|Joaquin Phoenix in The Master.
Do movies matter?
Coming off of that drawn-out stretch of mindless big-budget escapism known as the summer movie season, it would be easy to dismiss the idea, but, based on a chain of recent events, there's ample reason to believe they can and they do.
Consider the headlines:
"From Tunisia to Indonesia, Protests Against Anti-Islam Film Continue."
"Anti-Obama Documentary a Box Office Hit"
"Scientologists Step Up Campaign Against The Master."
While it's true that much of what lands in movie theatres would never be mistaken for anything other than fluffy entertainment, there's no escaping the fact that Innocence of Muslims, The Master and 2016: Obama's America have been making considerable waves -- no hefty budgets or 3D glasses required.
Innocence of Muslims, an inflammatory short film that mocks the prophet Muhammad has ignited a firestorm of violent anti-American protests around the world that continue to escalate.
Shot last summer in Los Angeles under the non-descript title, Desert Warrior, the 13-minute video, reportedly produced by a non-profit American organization called Media for Christ, serves as a potent reminder of the power -- and dangers -- of propaganda, be it politically or religiously motivated.
It didn't incite flag-burning, but another micro-budgeted film, 2016: Obama's America, also raised eyebrows by zooming past the $30-million mark after being released in mid-July, overtaking Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine in the process.
Despite being written-off by pundits as an "87-minute attack ad," the aptly timed film, adapted by conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza from his book, The Roots of Obama's Rage, has obviously struck a chord among the nation's disenchanted.
Meanwhile, The Master, the latest work by acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights), has attracted the ire of Scientologists who maintain that the film -- in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the founder of a post-WWII religion -- is a thinly veiled attack on L. Ron Hubbard.
Although Anderson and his cast, also including Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, have publicly dismissed the similarities, Scientologists, still on the defensive from the scathing TomKat fall-out, most recently scrutinized in the current issue of Vanity Fair, have mounted an aggressive campaign against the movie.
In response, its distributor, The Weinstein Company, ordered beefed-up security for the New York premiere.
All that attention certainly didn't hurt a film that had already received major critical acclaim and kudos at the Venice Film Festival, where Phoenix and Hoffman shared the best actor prize and Anderson took home best director.
In its limited opening weekend release, The Master smashed per-screen box-office records in New York and Los Angeles.
While movies have courted controversy for about as long as the medium has been around -- from D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ -- the convergence of Innocence of Muslims, Obama's America and The Master sends a persuasive message:
Sometimes films have the ability to provoke reactions that go well beyond outrage over the price of a large popcorn.