Dallas — In all my years of being aware of politics I was never been more depressed, more filled with despair, or just more pissed off than the Nixon years. Now, it seems like the values I believe deep down are tossed out and bad bullies are taking control of everything, again. I have moved from listening to NPR news, which attempts to be balanced, to MSNBC, which makes me feel that I am not alone in my outrage. I understand the inherent problem with that, but this is what keeps me somewhat sane.
As someone who makes and programs films, I find that the cinema is also a place to look to try to feel better about the world and get a sense that things can change. So I thought that for my July column, I would recommend a watch list to keep you from jumping off the ledge.
To start, I want to take a look at how we got to this moment. For me, so much of the blame is the rightwing media. The best film that deals with this is The Brainwashing of My Dad by Jen Senko (2016; available on Amazon Prime, iTunes and other streaming services). This film traces the history of the vast rightwing conspiracy, from its beginnings to radio and on to Fox News. Jen follows her father’s addiction to consuming this, and how it has affected him and the family (and it has a happy ending).
For another view on Fox watch Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism by Robert Greenwald (2004; available on Hulu and DVD). This film did a great job of looking at the power of the network. I remember a sequence in which the film shows talking points from Fox, repeated word by word by politicians. The horror of the 2004 Fox world seems quaint compared to the influence it has now. Understanding the media’s role in how we got here is the best place to start.
To feel better about the world and the role that good people can have in shaping it, start with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington by Frank Capra (1939, available on iTunes or BluRay). Probably more than any other film this Frank Capra classic brings back the hope that decency and a good heart can beat corruption. Any time we get a politician doing a filibuster like Wendy Davis’s bold effort, it evokes the spirt of Capra; it’s almost corny, but it makes you feel and believe that something better in possible. When I was in Washington, D.C., recently, while seeing the memorials I flashed back to the feeling of joy of the film’s title character, Jefferson Smith. Then I saw the Trump hotel and was brought back to earth.
The other film to make you feel better is Won’t You Be My Neighbor by Morgan Neville (2018, currently in theaters). Like Capra, Mister Rogers appealed to the best in us. The idea that he cared deeply about children and talked to them gives hope. He was also adamant about racial diversity. See this in a theater before it comes to your computer or TV; seeing it with an audience will make you feel differently—just take my word for it.
Moving on to resistance, The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo (1966) shows how a resistance movement can grow and then be defeated, and then as we are told in the epilogue, finally win. Coming out of the Italian neo-realist tradition, this film, with one exception, has only non-actors. It almost feels like a documentary. The film plays much differently now, after we have seen terrorism in so many ways.
As we hear more about Russia, perhaps we should see The Manchurian Candidate (1962, iTunes and Hulu), John Frankenheimer’s thriller about how Russia could take control via brainwashing. It will really make you think—and feed your paranoia. You should also check out two other films by Frankenheimer: Seven Days in May (1964, Amazon Prime and iTunes) and Black Sunday (1977, iTunes and Amazon Prime). Black Sunday is one of the first American films to deal with terrorism, in this case an attempt to blow up the Super Bowl.
Staying on the subject of Russia, you should watch The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! (1966, iTunes and Amazon). For comic relief, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, iTunes, Amazon and Hulu) is a good diversion, but plays differently now that a bomb is not out of the question.
If we ever get into hearings à la Watergate, a screening of Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976; iTunes, Cinemax, Hulu and Amazon Prime) will be important, as it dramatizes Woodward and Bernstein uncovering the scandal that finally undid Nixon. The hard work that you see in the film is going on right now at newspapers around the country. While our president cries “fake news,” this film triggered the careers of many journalists who are writing the important political exposés that, well, most recently got Scott Pruitt ousted from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Then there is Berry Levinson’s Wag the Dog (1997, Amazon Prime, iTunes), a dark comedy about a president who wages a war against Albania to divert the country from a sex scandal and to whip up a patriotic frenzy in the country. The war and how it was presented was totally crafted for television.
Let me give you one more to think about: The Great Dictator (stream for free here), the 1940 Charlie Chaplin film in which he plays a certain German dictator. This film helps us look inside the mind of mad man. Chaplin studied the 1935 propaganda film Triumph of the Will to get the mannerisms right, but it also has a magnificent sequence in a scene in which Chaplin dances with a blow-up globe and we see the joy in thinking that he controls the world. But the film ends, as does this column, with a speech that is at the heart of the film. You can view it at the top of this article.
Of course there are many more and many great documentaries, but this is a start.
Go seek these out, see them again and get inspired. We have a fight in November.
» Bart Weiss is an award-winning independent film and video producer, director, editor, and educator who has lived in Dallas since 1981. Mr. Weiss has taught film and video production at Texas A&M’s Visualization Lab, Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin and Arlington, Dallas Community College District and West Virginia State College. He currently serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, serves on the Board of Directors of the University Film and Video Association, is a past Vice President of the Texas Association of Film and Tape Professionals, founder and past president of the West Virginia Filmmakers’ Guild, and co-founder of VideoFest and the Video Association of Dallas. He has been a video columnist for The Dallas Morning News, The Dallas Times Herald, United Features Syndicate and KERA 90.1 FM Radio in Dallas. Mr. Weiss received an MFA in Film Directing from Columbia University in 1978 and a B.A. from Temple University in 1975. Bart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
» Film Notes with Bart Weiss now runs on the first Wednesday of the month.
PREVIOUSLY IN FILM NOTES
- April: Film Notes 1.1
- May: Film Notes 1.2
- June: Film Notes 1.3
- July (No column)
- August: Film Notes 1.4
- September: Film Notes 1.5
- October: Film Notes 1.6
- November: Film Notes 1.7
- Bart Weiss's thoughts on film in 2017