open a bottle of wine, or do you want to make a pitcher of bullfrogs?" And I kept saying, "Bullfrogs, baby."

Two notes: No one, not even a member of Congress, can "enlist" someone else in the armed forces. Also, a bullfrog is a delicious cocktail that's pretty much just lime juice mixed with a ton of vodka and served really, really, really cold.

I eventually saw both movies when they came out on DVD. They both sucked ass-- or rather, they were exactly what I expected them to be, which meant they wasted about three hours of my life, which sucked ass. Yes, the gore in The Passion was really well done, and yes, Michael Moore had about a half-hour of really compelling footage that really stayed with the viewer (predictably, that's the footage of Iraq itself, and the dead soldier's mother-- you know, the moments in the film where Moore removed himself entirely and trusted his camera to capture the story without any heavy-handed interpretation). But, for the most part, heavy-handed, manipulative ass-suckage.

It seems that, in the three years since those movies came out, more people are beginning to feel like me-- they don't want to go to the movie theater to see political arguments. I'm pleased to report that last weekend Evan Almighty-- at $210 million, the most expensive comedy ever made-- performed very poorly. At the moment, many of you are probably wondering just how "political" this movie could be-- you're thinking, "Yeah, it looked stupid-- but I like Steve Carrell/ Wanda Sykes/ the older Gilmore Girl/ John Goodman-- how bad could it be?" It's a movie about a politician who talks to God and is convinced to build an ark, Old Testament-style. Also, Townhall-- the online magazine featuring just about every conservative pundit you can think of-- has been hyping this movie for weeks in their email newsletter as a return to comedy with "values" and a conservative, pro-family, pro-God, pro-America message. It seems like the most promising thing anyone's said about the movie is that apparently there's this bird that shits on Steve Carrell. Comedy gold!

Of course, there's a downside to people feeling fatigued about seeing politics and current events reflected back at them on the big screen. A Mighty Heart, which has been very well-reviewed, also had a disappointing opening weekend. The story about Daniel Pearl's widow-- played by Angelina Jolie-- may strike people as being too much of a grim reminder of what's really going on in the world, when what we really want at the movies is to be entertained by flatulent CGI ogres and pirate ghosts. That's too bad-- or at least, I think it's probably too bad-- assuming the movie's as well-made as reviewers say it is. I don't think this is really a "political movie" so much as it's a movie about the world we live in. But, as others have pointed out, sometimes telling people the truth about something is in itself a political act. Anyway. I'll probably go to see A Mighty Heart. When I do, I'll let you know if it's really worth your time.

The good news from this weekend's box office, though, is that 1408-- a new horror movie starring the once-excellent John Cusack-- apparently did quite well. This comes a few weeks after many film reviewers pointed to the lackluster opening weekend performance of Hostel Part II to make claims like this one from The New York Times: "Moviegoers put a nail in the coffin of a dying horror boom this weekend..." It turns out horror movies aren't dead; nor are they dying. People just don't want to watch crap like Hostel (or, presumably at this point, The Passion of the Christ). Go figure. Anyway, horror movies are here to stay, and we probably won't be getting more movies like Evan Almighty. Awesome.

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