Molly, we miss you! Sundance premieres documentary on late journalist Molly Ivins, who poked the powerful with wickedly funny prose
Janice Engel directed Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins: "The whole idea of objectivity really rubbed her the wrong way"
Oh, to have journalist Molly Ivins around in the Trump era. What she would have had to say about the orange-hued occupant of the White House.
After all, it's Ivins who is credited with coming up with a withering moniker for one of Trump's predecessors, George W. Bush. She dubbed him "Shrub." On another occasion she wrote of the 43rd president, "George W. Bush is a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America."
Ivins (1944-2007) is fondly remembered in the documentary Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, directed by Janice Engel, which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. The film recounts Ivins' upbringing--she was born in Houston to a wealthy family and educated at elite schools, including a private, segregated high school.
But she rebelled against the values of her social set and especially her conservative, autocratic father, manifesting that most boldly in her embrace of liberal politics and civil rights. An iconoclastic streak would never leave her as she moved up through the ranks of newspaper and magazine journalism, eventually becoming a much-treasured syndicated columnist and author.
Nonfictionfilm.com editor Matt Carey spoke with Engel about her film and earning a coveted berth in the Sundance lineup.
What was your reaction when you got the news that Sundance wanted your film?
Janice Engel: It was unbelievable. In LA you get a lot of robocalls and solicitations, and so when the phone rang I was like, "Oh God, here's another one." The caller said, "Janice Engel?" I said, "Yeah, this is Janice, how can I help you?" And he said, this is Harry Vaughn from the Sundance Film Festival." I actually wrote down on a Post-it to my editor, "Sun... Sun... and I didn't even finish writing "Sundance."
I ran into my dining room and put him on speaker and I said, "Holy fuck!" And then I said, "Oh my God, I'm sorry I said fuck!" And he said, "No, no, I love it!" [My editor Monique] and I jumped up and down like we had won "The Gong Show." My nearly 14-year-old golden retriever started howling and my nine-year-old border collie started barking.
I think a little profanity is definitely in order when you get great news like that and when your film is about the colorful and uncensored Molly Ivins.
It's certainly an apt title you came up with for your film.
Tell me about her journey raising hell in journalism--in Texas, Minneapolis, New York and elsewhere.
JE: She started at the Houston Chronicle and then she went to the Minneapolis Tribune. She was a straightforward reporter, but the whole idea of objectivity really rubbed her the wrong way. It's not who she was. In her gut, she knew it wasn't her truth.
When she got the offer to go to the Texas Observer, she called it the best graduate school of journalism--Ronnie Dugger's Texas Observer. It was 1970 and two women in their early 20's got to run it. That was a first.
Then she jumped ship to the New York Times, but she came back to Texas after leaving the Times when the Dallas Times Herald told her, "Come back. You can write whatever you want, you can say whatever you want." To a journalist and to a writer, Molly said, it doesn't get much better than that.
The Quotable Molly:
Her experience at the New York Times forms a really interesting part of the film. She just did not fit the culture of the Times in that era, or certainly what editor Abe Rosenthal wanted the paper to sound like.
JE: As I like to say, ya think? No, she didn't fit at all. Abe Rosenthal was another patriarchal authoritarian-type figure. That's what she bucked from the time she was a teenager growing up under the "General," her father, Jim Ivins. She dubbed him the General.
The Quotable Molly:
George W. Bush's presidency was an exceedingly frustrating time for people on the left, because it was very hard to get any traction against him during the post-9/11 patriotic fervor. I think liberals really treasured Molly, in part, because she never hesitated to point out his failings.
JE: She really wanted to shine a light on what Bush did as governor [of Texas], and she very bravely did so. What Bush did as governor, he was gonna do to the rest of the country. She said Texas was the national laboratory for bad government.
She really shined a light, a big light, in the first book, Shrub, and then she took it a step further with Lou Dubose. They wrote Bushwhacked together...She could be acerbic and her satire was just so sharp. But it was painless, because it made you laugh.
She was empathetic to W. She said nobody would've wished a major foreign policy crisis [on a president] in their first year in office. And when she said that, I found it amazing because even though she disagreed with him--I mean, really disagreed with him, and she went after him--she had real empathy for him. That polarization that we find ourselves in now you don't see a lot of that [with her]. She had empathy for him.
Texans are friendly, really super-friendly people. Molly knew George [Bush], she knew him. They came up at the same time in Houston...There was a friendliness [between them]. She said he was affable, you know? As she liked to say in her quaint Texas fashion, "affable out the ass."
The Quotable Molly:
One of the great tragedies of Molly's death is not having her here during the Trump presidency.
JE: Oh, she'd be dining on him. Oh my God, it would be a feast! And Twitter, could you imagine Molly on Twitter? She would just tear it up. She was so brilliant.
Did she ever write anything or express any thoughts about Trump--obviously this would have been well before he ran for president.
It's funny, I looked. When I Googled certain things and I found columns, she wrote some things about Trump, but when he was just this kind of grandstanding New York real estate mogul. It was not specific to where he is now at all.
You know, I didn't want Trump anywhere in my documentary, and he's not. It's implied.
The Quotable Molly:
At the Sundance opening day news conference it was noted that one of the themes of this year's festival, among documentaries, is the critical role of the press. There's the documentary Mike Wallace Is Here, for instance, as well as your film. Raise Hell can be seen as a defense of journalism and the importance of independent-minded thinking and reporting. Is that partly why you wanted to make it?
JE: What made me want to do the film was Molly and who she is. This has taken me six-and-a-half years to make. As I got to know Molly and I got to know her friends and her family who let me in, journalism is a part of it. It's really about who she is. The themes for me are speaking truth to power and giving voice to those that don't have one.
I can't bear unfairness and hierarchies and things like that. I've always bucked that stuff and I found in Molly a heroine who did the same thing. And used her words and, most importantly, her humor. That made me want to tell her story...I think now, hopefully the greater world will find out [more about her] and be entertained. Not just entertained, but also wake up, because Molly had a call to action and the fact is that it's "we the people." It's our responsibility. She said it. We're the deciders. Those people up in your state capitol, those people up in Washington, they're just the people we've hired to drive the bus for a while. It's our deal. It's our country. Let's take it back. I couldn't think of a time more perfect for this film to be put out there to the greater public than right now. People are hungry. They're hungry.
The Quotable Molly:
JE: To address your question about journalism, we are in a time of threats to the Fourth Estate. It's happened before. You know, Molly was a student of history. She knew it was cyclical. She was incredibly prescient, but the reason she was so prescient is because she was a student of history. She knew history repeats itself. She was so erudite and so smart and read so many books and she knew.
The threat to the Fourth Estate is a threat to our democracy. I feel like, in many ways, we're hanging on by a thread. But I do think, from this period, that we will come out stronger and better. I really do. Molly used to say, "I'm an optimist to the point of idiocy," and Matthew, so am I.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.