In reading the posts from other Tribeca filmmakers on this site over the past week, it sounds like there will be some fascinating documentaries at the festival. But as I read about the range of interesting subject matter covered by these docs, it got me thinking more about what the place is for exploring social issues and political ideas in films. Documentaries are designed to make you think, to raise your awareness about a particular topic. But what about narrative films?
There are a few different templates out there for including politics and social issues in your movies: there's the John Sayles Method. Sayles has a great ability to interweave truly human characters while exploring complicated social issues (Lone Star, Sunshine State, Matewan, etc.) Though there aren't a lot of people doing what he does in movies these days, I think his approach has influenced some of the high-quality television shows that have started recently, like The Wire or The Shield.
Hollywood's preferred method seems to be to take the glossy shell of an action/thriller and stuff it with some nutritious information on some social issue, such as the actions of evil pharmaceutical companies in Africa (The Constant Gardener) or--less seriously--global warming (The Day After Tomorrow). There are also attempts at political satire, but movies can't be like the Daily Show, which can comment on today's news. Movies, for better or worse, take a long time to make, so it is difficult for them to work as satire. (Of course, there are bizarre outliers like Bulworth, but I'm not sure what to do with that.)
I was inspired to write Blue State partly because there seemed to be a lack of narrative films that were speaking to the same concerns as some of the docs that were starting to come out. Why couldn't we make a movie--a comedy, even--that was both thought-provoking and entertaining? Documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Outfoxed, The Corporation and Why We Fight had been made, but I had yet to see a fiction film that dealt directly with our political situation today.
Around that same time, I saw the producer Ted Hope give a talk, and he referred to an article he'd written in the Village Voice where he was complaining about the lack of political engagement in independent films he'd seen recently at Sundance and elsewhere. It seemed crazy to me that more narrative independent films weren't dealing directly with what was going on in the world, since so many of my friends, some of whom had never paid attention to politics before, were up in arms about what was going on in the run-up to the 2004 election: the unilateral actions of the Bush Administration, the war in Iraq and the false pretenses upon which it was started, Abu Ghraib. And then came Hurricane Katrina, scandal after scandal, the barely checked expansion of presidential power...
Now, all that said, Blue State is not an issues movie at all. It does not try to squeeze in expositional dialogue about voting improprieties in Ohio or veganism between scenes. It would be more accurate to say that it is as though a movie was made about one such person who cares deeply about such things. Politics is only important in Blue State because it is so important to the main character. In 2004, I worked as a field campaigner in Ohio in the weeks leading up to the election. I was just finishing film school and planning to move from New York to Los Angeles. So in October, I packed up my belongings and drove cross-country. I stopped in Cleveland on the way, where a friend of mine was heading up a Moveon.org group. I made phone calls and went door to door, just as John does in the opening scene of the film.
After Bush won re-election, I felt depressed and let down. I didn't understand how our country could re-elect this president who it seemed so obvious did not deserve a second term. The title Blue State comes not only from the political orientation of our coastal states (and a few spots in between); it also explains the state of mind of many of my friends on that November day.
So more than John Sayles' films or big political thrillers, I was inspired by the films of the late 60s and early 70s, movies that weren't afraid to talk politics and tell a good story at the same time: Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, Hal Ashby's Shampoo, even Bob Rafelson's Head--which starred the Monkees!--weren't afraid to get political. Today's times certainly call for it as much as theirs did.