Friday, December 02, 2005

nov 21 issue, wal-m(art) film

In the November 21 issue of the New Yorker, Denby reviewed the film "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" and had this to say,

(1) "... let me say that Greenwald's film could not possibly be confused with a work of documentary art. Greenwald [...] has made the cinematic equivalent of a smudged pamphlet distributed on the street. The director throws factual material onto the screen in a hyped-up, bullying rush. The sequence of events is often confusing. [...] The effect, in general, is to surround the viewer with tightly edited outrages that often slur the distinction between fact and assertion. Nor does Greenwald take any interesting risks as a filmmaker. He offers nothing equivalent to, say, Michael Moore's habit of placing his bulk, in attitudes of mock courtesy, int he path of public or corporate officials."

If you're a regular Denby reader, you probably remember Denby's damning with faint praise Farenheit 9/11. It went like this. The last line of the review was the clincher, "Michael Moore has become a sensational entertainer of the already converted, but his enduring problem as a political artist is that he has never known how to change anyone’s politics."

Now, all of a sudden, the sensational entertainer is the standard by which others are judged for "interesting risks" in documentary filmmaking?

In any case, Denby's review of Moore earned him a letter from a well-informed reader that appeared on the New Yorker's letters to the editor page in the July 12 2004 issue. The letter, in its unabridged form, can be found on this blog, way down under the July 11th entry. If I remember correctly, the NYer printed only the first and last paragraphs of the letter, obscuring Mr. Glatzer's excellent review of the political slippery-ness of documentary film.

When I read Mr. Glatzer's letter back in July 2004 I felt a sense of releif, because I totally agreed with Denby, but it was clear when I saw the film Farenheit 9/11 that no one else in theater felt as Denby and I did. Rather, folks were impressed and persuaded and felt proud to be represented by the abrasive Moore. And I had thought it was my responsibility to write and tell Denby that he (and I) did not have our finger on the pulse of meaningful political filmmaking.

But the plot thickens. In his review of "Wal-Mart" Denby closes with these thoughts,

(2) "The last section of the movie, which reminds me of pulse-raising, bluntly obvious films that I saw at student rallies in the sixties, is devoted to the fervant anti-Wal-Mart movement - groups that have organized to file suit or to keep the company out. Greenwald presents these folks - employees, ministers, lawyers, lefties, and wealthy homeowners, too - as an unstoppable wave of resistance. "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" is an organizing tool, a film for use. Greenwald plans to show it to church groups and at community meetings and to sell it as an inexpensive video."

Denby, though uncomfortable with the smudged lack of artsy-ness in the Wal-Mart documentary, has put aside his finer feelings and has taken Glatzer's advice and judged the film on its own merits as an organizing tool.

If the anti-Wal-Mart film is effective, it'd make me, and nearly 100 years of film theorists so happy. Film theory always imagines that film can break out of its role as commodity to be consumed and to become something more interactive, affective, productive, destructive, instructive. From the vaudeville theater to Eisenstein to Third Cinema to New Media to the pro-censorship feminists (strange bedfellows) . . . so I hope it happens and Denby and I can be there to see it.

The Wal-Mart team Emerges from the War Room and Accidentally shoots Dozens of Holiday Shoppers!

Just kidding. That's the Odessa Steps scene from Battleship Potemkin.

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Blogger mzn said...

The question of whether "documentary art" is compatible or not with advocacy is always fascinating and Denby seems strangely unaware of the history of documentary cinema as a tool of social and political rhetoric. Not only the Soviets of the 20s used it this way; so did non-fiction filmmakers in western Europe and North America beginning in the 1930s. Documentary and propaganda have often been inseparable.

On Glazer's terms, by the way, I think we might arrive at a highly negative, critical assessment of Fahrenheit 911. My recollection is that Moore's standards of evidence and reasoning are poor but I'm not prepared to suffer through his film again to really push this claim. And anyhow, at this point no one would care if I did.

5:00 PM  
Blogger zoe p. said...

I found the Farhenheit 911 audiance (PA Democrats, aforementioned) more interesting than the film, that was for sure. And I don't think I'll see the anti-Wal-Mart film either . . . But I am beginning to wonder about Denby's ability to refer meaningful to key works from the history of film. I was reading Pauline Kael's short reviews from 5001 nights and she's got the world at her fingertips.

9:30 AM  

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