Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins (Engel, 2019) — Full Frame 2019

Raise Hell is the film I kinda hoped that Life Itself would be: angry, funny, sad, and insightful. It probes the life of its subject, always celebrating Ivins and her considerable accomplishments while avoiding easy generalizations and refusing to gloss over the considerable costs of a life lived without compromise or concession.

I’ve come to realize at this year’s Full Frame that one of the things I value in documentaries is their ability to recognize internal tensions. Advocacy documentaries are fine, but if things are too clear-cut they can easily become shrill complaints, dull lectures, or idealized hymns of praise.

The tension in Raise Hell does not come from any uncertainties about Ivins’s ideology or the politics she covers. Her explanation of why she did not vote for Bill Clinton during his re-election is presented with a moral seriousness and earnestness that can’t help but inflect her more salty take-downs of George W. Bush or local Texas conservatives.

But there is a question, when all is said and done, about whether or not it was worth it. An early family recollection tells us of how Ivins’s parents called one daughter the “smart” one and one daughter the “pretty” one. Instead of affirming their respective gifts, this habit apparently left one going through life thinking she was dumb and the other thinking she was ugly. Molly’s immense talents, her wit, her clarity, her focus, her perseverance, her joy at an in hard living, win her respect, but there is an undeniable layer of pain that comes from not conforming to the world’s standards, even when you recognize those standards as false and harmful.

One of the greatest things that the film relates about Ivins is that she made many outsiders feel less alone, less singular. Whether the outsider was a a large women who didn’t conform to society’s love of all things thin and petite or the rural Southerner who thought she was the only progressive in a human ocean of joyful, self-righteous intolerance, she found both an advocate and avatar in the columnist who never feared telling the truth to power.

The knowledge of what kind of emotional toll it takes to be an outsider in a place like Texas is what makes the central section of the documentary, when Ivins begins working for the New York Times, even more painful. She is professionally but never culturally accepted. Too liberal for Texas, too culturally Texan for New York, Ivins was destined to live the rest of her life on admiration rather than acceptance, finding success but never, it seems, finding rest.

It’s possible, of course, that Ivins would scoff at the film’s and my psychoanalysis. We are all bigger than the sum of our pain. I looked for microexpressions of hurt when the film showed archival footage of someone calling into a television talk show to call her names, but I only saw laughter. Humor can be a defense mechanism, though, and those who knew her best are the ones who expressed the greatest fear that she would not take care of herself.

What is great about Raising Hell isn’t so much that it shows Ivins as conflicted. It’s that it allows itself to feel conflicted about her. There is clearly deep affection and admiration for the journalist, but there is also a sadness in the recognition that the woman who lightened life’s burdens for so many others might have done so by taking the weight of the world upon herself.

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