Political Scene Stealers

A glut of filmmakers heads to conventions to document moments of truth, create fiction and, quite possibly, blur the lines between the two.

July 27, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOSTON - There's fact, there's fiction, and there's the skybox with filmmaker Robert Altman.

It is from this blurry territory that Altman prepares his cast for a scene in his latest project, Tanner on Tanner, a remake of his cinema verite campaign spoof, Tanner '88:

"You are all children of presidential candidates," he tells his actors, and he's almost right.

Ron Reagan, the actual child of a president, comfortably takes the direction from the legendary filmmaker, as does Alex Kerry, the child of presidential hopeful John Kerry. Also standing by is actress Cynthia Nixon, who plays Alex Tanner, the child of a fictional candidate who is working on a documentary about her father's failed 1988 Democratic campaign.

Reagan notes to the director that there are two real candidate children and one fake one.

"Exactly," Kerry says, adding ironically: "And there's no difference in between."

This is what it's like to hang out on Altman's set, which is what parts of the Fleet Center became yesterday as the 79-year-old filmmaker shot scenes at the Democratic National Convention for his Sundance Channel miniseries, a mockumentary about the making of a political documentary by a fictional campaign insider. Everything gets very meta, very quickly, in this political theater about political theater. Even Altman is getting dizzy, and it's not from the fifth-story view from his skybox.

"We're inside a house of mirrors," he tells his actors.

Perhaps it's because this is the summer of the documentary - there are roughly 40 documentary camera crews credentialed for the convention - or perhaps it's because of the absence of much hard news on the first day of the Democratic convention. Whatever the reason, the act of filming the story is becoming the story. Camera crews were walking into each other's shots on the convention hall floor yesterday morning; documentary filmmaker Michael Moore got trapped inside a media scrum and he didn't budge for an hour.

The documentary fascination is evident in Altman's orbit, too. A PBS film crew working on a program about political documentaries has been shooting Altman as he shoots political people for cameos in his movie. In the skybox, Kerry, herself an aspiring documentary filmmaker, has brought her own camera crew for a real-life film she is making about her father's campaign. Yesterday, her crew jostled with the MSNBC guys shadowing Reagan, whose father's Hollywood roots fueled the idea that fact and fiction can be interchangeable scripts.

"It's dangerous," says Altman. "Knowing there's a blurry line between fact and fiction allows anybody to cross it. Before, it was a hard line, and if you tried to cross it you heard, `Oh, no, you can't do that!' But that line is getting softer, that blur is getting larger."

`Tanner' 2

The miniseries is Altman's remake of his 1988 political send-up, Tanner '88, a fictional story of Jack Tanner, a Michigan Democratic congressman running for his party's presidential nomination set against the backdrop of the real 1988 primary. The original Tanner aired on HBO that election year. Altman's latest Tanner, featuring his trademarks of interlocking storylines, improvisational dialogue and an eclectic troupe of actors, will air in three parts on the Sundance Channel starting in October, after a re-run of the first Tanner series.

Instead of a film about a campaign, this time Altman takes aim at documentary films themselves, calling his movie a cautionary tale about the explosion of these nonfiction movies.

Tanner on Tanner tells the story of daughter Alex, an aspiring documentarian who gets juicy footage of her father railing to comedian Al Franken about Iraq and the complicity of Democrats in continuing the war. The one-time candidate is disillusioned with his party and speaks with the freedom of a political outsider. But when he gets to help write John Kerry's convention acceptance speech and learns he has a shot at a Cabinet position in a Kerry administration, a newly ambitious Tanner gets his daughter to cut his candid words from her documentary.

The point of the film, Altman says, is that even nonfiction films are starting to lose their way. Like politicians, they reach for popularity; they pander, exploit and, in the end, stand for nothing.

"There's a glut of documentaries," says Altman, a white-haired Hollywood veteran who roamed the hall yesterday in trendy bowling shoes, his voice raw from laryngitis. "From my standpoint that's what this film is about - people are making documentaries about literally nothing."

The Tanner story makes a case that a powerful medium requires an equally powerful message.

Garry Trudeau, the Doonesbury creator who wrote the script for both Tanner miniseries and spent yesterday with the crew, believes a film with a serious message can spur action the way "unwatched hour-long documentaries" and "600-page white papers from think tanks" cannot.

"Pop culture," he says, "is the way to drive the conversation."

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