Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Y’know, for me, the mark of a great documentary about politics is one that doesn’t pick a side and hammer a point mercilessly. I’m not a fan of blatant propaganda. But there’s no question that there is a role to be played by the documentary filmmaker in the political process, especially right now when traditional discourse seems to have failed utterly. As a result, I’m curious to see how someone tackles a subject as potentially difficult as Tom DeLay and his legacy. When Saffy, a longtime AICN chatter and BNATer, asked us if we wanted a review of the film and an interview with the filmmaker, we turned her loose, and here’s the result:
First I would like to clear two things up:
1.) There is a picture on the net where a bewildered baby is looking at Howard Dean like he is a visitor from Pluto. Yes, that child is mine.
2.) A lesser known picture of half a head sniffing the neck of former 2004 Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards belongs to me as well.
So of course, the movie, The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress would appeal to my smug, liberal, fill in the blank with whatever political smear word you can come up with, ass. There, got that out of your system? Now are you sitting down?
The film, was written, directed, and produced by Texas filmmakers Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck and is distributed by Brave New Films.
The opening credits start with a startlingly young Tom DeLay super imposed on the skyscrapers of Houston proclaiming that he was going to get into congress and basically take an enormous amount of power away from the Federal Government. Although I disagree with him, it is exactly what his Republican constituency wanted. DeLay enters his career in congress as a party idealist, or so you would think. While this film could’ve easily become a primer on “Why the Republican Party is in League With the Devil” it actually turns into something unexpected, it becomes a film about what happened to Tom DeLay when he stopped being a Republican.
For the unfamiliar, all hell broke loose when Tom DeLay interfered in TX state politics. I am not going to give you a 36-page dissertation on the events leading to his arrest because the film explains it perfectly. I will, however, give you the TV guide version of what went down: As a congressman Tom DeLay wielded his power to get certain state representatives elected, the state representatives voted to draw new congressional lines in Texas that would give the Republicans five more seats in Congress. The illegal part is that he allegedly used, and laundered corporate funds (Corporate Donations to campaigns are illegal in TX) into a PAC (a political action group- where it IS Legal to give funds to candidates) and used the money to run fabulous campaigns. So, Tom DeLay and his aides were arrested and DeLay resigned and court cases are still pending. Oh and the guy who produced Red Scorpion is in there too.
So, the irony in this film is that when Tom DeLay used the Federal government to interfere (against the wishes of the very Republican Governor and Lt. Governor, I may add) in TX state politics, he set the wheels in motion for his downfall. What DeLay did was not only against the ideals of the Republican Party, but also against what it is to be a Texan. Texas Democrat, Republican, and everyone in between cannot abide by the interference of the Federal Government into their “country”. So the movie isn’t about “Republicans are Evil” it is about “Abusing power and betraying your people”
The strength of this movie is the cast of characters. The film starts with a gossip sessions with two ladies who embody the spirit of a Texas woman. Jacqueline Blankenship and Beverly Carter are two smart, opinionated, involved, Annie Oakly-esque Republican activists from Sugarland. Blankenship and Carter are basically the women you want to sit next to at the church social. Hot Tub Tom, as they call him, had a lot of fun in the eighties (which almost makes me like him...almost). Tom also evidently found religion right around the time of the Contract with America and naturally his political career took off on a national level. Blankenship and Carter also lament the loss of their party to the Christian right. According to Ms. Carter the religious right gained power because party members let them take over. The members of the Christian coalition answered phones, rang doorbells, donated, and mobilized themselves so that the party began to turn in their direction, which is the way politics works.
Love him or hate him, Austin D.A. Ronnie Earle is a stand out. Part Will Rogers, part gunslinger, part evangelist, he takes the movie and puts it in his pocket. Earle’s aphorisms are priceless although sometimes perplexing, but he very compelling to watch. There is a fire to Earle, a light behind the eyes. The light is almost a religious fervor. He truly believes he is “saving” the very foundation of our country. It is at the same time jarring, yet oddly inspirational. Another stand out, Populist Activist Jim Hightower, is almost stock-character “wise cowboy”. It seems Hightower would be able to tell you to go to hell and you would look forward to the trip. In fact, you may even be inclined to send him a knick-knack once you got there and thank him for the vacation suggestion.
