Political Documentaries

Rabid right-wingers own cable news and talk radio, but we leftists sure dominate the feature-length documentary. I mean, when was the last time the Roxie showed an 80-minute video praising Ann Coulter?

But do these documentaries serve an actual purpose? Anyone surfing through a television or radio dial can hit upon Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, but going out to a movie or renting a DVD are an intentional acts. No one is likely to see one of these movies unless they’re already inclined to agree with it.

Not that preaching to the choir is a totally useless endeavor. These documentaries rally the troops, and give them ammunition in the form of facts that people can use in arguments.

Or do they? Movies aren’t really the best way to present or absorb information. A 90-minute documentary film will tell you less than a long article you can read in a fraction of that time. And the article can highlight the most important statistics in a graphic that you can easily reference later.

But that article won’t carry a film’s emotional wallop. A movie can make you identify with the victims of injustice, recoil at the gruesomeness of violence, and exult when the little guy wins. It’s these emotions that rally the troops and, hopefully, convert a few new ones.

Which returns us to the other issue: Do people see these movies who aren’t already inclined to agree with them? A few, perhaps, but only if they have an open mind on the issue and the documentary is getting a lot of positive buzz. I’m skeptical that any political documentary can change a significant number of minds, but if it isn’t really excellent, if it doesn’t grab you emotionally, and if it isn’t getting people talking, it doesn’t stand a chance.

An Inconvenient Truth is one such excellent exception. If Al Gore had been this charming and funny in the 2000 election, the world would be a better place. Basically a concert film centering on a multimedia slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth explains the science of global warming and the consequences of not addressing the issue in a manner so clear, concise, and entertaining that it can enthrall a ten-year-old (and I know because I saw it with one). If it’s possible for a movie to have a major, positive effect on the human race, this is the one, in no small part because of Gore’s name value.

On the other hand, Dot Reidelbach’s Banking On Heaven is unlikely to do much for its cause. It’s just not good enough to help spread the word about a very bad situation.

For more on Banking On Heaven, and a few other movies playing around down, read on.

Recommended: Gods and Monsters, Balboa, Friday. James Whale was a World War I veteran, a relatively (for his time) open homosexual, and the director of some of the greatest horror films ever made. He committed suicide in 1957 at the age of 68. Gods and Monsters examines this fascinating man with a fictional retelling of his final days. Ian McKellen plays Whale as a charming and cultured seducer frustrated by the degenerative disease that’s destroying his mind. A pre-stardom Brendan Fraser matches him as the straight hunk whom Whale fails to seduce but succeeds in befriending. As part of its Boris Karloff series, the Balboa is showing Gods and Monsters on a double bill with Targets.

Not Recommended: Banking On Heaven, Roxie, opens Friday. I really wanted to like Dot Reidelbach’s exposé of an extremely creepy and fascistic ultra-orthodox Mormon cult. It shines a light on some truly horrible stuff going down right here in the U.S. of A., including thought control, child abandonment, and child rape. But I can’t recommend it. It’s only occasionally emotionally involving and it skips over some important facts. For instance, it only briefly mentions that the cult’s leader is now a wanted fugitive–a seemingly important fact. You’d probably learn more about the issue by Googling warren jeffs fundamentalist latter day saints.

Recommended, with Reservations: Frankenstein (1931), Balboa, Saturday. Dr. Frankenstein did more than create a monster. He turned James Whale into a top director and Boris Karloff into a major star (no mean feat since Karloff neither spoke in the film nor received screen credit). Several individual scenes are masterpieces of mood, horror, and crossed sympathies, but there’s so little story that the movie feels like a warm-up for the infinitely superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, which, happily, is the second half of this Balboa Boris Karloff double bill.

Recommended: The Bride of Frankenstein, Balboa, Saturday. You spend more time scared for the monster than of it in James Whales’ masterpiece. Boris Karloff plays him as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that’s rejected him. If the blind hermit sequence doesn’t bring tears, you’re either dead, too cynical, or have seen Young Frankenstein’s parody of this scene once too often. With Colin Clive as the not-so-good doctor, Ernest Thesiger as a delightfully over-the-top even madder scientist, and Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the monster’s mate (although, technically speaking, Valerie Hobson is the Bride of Frankenstein). One of the rare sequels better than the original, and you can see them together in this Balboa Boris Karloff double bill.

Recommended, with Reservations: The Black Cat, Balboa, Wednesday. Not all Universal horror films were carefully crafted by artists like James Whale. Low-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer threw this quickie together for very little money, and it looks it. But this silly story of revenge, lost honeymooners, a very modern spooky castle, and fear of cats offers a good share of laughs, some of them intentional. But why did Universal pick a cheapie like this for the first pairing of its two biggest horror stars–Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi? On a Balboa Boris Karloff triple bill with The Invisible Ray and Night World.

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