Why Today’s Supreme Court Ruling Matters To Film Fans

By  · Published on January 22nd, 2010

Today, in a courtroom that looks over the Capitol Building, Justice Anthony Kennedy – a slight, bookish man with thin glasses – evoked Frank Capra’s enduring classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington while giving the Opinion of the Court about the freedom of speech inherent in the corporate structure.

See, back in 1939 it’s true that certain government entities attempted to temper the distribution of the film because it showed the United States Senate as a gang of corrupt idiots. In fact, even the head of the Hays Censorship Office at the time cautioned the studios back in 1938 that the film might be too much for the country, that it shone an unfavorable light on our nation’s leaders and the very core of our democratic spirit.

What this has to do with allowing corporations to finance political commercials takes a smarter mind than mine, but I read through the centerfold portions of the court opinion (which you can print out and place on your coffee table to impress dates). I also combed through reactions to the opinion – all to get an idea of what it means for film fans.

And in some ways, it doesn’t really mean anything. In others, it might seriously impact our cultural lives.

The case itself entered courts after documentarian David Bossie attempted to get his film Hillary: The Movie distributed in the United States in 2007. His attempt was unsuccessful. Powers that be in the Federal Election Committee deemed it in violation of campaign finance reform. It was a giant, well-funded hit piece against a candidate. So they sued.

And today, they won.

Leaving aside the argument over whether that means we’re all going to be crouched on the ground eating dirt nervously out of our grimy hands while endless, corporate-sponsored political propaganda loops over our head on 1984-esque television monitors soon – the impact of the decision does open the marketplace up to a direct response from studios and corporations.

My short version: prepare yourself for more political documentaries, especially documentaries about specific candidates and especially documentaries that don’t look or sound like documentaries at all.

Despite evidence to the contrary, we’re getting smart – or at least we’re becoming more culturally aware thanks to constant news and moving platforms of communications. That coupled with a shift in trend caused by Michael Moore when it comes to documentary-making has set up the perfect playing field for a court decision like this to play on.

Am I claiming that the documentary is evolving? Yes. But that’s old news. It’s been changing ever since it set foot on the icy plains of The North. It’s also been changing into this particular animal, as I said earlier, because of Michael Moore. This decision only opens those gates to let a generation influenced by his work (either out of respect or rising bile) to create their own.

Not only will there be more, we will have greater access to them. On television, on Video On Demand, for better or for worse. This means we’ll be given the White Elephant gift that freedom of speech has always handed out at the party – we get more culture, but we have to sift through more culture. With this movie movement, there’s the added bonus of having to figure out what pieces of culture are actually saying something valuable.

And be prepared for a lot of schlock. People abusing the art form of film in order to make thinly veiled anger-venting sessions about politicians they happen to hate. Or happen to be paid to hate. One way to look at the decision today is that it opens the doors to greater influence by political lobbies. Another is that it opens the doors to attacks on the art form of filmmaking itself. Commercials parading around as art. Government strategists turned auteurs. Dogs and cats. Living together.

Still, it’s fitting to me that Justice Stephens would call upon Frank Capra for a case like this. It gives a great sense of context – an ability to admire one of the greatest movies ever made while arguing a court case regarding a sloppy diatribe dressed up in 35mm. Whether you agree or disagree with the film’s message doesn’t matter. Whether you’re conservative or liberal or conserva-liberal or liberative or believe in a Philosopher King doesn’t matter. What matters is that corporate America has redefined our news channels, and now they are coming for our movies.

Although I doubt we’ll see Jack Rawlins for Governor Can Go Fuck Himself financed by McDonald’s any time soon.

The main point is that a particular genre of films just got much, much more profitable so in the coming year we’ll see more movies about politicians, more access to those films, and more corporate-funded hack jobs. Hopefully there will be a few gems that rise to the top and make it onto our Netflix queue.

If not, I’m writing a strongly-worded letter to my Congressman.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.