What's Up, Docs?

“Who knows?” Ken Cordier asked, by way of an answer. It was a moment of uncharacteristic uncertainty for the Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth member and former Vietnam War prisoner of war, who had just been asked by an audience member whether there are any POWs remaining under Vietnamese control. Cordier and his former comrades -- be-suited, be-medaled, standing with that indelible military posture -- were fielding questions after a special screening of Stolen Honor, a documentary attacking John Kerry's “treasonous” anti-war activism.

During the question-and-answer period, the men were sure of many things, primary among them that in his anti–Vietnam War crusade, Kerry had written the first draft of history and tarred them as war criminals, swapping the truth with a story that served his political interests. When the Stolen Honor vets started bandying the word “epistemology” about, I turned to my hamburger, bored with the blah, honking certitude that had characterized so much of the cinema and the dialogue at the nation's first conservative film festival, which had hosted the screening. The American Film Renaissance was taking place in Dallas over the September 11 weekend, a strategic, if tacky, choice of dates. But at least the locale meant that good beef was a choice.

I tuned back to the speaker on the question of remaining POWs, because, for once, Cordier didn't have an answer. “Who knows?” he sighed. “They're Orientals with a different mind-set.”

Outside the movie theater, Cordier backed up his assessment of “Orientals” with evidence, telling of his horrific POW experience in Vietnam, and those of prisoners under the Japanese in World War II. “Even an Oriental friend of mine agrees,” said Cordier, and went on to speak with genuine warmth about this brother in arms, a South Vietnamese soldier who had also endured torture.

I interrupted. “Excuse me,” I said, “this Oriental friend who is like a brother -- could you explain what his different mind-set is? I'm, uh, Oriental myself, and was curious about your perception of our mentality.” I waited, feeling hot, extremely indignant, and a little smug underneath the rage.

A long, long pause. And then … “I'm sorry,” said Cordier with unmistakable, shocking sincerity, grasping my wrist. I gaped at him. “That was a poor choice of words now, wasn't it? What I said in there -- it's not true.”

I considered Cordier's words and his unexpected about-face for the duration of the festival, paradoxically convinced that he meant both. The rest of the screenings -- more than 20 full-length films -- included a series of bloated George W. Bush hagiographies, conspiracy theories on the causal relation of gun control to genocide, and Michael Moore-esque attacks on Michael Moore. Festival audience members and directors protested moral relativism, decried un-American attacks on the American dream and U.S. foreign policy, and, mostly, lamented the gloomy fabrications about our proud nation dispensed by Hollywood and the academy.

The left has also waged political warfare with its films this year, including a collection of John Kerry hagiographies, conspiracy theories on the oil industry and the Iraq War, and Moore's attacks on the Bush administration, Paul Wolfowitz, and Wolfowitz's spit-shined comb. Lefty filmmakers have railed at how Republican strategies and policies denied the majority its president in 2000, and eroded our civil liberties and right to dissent since September 11. They've cried out against lies -- about the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, the state of our economy -- from the White House and its band of flying monkeys, the FOX News network.

So which reality is more real: the right's rosy-hued utopia under siege by naysayers or the left's dystopia, suffocating under conservative “America, the Beautiful” mythology? The red-state, blue-state divide has become an abyss during this wartime election year, helped along by the films on both sides -- political documentaries that have become increasingly uninterested in complexity and contradiction, that exclude differing opinions from their internal space. And it's a good question whether it represents artistic or even political progress to skew our interpretations so violently. And where do these lopsided depictions leave us in the aftermath of conflict, when the left and the right have to struggle to make a narrative together?

* * *

Jacques Derrida is dead. Literally this time, as well as metaphorically, which his critics have been claiming for decades. The father of deconstruction made a mess, his detractors have declared, with his notions of the radical, decentralizing play of language, its relativity, its lack of absolutes. According to Robert Kimball's October 12 Wall Street Journal essay on Derrida's death, “By undercutting the idea of truth, the deconstructionist also undercuts the idea of value, including established social, moral, and political values.” It's little surprise that Derrida should be so disliked by conservatives.

