If a revolution falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, is it still a revolution?
As a practice, politics and humor usually fail to mix properly…and understandably so. Both are closely held, based on personal belief entities, linked almost irrevocably with personality, experience, and environment. To challenge either is to perpetuate an irresolvable debate, a heated exchange of ideas that no one ever wins, which leaves everyone with bad feelings. So when and if you try to combine these volatile items, each so singularly specialized, you run the risk of alienating one segment or the other: either the comedy will offend/fail or the ideology will. And remember, you really can't succeed. You can defend yourself and scream artistic license or cultural bias, but when it comes right down to it, unless you strike the proper chord in both arenas, you're gonna piss someone off. Pop culture is laced with high-minded failures, attempts to marry amusement with a message. Shows like D.C. Follies or Spitting Images were D.O.A., indicating that the viewing public likes its foolishness unsullied by filibusters. And musicians like Rage Against the Machine are barely able to cling to the cult that keeps them from day jobs, hoping that just one of their pro-earth/pro-peace anthems would change that fragile, easily manipulated youth mindset (that is, until a lack of respect caused the band to implode). Unless it's leading to the impeachment of a President or a patriotic affirmation of decent "American" values, Joe and Jane Forty Ounce like their mediocrity mild and filled with supermodels. Anarchy TV: The Movie wants to challenge all that. It wants to have its creed and beat up on it too. Hoping to successfully merge daffiness with doctrine, it has a lot to say about censorship and self-righteousness. But like most "based on a true story" cinema, the actual events must have been more profound than the uninspired re-imagination offered here.
Facts of the Case
Channel 69 is a cable access station specializing in raunchy, rude, and rebellious television. One of its most popular shows is an offering called Anarchy TV, a sketch comedy symposium drenched in the current issues plaguing society. Censorship, prejudice, and AIDS are just some of the topics tackled in satirical, cutting edge bits of comedy and commentary. Jerry, a self-professed counter culture revolutionary and Natalie, a grade school teacher whose father is an internationally famous evangelist, join together with their friends Frank, Sid, and Katie to produce the provocative entertainment. They, along with the rest of the Channel 69 family of freak shows, are the popular talk of the town. This, unfortunately, makes the high-minded Rev. Wright uncomfortable. After an altercation with his daughter over the right of free expression, he sees no other option than to buy the station and convert it into a religious broadcasting affiliate. When the gang tries to resist the take over, the God fearing father has them arrested.
While in jail, the group runs into Tiffany, a goofy prostitute. She loves Frank and his conspiracy theory segments on the show. She bails them out and offers to help get back the station. Thus, a plan is hatched. Frank uses his skills as a computer hacker and technological wizard to help the rest of the group infiltrate and retake the studio. And after everything is secure, the rebels put on the ultimate episode of Anarchy TV, complete with phone in caller opinions and long political speeches. Reeling in favors from the police as well as his own elite organization of men in black suits, Rev. Wright tries to remove the trespassers from his television property. But at every turn, the revolutionaries outsmart and circumvent this determined man of the cloth.
Still, none of this is very good for popularity, as the crew learns that their plea for understanding is generating practically no ratings at all. The public does not care about their cause. That is, until Jerry hits on the idea of doing the show in the nude. Thus Tiffany, Jerry, and Natalie drop trou, as well as everything else, and their extended full frontal aerobics gets them the much-needed publicity they seek. Soon they are the buzz of the business all over again. And Frank discovers that the good Reverend may be involved in some shady, sinister dealings when he discovers damning evidence in a wall safe. Soon, it's a confrontation between the truth and its nemesis, the establishment as the gang at Anarchy TV try to prove, once and for all, that the Bill of Rights is worth protecting, is worth taking a stand and fighting for. Perhaps, even dying for.
