by Diane Wininger and Matt DeVries
The ingenious documentary Manufacturing Consent tracks Noam Chomsky's campaign against the mass media. Chomsky, who has been called "the most important intellectual alive," wages an intellectual battle versus the political status quo using books, lectures and debates. His cause is humanism and truth, and his main target is the mass media that's been sold to the interests of the rich and powerful. A professor at MIT, Chomsky's dry and straight-forward style do not weigh the film down; instead the filmmakers gradually transform him into an antihero with a searing intellect, a rebel in a corduroy blazer.
The film's approach to Chomsky's work is constantly innovative and clever, such as when his arguments about thought control are ironically projected onto a mall's video wall. However, Chomsky's work is not all criticism - his belief in the potential of grassroots media is demonstrated by his many appearances on outlets like small-town public radio and cable access shows.
At a length of nearly three hours, this may seem like a daunting introduction to Chomsky, but we heartily recommend it - his ideas and the film offer many rewards. Like Manufacturing Consent, Passin' It On shows that the documentary form is not dead. Compared to the PBS and Discovery status quo, its jarring editing punctuated by a jazz score is refreshingly stirring. Using the story of Dhoruba Bin Wahad, a former Black Panther leader, the film brings to life both the 60's Black Liberation movement and the reality of US political imprisonment. Dhoruba lived for 19 years as a political prisoner until in 1990 the courts ruled that the FBI had hidden information during his trial. A poet and passionate activist, Dhoruba gives moving testimony in the film to being "born in the storm," which is the translation of his Swahili name. Whether its the storm of tenants rights, police brutality, or COINTELPRO - the FBI's domestic war against dissent - this film provides insightful background and moving commentary on the struggles of the 60's that are still relevant today.
To Die For is a satirical take on a middle America enthralled with TV tabloid infotainment. Director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy) has a message too, about the blurred line between reality and fiction - the film's story fictionalizes a true tabloid tale of a New Hampshire high school teacher who seduced students into murdering her husband. Here, instead of a teacher, an ambitious but incredibly superficial cable-access weathergirl (Nicole Kidman) and Jane Pauley wannabe (just "without the weight problem") sees her husband's death as an important career move.
DIANE: Kidman humorously and convincingly caricatures a talentless phony with nouveau riche aspirations who strongly advocates cosmetic surgery and sees childbirth as a handicap to her TV appearance. Her character elaborately displays overdone make-up, tacky, mismatched professional wear, a sporty, red Mustang, and a pop-up condo. This type of personality that dominates the airwaves is deserving of parody. Gus Van Sant, with his independent film background and Buck Henry's (The Graduate) dark, comedic writing is just the right team to scrutinize America's TV-obsessed culture.
MATT: Kidman's portrayal is certainly clever but its one-note nature seems more appropriate for broad comedy. The way Henry has written this ice princess, she seems to be less local news anchor than the prom queen who once turned Henry down for date. I found this a hateful movie, with Van Sant and Henry unable to distinguish their disgust for the producers of tabloid TV from their disdain of what they imagine are its pitiful, desperate viewers.
Cold Comfort Farm is also a satire but its target is the British novel, not TV. However, you don't need to know the works of Thomas Hardy or Jane Austen.
Watching Clueless is more than enough background to appreciate the amusing transformation of the film's namesake - a battered, wretched residence of 1930's agrarian England. The farm's owners, the Starkadders, often complain about Cold Comfort's irreversible curse, but the reclusive and humorously petulant matriarch, Aunt Ada, enforces a dreary fatalism by forbidding anyone from leaving. The farm and its residents are stuck in the past, living out an amusing caricature of backwoods lifestyle with traditions like arranged marriages, breeding without abandon, and disregarding proper hygiene by using twigs to clean the dishes. Flora, a London socialite and distant relative, becomes determined to lift the spell off the farm's miserable existence by bringing its inhabitants into the 20th century. The laughs don't really begin until Flora forthrightly goes about cheering up the farm, leading to conflict between her poise and the residents' stubborn dependence on their miserable ways. But it's Flora's crafty interventions, which free the Starkadders from their oppressive farm, which are the film's best delight. For pleasant diversion and light comedy, we recommend taking this clever British import home.
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