To my thinking, the biggest problem with modern politically-charged cinema is that it violates my own primary reason for watching movies: escapism. Heck, I could make the same statement about my TV-watching proclivities or about the books I read: I like stories — plain and simple.
There’s something so fantastical, though, about sitting in a darkened theater as the lights go down, as the screen lights up and the surround sound blasts from all directions; there’s something just so transportive, so liberating about it. It’s a wholly immersive, wholly unique way to experience a story. It’s not the only good way, mind you, but it is a distinctive one, a memorable one; it’s storytelling as event and special occasion.
That’s why, in the last few years, I’ve found myself a slightly turned off by political filmmaking. I recognize that political cinema has a legitimate place and I still watch it; at the same time, I’m sorely aware that these are films that remind me of the real world instead of transporting me away from it.
For example, if I enjoy a film like, say, “Hot Tub Time Machine,” I know there will be some who disagree. Maybe, for them, that particular film is too crass or juvenile or over the top. Or maybe they think it’s just plain inane and stupid. I recognize why someone might feel that way about “Hot Tub” and they, at the same time, can probably recognize why I enjoyed it. We disagree on the film but it’s unlikely either party will make profound character judgments regarding that single disagreement. It’s just a movie, after all. The same kind of rationale could apply to any number of films in any number of genres.
If I enjoy or heavily agree with a Michael Moore film, on the other hand, I might suddenly find myself the sworn, hated enemy of an otherwise friendly, perfectly rational moviegoer. Worse, I might find myself lumped with certain political groups or stereotyped as progressive or, worse, as liberal. Certain other snap character judgments might well extend from there: I must, automatically, hate Fox News, but love CNN, NPR and The New York Times. And on and on. If I hate Michael Moore, all of the opposite of the above might be perceived as true. And on and on.
Thus, I’ve developed something of a proverbial “deaf ear” in the last few years regarding political films. The fact that, with his last movie, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Moore has become a kind of self-created cliché only exacerbates that attitude. Films that might, at one time, have made me perk up and think “wow that sounds really important; I need to see that,” now merely bounce inside the jaded echo chamber my politically-saturated brain has become. Thus, films — and, more importantly, ideas, viewpoints and messages—are largely wasted or lost. It all sounds like the same, uninteresting drone.
And that brings me — without further ado — to the trailer for “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” Anyone who’s followed the news even peripherally over the last few years will probably recognize Jack Abramoff’s name. He’s the Washington “super lobbyist” whose eventual downfall caused a tidal wave in Washington . Senators, members of the House of Representatives and various other Washington power players all went plummeting with him. It’s nothing short of miraculous, in fact, that there weren’t far more politicians who faced their Waterloo thanks to Abramoff and his crooked, corrupting lobbying methods. The trailer makes clear that even the president at the time, George W. Bush, had some sort of contact with Abramoff. Whether Bush remembers the man or not, that picture of Abramoff standing beside the president at the Whitehouse doesn’t lie.
Bush isn’t alone, though, in the cavalcade of politicians who suddenly developed amnesia regarding Abramoff once the proverbial poo slapped the proverbial cooling unit. He’s simply the most prominent. Political inclinations aside, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being at least moderately affronted by this sordid tale of Indian gaming casinos, golf trips for political favors, Chinese sweatshops, Russian spies, Angolan freedom fighters, lobbying, and sleazy, backroom Washington political deals.
I’ve no doubt that I’ll eventually see this documentary, either. And I’ve no doubt that I’ll be duly outraged, that I’ll roll my eyes and shake my head at the screen, growing ever-the-more cynical in my attitude toward politicians. But that’s why I refuse to see “Jack Abramoff” in theaters. I don’t want my two — give or take — hours in a theater to be marred by outrage or cynicism. I want escapism. To quote Stephen King: “I want resonance.” I don’t mind a filmmaker using allegory or allusion in a fictional context to make me think about the broader world. In fact, I welcome such clever storytelling. Above all else, though, that’s what I’m looking for in a movie theater: clever, well-written, entertaining storytelling.
I watch and read plenty of news. I vote. And I’m by no means afraid to engage in the occasional political discussion — via the real world or on internet message boards. All of that matters, of course, and has its place; I would, by no means, argue otherwise. The more I consider, though, the more I feel less inclined to see politically-charged films in theaters.
Sorry Mr. Moore, you’ve lost one set of first-run eyeballs.
For the less jaded among you, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” opens Oct. 1, a theater-screen town-hall meeting just in time for mid-term elections.
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Rob, I agree. Political docs are not all that therapeutic to watch – as far as providing an escape from the personal trials of life. Maybe you will be more interested in the ‘Casino Jack’ feature film coming out later this year. It stars Kevin Spacey.