Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins

“Texas, Our Texas”*
*This is also the title of the official Texas state song, which is not, as many (Texans included) mistakenly assume, “The Eyes of Texas” (that is, however, the school spirit song of the University of Texas at Austin and UT at El Paso; if you’d like to sing a rousing rendition of it, here's a version by native Texan Roy Orbison [born in Vernon, 1913; sadly, died in 1984] and Hank Williams Jr. [born in neighboring Shreveport LA, 1949—just to be balanced in my credits] from the movie Roadie [Alan Rudolph, 1980]—in case you’re not familiar with it not only do you get the lyrics just below the YouTube screen but also they sing it twice so you get another chance if you stumble through the first time; you can also search YouTube for the song’s title to find numerous videos of football stadiums full of UT Austin fans belting it out it after various victories).  Honestly, I never remember singing “Texas, Our Texas” nor even realizing it was the state song for much of my youth even though I lived there for about 34 years; on the other hand, as a student at UT Austin for 3 academic degrees (BFA, MA, PHD) between 1966 and 1976 I’m sure I sang “The Eyes of Texas” more times than I can remember.  (Even after I basically swore off football in roughly 1970; that's not easy to do in a state where every town you live in or visit is focused during the fall on Friday night high school games, or living in Austin during my college time where tens of thousands packed Memorial Stadium every Saturday the Longhorns were at home, or living in Dallas where that same focus shifts to Sundays with the Cowboys [supposedly “America’s Team,” although I doubt you’d get much agreement on that by fans of teams coast-to-coast from the Oakland Raiders to the New England Patriots] either in town or on TV.)  Oh, wait, you clicked on this site for a film review, didn’t you?  OK, I hear you.  Let’s finally get down to the business at hand.
Review by Ken Burke

I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.

                 Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins 
                                     (Janice Engel)   Not Rated

Based on the limited photo options I could locate you might think this whole film's
in black & white but it's not, just the parts represented by most of these pictures.
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): In fact, though, it would be hard for me to come up with spoilers anyway for a documentary about a very-well-known-journalist who’s been dead since 2007, so, for the record, I’ll run my boilerplate spoiler warning just below even though there’s nothing to keep from you this time in the comments to follow.  This film covers Ivins’ life in a thorough-yet-concise-manner filled with diverse clips of her talking either directly to the camera or delivering speeches at various venues, testimony about her from a long list of family and friends, a treasure-trove of archival photos and footage, all of which verifies how she was a consistent iconoclast from her college days through her professional career (as well as starting on this road to independent thought in clashes with her authoritarian father), right up to her death from breast cancer.  While writing in a biting satirical style—which carried over to the many film clips of Ivins included in this doc—her ultimate purpose was not to just entertain nor complain but rather to expose the absurdity (often accompanied by small-mindedness) of the political events/people she covered, endearing her to many readers even as she often clashed with editors in her own organizations.  You’re not going to find Raising Hell … in many theaters, unfortunately, so if you’re of a leftist-leaning-mind or just appreciate blunt talk from a woman not afraid to speak the truth as she sees it even if it may not parallel your worldview, I actively encourage you to see this film even if your only option is some future video queue (after somehow viewing it, though, you can then give your imagination a good workout postulating what her reactions might have been to the Obama years, the election of Trump, the constant deterioration of much of our country under his absurd “leadership” [in my fully-biased-opinion, one reason why I’m so enthralled with Ivins’ perspectives]).

