This Column Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin
Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2012's Greedy Lying Bastards (out in theatres March 8, 2013) directed by Craig Scott Rosebraugh AND 2013's Occupy Love directed by Velcrow Ripper
Elkin: So the world's gone to shit. We are on the brink of both an economic and environmental disaster of epic proportions. The signs are everywhere: on the news, out your window, in your bank account, and under your feet. As you get to the point at the end of the month where you are either paying for gas with dimes or wondering if those bumps in the inside of your mouth might be cancerous, you look around into the eyes of all the people you know and love and you see your own frenzied stress response reflected.
We all know we are on the precipice.
So we either bury our heads -- sit in the drive-through lane at Whataburger for five minutes with the heater turned up high while thumbing through the latest Bed, Bath, and Beyond catalog -- or we make vain vows to ourselves to simplify and reduce and reuse that make us feel good about ourselves until we opt for the plastic bag at the Piggly-Wiggly because it's easier to carry up the hill.
But it doesn't have to be like that. I'm just projecting my own insecurities, right? There are people out there that are actually doing something in the face of this tumult and trying to make the world a better place.
Really, there are.
Two recently released documentaries show proof of this. Craig Scott Rosebraugh's Greedy Lying Bastards is one of them. This film is a call to action, outlining how Big Oil and, specifically, the Koch Brothers' funded Americans for Prosperity, have been manipulating and obfuscating and straight up lying about the impact of their greed. The film goes to great lengths to make connections, lay bare facts, and detail appropriate responses.
The other film, Velcrow Ripper's Occupy Love, documents the rise of the Occupy movement and tries to frame it as a love story. The thesis of this film is that the re-embracing of love on a global scale will bring about a true paradigm shift in the global economy, decentralize the hierarchical structure of governance, and undermine the tenets of Neo-Liberalism. It believes that empathic love will unite humanity to the rhythms of the natural world and replace the idea of "living better" with the concept of "living well."
Both films have a very clear agenda. Both films have, at their center, the film-makers' politics and personalities. Both films have something important to say.
How they say it, though, is very different.
Sacks: Very nice how you avoid tipping your hand, there, Elkin. Very nicely done, sir. If onlyGreedy Lying Bastards had been as subtle and artful.
Greedy Lying Bastards is, plain and simple, propaganda. It’s well done propaganda -- smartly presented and smartly written -- and makes assertions with which I happen to completely agree. But this film is is propaganda. It’s 90 minutes of video that argues vehemently and exhaustively that global climate change is devastating our planet, creating horrible environmental crises, casting the very future of Earth into great doubt.
We’re told over and over in this film that corporations are evil, that politics are corrupt, that theCitizens United case has deeply damaged American society, that idiotic spokesmen are lying out the sides of their mouths to promote their evil and devastating policies, that, as the filmmaker says towards the end of the film, "consequences are a bitch, and they’re only going to get worse if we don’t do anything about it now."
The thing is, this supposed exposé isn’t actually much of an exposé as a long collection of scenes and graphics that repeat information that most well-informed viewers actually already know. I can imagine someone like me, a viewer who sincerely believes in global climate change and wants to do what he can about it, watching some of this movie -- but honestly I can’t imagine someone like me watching all of it. Heck, I kept flipping ahead in the movie looking for more entertaining scenes.
The thing is, for a movie like this to be successful, it needs a strong personality at its center. We need more than assertions that we’re being manipulated by a bunch of greedy bastards obsessed with their short-term greed. Viewers need a tour guide who will make this journey more than a standard recitation of facts that informed people know. Oddly, for a movie about such important subjects, Greedy Lying Bastards feels naïve, uninformed, unfocused. Any movie that concludes with a call to action to "oppose Citizens United" just comes across as a long bit of preachy hot air.
I’m not sure if Occupy Love works as well as it does because it provides such a solid contrast toGreedy Lying Bastards or because it’s so sincere, so uncynical, so much an appeal to our higher natures.
There’s a real soul to the world that Velcrow Ripper creates in his movie, a real point of view that is positive and warm and welcoming and that works as a real call to action that viewers find themselves wanting to embrace. More than anything, Occupy Love provides hope despite these terrible times, hope that overcomes all of our deeply embedded cynicism and that tries to lead towards a more empathetic and holistic life that embraces all of our humanity. Who cares if it all sounds a bit hippie at times?
Elkin, was Occupy Love a call to action for you or did its deeply empathic approach make you feel more cynical?
Elkin: Well, you know me, Sacks -- when it comes to cynicism, I tend to layer it thick between two slices of bread and then slather it in condiments and sweetmeats.
But for some reason, Occupy Love, while being the kind of film that would normally be ripe for my patented "fuck this hippie shit" repartee, kind of struck a chord in my soul. Framing a response to the global meltdown as a love story seems, on the surface, rather naive, but as the documentary progressed it made more and more sense to me.
Though like you, Sacks, I wonder if this response was a case of trying to wash the aspiration-deadening taste of Greedy Lying Bastards out of my mouth. I completely agree with your assessment about THAT soulless propaganda machine. God knows I wanted to like this film. I am one of the choir to which this film is supposed to be preaching. But the longer it went on (and on, and on, and on), I began to wonder about the motivations of Craig Scott Rosebraugh, the film's director.