The film itself does a very good job of being “Texan”, the state where multimillion-dollar oil barons can be seen at the HEB wearing snakeskin cowboy boots and a red shirt with fringe. The Big Buy captures the strange dichotomy of the Wild West and the international business center that is the Texas identity.
The directors try to create a Noir feel, which isn’t always fully realized, in the digital confines of this film. But the Big Buy is a satisfying movie that does not feel like homework, and it also has an air of “reasonable” that is missing from a film like Fahrenheit 9/11.
I am not saying everyone is going to leave this film throwing petals. This is a film about political figures, and when you are dealing with ideologies someone’s fuse is bound to be lit.
I recently spoke to one of the directors of The Big Buy- Jim Schermbeck. Jim is a Native Texan who has worked with both Democratic and Republican campaigns. He and his directing partner Mark Birnbaum produced a PBS film, Larry v. Lockney, about a father who fights mandatory school drug testing for his son. I was able to speak with Jim about the Tom DeLay movie, and some of the issues that come with documentary film making.
S: What drew you to this project?
J: We first took notice to it when there were complaints filed against Texas Association of business and then what would become the Tom DeLay PAC as well back in 2002, right after the 2002 election, so there was a lot of news right out of the gate because of those complaints which picked up over about a years time. We had originally gone to Congressman DeLay and tried to talked to them about letting us film a documentary from their point of view about what It was like to be, probably, the second most powerful man in Washington D.C. and the subject of this scandal that seemed to be brewing and growing in TX. So we tried to do that and they never called us back. So we went to the other end of the investigation, which was Ronnie Earle. We gave him a copy of the last show we did for PBS, we told him what we wanted to do, and how we wanted to interview him and so on. He thought about it and after about a month he said “Ok I’ll let you have access every now and then” and that’s what he did.
S: Have you gotten any flack for this? Have you seen any backlash for the film?
J: Oh yeah, sure. Starting back, even before it came out in September/October last year, a researcher for the Republican National committee had notices we got a slot at a video festival as a work in progress and the local alternative weekly had done a story on that. She (the researcher) sent it up to Byron York and we ended up in Drudge in Earley October with an incredible story about how Ronnie Earle had let this documentary crew follow him around even inside the grand jury room and so-forth. So even that kind of publicity and backlash Earley on before the film was even out. Right before this film, the last fundraising film Tom DeLay did as a congressional candidate was aimed at the film saying that these Michael Moore types were coming after him and won’t you please send me money to fight them, and a couple days later he pulled out of the race. About a week ago, he also sent out another fundraising appeal for his legal defense fund aimed also at the movie, using a hilarious piece from Stephen Colbert show, the Colbert Report where Robert Greenwalt, our distributor from Brave New Films went on to plug the film and they used it as it was a straight news piece not realizing it was a comedy central show, that Colbert is ripping off and parodying Bill O’Reilly, they actually used it as if he was Bill O’Reilly. Of course every time something like that happens it helps us. It was a really strange thing and a real cynical think for the DeLay camp to do if you go back and look at the appeal that went out, they don’t expect any of the people who give them money to know who Stephen Colbert is, and it doesn’t matter to them, they are just using it as a way to raise money.
S: While we are on Stephen Colbert and that type of media: There’s a new word out there, and it is of course attached to Al Gore’s film, it is Docuganda. They are insinuating that there are films out there done in documentary style that are actually propaganda. As a documentary filmmaker how do you feel about that?