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

 As you could probably surmise from my opening ramble spun off just the mere title of this posting, I might be attempting to find ways of filling some space for your edification this week (I assure you, it wouldn't be because I get paid by the word; actually, I don’t get paid for this at all so if any of you want to start a Go Fund Me for Two Guys in the Dark, be my guest—Just kidding!  That’d stir up legal/tax problems I'd have no interest in).  It’s true, though, I really don’t have a lot of necessary verbiage to offer here (when you’ve recovered from fainting after reading that, please continue) because this Molly Ivins documentary is so self-explanatory it needs to be seen more than written about, plus it’s all I’ve had time to watch over the last week because of other pressing activities,* although I admit there’s not been much playing I’m all that interested in.  (Maybe Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice [Rob Epstein, Jeffery Friedman], PG-13, out for 2 weeks now, in 220 domestic [U.S.-Canada] theaters, taken in only about $841.6 thousand so far, Rotten Tomatoes 87% positive reviews, Metacritic 75% average score, but I can probably do just as well with CDs, YouTube, and Amazon’s Alexa—one other option my wife, Nina, was interested in now she’s feeling a bit better is Dora and the Lost City of Gold [James Bobin], PG, out for 6 weeks but still available in 1,348 theaters having already taken in about $56.7 million [vs. a production budget of $49 million] with 84% positive RT reviews, an MC average of 63%; she saw it on her own, found it to be very enjoyable, recommends it as a fun family experience.)  So, with a chance to get an in-depth-look at my fellow (now deceased) Texan whose scathing columns against the Old Boy network, especially when G.W. Bush was President, were always so enjoyable I eagerly headed off to see Raise Hell … .

*One time-consuming-but well-worth-it-event was the latest edition in San Francisco from One Day University, where they book large venues in 50 North American cities at different times, bring in (usually) 3 professors from major universities to present 1-hour-lectures on intriguing topics.  Last Saturday I was treated to “The American Revolution: Remarkable Stories You’ve Never Heard Before” by Richard Bell (U. of Maryland), “Forever Young: How Scientists Are Learning to Keep Us from Getting Old” by Jill Helms (Stanford), and—most relevant for this blog—“The Three Greatest Films in American Cinema” by Marc Lapadula (Yale).  Check the website for options of streaming such live events or downloading past lectures, although Lapadula’s wasn’t streamed (copyright problems with the clips?) so I’ll say briefly he discussed Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), The Godfather [Parts I and II] (Francis Ford Coppola; 1972, 1974), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), all of which—beyond their cinematic virtuosity—explore loss on personal, familial, or species levels.  They’ve also had other film-related-talks, so if curious you might scan their archives.

 Within the concise (93 min.) structure of Raise Hell … we find a very effective chronology of its subject from her birth in Monterey, CA to her childhood/teen years in an affluent Houston, TX neighborhood (her father was an oil/gas executive, with whom she found early conflict over worldviews) to her undergraduate years at Smith College starting in 1963 where this private, women-only, New England environment proved to be difficult for someone—even raised in wealth—to acclimate, given her imposing 6-ft.-size and (by comparison to many of her classmates) rowdy background which didn’t fit in too well with these more genteel surroundings (from what I understand, Mills College in Oakland, CA [where I’ve spent the bulk of my teaching career] was more like this as well up through the mid-1960s, as scholarly expectations were substantial but the intention of many upper-class-families who sent their daughters to such schools was to aid in their refinement for future marriage [although some of those earlier Mills alums came back to teach during my time there, fully pulling their weight as learned-academicians, while the student body broadened substantially in diversity of all sorts, with the College itself now reoriented toward social-justice-emphasis, just as I’m sure the few other remaining high-standards-women’s-colleges nationwide have done in recent years, something Ivins would have heartily-supported]), but graduate work leading to a master’s degree in 1967 from Columbia U.’s School of Journalism propelled her forward.  With these personal matters efficiently established, Raise Hell … moves effectively into its primary focus on Molly’s career as a reporter with as unique a voice as she could get away with starting in the late 1960s at the Minneapolis Tribune, then moving on to Austin’s The Texas Observer in 1970, followed by stints at The New York Times and The Washington Post which took her to 1981 when she returned to Texas as a Dallas Times Herald columnist where she continued to enthrall readers (well, some anyway) more so than editors until 1991 when the Times Herald folded so her home base moved 30 miles west to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (although she’d actually been writing from Austin since 1985 [our locations overlapped in Austin 1970-’72, Dallas 1981-’84, but I never had the pleasure of meeting her, just reading her work]).  In 2001 she became an independent columnist, her twice-weekly-thoughts run in nearly 400 papers nationwide (would have been more had some big-city editors who disagreed with her politics allowed their local competition to carry her work; instead, they bought her column, refused to print it, keeping it away from rivals who would have).  She also authored many books on U.S. government with my favorite declaration as Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush (Random House, 2000).