I began to wonder if he had less than admirable intentions for making Greedy Lying Bastards. In a way, it started to sit in my belly that there was the possibility that Rosebraugh was actually trying toCASH IN on our anger. I mean, he wasn't telling us anything we didn't already know. His call to action at the end was, at best, sophomoric in its vision. His rallying cry began to sound more like it was penned by Bieber rather than Dylan.
Greedy Lying Bastards struck me as kind of the Hot Topic of political documentaries, riding a wave as it is cresting in order to suck as much cash from our pockets before the whole gestalt crashes into the shore.
And that kinda pissed me off.
In contrast, though, was Occupy Love, which was simple and heartfelt. At its heart it offers us all the opportunity to change the world through empathy and acknowledgment and positive vibe. Ripper's film seems REAL, compared to Rosebraugh's plastic. Occupy Love has REAL people in it (although there were times I wanted to punch about half of them in the mouth) who espouse real emotional reactions to real problems in a real way that made me feel real feels.
So is Occupy Love a great film? No. But it sure as shit was better than Greedy Lying Bastards.
Sacks: Mmm, sweetmeats. And mmm, heartfelt opinions.
Like you, I was really surprised by how much I was moved by Occupy Love. There’s an honesty and sincerity that flows throughout that movie that was really very moving and honest. As you say, this movie was all about real people who had chosen to make a difference in the lives of themselves, their families and their planet by stepping up. But those people didn’t just step up to amorphously "make a difference" or "oppose Citizens United" or just speak against Keystone XL Pipeline or the avaricious greed of Wall Street.
No, Ripper was going at deeper motivations: real change. Change not just to one aspect of our way of life or one particularly horrible aspect of our society. No, Ripper was looking for transformational change, revolutionary change; nothing less than a true change in the way that the people of the world see themselves and their societies and their ability as individuals to change things.
Ripper reminds us that the real lessons of events like Occupy Wall Street don’t come from the protests themselves, or the police’s rousting of the Occupy movement from Zuccati Park. The real lessons come from the relationships that are created in events like that; relationships among people, relationships with our world, and -- maybe most importantly -- relationships with ourselves.
By opening ourselves up to change, by embracing our own inner humanity, Ripper believes that all of us together can profoundly change the thoroughly debased society in which we live. He argues for a kind of universal step forward as people, a chance to step outside of the false choices that society offers us and instead move towards a world that truly reflects our shared humanity. Ordinary life is ephemeral. But true peace and happiness is transcendent.
So the two movies that we’re looking at this week offer an interesting contrast to each other: one takes the horrors of modern life and offers a tactical guide to making them somewhat better. That story is told in a didactic way that appeals to the mind and the heart. The other film takes the horrors of modern life and offers a strategic guide to making them profoundly better. That story is told in a poetic way that appeals to the soul.
Elkin: Nice, Sacks.
Thinking back about what I said above about Greedy Lying Bastards, I think I should add a caveat. It's not like this film doesn't have a place or an audience. I could actually see showing excerpts of it in a school or retirement home -- some place where people only have a vague understanding of the relationship between corporate interests and our oncoming environmental problems.
The film does a pretty good job of making connections, pointing fingers, and laying blame. As a teaching tool, Greedy Lying Bastards has its uses, though its didacticism may be a bit of a turn off to some. Its full-press one-sided nature may turn turn some people away, or strengthen the resolve of those who disagree -- kinda like how people react to a Michael Moore film. These sort of self-righteous diatribes have the propensity to be divisive, and, in that, lose much of their impact.
Which, I guess, is what makes Occupy Love the better film, as it focuses more on people's reactions. It's more of a "what is happening" than "why it's happening" documentary. There's more of a broad appeal to the humanity it shows. Whether you disagree with what the people are saying in this film, you would have a hard time discounting the conviction in which they say it.
Still, both of these films suffer from one thing, and it is that the film-makers themselves are so much of an active participant in the stories. My favorite documentaries are those in which the film-makers step aside and allow the story itself to unfold and be the focus. Films which let the audience decide how they want to feel about what they are watching are ultimately the more effective message bearers, in my opinion. Neither of these films let us make this kind of decision. They present an either/or option -- either you agree with their message or you disagree with their message -- and therein they lose their ability to raise subtlety of thought.
There's really no way we can go tangential in this review, Sacks, like we could with films like Shut Up, Little Man or even Rock-Afire Explosion. Greedy Lying Bastards and Occupy Love don't really give us the opportunity to discuss larger ideas, as they narrow our focus to the politics of their creators.
And it is in this that these films undermine their own power.
Sacks: But honestly, that’s what I enjoyed the most about Occupy Love: it was created to state an opinion, to argue vehemently and from the heart about the revolutionary changes that Velcrow Ripper was arguing that our society would be experiencing. For want of a better term, the film was a subjective exercise rather than the objective exercise of other films that we’ve reviewed for this column. It’s that subjectivity that makes the film so interesting to me. There’s passion, there’s energy and there’s palpable euphoria. And we can all use more euphoria in these trying times.
And more sandwiches.
Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on Facebook.
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