What’s up doc? Politically speaking, that is

The war of ideas can continue on DVD.

Adri Mehra

Let’s call it like it is, my fine feathered friends.

For the past 10 years, the culture warriors and prognosticators have been kept aflutter terming our times in techno-centric gobbledygook.

First, it was the Information Age, or Digital Era, which gave way to the Internet Revolution. Then it was the Dot-Com Boom, with its attendant success on old-fashioned Wall Street. The cranky old capitalists were finally convinced. Not long after the economic traction of that initial investment spike subsided, we were soon Googled by all-new Yahoos.

And now, in the wake of the first YouTube election, we find ourselves where?

That’s right – fully enmeshed upon the decade mark of an increasingly critical, if not ironically/chronologically retro, medium.

It’s called – humbly – the political documentary film.

Need proof of its renewed vitality? Look no further than former Vice President Al Gore’s recent canonization by the entertainment-industry elite for his global-warming manifesto “An Inconvenient Truth” – essentially a glorified Powerpoint presentation with unusually high stakes.

Despite high-profile appearances at the Oscars and Grammys (with a win at the former), “An Inconvenient Truth” still pales in the box-office shadow of Michael Moore’s raging indictment of the Bush administration’s war pigs, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which has soaked in nearly a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide since its release in summer 2004.

Since when do Americans flock to their neighborhood cineplexes for anything that doesn’t prominently feature kerosene or a see-through bra? (Or, better yet, both at the same time?)

There are many reasons for the film doc’s belated success, besides a generally dystopian wash over the socio-economic hopes of our country and the self-reflexive identity check that long, pointless, bloody wars seem to bring.

The Hollywood studio system digs the new trend, because film docs are extremely cheap to produce. There are no marquee names with corresponding price tags, nor are there highly paid stunt crews or special-effects contracts.

All a filmmaker has to do is appropriate their chosen section of the march of history, flavor it demographically and package it with a trailer that features a few talking heads with souped-up credentials, and voila!

Doc à la carte!

Actually, for investors, the film doc is a perfect storm economically – low risk and high return. And, if the doc’s any good, it will market itself, working its way through the conventional channels of the festival circuit and newspaper and magazine reviews. Who’d-a thunk it?

The truth sells, eh?

Even a limited theatrical release can suffice these days. “An Inconvenient Truth” opened on only four screens in New York and Los Angeles, yet grossed an average of $91,447 per theater on Memorial Day weekend last year.

Not a bad receipt for a stuffy laptop production.

The movie received three standing ovations at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival – always busy further codifying its position as the kingmaker of independent American cinema – which was previously bested only by fellow film doc “Fahrenheit 9/11″‘s 23-minute ovation at the 2004 Sundance.

Granted, Sundance has largely abandoned its charmingly rustic DIY roots in recent years to become a big-ticket Hollywood extravaganza, but let’s face it, founder Robert Redford wasn’t exactly hedging his mortgage for food stamps when he started the festival on his private Provo ski area in 1981.

Still, political documentaries are far from bulletproof, even when they are lionized by Euro-centric gateways like Sundance and France’s annual Cannes Film Festival.

Accusations of “docu-ganda” are easily volleyed from all areas of the political spectrum via message boards and ad-hoc newsgroups on the Internet – lest the filmmakers forget that they should be held to journalistic standards in addition to spinning a compelling narrative.

In 1989, Moore’s debut foray into the public vein of corporate distrust, “Roger and Me” – a scathing critique of General Motors’ slash-and-burn plant closings and job cuts in Flint, Mich. – was a popular hit, but it was savaged by the matriarch of film criticism, Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, for Moore’s creative chronological license in telling the story.

It’s true that Moore hops around the entire decade of the 1980s, inter-cutting the heartrending forced eviction of a large family on Christmas Eve with the disingenuous posturing of General Motors CEO Roger B. Smith in a speech to shareholders, but this might be splitting hairs.

What’s wrong with drawing blood with the facts, even when they are arranged in a provocative fashion? Are we pretending that our government doesn’t do that every day with the theater of war in Iraq, or with every social issue you can think of?

Like other media, the documentary film is finding itself continuously evolving as a mode of representation and entertainment.

Cheesy “real-time” History Channel re-enactments aside, we should embrace British documentarian John Grierson’s “creative treatment of actuality,” and Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s capture of “life caught unawares,” and leave the director to inform or agitate us at his or her own interpretive behest.

After all, we can do our own research. Right?

Adri Mehra welcomes comments at [email protected]