Progressives of a more rigid worldview might agree. For someone like Moore, who writes his documentaries in the blockbuster vernacular of good (us) versus evil (them) and tries to hector his viewers into a one-pointed interpretation of what they're seeing, Derrida's ideas would be rather vexing. Most progressives, however, find more to like than loathe in Derrida. His embrace of difference, his “power to the people” insistence that a reader should interpret on his or her own rather than scavenge for the author's singular intent -- these ideas have inspired feminists, postcolonials, and many others to seek out voices too often relegated to the margins. This same urge can perhaps account for the lefty tendency to make documentaries -- an art form that seeks out the untold, ostensibly drawing upon the vagaries and shifting perspectives of the ordinary world.

The documentary is still a controlled experiment in paradox, however; it purports to document reality while at the same time shaping that reality into a certain partisan message. As The New Yorker's Louis Menand and film historian Erik Barnouw have noted, the documentary may emit whiffs of observational objectivity, but the history of its own creation points out the lie: The documentary's past is littered with bossy opining, sound engineering, set-piece sleight of hand, and all-around auteurist meddling. In one example, famed animal documentarian Arne Sucksdorff was able to get a shot of an owl swooping down on a dormouse because he had fed the owl frequently; that time, he even proffered the victim.

But with their Moore-influenced offerings this year, liberal documentarians have tilted the balance of the documentary too far in favor of baldly obvious sloganeering. And they've largely abandoned the influence of intellectuals like Derrida in favor of, ironically, their one-note conservative counterparts. Films like Bush's Brain (hit piece on Bush adviser Karl Rove), Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train (glowing homage to the lefty historian), Band of Brothers (tribute to war-hero Kerry), The Corporation (indictment of big-business amorality), Uncovered: The War on Iraq (prosecutorial brief against the case for war), and, of course, Fahrenheit 9/11 have taken partisan positioning to a troubling extreme. Dissenting voices are rarely heard; exaggeration is the rule. For a progressive intellectual movement that so claims to embrace nuance and multiplicity of interpretations, it's a poor showing.

All the same, it's impossible not to sympathize with the filmmakers' impulses. They are documenting in a political atmosphere created by the right, which has tarred the media as a “liberal consensus” and encouraged the seepage of opinion -- conservative opinion -- into news. Letting its “fair and balanced” flag fly, FOX broadcasts partisan “news” coverage and encourages a lowbrow culture of shouting punditry, neon headlines, and fear-mongering. Or so argues Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed, a fine piece of guerilla filmmaking that captures the ignoble sight of Bill O'Reilly, FOX's unmuzzled id, telling a Boy Scout and the son of a 9-11 victim, among others, to “shut up.”

Outfoxed is a straight-up video editorial, like the other lefty political films this year. Perhaps it would be more in keeping with the progressive ideal for these filmmakers to balance their messages with a difference-based approach, as Derrida might say, rather than mimic the Bush administration in its fondness for internally generated mythology over empirical reasoning, so aptly described by Ron Suskind in his recent New York Times Magazine article. While partisan extremes may well be fought out in the gladiatorial ring of democratic head butting, it would be more truly progressive -- and perhaps more political convincing -- to watch a director openly wrestle with contradiction and ambiguity within his or her work.

At the conservative film festival, I watched Michael Moore Hates America, a wonderfully and surprisingly self-reflexive meditation on the process of shaping reality into an editorial message. In an interview in the film, famed documentarian Albert Maysles critiques Moore's films for their one-dimensionality, then comments, “The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity.” It would seem that documentaries should, almost by definition, counter the tyranny of conventional narratives with alternative interpretations. “A politician who lives by mythologies may well look on the documentarist's work as subversive,” notes Barnouw, in his survey of documentary history, Documentary. So why -- as these lefty documentaries have so often done this year -- ape that politician, pushing arguments that demand blind faith, belief removed from questioning and humility? Why not trade a few visual exclamation points for question marks, make dialogue with opponents more than a sight gag?

When I cornered Cordier, I was genuinely angry -- and licking my chops at the chance for my own Michael Moore moment. Cordier had already been snagged once about his period of simultaneous tenure as a Bush veterans-affairs adviser and a Swift Boat Veteran for Truth. But when I prodded him in hopes of an easy “gotcha!” I wound up with a lesson straight out of Documentary 101. What happens when you try to provoke real people and real life and record what happens? As Cordier himself said, “Who knows?” You may get a more surprising truth than the one you imagined -- and that makes for a better story in the end.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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