Barry Levinson knows the beast that is mass media.
The director explored the impact of television on family life with his 1990 drama "Avalon," and he revealed the ways politicians use the news to manipulate the public in his clever satire "Wag the Dog." Now he's turned the camera on himself and his peers with a film essay entitled "Poliwood" about celebrity activism.
In the movie, Levinson focuses on the activities of the Creative Coalition in building awareness for political causes while dealing with the backlash from those opposed to their efforts. "There's a difference between writing a check and getting on the bully pulpit," one person complains. But many of the subjects of "Poliwood" — including Susan Sarandon, Ellen Burstyn and Anne Hathaway — grapple with finding a strategy for doing both.
Levinson successfully does away with the us-versus-them mentality often set forth by blue-collar Americans convinced that Hollywood stars don't understand their plight. The director, whose narration occurs throughout, explains that many actors and directors actually come from middle class backgrounds. But that doesn't prevent a certain amount of hostility from rising to the surface during dialogue sessions with non-actors and various organizations that appear in the film.
"You see how a massive amount of miscommunication works," Levinson told me in a recent phone conversation. "These people basically have an interest in the process, an interest in certain social issues." Hathaway, given her youth, provides insight into the evolution of celebrity activism. "She doesn't come across as a seasoned political junkie," Levinson said.
The director was invited by the Creative Coalition to bring cameras to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions and document their attendance last year. His personalized study of the issue grew out of those trips. The result is a fairly celebratory piece, culminating with the inauguration of Barack Obama in January, but Levinson said he did not want the conclusion to seem entirely triumphant.
"It's mixed emotions," he said. "You have to worry about how the media has played such a hand in the political process. I think that's a great worry. On the other hand, there are millions of people who are enthusiastic about change."
"Poliwood" demonstrates Levinson's willingness to work on smaller projects, regardless of where they might wind up. "We did this on a real shoestring," he said. "I'd like to get it seen, but with the times we live in, there's a lot of work I've seen that's interesting and never gets theatrical distribution."
He remains fairly bitter about the recent flop of his last feature, the Robert De Niro vehicle "What Just Happened," which closed the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 before quietly slipping into theaters in the fall.
"I happened to be in Baltimore doing something, and some friends asked when it was coming out," he said. "It was already out. It's very hard to get awareness with these very small movies."
Meanwhile, he claims to have a hard time getting studios interested in his projects. "It becomes more and more difficult," he said. "Hollywood is basically a big corporation. If you don't have the money, you can't get anything to happen."