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By David Loftus
June 24th, 2009

courtingcondiposter-1By now, many of us have grown accustomed to films that make us uncomfortable.

There have been documentaries that showed us unpleasant truths, whether old (“The Fog of War”) or new (“An Inconvenient Truth”), and plenty of pop films which thrived on humiliating their heroes (from “There’s Something About Mary” to “Flirting With Disaster”) while we laughed and, to a degree perhaps, empathized.

Just when you thought nothing new could be done outside of CGI animation, particularly in the documentary format, here comes “Courting Condi,” dubbed a “musical docu-tragi-comedy” by its makers. Part road picture, part buddy movie, part musical, and yes, part straight documentary at the same time as it’s almost a parody of documentaries, “Courting Condi” is often funny, sometimes downright silly, and occasionally startling as a whack upside the head.

One might also drag out that aging, much-abused term “post-modern” here. But I wouldn’t want you to think there’s anything stuffy or academic about “Courting Condi.” Simply, it’s the “story” of a chubby loser of a young musician who conceives a great love for George Bush’s Secretary of State, and – under the illusion they could somehow meet, date, and end up as soulmates – tracks her life and career from Birmingham, Alabama to Washington D.C. by way of Denver and Palo Alto (Stanford University).

courtingcondidevinratray-1Slowly but surely, it also morphs from a ridiculous shaggy-love tale (our Romeo makes several MTV-style music videos he calls “love disks” and is shown mailing them to his beloved) to the real-life depiction of a good Christian girl (a playmate of one of the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham) and African-American scholar … who underwent a transformation into a corporate board fixture after whom an oil tanker was named, who enjoyed the assistance of affirmative action but punished and ignored others who did the same, who overlooked civil slaughter in Nigeria and lied about Iraq, and who okayed the torture of Muslim prisoners.

What’s especially pomo about the movie is its ploy of putting writer-director-producer Sebastian Doggart inside the story, as a documentary film director who follows the “co-star” – lovestruck Devin Ratray, acting under his own name as well – in pursuit of the title character, who of course never appears on camera by choice but only in archival footage (and as an animated cut-out, among other things).

chasingcondisebastiandoggartwhitehousecom479_4730The character of “Doggart” in the film is clearly depicted as being much less intelligent than the real filmmaker (a King’s College, Cambridge graduate in the social and political sciences, and veteran director of stage and TV documentaries on both sides of the Atlantic), just as Ratray (whose acting resume includes Buzz in two “Home Alone” movies and several episodes of “Law and Order”) can’t possibly be as credulous and foolish as he appears in this movie. The climax (or nadir, depending on how you look at it) of their buddy relationship occurs midway through the movie when “Doggart” tries to convince “Ratray” during a beach shoot that the narrative arc demands a nude scene.

Early on, many viewers are apt to feel an I-can’t-believe-they’re-doing-this discomfort about the romantic premise. We’re being made to watch this loser try to catch the eye of the nation’s first black female Secretary of State, who is nearly twice his age? In the course of interviewing Rice’s childhood neighbors and friends in Alabama, the filmmakers offer a very Michael Moore moment when Ratray attempts to speak to Rice’s mother as she’s trying to get from her car in the driveway to her house and pretty much brushes them off (understandably so).

courtingcondirickupchurchratraydoggartThings start to turn a little weirder – because less obviously farcical and futile – as Ratray and Doggart get Rice’s one and only ex-fiancé, former Denver Broncos receiver Rick Upchurch, to show his engagement ring and reminisce about their dates; then receive romantic advice and potential love songs from Grammy-winning composer and one-time Elvis girlfriend Carol Connors; and then put Devin through the image-making tutelage and focus-group grinder of Frank Luntz, campaign marketing wizard to a string of Republican politicians. Connors and Luntz strut their respective expertises, but they also play for the camera a little, and thereby induce a little extra vertigo in the viewer. Read the rest of this entry »


By Umut Newbury
June 15, 2009

Barrack Obama Peoples PresidentLast week, we saw an image of an American president that has been foreign to us for a little while. In Cairo, tens of thousands of Muslims cheered for President Barack Obama, as he spoke of a different world with a different United States leading it. He quoted from the three major Western religious texts and brought Egyptians to their feet with applause. As President Obama works on his second 100 days in the White House, it is a good time to take a look back and reflect on his campaign that brought him there.

