Special interest book clubs have been around for as long as Bible-study groups. But in our media-saturated age, television and film have usurped literature as our passion for discourse, and Internet message boards have replaced smoke-filled salons.
With that in mind, Netflix has stepped in to merge our infatuation with cinema with our compulsive need to voice our opinions. The wildly successful Internet-based DVD rental company has shaken up chains like Blockbuster, and created a vibrant community of film fans. Meanwhile, smaller, more specialized groups have tried to fill the special interest niches that Netflix misses. Whether you're an extreme sports aficionado (extremesportsvideos.com) or looking for some good 'ol mind-body healing (spiritualcinemacircle.com) there's probably a club for you.
It was probably inevitable that today's politically charged landscape would give rise to video clubs that cater to each side of the culture war. But unlike the televised feud between Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann or the Ann Coulter-Al Franken literary bitch-slaps, these special interest outfits are less heated in their attempts to court followers.
On the conservative end of the spectrum, companies like conservativedvds.com (an offshoot of right-wing Eagle Publishing) and christiancinema.com (which did not respond to inquiry e-mails from Metro Times) sell or rent unabashedly skewed DVDs and the occasionally "acceptable" mainstream film. Predictably, The Passion of the Christ and the Narnia movies are the gold standard, embraced as "something good from Hollywood." Michael Bay's sci-fi blow-'em-up thriller The Island gets a surprising "thumbs-up" for its subversive pro-life agenda (hidden between fireball explosions and car wrecks, natch).
Even the product descriptions take potshots at liberalism. The description for last year's Cinderella Man reads: "In an Oscar season where the most honored films are those that celebrate homosexuality or preach liberal platitudes, it's no wonder that a movie honoring self-sacrifice, faith and family has been all but ignored by the Motion Picture Academy."
The site's original entertainment offerings look homemade and, to be frank, pretty lame. From the "unleashed" yet squeaky-clean musings of conservative Brad Stine (who?) to a behind-the-scenes look at the always entertaining for better or worse Coulter, conservative politics and Christian doctrine intertwine, presenting a unified vision of moral entertainment, history and science. Who knew Intelligent Design was a recognized film genre?
Taking the idea of wholesome cinema one step further, cleanfilms.com offers popular Hollywood films scrubbed clean of foul-mouthed nastiness, sexuality and anti-Christian sentiment. Turning copyright law on its head, this Utah-based outfit twists "fair-use" laws to provide its members with edited versions of mainstream movies. Now, pious Ben Stiller fans can enjoy Along Came Polly without being sullied by its 52 incidents of profanity and indecency. One ecstatic customer thanked the rental club for excising a dozen profane words and the image of a boy reading Playboy from Tim Burton's Big Fish.
Alas, some movies are so indecent and morally repellent that not even Cleanfilms' gallant efforts can scrub away the tarnish of filth. The list of the excommunicated includes American Pie, 8 Mile, Jackass: The Movie, The Blair Witch Project and, inexplicably, Stephen Frear's inoffensive thriller Dirty Pretty Things. It couldn't be just the title, could it? Thankfully, Cleanfilms does find one instance of common ground with sinners and secular humanists: Absolutely no one should ever be subjected to Gigli.
On the progressive end of things, there's ironweedfilms.com, a DVD subscription club that favors documentaries and has greater ambitions than simply establishing itself as a Netflix for lefties.
Founder Adam Werbach, former president of the Sierra Club, has grand plans for his budding community of film fans. For $14.95 a month, subscribers have access to DVDs built around socially relevant themes. Ironweed repackages their discs with exclusive extras; additional material often includes in-house interviews with the director, animated shorts or even a second feature film. January's selection presented Paul Devlin's Power Trip, an award-winning and humorous investigation into post-Soviet corruption of the Russian electric industry, coupled with Red Diaper Baby, writer Josh Kornbluth's entertaining performance memoir about growing up in America with communist parents.
The company focuses on building its online community and offers nonprofit organizations monetary incentives for forming member discussion groups. Michigan has a few dozen subscribers, the majority of whom are in surprise, surprise Ann Arbor.
In April, Ironweed will kick off a series of national house parties in support of Marshall Curry's Oscar-nominated Street Fight. Werbach describes the critically acclaimed documentary as "a taut thriller that makes politics look sexy. It's even better than The War Room." In conjunction with the release, Ironweed will organize conference calls between the filmmakers and its subscribers.
Though the club's political leanings are far from covert, Ironweed avoids didactic work in favor of critically acclaimed films that often slip by audiences unnoticed. February's selection of Seoul Train, a documentary about an underground railroad that smuggles out North Korean refugees, was introduced by Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. When several club members angrily complained the company was giving airtime to an archconservative, Werbach answered, "From our point of view, and his, it's a great film about an important topic that transcends political boundaries."
Perhaps Ironweed's greatest challenge is to make sure it isn't seen as the feel-bad-film-of-the-month club.
"I worry about this every day," Werbach laughs via a telephone interview from San Francisco, the company's home base. "That's why we're really choosy. We cherry-pick our documentaries from respected film festivals. We want to entertain our members, not give them nightmares."
And how does Ironweed view its conservative competitors?
"Having watched a lot of both types of work, I honestly think liberals make better films," he says. "This may simply be a case of force of power; if you make thousands of films a year, a few are bound to be good. Besides I think liberals are more willing to work for free and be quixotic."Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org