J: I think you could make a case that every documentary out there is propaganda because there is a person’s perspective behind every edit, behind everything you see in the film, there is already a perspective, it is not like that there is an objective source of the material. People put them together, so they have people’s perspective. Now you can be more balanced in the way you present it, you can be fair in presenting people’s point of view and we certainly are that. Actually I think that Al Gore’s film does that as well, to me that is a very weird and distorted way to look at documentaries because there have always been points of view in documentaries. Documentaries have been all over the map, from the kind you can use in a classroom to the more outrageous ones like Michael Moore. If you go back and look at the history of documentaries, Nanook of the North, often cited as the very first documentary, the whole thing was staged. It was one recreation after another and not even accurate recreations but it was portrayed as a documentary. You really have a hard time saying what a documentary film is these days, every documentary film has a point of view, as does ours. Ours certainly does have a point of view, I haven’t added up the minute but I would guess DeLay is on screen almost as much as Ronnie Earle despite the fact that he didn’t give us an interview; because we use a lot of news footage of DeLay defending himself and going after Earle, and so forth. So, we have a lot of Tom DeLay in the film, its just he never sat down for an interview the way Ronnie Earle did so when people see it you obviously remember Ronnie a lot because he is right in your face.
S: I found the great irony in your film, is that in the beginning of the film Tom DeLay spoke of getting rid of the federal government. But, when Tom DeLay fell, he fell as a person in the federal government trying to interfere in state politics.
J: It’s an old story isn’t it? I mean, the revolutionary comes into office hoping to abolish and the institution overwhelms the individual and not only becomes a part of it, but epitomizes it, that is Greek tragedy right there. What was interesting with the shows I saw with audiences in both Houston and Austin, the biggest laugh line in the whole film unintentionally was when Bonner comes out after DeLay is sworn to resign and Bonner comes up in the hallway and talks about what a great congressman DeLay has been and what a great part DeLay has played in cutting the federal budget. There was just howls of laughter knowing well that DeLay was one of the biggest producers of pork his district has ever seen, I mean the likes of Lyndon Johnson. Its an interesting story, 1994 just having just won congress and they want to, literally, cut the government to pieces and over just 10 to 12 year period of time they end up becoming the federal government and not only that but abusing the powers of the government in a way we haven’t seen for a long time.
S: What were some of your cinematic influences for this film?
J: Once we got indictments and it was clear it was a crime film, at least it was a story about crimes being committed, we started looking at film Noir...themes, and subjects, and music, and how we could make a film about campaign finance that was a sexy film. This is about campaign finance, but it isn’t, it is about, really, a guy’s huge ambition and his office. How do you make a film about that that is not a political science film that is not a classroom film that people will sit through and not be bored by? So we just decided to adopt a film Noir framing, as much as we could. We weren’t always successful in keeping the mood of that because of the constraints on budget or just not being able to do some of the things we want to do timing-wise, for the most part you do get that film, it’s very dark, the music helps a lot, we had some really great composers working with us on original music. We tried to make Austin and the State Capital kind of a character of its own, the way we shoot that. Obviously films like the Big Sleep, and all of those 40s and 50s film Noir kinds of presentations, that’s what we were thinking of and trying to transpose on a modern story with Tom DeLay as the mastermind, Ronnie Earle as the crusading DA, and the lady liberty figure, on top of the TX Capitol Building as kind of the women in distress.
S: Ok, here’s the million-dollar question...Why would a Republican want to see this film?
J: There are a couple of reasons. First of all this is a warning of what happens to whatever party is in power and how power can get away from you. Rather than you directing the power, the power kind of begins directs you and what you do. It is a warning show not only to Republicans but Democrats as well. There have been plenty of scandals in TX history and national history involving Democrats. So this is a perpetual warning to whoever is in power that you can fall out of grace just as fast as you rose.
Secondly, as a Republican, you really do need to ask yourself what Tom DeLay was about, if he really was a Republican. I’m not sure he was, I think he’s kind of a member of the opportunist party or at least has been the last couple of year. He is not really a conservative, if you look at what he has voted for and what he has tried to accomplish I am not sure you could defend his conservative credentials all that well as surprising as that may sound. I think as a Republican you would want to go check this out and see what he was about, and what other Republicans in congress feel about Tom DeLay now are they still supportive of him? Are they sorry they took money from him? What is their stance about him now?
The film The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress is on a multi-city tour, but is also being sold on DVD. For screening dates, or information on how to purchase the film visit the official site.
If you are interested in some of the lighter, fluffier, aspects of the conversation (like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Lost, and Snakes on a Plane!) You can listen to those on DorkDeJour right here.