Since re-upping with Netflix in September, I have to say that, save for one minor quibble, relations between me and the popular online movie rental business have been pretty smooth. The quibble is that one or two of the movies I’ve rented have either been scratched in a major fashion, and one DVD in particular had some unidentifiable crap on it that resulted in my having to painstakingly clean and remove said matter before it would play in my portable player. That’s sort of the downside to renting movies on DVD; some people treat the discs in a far-too-cavalier fashion, resulting in a major pain-in-the-ass for the person next in the queue. You used to be able to leave a note with the DVD, suggesting something along the lines of “Hey, you might want to think about replacing this.” I did this with one of my rentals, and then received an e-mail from Netflix explaining that their return facility didn’t understand why I put a slip of paper in with the disc. (What part of “This damn thing is scratched” don’t they get?)
But again, that’s just me picking gnat shit out of pepper—I’ve been particularly pleased with the courteous e-mails sent to me by Netflix, particularly the ones that ask me when exactly I received the requested DVD. As a rule, I’m usually pretty honest in my responses but I can’t help but be a little worried because this may mean reprisals for the people shipping these discs out. (“Idiot! He was supposed to receive this on Friday…and it did not arrive until Saturday! No excuses—you’re fired! On second thought, let’s not take any chances—sack the entire staff!”)
Of the films that I’ve rented recently (all of which have been documentaries, by the way), Street Fight (2005) is the best. A chronicling of the contentious 2002 Newark, NJ mayoral election between incumbent Sharpe James and challenger Cory Booker, it is a riveting watch—even though I knew the outcome beforehand. It documents old-fashioned machine politics, as the knight-on-a-white-horse Booker must contend with the machinations of wily, experienced professional pol James—who’s not predisposed to using threats and intimidation (businesses putting out Booker signs are closed down, police resort to thug-like tactics when dealing with Booker’s supporters) to win at all costs. Many have called Marshall Curry’s Oscar-nominated doc one-sided—but that’s to be expected, since incumbent James refused to participate…and several of his “enforcers” are seen throughout the film bullying Curry (who admirably refuses to back down). From the film’s hilarious opening sequence—Booker, visiting a public housing project, finds himself escorted out of the building by the cops acting on James’ orders (“Do you people get security like this all the time?” he asks the residents, tongue-in-cheek)—to its heartbreaking conclusion, Street Fight is must viewing for any political junkie.
…So Goes the Nation (2006) is another documentary I would heartily recommend; it concerns itself with the 2004 Presidential election, particularly in Ohio (hence the title). Nation is much more evenhanded than Street, which might be why I didn’t enjoy it as much—sure, it gets its facts straight but there’s a gaping hole in the narrative as the Machiavellian contributions to Senator John Kerry’s defeat by Ohio’s answer to Katherine Harris, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, are only briefly touched upon and then hustled off to the side. What I like best about Nation is watching the interviewees in the film, who provide a fascinating study in contradictions: a Bush campaign worker, who originally hails from Huntington, WV, scornfully points out that Kerry would be out of place mixing with her “down-home” friends and family…and then is seen guzzling merlot and cabernet sauvignon as she anxiously awaits the election results. (We don’t drink that elitist swill in the part of West Virginia where I come from, dumplin’.) The real bombshell comes at the end, when an Ohio barber who proclaims a lifelong affiliation with the Democratic Party is revealed to have voted for Bush due to his and his wife’s deep-seated belief in Christianity.
Speaking of which, the last documentary of the Netflix trifecta is the also Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp (2006), a somewhat unsettling look at evangelicals and their efforts to brainwa…um, indoctrinate their children by laying a heavy Jesus trip on them during a week at a summer camp (“Kids on Fire”) located in North Dakota (that is most assuredly not your father’s Vacation Bible School). My snide editorial comments aside, Camp also approaches its subjects in an evenhanded fashion (even though the “conflict” in the film, represented by radio talk show host Mike Papantonio, is weak as water), and while I’d recommend it to the curious I wasn’t as bowled over by it as the other two films because in listening to the commentary by the doc’s directors (Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady), they assert that many people aren’t aware that individuals with this type of religious fervor often live right next door to them, right in the heart of suburbia. (During my sojourn in Morgantown, WV, I rented an apartment for several years from similar “high on God” individuals…so please don’t patronize me by telling me I don’t know which way the wind blows.) For the heathens among us, you might get a kick out of seeing soon-to-be-disgraced Pastor Ted Haggard hypocritically pontificating in the film—but the sad note is, once the documentary was released, pastor Becky Fischer (the film’s protagonist) was forced to close down the North Dakota camp after incidents of vandalism and threatening phone calls…acts that even a religious skeptic like myself have no qualms about condemning.