Anarchy TV is a hard film to review. As a movie, it has its fair share of problems and pitfalls. As a comedy, it's as weak as grocery store coffee. And as a statement about governmental agendas and political action committees, its message is all over the Magna Carta. But there is an intent here that has to be praised; a desire to discuss rights and the responsibility of using said that rarely, if ever, gets mentioned in modern movies. Reference amnesty and human dignity, and your pop culture mind reels with thoughts of Susan Sarandon protesting some mass media mendacity from her famous bully pulpit, or Michael Moore being booed at the Oscars. Offer a discussion of competing political claims revolving around the jaundice in justice or the lack of due in process, and people simply tune out. Americans know so little of the rights and privileges that the Constitution grants to and protects for them that the truth literally amazes them. For the average citizen, the Evelyn Wood speed shorthand version of their inherent civil liberties is more than enough, thank you. You see it everywhere. Someone says "Second Amendment" and like rote you hear "right to bear arms." Drive by a strip club and someone smirks "there goes freedom of expression for you." No thought, no indication on just what those words mean, just a chance to sound smarmy for the sake of the ability to purchase a handgun or see some tits. Our Bill of Rights is so much more than a guidebook for public behavior. But so many treat it like an extended, legal Ten Commandments that advising them differently borders on blasphemy.
What Anarchy TV does, and not very successfully mind you, is try to explain and decipher our rights, to expose the hypocrisy in the standard way in which we view our civil liberties. Again, the basic premise in the United States, one that almost everyone functions gladly under, is that anyone can do whatever they want until…and then it gets tricky. That conditional, that "until," is the key, since it is a subjective standard, one open to determination by anyone at anytime. Take political correctness. For the want of a word, we gladly infringe all over our guaranteed First Amendment rights. We foster a kind of mind police for the sake of individual and cultural dignity. But, the argument from the agenda speaks; the Constitution would never willfully protect such heinous "expression" as racial epithets or heretical slurs. But the sad truth is that is exactly what the Constitution, in its founding, was predicated on. Bad words are far more vulnerable to suppression than acceptable ones. Who needs a rule to defend something everyone can agree with? Anarchy TV wants to offend, to offer tough ideas in an unpleasant manner to stir up controversy and its intertwined brother, thought. It hopes to expose, in a rather show and tell fashion, the mindset behind the powers of censorship and injustice. But unfortunately, the flaws in the film sell the message, and the movie, incredibly short. Whatever validity the points may have, Anarchy TV finds a way to undercut, or sometimes completely obliterate them.
The first big flaw with Anarchy TV is that it is just not very funny. Clever on occasion, and sometimes enticing, the movie is mostly a series of obvious, blatant set pieces used like a thick felt marker to outline the agenda and the attitude of the filmmakers. To call it hit or miss would be to award a level of success that it never achieves. It's more like "just miss" and "not even close." We fail to get an even dissection of both sides. In the supposedly witty world of Anarchy TV, there are white hats and the standard, clichéd black ones. This is a movie that wallows in its quasi-libertarian dogma for the supposed sake of a snicker. One funny sequence, a show called Eat Me which features dispirited youths spewing swear words and abusing callers is tellingly witty. But it doesn't forward a political agenda as much as it perfectly encapsulates the modern view of pre-teens as miscreant mouth breathers only capable of cursing, not thinking, for effect. Also entertaining in a "weird—who's that" kind of way is Japanese performance artists/comedian Tamayo Otsuki. Famous for posing in Asian Playboy with a fake wig of pubic hair (in direct defiance of age old laws and customs), she is a genuine quirky presence, kind of like Bobcat Goldthwaite without the pathetic quality or Carrot Top without…well, without being Carrot Top. Her electricity lights up the screen, and she gets in a few hilarious non-sequiturs, playing her Asian origins without once reverting to a "me so solly" style of mockery. Granted, it's not every film that flaunts full frontal nudity, both male and female, for untold minutes in the pursuit of a giggle. But a floppy set of breasts or a flapping wiener, while almost funny, is not the educated and sophisticated level of humor this film is shooting for.
Another reason Anarchy TV fails is because its ideology is mean spirited and heavy handed. Far be it from this reviewer to support the position of the religious right or the moral majority (which, to borrow the old phrase, is neither), but to turn the villainous religious leader automatically into a gun wielding maniac, hell bent on violence in the name of his belief system, seems like over-stacking the deck just a little. True, there are plenty of quasi-religious figures out there, coin crazed saviors who have long since forgotten that Jesus purged the moneychangers from the temple. Turning your antagonist into a cartoon loon simply undermines any point they could possibly have. If you believe in your position, play fair. Don't mock someone who feels as strongly, if in the opposite, as you do. But Anarchy TV does this time and time again. Alan Thicke, as the Rev. Wright, adds a glimmer of self-knowing to his portrayal, practically winking at the camera as he spews his Gospel pontifications. He's not taking a single thing he says seriously himself? So how are we supposed to? One of the best things about the ideological Dead Man Walking is that it played both sides against the middle in a quasi-controlled expression of fairness. But Anarchy TV can't do this. Heck, it can't even get its own message across without turning it into a joke. Making the lovable George Wendt, Norm from Cheers, into Abby Hoffman with a glandular condition turns the liberty based ideology he offers into one big cuddly farce (as does offering a momentary lapse in logic from now dead space case Timothy Leary to support your position). It is always better to win without cheating. Anarchy TV can't or won't take that chance, and so it provides crib sheets, study guides, and occasional misinformation to make its over-generalized points.