 But the on-screen résumé doesn’t bog down in this-then-that-details, instead giving us plenty of footage of unfiltered-Molly talking at various times about various things over the years, augmented by short or longer statements from dozens who worked with her (most notable for me being fellow journalists Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow, former Texas Governor Ann Richards, her daughter Cecile Richards [former president of Planned Parenthood]), all presented in a constantly-flowing montage of film clips, archival photos, interviews for this film, so there’s never a dull moment.  Of course, Ivins was never dull herself (at least in public or on the page), so there’s constant humor with 2 of my most-memorable-incidents being a tiff with her NY Times editor over an article about a community’s huge chicken-based-event which she referred to as a “gang-pluck,” along with her presence at the Texas Legislature when a state rep pushed through a bill re-criminalizing anal sex between homosexuals, then agreed to avoid discrimination challenges by supporting another bill criminalizing it between heterosexuals.  As the bill-initiator and his jubilant colleague were high-fiving, back-slapping she told the Sergeant-at-Arms to arrest them because it was now against Texas law for “a prick to touch an asshole.”  Serious matters are addressed also, such as Ivins’ alcoholism and her struggles with breast cancer leading to her death in 2007.  Some might object to how her detractors aren’t incorporated into this doc, but Molly never truly believed in “objective journalism,” feeling reporters have a responsibility to present necessary facts to their audiences, not attempt to give balance to a story with counterpoints not as valid as what the main report’s revealed (more details on my attitudes toward documentaries, attempts at objective cinema, need to respect emotional impacts of a director's cinematic intentions, etc. are explored in detail in my May 17, 2018 review of RBG [Betsy West, Julie Cohen; 2018] if you’d like to explore it).  Beyond what I’ve said here, though, I think Raise Hell … just needs to be viewed to be fully appreciated although, short of some future option in a video format, such viewing’s difficult because after 3 weeks in release it’s playing in only 24 domestic theaters (2 of them in the SF area, where Ivins was greatly appreciated by many, with me being able to gleefully continue following her columns in my local papers since moving here in 1984),* so far pulling in only $284,700, making wider release unlikely.  At least I’m not alone in thoroughly enjoying this biopic, joining in with the CCAL (remember them?) as the RT result is 93% positive reviews, MC average score is 74% (a solid response there).

*However, you can consult sources such as YouTube to find many short or longer videos featuring her with this one (56:55, 1998 interview from C-Span; terrible imagery but extensive info) useful about her attitudes on many topics—politics, campaign financing, Texas, the Texas Legislature, etc.

