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Tribeca Talks: Poliwood

Director Barry Levinson premiered his new "film essay" Friday night, where he was joined by a panel of celebrities talking about the confluence of Hollywood and politics.

Barry Levinson                                       ©Getty Images, photo credit: Neilson Barnard

Last night at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, Barry Levinson premiered his new “film essay,” Poliwood, to an engaged and appreciative audience. In the film, the Academy Award-winning director (Rain Man) explores the ever-blurrying divides at the intersection of Hollywood, media, and politics. In following a path from last summer’s conventions through Obama’s jubilant inauguration as the 44th president, the film poses many questions for celebrities who want to get involved, the central one being, “How do you survive the media circus and not end up the clown?”

The Creative Coalition is an ostensibly non-partisan group of artists from the entertainment industry who are committed to effecting change on a political level. Levinson initially set out to join TCC members as they traveled to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in the summer of 2008, but his film soon grew into something bigger, as he recognized the shift taking place in the country, and given the merging of celebrity and politics surrounding Barack Obama’s campaign. (He also eventually decided to include himself in the film, as he became more vocal about the issues he was covering.) While at the conventions, TCC members interact with the public—who openly challenge the validity of their views and question their motives—and engage with those with different points of view. They are at turns vulnerable, defensive, and impassioned.

Josh Lucas                                                 Matthew Modine
©Getty Images (both). photo credit: Neilson Barnard

In the film, Levinson opens with a scene from his own Avalon, setting the stage for his thesis that the advent of television in the 1950s changed politics and the nature of celebrity forever. (He briefly reviews Ronald Reagan’s rise—cemented by his communication skills and TV-ready looks—and John F. Kennedy’s instinctive recognition of the power of broadcast.) Levinson follows this conceit through the film, contending that, as television news blends with entertainment, “truths that are not truths become the truth.”

Levinson’s 1997 satire Wag the Dog has proven prescient, with its main theme, “War is show business.” In the twelve years since that film, we’ve had people like Joe the Plumber (an Everyman who shot to fame in a vice-presidential debate and then bizarrely did war reporting from the Gaza Strip), Al Gore (who won an Oscar after being Vice President), and Obama (whose opponents famously tried to criticize him with the label “celebrity”); in each case, these men can be found on both Access Hollywood and CNN. With these examples, Levinson suggests that the advent of 24-hour news channels has played a major role in this entertainment-izing of news and politics. As Lawrence O’Donnell puts it in the film, “Once Ted Turner figured news can make money, he said, ‘We can make money 24 hours a day.’” Since then, O’Donnell contends, there has been a tension between ratings and providing relevant and responsible information to the public.

Barry Levinson, Frank Luntz, Matthew Modine, Tim Daly, Josh Lucas, Wendie Malick, Ellen Burstyn
©Getty Images, photo credit: Neilson Barnard

Politics-as-entertainment was also a major point of discussion in the conversation that followed, one moderated by O’Donnell, the perfect symbol of how narrow the line between entertainment and politics has become. (O’Donnell worked on Capitol Hill for many years before becoming an executive producer and writer on The West Wing.) The panel, comprised of actors Josh Lucas, TCC Co-President Tim Daly, Matthew Modine, Wendie Malick, and Ellen Burstyn, as well as political consultant (and focus group expert) Frank Luntz, candidly discussed the film and their involvement with The Creative Coalition. Some reactions were funny—Modine: “I’m just so happy to be in a Barry Levinson movie!” And some were humble—Lucas: “After seeing people like Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins and Ellen Burstyn, who are incredibly educated, with strong points-of-view… What I took away was there are things I don’t know, and I need to educate myself about certain issues so [I] can know what [I’m] talking about.”

Luntz, the token conservative on the panel (and one of the few in the film), started off by joking, “The first thing I noticed was how fat I am. Fuck! I’ve got to stop eating! And also, this gives me a chance to give Barry Levinson a script I wrote…” He then delved into his strong suit, which is finding ways to communicate with the public, and he also commended TCC for reaching out across the aisle. “We need to communicate the value of arts, music and theatre education. If our kids don’t have that, it will be society’s loss…. In 2009, 2010, let us hope we are civil to each other. We can agree on one thing: this is such a great, awesome country.”

Tim Daly                                                       Ellen Burstyn  
©Getty Images (both), photo credit: Neilson Barnard

In her thoughtful and elegant way, Ellen Burstyn reprised onstage her moving portrayal in the film, where she is shown in tears while listening to Obama speak. “I thought we were making a film about Barack Obama and the political process, while being inside the biggest historical event of my lifetime. It was a total surprise we were making a film on the effects TV and technology have on us. I enjoyed it, just like the audience. In 1968 [at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which she references in the film], when Mayor Daley was sending mounted police out to beat the Vietnam War protesters, I had a feeling of being in a historical event that was terrifying. This time around, I felt like I was [art of a transformational event in the American psyche. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life—it felt like an alive and living event. I wasn’t watching it on TV or texting about it; I was there in the living reality of it.”

In both the film and on stage, Modine shared his impassioned reasons for becoming involved: “The reason this Festival exists [the attacks of September 11] is the same reason I got involved in politics. If people are angry enough with our country—or its leaders—to fly planes into buildings, it’s our responsibility as citizens to become involved, as part of a free and democratic society... It’s up to each and every one of us. Obama says he can’t do it alone. We have to all work together.” About his conservative counterparts, he continued, “We can come to a decision about what is right and what is wrong if we talk with each other. We can solve the problems, but we can’t do that if we’re beating each other up.”

Levinson agreed: “At the heart, it’s all about communication. We can only communicate if we listen to each other. [Often] we get derailed into subtopics and lose sight of the big picture.”

In sum, how do we find the central truths? Daly theorized, “We’ve been trying to discover the truth since we crawled out of the ooze. We haven’t gotten there yet. It’s getting more difficult as there are more versions of the truth out there.” At least he’s trying.



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