But the main way Anarchy TV misfires is as a film. Movies have recognizable characters, people we can identify and sympathize with. A movie is founded on a script that provides either a dramatic story arc leading to a telling revelation or moment of clarity, unless it's dealing, in depth, with a character and their issues. And a movie is supposed to entertain, to provide emotional, educational, and even metaphysical enrichment. But none of this is present in Anarchy TV. This is a movie of actors, not characters. One does not see the Zappa children (Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva) and think "ah, yes, I remember their characters well." No, you are left thinking things like "I wonder how the Zappas get along as siblings" and "do you suppose Moon thinks Ahmet is a retard, cause you can tell his brother sure does?" The best thing one can say about Jonathan Blank's script is that many of the visual moments are superfluous. This is an idea and word based experience, kind of like a civics lecture with crazy naked people. But it's probably a safe bet that a discussion of bi-cameral legislatures with local fake lunged strippers in attendance would be more enjoyable than this film. Since so much of the comedy in Anarchy TV disappoints, we are left with the remaining meager plot elements to hopefully sate our cinematic needs. Either that or a compelling, intense "us vs. them" confrontation that will lead to mutual respect and understanding. What we get instead is a mob scene, some yelling, a gunshot, and a completely unnecessary set of Animal House inspired freeze frames that destroy the serious undercurrent in the film. Granted in his commentary, the director disowns those "where are they now" moments, but they still illustrate what's wrong with Anarchy TV. This is one movie that can't find the proper tone, either to preach or for a pie in the face.
Still, if intention counts for anything, the lofty aspirations offered here makes Anarchy TV a decent single screening experience. Ned Flanders may feel that his family couldn't live on good intentions, but for some strange reason, Anarchy TV can. No, they don't make the movie any funnier or fierce. But the goals and objectives that the film strives for so nobly do make for thought provocation and propagandizing. As stated before, anything that can make narrow-minded Americans stand up and pay attention to their slowly eroding human and civil rights, no matter how pedestrian or pedantic the presentation, deserves a little credit. And as someone who has seen his fair share of public access television, it's a safe bet to state that Anarchy TV gets its crappy made by John Q media 100% correct. Almost all community driven television is stale, manic, and exceedingly amateurish. The skits presented and promos created truly look like the stuff of local channel surfing. So if you are someone who finds the lonely loser's call-in show on Channel 20 amusing, or can't get enough of adults acting like college kids turning high school humor into sophomoric fourth grade potty patter, then you may actually enjoy the "shows within the movie" moments of Anarchy TV. As a movie, and one based on fact at that, it cannot provide the sidesplitting moments it thinks it's delivering. But buried beneath the buffoonery and the broad attacks are some very valid ideas. It will require patience and virtue to find them, but just like in real life, they can be located, if one tries hard enough to find them.
This is a decent DVD presentation, made even more viable by the number of interesting extras offered. On the visual side, Anarchy TV is nothing special. The full screen transfer is good, with no digital defects to speak of. Shot on 35mm, the movie looks better than its low budget constraints should have allowed. But the DVD image is soft, without a great deal of clarity or contrast. Aurally, however, the Dolby Digital Stereo is great. There is incredible separation in the crowd scenes, giving the distinct impression of size and mass and the alternative rock/metal soundtrack is wonderfully raw as it blares from the speakers. This is one of the rare cases where the sonic outshines the visual. As for the bonus content, we start off with a few trailers advertising the idea of "true" independent cinema. It's interesting that, years removed from the anointing of Pulp Fiction by the mass media as the arrival of the non-mainstream voice in film, the new independent movement avoids those Sundance distribution deal backslaps to promote itself as a purely cyberpunk DIYD motif (translation—Do It Yourself, Digitally). The movies featured are fairly non-descript, but the attitude in which they are offered is refreshing. Sadly, Anarchy TV-The Game is another dose of dogma skewed away from fairness and more toward promoting intolerance towards those who believe in a more conservative cultural climate. And the ten-minute interview clip with Timothy Leary offers further proof that, as a thinker and social philosopher, the good Doctor was one hell of an acid casualty.
