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By Bryan Newbury
Twitter: @asiplease

As a reviewer, I am usually loath to do what I just did. Namely, first-person reviews or reactions. I always cringe seeing that “I” on a page, whether it is here or in the New York Times. Certain subjects demand stripping any pretense of objectivity, though, and American: The Bill Hicks Story is definitely one of them. This is because Bill Hicks is my comedian. I caught his One Night Stand in Chicago on the cusp of my formative years and it changed me as a person. I made sure to tape it on second airing and proceeded to memorize every bit in it… despite the fact that, unlike Mr. Hicks, I did not consider comedy a viable career option. That thirty minutes was up there with anything Pryor had ever done. It was all mine.

Until five years later, when Bill Hicks started popping up in all sorts of places. The most memorable encounter I had with Hicksmobilia was at the apartment of a person I didn’t know from Adam. He lived upstairs from a friend of mine and had the beer or taco sauce or whatever we were lacking at that particular moment. In the corner of his living room was a framed portrait of Bill Hicks. It took three glances to confirm, but there it was. Memories are tricky things, and they often graft embellishments into the psyche, but I swear it was an oil painting. Now, that is commitment to a comedian.

A few of these experiences were enough to find out that Bill Hicks had a following. In his case, the word ‘following’ is more what we’d ascribe to the Dalai Lama or Rabindranath Tagore than, say, Bob Saget. As the years go by, that following gets larger and more fervent, revelatory and more high profile. (I am thinking here of Keith Olbermann’s ‘Bill Hicks is still ahead of his time’ segment.) As is the pattern with genius, this all comes well after Hicks ‘left in love, in laughter, and in truth,’ largely because his message and material become more incredibly incisive with every passing war, crisis or bastardization of the aesthetic landscape.

If Hicks is your comedian, you’ve no doubt seen every bit of video available, listened to each album – listened to it backwards as well – know every bit by heart from Randy Pan the Goat Boy to We Live In A World to Ding Dong (the last one is incredibly timely) and have by this time discovered that there were layers of meaning and bits of cosmic truth that become more evident in 2011 than in 1999. You don’t need my recommendation to see American. Tough shit. You’re getting it. (more…)


A reaction by Bryan Newbury
Twitter: @asiplease

A little more than half way through The Most Dangerous Man in America, there is a revelation worthy of its own feature length film: What if a person sacrificed his occupation, family and freedom to get the truth to the American public and nobody seemed to care? This takes up only a few minutes of screen time, but, from where the viewer sits, seeing 162 Tomahawk missiles fall on Libya while two seemingly endless wars go on in Iraq & Afghanistan and Julian Assange rotates headquarters from a charming country home in England to a courtroom in Stockholm to – why the hell not? – a subterranean compound beneath the Denver airport, it is the point most deserving of rumination.

There can be no doubt that much of the acclaim The Most Dangerous Man in America has received since its opening stems from the inescapable parallels of Vietnam and whichever current war you choose. This documentary would have been valuable in 1997, to be sure, but there is no denying the importance of its message at this moment.

While the reviewer is proposing new features stemming from this film, allow him to go one further, if indeed it hasn’t been done. Why not give us two additional hours on the lies behind every war? Better still, how about a film that spends all its time asking just how a nation can turn around in the span of one generation and lose the lessons which so many of us always suspect, but in the case of Daniel Ellsberg’s release of The Pentagon Papers was proven in black and white?

To hear the Nixon tapes, to be reminded of the fact that the Vietnam War was being planned by Eisenhower and Kennedy, if through proxies or by our own military, up until the Gulf of Tonkin “attack” which served as the cover story catalyst for an 11-year disaster that resulted in the loss of over two million lives, untold treasure and a considerable blow to our international reputation, to see the footage from Washington to Saigon, is to beg another question; namely, what in the hell is wrong with us?

After all, the lies leading up to the Iraq War were fairly transparent and in plain view to anyone who cared to look. We needed no Ellsberg… we had UN reports. The rationalizations were the same, though, and they shall surely remain so until the public calls its leaders out on the ruse.

If we are to stretch out ever so slightly to divine that symbolic, poetic meaning of The Most Dangerous Man in America, it is the disheartening cliché that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is telling that Ellsberg found a strange resistance among anti-war legislators when he attempted to circulate his secret history of the Vietnam War through them. We see Howard Zinn explain this, commenting on the culture of deference and capitulation within the legislative branch. It is difficult to escape the feeling that it goes beyond deference. Is it possible that public debate is simply an act of theater, with the real decisions being made in corridors of power that aren’t available on CSPAN? The more one looks into it, the less outlandish this contention appears.

Things stay the same in the public mind, which never ceases to find a way to ignore revelations like The Pentagon Papers, Wikileaks, the recent piece in Der Spiegel and countless others. Many go beyond the bounds of a normal life in their condemnation of diversions and frivolity. It is hard to imagine how one can stay sane without basketball games, a bit of comedy, etc. Still, disconcerting is too small a word when considering the American public’s ability to answer crimes and horrors with a shrug.

As with all poetic, symbolic imagery, the aforementioned isn’t quite precise. As we learn, 1970’s America isn’t exactly analogous to the America of the 2000’s. For starters, the Horatio to Ellsberg’s Hamlet turns out to be a brave and vibrant press. While we have our share of online resources that go beyond what organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Sun Times, et al. were capable of then or are now, they do little to mitigate the maddening compliance our major media has displayed for the last 30 years. Publication of the Wikileaks cables notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine today’s Times and Post coordinating so effectively under a threat as real as the Nixon Administration offered. Second, we see press freedom held up in a 6-3 Supreme Court vote. If you think that the current Judiciary, which we learn is basically the only coequal branch of government to our Executive, would walk out on that limb against the interests of our politicians and profiteers, it is probably best that you return to diversions and frivolity.

The courage and consequence of Daniel Ellsberg’s actions cannot be questioned. The Most Dangerous Man in America is a tremendous appraisal of the man, his path, his life. As the film posits, it is quite clear that The Pentagon Papers were integral in the downfall of a presidency if not the immediate conclusion of a war. What is unnerving about these findings is that, while presidents come and go, wars seem to live out their own biographies. Whether it is Vietnam from Eisenhower to Nixon – and let us not forget the two gentlemen in-between – or Iraq from Bush to Obama and, lamentably, beyond, the continuity of agenda is equal parts perplexing and maddening. One cannot help but think that altering this reality doesn’t require heroic acts by the Daniel Ellsbergs of the world. It only requires that we listen to them.


The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Directed by Judith Ehrlich & Rick Goldsmith

Color and Black & White, 92 minutes, 2009


SXSW is starting this weekend, and documentary news will quickly be dominated by the now established film part of this festival. Here are a few resources to find out what is going on and what films will likely get a lot of coverage.

Go right to the source for speeches and film screenings information at the SXSW Film page.

Documentaries about entertainment personalities will certainly dominate much of the film news coming out of Austin.  A Willie Nelson documentary directed by Billy Bob Thornton will be shown, and Conan O’Brien’s tour documentary will premiere. But don’t forget about some of the smaller films.

A good spotlight on some of the Documentary Shorts that will be shown at SXSW.  Many films are mention but the highlights include: Frank Fairfield, My Big Red Purse and Library of Dust.

If you are looking for just films in general,  check out this list of possible hits.

If you are fortunate enough to be going to SXSW, have a great time.  The rest of us will be watching from afar; awaiting the day when these documentaries are distributed to a wider audience.