Non-Granola Sundance Docs

“Given the dogmatic leftism/tree-hugging/granola-chewing/global warming alarmism, etc. that the Sundance Film Festival has always embraced, the only real act of rebellion within a Sundance context would be to present a smart film that questioned any of these positions,” writes Variety‘s Todd McCarthy. “I honestly cannot remember ever seeing what could remotely be described as a conservative documentary at Sundance.

“Granted, not many are made, and I would frankly be amazed if any would be accepted if submitted. But I, for one, would love to see a genuinely critical examination of the many blunders and chicken-hearted actions of the United Nations; a documentary holding up for scrutiny the many wild prophecies of the esteemed Paul Ehrlich, whose doom-ridden predictions about population growth were the first words I heard out of any professor’s mouth as a university freshman, or a film that looked with unbiased clear eyes into the extent of Soviet communist infiltration and financing of American unions, academia, social organizations and other institutions from the 1930s onward. There are many potent unmade films.

“In this light, I was greatly heartened this year by the excellent documentary Waiting for Superman, which vividly and heart-rendingly takes on the dismaying state of public education in the United States. As the director is Davis Guggenheim, who made An Inconvenient Truth, there was no question where this film was coming from. But the film is bracingly non-partisan, as it sweepingly presents how every president since LBJ has tried and failed to improve the system, critically points out how Republicans but, even more so, Democrats are in the pocket of the American Federation of Teachers and is unafraid to demonize the change-obstructing leader of the latter organization.

“With overriding compassion for the millions of kids tragically cheated by persistent inadequacies, the film praises charter and magnet schools that were long derided and blocked by liberals and insists that change is possible, but only by throwing the bums out. And there’s no question who the bums are.

“[Another standout] would be Obselidia, directed and written by a Scottish-born Santa Monica resident named Diane Bell. The film caught my eye from the catalogue due to the description of the female lead as “a beautiful cinema projectionist who works at a silent movie theater.’ (Well, if it worked for Inglourious Basterds, why not?) I’m not saying that this utterly eccentric, movie-loving quasi-romance between two intellectual misfits living vastly out of their proper eras is necessarily the best film in its category; indeed, quite a few Sundancers didn’t like it much at all.

“But this one was my guilty pleasure, a film out of step with current fashion, a gorgeous work in which every frame has the appearance of having been hand-crafted in an art studio. It centers on a man whose mindset is much older than his years, a fellow who, convinced the world is going to end sooner rather than later, devotes himself to collecting obsolete things and writing a compendium about them.

“Although he’ll use a computer in the library where he works, he won’t own one; he prefers a manual typewriter, uses a rotary phone, doesn’t drive (although he lives in Los Angeles, albeit a wonderfully unrecognizable and car-deprived version of it) and fills his home with all manner of faded or useless objects. While more of this world than he, the lady projectionist approves of his sympathies and takes him on an eventful road trip to Death Valley, a place that potentially resembles what the rest of the world will look like in future.

“It’s yet another film about the coming environmental apocalypse, but without a single special effect, collapsed building or zombie-like cretin roaming the landscape. It’s all in a man’s mind, in a film temperamentally indebted to the French New Wave, Woody Allen and Robert Bresson, among others. It’s a total oddity and indisputably a rebel in its utter defiance of and, perhaps, obliviousness to, ‘independent cinema’ as a concept and unified front.”

33 thoughts on “Non-Granola Sundance Docs

  1. Mgmax, le Corbeau on said:

    Good for Jeff for posting this.

    Cue 25 comments about how conservatives are too narrow-minded and worshipful of authority to make art.

  2. Cue Ronald McFirbank to start his knee-jerk projection of every negative liberal stereotype his little mind will create, and then to dismissively refer to those who don’t hold his world view as “son.”

  3. Well, that’s not necessarily true, Ronald. While there are a number of reasons why conservatives may be less attracted to the arts, perhaps due to the instability of such enterprises and likelihood of poverty, there have been a few folks on the right of the political spectrum who have made some really good movies.

    John Milius is a terrific writer and as a director he really knows how to stage action sequences (I submit the gunfights in Dillinger and the sword battles in Conan the Barbarian in his defense). Clint Eastwood isn’t exactly a bleeding heart and he’s one of the best filmmakers in the country. If (like me) you’re a fan of movies in which one dude maims and kills a bunch of other dudes over the course of 90 minutes, then you also end up paying to see a lot of guys who are confirmed Red-Staters.

    Granted, they’re rare (and perhaps my examples go back a few years) and becoming rarer, but they’re out there.

  4. The problem with “conservative” docs is that there’s almost no filtration in the right-leaning media world between the reasoned thinkers and the outright crazies – what passes for the “left” can get an Inconvenient Truth out without the taint of, say, the E.L.F. being directly on it; not so what passes for the “right.”

