The Common Good
July 2009

Real Life at the Movies

by Gareth Higgins | July 2009

Now that most filmed records of human life are made by amateurs—the growth of YouTube and other forms of uploading moving images is the most influential recent development in ...

Now that most filmed records of human life are made by amateurs—the growth of YouTube and other forms of uploading moving images is the most influential recent development in cinema—we all have the potential to make movies. A good thing, since the poverty of ambition and imagination in most mainstream Hollywood products is more obvious with each passing week.

For example, over four days of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, held in April, audiences were treated—indeed, at times overwhelmed—by real life at the movies. A film colleague was so taken with the scope of vision on display that he pronounced the death of “staged cinema”—what you and I think of when we go to the movies.

Documentaries such as The Cove, an astonishing thriller about environmental protection in Japan, Voices from El-Sayed, a deeply moving portrayal of life in a deaf community in Israel, and Shooting Beauty, an overhaul of the perception of people with serious physical disabilities, leave the viewer suspecting that when a humanized eye is brought to bear on the realities of life, the future of movies may lie more in the hands of the people than the stars. Food, Inc., a serious exposé of the ways meat and vegetables reach our tables in the United States, is a good place to start if you want to see how documentaries can change the world.

The Year So Far. One film has risen to the surface for me—In the Loop, a political satire about the lead-up to the Iraq war. It reminds us of the horror of how careerist selfishness, ideology, and political opportunism collided to produce the mess we’re still in. It opens July 24; I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Summer Blockbusters. A quick survey of the summer’s blockbusters suggests there may be more redemptive violence mythologizing in the Transformers sequel Revenge of the Fallen (released June 24), and a slick and loud lionization of gangsters in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (July 1).

Classics to See Again. This month I’m nominating Being There, Hal Ashby and Jerzy Kosinski’s 1979 story of innocence and power, in which a simple gardener is mistaken for a political sage. The movie features Peter Sellers’ best performance in a serious examination of the need to re-humanize the world. It’s one of the smartest, funniest, and most touching films ever made.

Gareth Higgins, a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, is the author of How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films.

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