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TriBeCa Interview: Barry Levinson and the Politics of Politics

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by Matthew-Lee Erlbach
and Carmelo Larose

Barry Levinson is an Academy Award-winning American screenwriter, film director, actor, and producer of film and television best known for Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, Wag the Dog, Liberty Heights, and the HBO series OZ, as well as many other notable and important works on screen. His latest documentary, Poliwood, about the 2008 Republican and Democratic conventions is premiering at the 2009 TriBeCa Film Festival: www.TribecaFilm.com for more info.

Would you say Poliwood is more of an extension or a departure from your other work and in what ways?

BL: I think it's an extension in certain ways. It's an extension of what I've been doing in some cases unconsciously with works like Avalon, which dealt with the effects of television on the family, on the American family. It certainly goes through Wag the Dog. It certainly goes through Man of the Year about a comedian becoming president of the United States because of other issues--computers, the break down of computers, etc. So I mean it deals with many of the thematic things I've always been interested in.

How would you define satire in this sense?

BL: I think it's getting harder and harder to define satire, because we are living--as the movie says--in an age of satire. That's a given. In a hundred years from now we can look back on some of these things and we'll think it's so insane, so crazy... I mean take Obama and that big meeting he had in Latin America: what becomes the big substantial thing that we talked about is that Obama shook hands with Chavez; he had a smile on his face when he shook hands. And we keep talking about that asking if this was bad for diplomacy, whatever... Are we crazy? Bad for what?

It's absurd.

BL: I mean have we lost our minds? It doesn't make any sense. It has no substance whatsoever. I don't care how you want to read into it. It is nothing more than a piece of video or a still shot. It is absurd and we're analyzing it. You know what I mean? And we do that on a regular basis until the point that we have to waste time debating it. "I don't think he's strong enough of a leader because he..." people are saying. I mean there's no substance to it.

How do you feel about the release of the torture memos? While important, is the timing of this release another way of distracting the American public from the other things that are going on, like the hijacking of taxpayer money for the banks, immigration raids, etc?

BL: Well first of all what did they release that was so shocking, that we didn't already know? I mean the reality is if you have good torture you don't let anybody know. You know what I mean? You don't let anybody know if it's good torture. And now we're debating the issue of torture. It's too crazy to be discussing. First of all any kind of devious thing we've had that's been official, you need to keep it secret. I don't know that we're not mired in such madness right now. We are sort of distracted to the real essentials.

In response to this madness, has a new political aesthetic developed in Hollywood over time and are directors taking on subject matter that they hadn't in the past?

BL: No. Generally Hollywood always looks down on movies with political content. Political content is a kiss of death. They tolerate it, but they're not interested in it particularly. I think that what's happened is becoming -like the documentary said "more blurred." Everything's becoming more blurred because at the end of the day whether you're an actor or politician, you have to use media. At a certain point in time it blurs the line. Everybody's in the media, whoever they are. Therefore, they have equal significance.

It's all one big overproduced stage representing an under-produced community, which relates to the discussion about Arts Education, as you did in Poliwood. Can you talk a little about the polarization of such an important issue?

BL: Well first of all, I don't know why arts and education is a liberal and conservative issue. Overall, these basic social issues have been polarized. And here's what I really don't understand: you're talking about global warming and global change--it's a political issue. Now they're saying there's no real evidence that there's global change. It's part of the cycles, whatever may be. Maybe that's true but here's the other side. What's wrong with cleaning up the air anyway? I mean it's just better. What's the downside to cleaning up the air and the water? Why argue about it?

Right. So why do we argue--or rather, why are these arguments created?

BL: Because everything is based on entertainment today and how you create conflict. Conflict. Entertainment. That's what the documentary says. We make it. This professor says, "it's like a title fight." You know? "In this corner advocating for global change is..." We make it polarized. That's what we want because to talk about the issues in a substantial way is not entertaining enough.

So we are a nation of actors, performing for ourselves. Do you see this same thing happening on the local level? Are newspapers and TV shows all over the country working with the same mentality, trying to create conflict to divide the people? In small towns are they trying to get these stars to speak as well?

BL: Whose gonna talk? We need to put a spotlight on something for 20 seconds. What happens is they look to some kind of celebrity or someone with a strong visibility to stimulate an issue and then you basically create the counter argument and then you go from there and then sometimes what's even more fun is to demonize someone who advocates something and that's what we do. What I didn't want to do in the documentary is comment or take someone to task because it wasn't the point. But there are some things said like one woman said, "some Hollywood stars can't even get a job if they're not a limousine liberal." Now, okay, let's analyze that statement. Well how did some of them get to be a Hollywood star if they had to be a limousine liberal? How did they get to be a star? If the business is only picking democrats for the roles then how did the Republican stars become stars? How did Arnold Schwarzenneger become a star? How did Clint Eastwood become a star? How did John Wayne get to be a star? How did Bruce Willis get to be a star if they didn't move in the limousine liberal world? It's a bogus bullshit statement. I didn't need to take it to task because that wasn't my point. It wasn't the point of the piece. It just shows how you get fed information and you believe it.

Well on that note, what about the focus group at the end of your film--the stars sort of railed on this woman who said she didn't have anything in common with them. The points they made were salient but they were also elitist. There was a lot of anger there.

BL: Only Tim Daly responded.

Well Anne Hathaway commented later.

BL: Her comment is if we have a platform the problem doesn't lie with us. It is relevant to your government that doesn't hear you. And I think that is the point. You shouldn't be mad at us. That's misguided anger. And here's the other part. Anyone who's a celebrity is looked on as being elitist. But where did they come from? Where did we come from? We come from the same place as everyone. We come from Kansas City in Missouri. We grow up in Boise, Idaho. We grow up like Matthew Modine in Salt Lake City, Utah. We grow up in the same places, but because we benefited by the society we lived in, because we benefited from the American dream you want to criticize us for benefiting from the American Dream? What kind of comment is that?

On a final note, what is the responsibility of the artist to the public on a local, national or international level?

BL: I think they only have an obligation as a citizen to speak up when they feel they need to speak up.

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Barry Levinson/ Photo by Leslie Hassler