    Hell, look at Breitbart’s little Boy Wonder O’Keefe now – his first “score” was basically legit guerilla-journalism (skewed, of course, but what isn’t?) and now he’s looking at a possible indictment because either A.) no one told him where the “line” was or B.) he didn’t CARE.

    However momentarily beneficial Sarah Palin or this “Tea Party” business is for them, the “right” needs to kick the Believers (in every sense) to the curb if they want to be a lasting cultural force – and the “brain” guys on that side know this. That’s why Obama’s “celebrity” stature was such a horror to them: They recognize that pop-cultural presence and art/media influence matters as much if not more than policy now, and they ALSO recognize that they’ve locked themselves out of that world for decades.

  5. Um, MovieBob, pretty ironic using the global warmers as an example of the responsible legit side at the moment, considering how completely they’ve fouled their own scientific nest.

    The problem with all this stuff is that while in terms of its outward political leanings Hollywood may be a traditionally liberal Jewish base of support for the Democratic party on a par with trial lawyers, it is also, typically, borderline fascist in its sentiments.

    I mean, could there possibly be a more conservative movie than, say, Taken, with its uncritical endorsement of patriarchal violence? It’s a movie whose message is, Dad may be a control freak, and you may think divorcing his crazy ass is the answer, but someday dark-skinned thugs will come and then you’ll see that Dad was always right about everything, so shut your frickin’ trap, woman. And a Frenchman made that; Hollywood’s so fascist even its Euroweenies are rightwing.

    And you could make the same kind of argument about all kinds of movies– Precious (an attack on the disintegration of the black family right out of Moynihan and The Bell Curve), Avatar (individualists against the corporatized state, the Na’vi as interplanetary Branch Davidians and Stephen Lang as Janet Reno), you name it.

    Often the only coherent liberal filmmaker in Hollywood is the supposedly rightwing, actually libertarian Clint Eastwood– a film like Gran Torino manages, without contradiction, to honestly depict “right” values like hard work and self reliance, “left” values like tolerance, and Catholic values such as non-violence and atonement.

  6. “… the only real act of rebellion within a Sundance context would be to present a smart film that questioned any of these positions …”

    There’s your problem, asking for a SMART conservative documentary. Conservative in recent decades like their news sources and their politicians as dumb as box of hammers. Why would they go for a smart conservative documentary?

    There are some smart conservative filmmakers out there, though even the estimable John Milius has made an occasional box of hammers film (Red Dawn).

  7. It’s always entertaining when somebody like nemo talks about conservatives like a late 19th Century university professor discussing the strange, distant peoples of the African continent.

    “What you must understand about ‘The Conservative’ is their lack of understanding of complex issues and the complete absence of curiousity vis-a-vis civilized thought. They have a fear of fire, for it is something they can not tangibly grasp. One must use caution in their presence, for while they are often genial, it must also be remembered that they are quick to anger and prone to sudden outbursts of violence.”

  8. A good documentary should play like a Studs Terkel book: with a natural curiosity and a sincere respect for humanity. The filmmaker should never choose a side, rather only do their best to present the subject in its most natural state. A subject can always come off as liberal or conservative and this allows a person to make up their own mind. It’s probably too idealized, but anything else just feels like propaganda. In today’s “pick a side” political discourse, narrow is the way of discussion. Just look at some of the comments on this board. Having an opinion is fine, but when a major component of a person’s philosophy is to disprove and shout down all others, there’s a fundamental flaw that poisons the well form which all ideas are drawn from.

  9. Good for Jeff for posting this.

    Cue 25 comments about how conservatives are too narrow-minded and worshipful of authority to make art.

  10. Um, MovieBob, pretty ironic using the global warmers as an example of the responsible legit side at the moment, considering how completely they’ve fouled their own scientific nest.

    The problem with all this stuff is that while in terms of its outward political leanings Hollywood may be a traditionally liberal Jewish base of support for the Democratic party on a par with trial lawyers, it is also, typically, borderline fascist in its sentiments.

    I mean, could there possibly be a more conservative movie than, say, Taken, with its uncritical endorsement of patriarchal violence? It’s a movie whose message is, Dad may be a control freak, and you may think divorcing his crazy ass is the answer, but someday dark-skinned thugs will come and then you’ll see that Dad was always right about everything, so shut your frickin’ trap, woman. And a Frenchman made that; Hollywood’s so fascist even its Euroweenies are rightwing.

    And you could make the same kind of argument about all kinds of movies– Precious (an attack on the disintegration of the black family right out of Moynihan and The Bell Curve), Avatar (individualists against the corporatized state, the Na’vi as interplanetary Branch Davidians and Stephen Lang as Janet Reno), you name it.

