By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA—
The sold-out screening of Al Franken: God Spoke at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has drawn a thousand moviegoers to Durham's Fletcher Hall on a warm Friday night. That's presumably because the Air America host, Saturday Night Live veteran, and author of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them has pledged to appear in person for a Q&A. But what follows the movie feels a lot more like a rock concert—or maybe a campaign rally.
Even before Franken ambles down the long aisle toward the stage, the audience has already responded with thunderous applause to the comic's well-timed one-liner near the end of the film: "I'm thinking of running in 2008 against Norm Coleman." In part because alcoholic beverages are freely allowed in Fletcher Hall, you might suppose that this rowdy crowd would want to know what Stuart Smalley would say about American Idol, or what it was like for Franken to work with party animal John Belushi. But after a standing ovation—and a third-tier balcony holler for Franken to push the podium to center stage ("We can't see you!")—the audience proceeds to query the potential candidate on issues: government-sanctioned surveillance, death-penalty legislation, even campaign finance. Maybe there's a grass-is-always-greener factor at work here in North Carolina. Leaving the theater, I hear a woman behind me exclaim, like a toddler reviewing ice cream, "I love Minnesota!"
God Spoke, which opens the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival at the Riverview on Thursday night (followed by another Franken-hosted Q&A), is a biographical documentary that plays like a standup comedy film to the extent that its subject is rarely if ever offstage. (Even the tireless crusader's slooow rise from the hotel bed to greet Election Day 2004 can't help but appear scripted; such is the nature of celebrity docs.) Directors Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob, both close associates of doc giant D.A. Pennebaker, catch their star launching Air America with The O'Franken Factor; facing off against Ann Coulter, Michael Medved, and Sean Hannity; playing Saddam Hussein for the troops on his USO tour; impersonating Henry Kissinger for Henry Kissinger; and shedding a tear at John Kerry's concession speech. ("I'll cry at a good McDonald's commercial," Franken confessed to the Full Frame crowd—while crying.)
Unfocused but brisk and plenty fun, God Spoke is most compelling for its suggestion of how politics and showbiz are at once incestuously entwined and, perhaps, irreconcilably different. Destined to alter the party affiliations of no one, it's a movie that's tailor-made for Franken's many fans—and maybe for his voters.
Before the Full Frame screening, Franken—who says he'd be the "only New York Jew in the [Senate] race who grew up in Minnesota"—told me that he does indeed plan to run for office in 2008.
Actually, that's a lie.
But he did tell me a bunch of other things, not all of them funny.
City Pages:Okay—let's not beat around the Bush. Does anyone really want another comedian in office?
Al Franken: Well, I think there's a difference between being inadvertently funny and being actually funny. Maybe [voters] wouldn't mind having someone who had real training in comedy. I actually think that satirists sometimes crystallize ideas and concepts and issues more clearly than politicians do.
CP:Forget my comedian joke. Don't you think most people—liberals as well as conservatives—are a little tired of celebrities inserting themselves into political debates and political races?
Franken: Well, the Republicans didn't complain when Schwarzenegger jumped in. And his [prior] experience was limited to taking steroids and lifting weights. I'll admit I'm probably not appreciative enough of the art of sculpting your body.
CP:Aw, don't sell yourself short.
Franken: [Schwarzenegger] was an actor, too—running around in movies and shooting people. I think I come at it from a different place. I had a very different career than he did or Reagan did or any of these guys did. I've had a way more serious career [laughs].
CP:What kind of place is it that you come from?
Franken: I've always done political satire. So the subject matter is something I've always been thinking and writing about in one way or another. When I did Saturday Night Live, we did political stuff, a lot of which I wrote with other people, including Tom Davis. We never felt that it was the job of the show to advocate for one position or another; we felt that would be inappropriate for a show like ours. And then when I left the show, I felt like, Well, now I can write about what I believe. That was when the Gingrich revolution was ascendant. That was when I wrote Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, which was about a number of things, including that [Limbaugh] was the mouthpiece of that revolution. A lot of it was about attempts to get rid of the EPA and dismantle the safety net. And [the book] was also a lament for what political discourse had become as a result of guys like Rush.