"Too many filmmakers try to shove that extra little message in there that most critics tend to eat up," says San Francisco-based film critic Jeffrey M. Anderson. "The films end up offering nothing of personality."
In 1980, filmmaker Ross McElwee set out to shoot a documentary about General William Tecumseh Sherman’s ruthlessly destructive “march to the sea,” in which he and his troops stormed through Georgia in the summer of 1864. The resulting film, entitled Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation was less about the march itself than it was about McElwee conquering his own personal demons as he recorded his run-ins with various friends, family members and former paramours.
“Artists are always better when they’re in opposition to something."
Sherman’s March represented a landmark in politically driven films due to the intensely personal treatment of its themes. Now, like Wiseman’s pledge of complexity, the rage and passion seem to be gone, replaced by bigger budgets and empty exercises in ego.
“They’re all about preaching and soapboxing and hardly any of them have anything original to say,” said Anderson, regarding the influx of Iraq-focused films like Lions for Lambs, Stop-Loss and Body of Lies, among others. “Filmmakers like [Body of Lies director] Ridley Scott keep making movies they think they should be making rather than movies they want to make.”
So why have so many “topical” films been rejected by critics and audiences alike in recent years?
“People don’t want to confront the harsh reality of the situation,” said Peter Howell, film critic for The Toronto Star. “In the case of Iraq War films, people recognize it was terribly handled, the results are not what they hoped for, and to go spend money to see that same message being told to them is not the least bit enticing.” However, political documentaries have tended to fare better than fiction films, most notably those of Michael Moore, who cites Sherman’s March as the reason he made his groundbreaking Roger & Me. Howell attributes the relative fruitfulness of Moore’s films to their presentation.
“Fahrenheit 9/11 was essentially a comedy,” he said. “Michael Moore is much more a satirist than he is a documentarian. The bottom line of his films is always entertainment.”
Political art comes from rage and dissent, said Howell. “Artists are always better when they’re in opposition to something. In the case of Canada, however, because we are so dependent on some kind of government subsidy and so indebted to America’s market and its product, we’re much more dependent on handouts of any kind.”
Howell cites Bill C-10 as evidence of this, when the Conservative government attempted to stick a clause onto a tax proposal that would have given them the ability to deny art grants based on the “appropriateness” of the content.
“Stephen Harper finally wised up and realized it’s a non-starter,” he said. “That was a costly example of trying to sneak something through the back door that they couldn’t get through the front door. It’s not very often that you can make a government back down anywhere, but Canada’s arts community did.”
Success essentially comes down to the audience’s perception of the product. “People are very much in a depressed state,” Howell said. “The news has been so unrelentingly horrible for such a long time. That’s why people have been so excited about the election of Barack Obama. He represents a ray of hope over a dark horizon.”
The question arises: if rage makes for great art, can hope do the same?