    Often the only coherent liberal filmmaker in Hollywood is the supposedly rightwing, actually libertarian Clint Eastwood– a film like Gran Torino manages, without contradiction, to honestly depict “right” values like hard work and self reliance, “left” values like tolerance, and Catholic values such as non-violence and atonement.

  11. “It’s always entertaining when somebody like nemo talks about conservatives like a late 19th Century university professor discussing the strange, distant peoples of the African continent.”

    All I do is look at Fox News occasionally. Or Beck, or O’Reilly, or Palin, or George W. Bush, or George “Macaca” Allen, or the list goes on and on and on … If only they were a strange, distant people, instead of in our faces every day.

  12. “All I do is look at Fox News occasionally. Or Beck, or O’Reilly, or Palin, or George W. Bush, or George “Macaca” Allen”

    Which means you see more of them than I ever do.

  13. When McCarthy mentioned the “communist infiltration of unions” thing, I was trying to remember today what anti-communist movies had been made that weren’t either hysterical portraits from the right (not just RED DAWN, but also stuff like MY SON JOHN, which makes RED DAWN look positively restrained by comparison), or watered-down versions from the left (and yes, sadly, I do put THE KILLING FIELDS in this category – I got the feeling Roland Joffe et al weren’t showing the genuine horror Dith Pran went through because he was afraid of offending somebody), and off the top of my head, I could only come up with three that I’d seen – CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION (which was admittedly somewhat marred by F. Murray Abraham going over-the-top as Stalin, making him less dangerous, but it’s still a sharp satire), BEFORE THE NIGHT FALLS, and THE LIVES OF OTHERS. There may be others I’m missing (and I haven’t seen Costa-Gavras’ THE CONFESSION, which is also supposed to be very good), but that’s all I can think of.

  14. “pretty ironic using the global warmers as an example of the responsible legit side at the moment, considering how completely they’ve fouled their own scientific nest.”

    Only to people who didn’t understand the science to begin with.

  15. “All I do is look at Fox News occasionally. Or Beck, or O’Reilly, or Palin, or George W. Bush, or George “Macaca” Allen”

    Which means you see more of them than I ever do.

  16. “All I do is look at Fox News occasionally. Or Beck, or O’Reilly, or Palin, or George W. Bush, or George “Macaca” Allen”

    “Which means you see more of them than I ever do.”

    No one you see in politics or on television represents modern American conservatism. American conservatives are all too busy reading Edmund Burke.

  17. I can think of at least two anti-Communist movies that are pretty damn great:

    The Manchurian Candidate.

    And A Man For All Seasons– people don’t really remember this now, but it would have been obvious then that More’s fight for individual conscience against the power of the state had parallels to Cardinal Mindszenty and others.

  18. Alec Guinness’s two Smiley films were made for television instead of movie theaters. But they’re both terrific movies.

    John Le Carre is sometimes accused of implying a moral equivalence between East and West in the Cold War. It’s only true if you think combating evil requires rah-rah heroics and excludes recognition of moral complexities.

    The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Russia House, the Smiley stories — the Western powers may be shot through with incompetence and moral compromise, but they are always fighting real evil in the Soviets.

  19. Lake of Fire, about abortion, was stunningly great and had just about equal parts for liberals and conservatives to love. It wasn’t so much unbaised and equally-biased towards both sides…

  20. I can think of at least two anti-Communist movies that are pretty damn great:

    The Manchurian Candidate.

    And A Man For All Seasons– people don’t really remember this now, but it would have been obvious then that More’s fight for individual conscience against the power of the state had parallels to Cardinal Mindszenty and others.

  21. Well said, Nemo.

    That’s what bugs me about movies and books where they think examining our moral failings means pretending the other side doesn’t exist at all. It bugs me about Watchmen– there ought to be a Dr. Moscow, too, but then 80s Reaganite America wouldn’t be a simplistic supervillain.

    Same thing for the Bourne movies– no such thing as al-Qaeda in that universe; apparently we fund the CIA for the sole purpose of hunting down its own agents.

    LeCarre showed you could explore one’s own sins without denying that there really is a devil out there, too.

  22. That McCarthy thinks any of those ideas he casually threw out represent specifically “conservative” positions disqualifies him from writing about anything ever again, as if he hadn’t already earned that a million times over

  23. Well said, Nemo.

    That’s what bugs me about movies and books where they think examining our moral failings means pretending the other side doesn’t exist at all. It bugs me about Watchmen– there ought to be a Dr. Moscow, too, but then 80s Reaganite America wouldn’t be a simplistic supervillain.

    Same thing for the Bourne movies– no such thing as al-Qaeda in that universe; apparently we fund the CIA for the sole purpose of hunting down its own agents.

    LeCarre showed you could explore one’s own sins without denying that there really is a devil out there, too.

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