The August 23rd issue of New York magazine covered a uniquely modern dilemma for hipster / activists: whether to protest in Manhattan at the GOP convention or head to the Nevada desert for the annual loaf-fest that is Burning Man. On the one hand was the obligation of fulfilling social responsibilities, and on the other the promise of hedonism and entertainment for days on end. Entertainment in all its forms is the quintessance of American obsession- whether it be experienced in surround sound at home on a plasma screen or in its various guises as flash mobs or at the multiple stages at Coachella. So it is no surprise that entertainment has become the most important venue for Americans to become informed politically, hence the explosion of docs like "The Hunting of the President," "Outfoxed," "The Corporation," "Hijacking Catastrophy," "Uncovered" and of course, "Fahrenheit 9/11." A quote from one of those conflicted lefties in the New York magazine summed it up: "In some ways, going to Burning Man is just as much of a political statement."
The mixture of entertainment with the political doesn't sit well with many, usually the conservative audiences who believe that forking over hard-earned dollars should guarantee several hours of uninterrupted escapism. Linda Rondstat learned this lesson, like the Dixie Chicks before her, when she had the gall to praise Michael Moore's documentary to an audience at the Aladdin Casino in Las Vegas. And on chat rooms across the web, fans searching for kindred souls to share their enthusiasm find themselves dragged into arguments over the merits of Bush and Kerry, when all they really wanted to do was discuss how cool "Batman Begins" is going to be. At Ain't It Cool News, the responses to a review of iRobot quickly devolved into an online witch hunt about just how left site-founder Harry Knowles is, since, you know, he praised "Fahrenheit 9/11."
And now Warner Bros. is taking action by refusing to include David O. Russell's "anti-war" documentary with the re-release of his 1999 film "Three Kings" on DVD. In today's New York Times art section, Sharon Waxman quotes WB's spokesperson Barbara Brogliatti as saying "This came out to be a documentary that condemns, basically, war. This is supposed to be a special edition of 'Three Kings,' not a polemic about war." The statement is strange considering that most viewers felt that Russell's film, essentially a reinvention of the hippie / WW II flick "Kelly's Heroes," used the first Gulf War as a setting to explore America's motivations and responsibilities in wartime. In one scene, the American soldiers strap a bomb to a football, the villains go deep, and the pass is good- or bad, depending on how you look at it.
Warner Bros. of course, joins its distinguished competition in the concern over mixing politics with entertainment. Sony ultimately decided not to distribute the DVD of "Control Room," and as we mentioned here on D-Day, "Fahrenheit 9/11" was dumped by Walt Disney before being picked up by Lion's Gate (who will also save "Control Room" from DVD limbo). As Waxman reports in the article, Warner Brothers has fallen back on the tried and true defense, used variously against Move-On and others that the doc is too political, specifically that releasing it with "Three Kings" is "totally inappropriate" during a countown to a November election. It is interesting that Warner Bros. sees no overt political message in the film "Three Kings" itself. "Smuggling" is a tried and true method to get the word out to the converted by allegorical means while slipping by censors of all kinds. It has made possible numerous "escapist" outings that deal with McCarthyism ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), Conservative brainwashing ("They Live"), and consumer culture ("Day of the Dead").
If there is a medium that comes the closest to personifying the term "escapist" it must be video gaming, which prides itself on garnering review bites like "immersive." But even here, politics are muddying the waters. As mentioned in the October issue of "Computer Gaming World," the decision to set the game "Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon 2" in North Korea drew outrage from no less than... North Korea. "This may be a game to them [Americans] now, but... in war, they will only face miserable defeat and gruesome deaths," was the response in Tongil, a government state-run paper as quoted in Stars and Stripes. One of the game's designers seemed baffled, saying "games, especially those set in fictional conflicts, are simply entertainment."
That a game designer setting campaigns in modern day, real-world settings should be surprised when the "enemy" takes offense seems naive in the extreme. It may be no wonder that Warner Bros. sees "Three Kings" as merely an action romp using a declared enemy of the U.S. as a backdrop. Perhaps there is no more room to "escape," no place to go but "here" anymore. And if entertainment takes on a political edge, it might be that the world is not simply made up of places, but politicized environments where context is as important as content. A Linda Rondstat concert might not seem like a political battleground, but it took mere seconds for it to become one- and the hopes of consumers to separate the artist from the work will undoubtedly work to the advantage of those building bigger and better home entertainment systems or faster processors for home computers to run all the top of the line games. At home, you can listen to a CD in peace without the preamble, and throw away (if indeed, it ever got released) the documentary that came bundled with your DVD. "Escape" may mean no longer a communal experience at the movie, where you must suffer your neighbor yelling "don't open the door!" during a horror film, but headphones and VR goggles- anything to block out the political landscape that exists outside your front door.
So attending Burning Man might indeed be a political statement after all- you've got nowhere to go to escape nudity, crassness, stupidity, manic inventiveness, vulgarity, drugs, sex and people saying whatever the hell they want. Back online, at the (now defunct) Church of Fools, where visitors could take on online avatars and attend a virtual church service, the forum recently got shrill, as the appearance of a speaker with a few choice political words to say was met with a cold response by some. Tony Campolo, U.S. Baptist and professor presented a sermon, "Why many people in the world hate America." Again, the question of where and when politics are a welcome topic was used to defend the response to the sermon. "What I meant is there is a time and place for politics, and to me, church is not it. I come to church because I like to share my faith with other Christians, because it is what unites us. I don't come to talk about what divides us," said one poster, who was met by the response "The church is exactly the place to discuss these things. If we regard the church as somewhere we can do fluffy bunny God things while we ignore the outside world that is not the church." Indeed if not in church (virtual or no), then where? And if not, then is it appropriate in the cinema, at a concert, indeed, ANYWHERE in public? Can the most public of events ever become divorced from everyday life, the forum that it seeks to address?