Denver Post, November 3, 1985

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Ovations come cheap in Denver

By Arlynn Neilhaus
Denver Post Staff Writer

The memory of last month's Denver International Film Festival lingers in my mind - not only for its delightful ambiance at the Tivoli, but for the demonstration, yet again, of how gullible Denver audiences can be.

Those of us who review arts events often mutter to each other in amazement (but not always with hyperbole) that a jackass could get a standing ovation in Denver.

Denverites can see a show that is a sham, that cheaply plays on emotions, and not only do they lap it up, but they grovel before the performer. Deserving artists get standing ovations, too, but in Denver, that honor comes cheap.

I was reminded of this during the film festival at a screening of "American Rebel." While I didn't see a standing ovation, I did see an audience uncritically swallowing the goop it was fed by the film's director. It was typically Denver.

The documentary is on Dean Reed, the boy from Wheat Ridge who found fame and political favor as a pop singer behind the Iron Curtain. He lives with his actress wife in East Berlin.

No one should be fooled by the term "documentary," which sounds as if it should present facts. Nonsense. Film is one of the most manipulative of arts. As John Grierson, the "father of documentaries," said, "All documentary films are propaganda."

"American Rebel" was total, adoring propaganda. Reed was presented - apologies to Madonna - like a virgin. With not one wart. It wasn't even mentioned that this is his third marriage, as if that might interfere with the filmmaker's desired illusion.

Propaganda itself I can forgive. Everyone is entitled to an ax. What is unforgivable is boring propaganda. And "American Rebel" was b-o-o-o-ring.

But worse, this snoozer was combined with treacly glorification of the know-nothing political stance of its handsome, earnest but bubble-headed hero. Reed was shown as devoting his life to defending the helpless and downtrodden. He insisted over and over that he would give his life for the cause.

But Reed's helpless and downtrodden are limited to those with party approval. They don't include Israeli school children killed by the PLO (in the film, Dean serenades a grinning Yasser Arafat with "Ghost Riders in the Sky"); Andrei Sakharov, the Russian scientist exiled within his own country; Soviet Jews, endlessly imprisoned because they want to emigrate; or Lech Walesa and the Polish Solidarity movement. Nor did he sing for the Afghanis, bombed and strafed by the Soviets for many years.

Of course, as a resident of East Germany, Reed couldn't. But the contradictions in his position sailed right past most of the viewers, people who are free to read and say what they want. They apparently felt that if they approved of one aspect of Reed, they had to swallow the whole package. No married person has ever had it so easy from a spouse.

Except for a few renegades who dared to be contrary, the audience sat as contentedly as cows munching in a sunny pasture - which unavoidably raises the image of Denver as a cow town.

There are aspects of a cow town I've learned to love after some 20 years here, but the thought of Denverites being naive patsies for traveling con men is pathetic.

In a real city, the audience wouldn't have tolerated this drooling-with-adoration movie in the first place and would have let it be known. In a real city, Reed, who was at the screenings, would have been held accountable for his political stance. After all, he spouts internationally.

But in Denver, being nice is rated higher than being honest, and having critical faculties makes one suspect. What we need is a healthy dose of skepticism and cynicism.

Also required is knowledge. It really is possible to keep track of Bronco scores and when the ski slopes are opening AND what'ís happening in Nicaragua.

Another necessity is a bit of bravery. It's all right, when we feel a performer is playing games with us, to register when we've had enough. Even with a good show, it's all right to sit on our fannies afterward. We aren't so culture-starved that we can't wait for a great one before we stand.

Nellhaus' article is unforgivable

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