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What’s up? Docs

Stewart Oksenhorn

Neither Robert Greenwald nor Morgan Spurlock had great expectations for their first documentary films.Greenwald, who had had a prolific career directing and producing TV films and miniseries, figured “Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election,” the 2002 film on which he served as executive producer, would have a quiet existence on dusty library shelves and in DVD players of the most extreme political junkies.Spurlock had slightly higher hopes for his first-ever film, “Super Size Me.” He figured his seriocomic film, which interspersed commentary on the fast-food world with his personal mission to eat nothing but McDonald’s food for one month, might actually be purchased by a distributor, and might even be screened in a theater or two.Certainly, neither filmmaker had notions of widespread attention. If someone had inquired about their prospects for commercial success, either would have said he’d be pleased to make his costs back.

“I remember thinking, this is important to do. I figured, if you’re ignorant of history, it will be repeated,” said Greenwald. “So I envisioned that maybe in three or four years, a student would be doing a paper on the Florida election and would go to the library and dig this out and use it.””I was going to be happy if we sold it,” said Spurlock. “Because documentaries still don’t have a huge potential audience. I thought, if we get in a few cinemas, I’d be excited.”But in their dismal assessments, Greenwald and Spurlock failed to account for the times. Documentaries, long seen, as Greenwald saw “Unprecedented,” as socially significant for the few rather than appealing to the masses, have burst into prominence.Between “Unprecedented,” “Super Size Me,” “Bush’s Brain,” the recent documentary about President Bush’s political consultant Karl Rove, “Control Room,” an examination of the Arab world TV station Al-Jazeera, and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the behemoth of all documentaries that has grossed nearly $120 million, there is a genuine phenomenon: the propagandist, left-wing info-film that doubles as commercially viable entertainment.

Aspen Filmfest 2004 examines the phenomenon with its panel discussion, Fahrenheit, Fries, Fox and Fairness: The New Political Documentary, set for Saturday, Oct. 2, at 2:15 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House. The panel includes Greenwald and Spurlock, “Fahrenheit 9/11” co-producer Jeff Gibbs and “Control Room” editor Julia Bacha. Moderating the event will be media critic and American University professor Pat Aufderheide.News vs. entertainmentWith the 9/11 attacks on America and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following on the heels of the bizarre 2000 presidential election, Americans are gobbling up more political news and views than they have in 30 years. The demand for Greenwald’s “Unprecedented” DVD was so great that he followed with 2003’s “Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War” and this year’s “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” both of which he directed, and the recent “Unconstitutional,” about the post-9/11 erosion of civil liberties.The wide audience for such pointed, leftist fare has left Greenwald astonished. “Surprised is the understatement of the year. How about shocked and disbelieving?” he said. DVDs of his documentaries have sold in the hundreds of thousands. “Outfoxed,” which opened theatrically in early August, following the DVD release, rang up $420,000 at theater box offices (according to the Web site boxofficemojo.com). This week, Greenwald’s “Un-” movies will open as the “Un-trilogy” in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Greenwald explains the mass popularity by observing that turbulent times have created new, complex world issues. “Think about the issues we’re struggling with today – terrorism, job outsourcing. It’s a perfect storm of profound, long-term questions,” he said. “People are looking for viewpoints that are meat on the bones.”Some would argue that Greenwald is serving up bad meat. His documentaries are as one-sided and argumentative as Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” which he skewers in “Outfoxed.” But Greenwald makes a sharp distinction between Fox News, which trumpets its journalistic neutrality with the catchphrase “fair and balanced,” and his work, which is upfront about its ideological point of view.”What I object to is that they don’t acknowledge that bias. They call themselves fair and balanced, which is absurd,” said Greenwald. In addition, Greenwald says he does a better job of being fair and balanced in the presentation of his arguments. In “Outfoxed,” he used four reasonably neutral sources – internal Fox memos, former Fox News employees, an independent study about Fox News by the group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, and clips from Fox News itself. “And the four created a very objective and firm pattern of a network, which is a partisan, Republican network,” concludes Greenwald.Greenwald’s criticism of the media is hardly limited to Fox News. In fact, it is the collective failing of the media, he says, that has opened such ample room for the recent sociopolitical documentaries. The complex issues of the day are at extreme odds with a news media focused on ratings and ad dollars. Documentaries are generally seen as entertainment – nobody says, “Hey, honey, let’s go out and catch the news” – while the news is information and analysis. But documentaries like Greenwald’s are more hard-hitting on the issues than many TV news departments, which inch ever closer toward entertainment.

“We’re in a media that is about 30-second sound bites,” said Greenwald. “If you watch news regularly, because of commercial pressures, it’s not a legitimate argument that the movies are entertainment and the news is not. A lot of these films spend more time and dig further on the facts, even if they have entertainment value.”‘What are they not telling us?'”Super Size Me” leans closer to entertainment than any of Greenwald’s documentaries. Scenes like Spurlock puking his daily McDonald’s fix out his car window – and instantly diving right back into his Quarter Pounder and fries – are hilarious. The sense of humor, combined with a Michael Moore-ish way of raging against the machine of corporate America, has translated into super-sized box office receipts. Spurlock’s film, which won the best director award at the Sundance Festival and had an early screening at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, has earned $11.5 million in the United States, another $6.5 million outside the States, and has yet to open in half the countries where it will eventually be screened. The business has been matched by attention: On the day the “Super Size Me” DVD was to be released this week, Spurlock had a day of in-store signings and interviews scheduled. Spurlock is also putting the finishing touches on a pilot for a TV series, “30 Days,” which will transfer the “Super Size Me” concept to other situations. (In the pilot, a pro-war, devout Christian is dropped into Dearborn, Mich. – home to the largest concentration of Muslims in the United States – where he studies the Quran.)

Though “Super Size Me” is a vastly different kind of documentary than Greenwalds’, Spurlock says the appeal of the film stems from the same place. Spurlock also sees the success of “Super Size Me” as tied to the failings of the traditional news media. Greenwald says TV news is giving a slanted, incomplete take on world issues; Spurlock adds that newspapers suffer from commercial pressures that make them less than independent.”Everywhere I go – in the U.S., Germany, France – there are newspapers that won’t cover me because McDonald’s is one of their biggest supporters. They [McDonald’s] have threatened to take away their advertising if I speak to them,” said Spurlock.On the other hand, neither Greenwald nor Spurlock can complain that no one is paying attention to them. Greenwald has been covered in The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, among other major outlets. And Spurlock scored an outright victory – and a major publicity coup – when McDonald’s announced it was downsizing its Super Size offerings on the eve of his film’s screening in Aspen in March.Greenwald and Spurlock agree that the rise of the sociopolitical documentary is a wonderful thing – and not just for the filmmakers raking in the surprising amount of loot there is in the films. A robust democracy depends on the dissemination of information and the exchange of viewpoints. Documentary films can be a means for adding independent voices to the marketplace of ideas.

“It’s a great positive that film can be used to communicate about real issues,” said Greenwald. “They’re deeper than the news.””You have to ask yourself: What other kinds of information are we not getting?” said Spurlock. McDonald’s “is a company that sells burgers and fries – how about the companies with real power? What are they not telling us? There’s a lot we’re not getting told.”Documentaries are a way to get out facts and stories. It’s an arena where no one can tell you what you can and can’t say. For me, I think documentaries have truly become the last bastion of free speech.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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