Attending a film festival may smack of a busman's holiday for a film critic, but that's just how I spent my spring vacation. For 10 days recently, I gorged myself on films, music, Tex-Mex and barbecue at the South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas.
The fortnight was exhausting, fattening and thoroughly exhilarating. There's nothing like marathon movies -- in the company of fellow enthusiasts -- to remind a critic that film can still be the most absorbing, electric and transforming of artistic mediums.
I had no agenda, other than to see some good movies I might not be able to see again. I also wanted an antidote to most of the commercial garbage I'd been reviewing lately. More than anything, I wanted to be surprised.
So I went to documentaries.
It's sort of a superstition: Whenever I attend a festival, I always try to make my first film a documentary. And I've never been disappointed. Invariably, they are the freshest, most spontaneous and revelatory of films. I followed this rule in Austin, with such success that, in the parlance of Las Vegas, I stayed on red. It wound up being an all-documentary week.
All the films shared one thing: They were about, or were made by, artists who have an intense, meaningful dialogue with the world around them. Each was a deeply personal testament to the discipline, endurance, compassion and ingenuity that it takes to be an artist.
These were movies that had to be made, regardless of being picked up by Miramax or Home Box Office (although, heaven knows, that would be nice). They weren't cobbled together by focus groups or budget meetings, story treatments or conference calls. They worked because they honored two things: authentic human drama and the filmmakers' integrity in bringing that drama to light.
But something interrupted my reignited love affair with The Cinema. Taking a break from South by Southwest, I caught a preview of a movie so flaccid, so cynical, so spiritually and artistically dead, it must have been sent by the film gods themselves to remind me that if film is art, it is most assuredly also commerce.
The movie was "Primary Colors."
It wasn't just disappointing to suffer through Mike Nichols' $65 million exercise in turgid, smug self-satisfaction. It was infuriating -- especially considering that, with a few exceptions, the no-to-low budget works I'd been reveling in probably couldn't get arrested in Hollywood.
As I watched John Travolta and his protracted Bill Clinton impression, I kept thinking about another movie -- a genuinely funny, trenchant film about the 1992 Democratic primary called "The War Room," by Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker.
Where "Primary Colors" is synthetic and shallow, "The War Room," which came out in 1993, was authentic and revealing; where "Primary Colors" is drab, "The War Room" was bright and bold. Where the political culture depicted in "Primary Colors" has about as much to do with contemporary America as Mars, "The War Room" captured the ruthlessness, humor and adrenal rush of a down-and-dirty presidential campaign.
Not even a filmmaker of Nichols' talent could invent James Carville, the larger-than-life star of "The War Room" who is glimpsed gleefully plotting against George Bush and swilling brown liquor with down-home abandon.
It's some consolation that "Primary Colors" has deservedly tanked at the box office. Still, it grossed nearly $30 million, whereas "The War Room" barely reached $787,000.
What is it with nonfiction films? Why do they continue to be stigmatized? The easy explanation is that filmgoers shy away from documentaries because they want to escape reality at the movies, not see more of it. They want glamour, excitement, drama, laughs -- not something that recalls educational films and soporific voice-overs.
But if Americans hate reality so much, why are we so obsessed with it? We're a culture drowning in facts, from the daily soap opera unfolding on MSNBC, CNN and the Internet to reality-based cop shows. Far from run from reality, we can't seem to get enough.
That obsession extends to a curious preoccupation with accuracy where art is concerned. Invariably, when a historically based movie hits the multiplex, the fact-mongers crawl out of the woodwork to carp about fictionalized characters and imagined scenes.
The most common victim of the self-appointed fact-checkers is, of course, Oliver Stone, whose highly personal films ("JFK," "Nixon") are continually mistaken for documentaries by the pundits. The scenes he inserts -- an imagined conversation on a bridge, a shadowy cabal of business and government interests -- are decried as the ravings of an irresponsible mind rather than the altogether reasonable products of a filmmaker's imagination. not that he fudges the facts, his critics wail, it's that he makes the fictions so undistinguishable from them. Well, yes. That's what artists do.
Audience must be engaged