Danny Schechter’s new documentary Barack Obama: People’s President, is a refreshing take on Obama’s campaign to the presidency. Rather than cutting and pasting coverage of talking heads telling us how Obama became the president, Schechter tries an old technique known to print journalists of yesteryear: showing it. His film opens with the famous “Yes We Can” video created by and continues with 90 minutes of very diverse footage of the grassroots campaign that got Obama elected.

Anyone who was an official volunteer for the Obama campaign, or an unofficial volunteer (disclosure here, this reviewer was one of them) who lobbied friends, relatives, neighbors to register to vote, donate money, vote and pass on the word will enjoy seeing this big picture view of the campaign. As for those who voted and volunteered for other candidates, they would be mistaken to dismiss this film as a victory dance. People’s President lays out the steps of the Obama campaign’s success for anyone willing to learn how it was done.

The theme of Schechter’s film is the people behind the people’s candidate. Schechter’s premise is simple enough: Obama’s success lies in his campaign’s innovative use of the Internet and other new technologies, which helped lure the youth vote and reach out to many other hard-to-get constituencies. The film has footage of self-described Obama Camps across the nation, as well as an array of creativity the campaign fostered on the Internet, from to Obama Girl and to lesser-known clips such as the “Irish Obama” and “How Obama won the KKK.” Schechter also has some experts analyzing all of this, such as NBC’s Jonathan Alter and’s David Fenton. Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker magazine recollects his meeting with Obama as the moment he realized that the candidate was exactly how he portrayed himself to the masses, “thoughtful, calm, disciplined, well-organized, human and strong.”

Any campaign, Schechter argues, needs money and people. The Obama campaign got both in unforeseen amounts. Fenton says Obama won because the online tactics “broke the grip of large donors on the Democratic Party.” People like Scott Cohen describe how they felt when they heard Obama’s speech in Springfield. “I wrote the largest check of my life, for $2,300, and talked others to do so.” Cohen later had the idea to create the “An Obama Minute” video, where he asked people to give as much as they can. The first time the video aired, it raised more than $200,000.

The other strength of the Obama campaign, People’s President shows, was the superiority of its operation. The Chicago headquarters had the slogan, “No Drama with Obama.” Unlike other campaigns, there was no internal fighting, no unauthorized leaks or embarrassments. They had a tight, smooth running organization, with a simple message, “Change.” As Jonathan Alter points out, while Hillary Clinton played with different messages, the Obama campaign stuck to its original message and added a simple slogan, “Yes We Can.” Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury

June 2, 2009 

witchhuntjeffmodahl“This does happen… and it can be you. Your neighbor, your son, daughter, it can happen right now, in your own home. There is no rhyme or reason why it happens. If somebody wants to do it, it can happen.”  

Jeff Modahl would know. One of the subjects of Witch Hunt, a film about prosecutions run mad in Kern County, California, Modahl brings fifteen years of that knowledge to this quote near the film’s conclusion. What might strike the viewer as astonishing is that it isn’t until this moment, at around eighty-two minutes in, that Witch Hunt really astonishes. Not that the story, subject matter or pacing is lacking. Not that the travails of the people profiled, all of them either wrongfully convicted of pedophilia or dealing with a life permanently altered by being party to said convictions, are in any way uncompelling. Not that Sean Penn is, as a narrator, anything short of being Sean Penn. 

What is striking about the film is that, provided one has read about, observed or experienced the American legal system, none of the story is especially difficult to believe.  

The early 1980’s saw Bakersfield with at least one of two problems: either there was a stunning rash of child molestation within its white working class community; or, there was an ill-trained police and social service force serving at the pleasure of a District Attorney driven to farcical lengths in zealotry and ambition. We’ll give readers five seconds to ruminate on which choice seems more likely.   Read the rest of this entry »