 As all loyal Two Guys readers know (I rejoice in telling you our worldwide-readership’s back on the rise again after sagging considerably during the Dog Days of summer; I guess it was too globally-hot to sit around reading a computer screen if a swimming pool or patio party seemed more inviting), I like to conclude each critique with a Musical Metaphor that in some form (seriously or marginally) provides closure to what’s been explored in the review; in this case, you’d easily think a likely choice to honor Molly Ivins’ intrepid career might be John Lennon’s "Gimme Some Truth" (on his 1971 Imagine album) where he echoes her disgust with “uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocrites […] neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians […] schizophrenic, egocentric, paranoiac prima-donnas […] All I want is the truth Just give me some truth,” so this wouldn’t be a bad choice (and one I wanted to call to your awareness), but given her dual love of satire and her (and my) hopelessly-convoluted-home-state I’m even more drawn to my official Metaphor being David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” (from his 1975 Once Upon a Rhyme album) at, a tune written by Steve Goodman, claimed as “the perfect country and western song” until (supposedly) Coe complained it couldn’t rate that honor because it didn’t mention Mama, trains, trucks, jail, or drinking, whereupon Goodman added an extra verse Coe proudly presents, a marvelous comment on both the often-sordid, melodramatic content of C&W songs as well as an hilarious take on the kind of Southern/Southwest culture (one of my aunts—the most liberal one on either side of my family—always identified Texas as in the Southwest, attempting as gracefully as possible to pull it away from its true Confederate heritage) Molly Ivins loved to love (aspects of) even as she hated its toxic residue.*  I must admit, though, this choice was further influenced by watching, over the last 3 nights as I’ve cobbled this review together, Ken Burns’ latest marvelous mini-series-doc on PBS (still running, check TV listings), Country Music, where the second episode, “Hard Times (1933-1945),” calls attention to the terrific Texas Swing band of the 1930s-'50s, Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys (here’s their huge hit of 1940 "New San Antonio Rose" as recorded, plus a live version from 1944 with terrible visual quality but still the sense of their stage presence), an historically-significant-group still celebrated during Texas’ 1970s “outlaw country” era with this song from Waylon Jennings (to continue my previous citations structure, born in Littlefield [like Orbison’s, another Panhandle town])you’re welcome to watch a live versionas we bid farewell again to Molly, Bob (died 1975), and Waylon (died 2002).  Considering how integral music like this is to the Texas heritage Molly embraced, even as she fought to make it more compassionate, I think she’d appreciate all this Metaphorical chatter on her behalf, just as she’d probably like me coming full-circle in this essay back to Hank Williams Jr’s famous Dad, main subject of Burns' third Country Music episode (“The Hillbilly Shakespeare”) whose meteoric rise, disastrous demise was something she would likely fully empathize with, just as we might choose to mourn both their too-early-deaths (her at 62, him—tragically—at a mere 29).

*OK, here’s more posting-filler totally unnecessary for a lean, concise look at this marvelous film but easily in the context of what Ivins herself would likely have enjoyed so I’ll ramble on further into Esoteric Town.  First, in case you’d like to see Coe as he's singing “You Never Even …” in a live performance here he is, but I didn’t use this one as my official Metaphor link because (damn it all!) he leaves out one verse of a song that I think should be enjoyed in its full measure.  Then I’d like to share with you the expanded version sung by original songwriter
Steve Goodman (helped by John Prine)  in which he brings in a few other items not noted in Coe’s extra verse, so I don’t know if Coe then modified those lyrics Goodman sent him (you can’t trust these ol' rascals too much) or if Goodman himself rewrote his rewrite.  However, I will note my own minor change of this added verse, sung by me in the mid-1970s with some (better) musician friends at Austin’s Catholic Student Center’s (now the University Catholic Center, reflecting how many UT grads stick around after graduation, ever adding to the city’s population as well as providing an ever-growing-liberal-influence in the traditionally-conservative Lone Star State) Second Friday (it helps to be Catholic to get this reference) songfests in the basement, where we called ourselves the Austin Blundering Revue (a takeoff on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue).  In acknowledgement of our location, I added to Coe’s missing elements with a need for more about “Jesus” (properly pronounced in Southern preacher mode as “Jee-zus!”) so the last line would be “She got run over by a God-damn train,” which, thankfully, was well-appreciated by the crowd, possibly well-fueled by the available 25-cent Lone Star Beer (even that charge only to cover the cost of the beverages and ice, a truly non-profit venture which, again, I think Molly Ivins would have cheerfully embraced).
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Here’s more information about Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins: (click on the 3-bar icon in the upper left for more aspects of this site, including a biography of Ivins) (14:57 interview with director Janice Engel, from an event held on April 25, 2019 at the LBJ Presidential Library at the U. of Texas at Austin)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world.  I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 30,207 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

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