But by far the best reason to rent or own this DVD is the honest, engaging commentary offered by director Jonathan Blank. While he is convinced he has made a sort of minor masterpiece of independent film and thought, he is up front about his motivations and machinations. It's interesting how he notes when and where the comedy was severely sacrificed for the sake of the message. It's enlightening to listen to the stories and anecdotes that formed the foundation for the ideology of the film. And it's refreshing to hear him discredit the material "added by the DVD manufacturers." What you learn here is that Anarchy TV is exactly what Blank wants it to be: that is, a very political, very didactic and droning exploration of civil liberties and their thwarting by outside forces. If you laughed while it was proselytizing, all the better. But if you didn't, it's really no matter. Blank is out to shit on the right and champion, almost blindly, the left. And that is what he does, both with his film and his narrative. While one could argue that his beliefs border on fanaticism, he makes no apologizes for what he views as a systematic destruction of the basic foundations of our nation. Unfortunately, as a monument to this high-minded belief, Anarchy TV is a rather poor icon. You have to appreciate it for its desire to educate. But there will be little else offered in the way of humor or overall entertainment.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like the sonic blast of Steve Jones' guitar at the beginning of "Holidays in the Sun," Anarchy TV is a wakeup call to the media the same way the Sex Pistols' dissent (with the help of the Ramones and the Clash) reinvented rock and roll. This is an important film, one firmly grounded in an educated belief about the Constitution and its place in a modern democracy. Sure, its humor can be punch or pass and the cast occasionally tries too hard for the sake of a few silly onscreen moments, but overall this is one of the few films with its heart, as well as its rationality, in the proper place. For too long, the religious right in America has lead the country and its popular culture on a downward spiral into a kind of self imposed socialism, where one mighty doctrine controls how everyone thinks and acts. A film like Anarchy TV is a breath of fresh, free air, a liberating experiment in resetting the national agenda. Deny its humor or its views, but one cannot refute its objective; to show once and for all that our freedoms and rights are worth fighting for; that the rebellious spirit that lead this country from revolutionary to civil to cultural war is not dead. As the hoary old chestnut goes, we take our freedom for granted. Anarchy TV does not. It uses it to create an insightful and entertaining movie, a tool to educate, to spur discussion and thought. And if it makes you smile, well…good. While not a perfect film, it is very smart. And very much needed in today's climate of fear.
When it comes right down to it, this movie has very little to do with anarchy outright. Any philosophical scholar worth their weight in Rawls can tell you that anarchy is not about chaos, but about absolute autonomy or self-governance. From a purely definitional stance, Anarchy TV: The Movie should rename itself Video Revolt: The Diatribe. For at its very center is the idea of civil disobedience, one of the greatest catalysts for social change in the last century. From Gandhi to King, from X to Mandela, the single voice shouting above the repression, the brash beacon of enlightenment has tried to overcome pride and prejudice, simply to illuminate the ethical and proper route to justice. It's just too bad that the movie mixes its messages with mean spirited spitefulness, an inflated opinion of itself and its views, and a mostly unfunny script. Sure, you could forgive the calamitous comedy, the odd character touches or vignette style storytelling, but in the end, what would you have? Anarchy TV is the cinematic equivalent of the pamphlets handed out by activists at rallies and marches. It lays out its politics and viewpoints in broad, non-subtle strokes. It picks easy targets and beats them to death, and then kicks them a few more times for the sheer joy of it. But as a film, it's weightless. The opening quote is one character's rationale over the validity of making a stink if no ones around to smell it. Anarchy TV reeks of its own heavy-handed self-importance. And while its motives may be gallant, after one sniff you too may find yourself looking for some hot air freshener.
Anarchy TV: The Movie is guilty of being an unfunny, heavy-handed piece of leftist propaganda posing as a salacious skin and sin comedy. It is sentenced to 20 years of research in the Library of Congress to straighten out its muddled philosophical stances. However, the court will suspend the sentence and remand director Jonathan Blank and his cast to an artist's colony in Upstate New York. There, hopefully, they can create a true motion picture experience that mixes the two big MAs, cine and dog. Court dismissed.
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