Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema, which happens to be almost directly below where I live, started showing Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins this past Friday. There are very few films that I seek out as soon as they open, and even fewer of them that have nothing to do with either music or dance. However, there was no doubt in my mind that Janice Engel’s effort to chronicle the life and works of Molly Ivins in a documentary that runs a little over 90 minutes would be one of those films. Having now seen it, the first thing I can say is that my instincts were right on target.
I am not sure when I took my first hit of Ivins’ insight and the wit she engaged to seize and hold my attention. I am pretty sure that it was when she was being interviewed by Jim Lehrer, back when his television program was called The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Her sense of humor was so outrageous that I could catch Lehrer himself squirming from time to time; but that was a time when Ronald Regan was the 40th President of the United States, making jokes about “We begin bombing in five minutes” during a sound check, not knowing that the microphone was going out over the air.
Ivins seemed to live by the mantra of never taking anything too seriously. To the contrary, she knew how to tease humor out of any number of dire situations. Many took offense at her style, but most of those had been responsible for getting our country into those situations. For the rest of us, her humor provided a release value and possibly the reassurance that there were clearer heads who could tell a naked emperor from one that could be taken seriously as a leader.
My one concern is the risk that the generations that have followed mine may not pick up on what this account of Ivins opinions signifies. Those who read this site regularly know my mantra that the prevailing culture is one that is “ignorant of history and proud of that ignorance.” Engel’s documentary reminded me that such a perspective was around long before we became a nation of zombies aware only of the screen on a cell phone. Ivins certainly knew about that culture. However, hers was an age when people still read text in print, rather than reading from screens; and, while her words may have offended some, they flashed on light bulbs for others.
Will Engel’s film flash on any more light bulbs? Damned if I know. I do know that Ivins mastered a sense of presence, both in her writing and when addressing an audience; and the nature of that presence reverberates, at least to some extent, in “new media” figures such as Jon Stewart and John Oliver. Indeed, I suspect that, were she alive today, Ivins would be impressed that someone like Oliver can deliver persuasive argumentation on the scale of a written essay and still, by interjecting just the right jokes at just the right time, command an attentive real-time audience. So I would like to believe that there was always a foundation of optimism supporting the plethora of razor-sharp barbs coming out of Ivins’ writing; and, if I can believe that, I can also hope that those now following Oliver will get around to realizing that “getting the message” should never be a passive response.