TWO OTHER POLITICAL FILMS WE OUGHT TO SEE
by Maggie Burns
American Reporter Correspondent
HOUSTON -- A lot can ride on political movies, aside from Michael Moore's work. On July 20, PBS stations will air a new documentary, "Last Man Standing: Politics Texas Style," shown for obvious reasons at the Texas state Democratic convention in Houston, June 2004. This amusing film is a good lesson in national politics at the local level, with Lyndon Baines Johnson's old hometown as part of the microcosm, or anyway the setting.
In 2002, two young and earnest opponents, Republican Rick Green and Democrat Patrick Rose, battled for the US House of Representatives seat in Texas' 45th district, with Rose the guy who got up off the floor one more time than the other guy. Aside from numerous entertaining moments, the film is also a refreshingly unsanctimonious and flexible look at the importance of small decisions in ordinary life.
Take campaigning and voting, for example. Money as a factor in elections is not dismissed, but neither is it mistaken for a substitute for the real thing - knocking on doors, shaking hands, speaking to hostile audiences, working the crowd at local events. The essential element of a genuine citizen-candidate to get the votes of actual, living, breathing human beings, rather than that statistical abstract of one-tenth of 0.0014 of voters we call "opinion polls," is presented directly and vividly.
The film may not be "High Noon," but you see the face of a young candidate when an unfriendly group vigorously applauds his opponent's most vapid remarks, and you feel the worn shoe leather of a campaigner who comments on the number of dogs he met during the campaign, "and the most dangerous dogs are always in the most heavily Democratic neighborhoods."
"Last Man Standing: Politics Texas Style." Produced and directed by Paul Stekler. Co-produced by Sandra Guardado. 85 min.
Rossellini's "Open City" Compared
Indirectly, the documentary was a reminder of a much darker and bloodier political film, Roberto Rossellini's great Open City (1945). Not that this was what the filmmakers in Texas were consciously shooting for, but the pains of democracy as constant vigilance start here. What is shown in the down-home, nonviolent, unthreatening setting of small towns in central Texas is exactly what is essential to avert the apocalyptic political situation of Rome in 1944.
Rossellini's "open city" was occupied by Germany and beset by insurgencies. The film should be seen by anyone who wants even the slightest understanding of what is being done to America's foreign policy, and America's name, in the Middle East today. When you see young kids more fearful of being spanked by their parents than of blowing themselves up with homemade or stolen munitions and bombs, you get a sense of what politics feels like to people whose homes and neighborhoods are being shelled.
A whole different ballgame, in short. When Rossellini made the movie, the occupation of Rome was so recent that some of the footage was stolen from Nazi film cans; the Italian film, so close to non-fiction, is the dark and heavyweight obverse of the lighter documentary with its occasional Texian stereotyping.
Comparing the two films, one can imagine ways to get from here to there, including finance, brute domination, and misused religion. One unforgettable sequence in Open City shows a firing squad of good Italian boys, ordered to execute a priest. As the priest sits blindfolded and bound in a chair, reciting his final prayers, the camera shows the privates lined up waiting for the order to fire; then it shows their individual rifle sights cocked just slightly up, down, or sideways; nobody wants to fire the fatal shot.
At the command of "fire!", all the marksmen miss. So their Nazi commandant dispatches the priest with a shot to the head. The entire sequence is like an Ashcroft-style remake of "The Emperor's New Clothes": the emperor parades through the streets naked, and nobody says a word, until an innocent child pipes up, "The emperor has no clothes on!" Then someone in the emperor's retinue shoots the kid.
Rossellini's commandant is not just a simplistic bad guy, however, a dumb B-movie heavyweight or foil from Hogan's Heroes. He is the same capable, disciplined Nazi officer who complains, elsewhere in the movie, that his government's policies are making Germany hated around the world.
Open City was also shown on PBS, a couple of years ago, and is available on video/DVD.
Margie Burns writes freelance in Cheverly, Maryland, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org