Life in the left

With Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dure ruf­fling feathers in some cor­ners, Joe Grif­fin ex­am­ines why doc­u­men­taries have be­come the refuge of left-wing film-mak­ers

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

ol­ly­wood’s no­to­ri­ous con­ser­vatism, likely born of the in­her­ent high-risk en­ter­prise of mak­ing movies in the first place, is as old as cin­ema it­self. But you don’t have to go back as far as The Birth of a Na­tion to find it.

Dirty Harry ce­mented Clint East­wood’s place in cin­e­matic his­tory. His no-non­sense, rule-bend­ing cop Harry Cal­la­han reg­u­larly cir­cum­vented the rights af­forded to sus­pects to get the job done. In­deed, his un­con­sti­tu­tional search al­lowed a killer to go free. Cal­la­han then spends much of the film ha­rass­ing the vil­lain­ous Scorpio be­fore ex­e­cut­ing him. The film spawned three se­quels and count­less im­i­ta­tions, and re­ceived ac­cu­sa­tions of fas­cism. The cli­max, in which Cal­la­han kills Scorpio in self-de­fence, al­lowed the hero to have his cake and eat it: morally upright cap­i­tal pu­n­ish­ment.

This self-de­fence ex­e­cu­tion has since marked the fi­nale of many action films, in­clud­ing Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys and the quin­tes­sen­tial Repub­li­can action movie, Die Hard. Even James Bond, ar­guably the only non-Amer­i­can main­stream action hero of our day, uses a li­cense to kill and en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­braces misog­yny and xeno­pho­bia – some­times both at once!

Right-wing ad­ven­tures are pop­u­lar with both the left and the right be­cause they take place in a sim­pler, less morally com­plex world. The con­cept of pun­ish­ing evil-do­ers harshly with more re­gard for re­venge than jus­tice is a scar­ily se­duc­tive one. Or, to put it an­other way, sus­pend­ing ide­ol­ogy is as easy as sus­pend­ing dis­be­lief.

So whither the main­stream man­i­festos of the left? Well, Hol­ly­wood ac­tors have of­ten leaned to the left, and many have shep­herded po­lit­i­cal projects to the big screen. How­ever, usu­ally they tend to be “is­sue” movies, or award-bait such as Whose Life Is It Any­way? (which dis­cussed euthana­sia), Syr­i­ana (Amer­i­can pol­i­tics re­lat­ing to oil) and Good­night and Good Luck (McCarthy­ism).

When Hol­ly­wood tries to push a left agenda while si­mul­ta­ne­ously pro­vid­ing en­ter­tain­ment, it of­ten comes across as shrill (The Life of David Gale) or ane­mic (Ren­di­tion). Even when lib­eral films openly court young audiences via hip-hop and broad laughs, such as War­ren Beatty’s ou­tra­geous Bul­worth, audiences stay away.

The US in­va­sion of Iraq spawned a slew of films about the is­sue. Most of them crit­i­cised the con­flict and none made much money, de­spite the pres­ence of big stars such as Sa­muel L Jack­son (Home of the Brave), John Cu­sack (Grace is Gone), and Tom Cruise (Lions for Lambs).

It seems the best the left can hope for are me­taphors in the likes of X-Men (an anal­ogy for gay rights or the Amer­i­can civil rights move­ment, de­pend­ing on who you talk to), 28 Weeks Later (a hor­ror movie metaphor for the oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq), or the sight of Ja­son Bourne read­ing the Guardian.

All of this makes the suc­cess of a cer­tain hand­ful of doc­u­men­taries es­pe­cially sur­pris­ing. Michael Moore’s Bowl­ing for Columbine, which grossed more than Ren­di­tion, Lions for Lambs and In the Val­ley of Elah com­bined, was vit­ri­olic, en­gag­ing and, most im­por­tantly, prof­itable. Moore puts him­self cen­tre-

Hstage of his films and ag­gres­sively ar­gues his point with a heady cock­tail of laughs, facts and con­jec­ture. He un­der­stands the ap­peal of be­ing part Er­rol Mor­ris, part PT Bar­num.

Doc­u­men­taries can high­light is­sues in a shock­ing, sim­ple way that drama can­not. Con­sider Er­rol Mor­ris’s break­through work, The Thin Blue Line. This doc­u­men­tary tells the story of an in­no­cent man sen­tenced to life im­pris­on­ment. The premise sounds like a cliched TV movie, but Mor­ris’s mat­ter-of-fact ac­count let the pro­tag­o­nists and an­tag­o­nists speaks for them­selves. The re­sult­ing film not only packs a nar­ra­tive wal­lop, but changed the out­come of the case. Would this have hap­pened if it were a con­ven­tional drama?

Mor­ris’s style – metic­u­lously re­searched, rel­a­tively low-key ex­am­i­na­tions of se­ri­ous is­sues (ad­mit­tedly ac­com­pa­nied by the oc­ca­sion­ally deliri­ous Phillip Glass com­po­si­tion) is un­de­ni­ably pow­er­ful. His cur­rent film, Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dure, has al­ready sparked more dis­cus­sion than the wave of well-in­ten­tioned post-Iraq Hol­ly­wood movies.

The only prob­lem with all of this is that it’s preach­ing to the con­verted: few Red State vot­ers, for ex­am­ple, are likely to pay to hear Michael Moore’s lat­est di­a­tribe, but rightwing action movies cross bor­ders and cul­tural di­vides ef­fort­lessly.

One­film that’s likely to ruf­fle feathers will be out in time for the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Judg­ing by the trailer, broad laughs, strong opin­ions and big is­sues will jos­tle for au­di­ence’s at­ten­tion in Oliver Stone’s Ge­orge Bush biopic, sim­ply called W.

is out to­day and is re­viewed on page 12

The right stuff: a hard-boiled, sharp-suited Clint East­wood in Dirty Harry

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