Impossible dreams

Film - A documentary and a political satire chart idealism's decline, writes Victoria Segal


If hell is other people, it makes sense that heaven should have an extremely exclusive door policy. Glastonbury, the ever-expanding Somerset festival lovingly documented in Julien Temple's new film, was originally conceived as a hippie idyll, a place in the country where the heads could get their heads together, long of hair, bare of foot and blown of mind. The first "happening" in 1970 featured Marc Bolan and Al Stewart performing at Michael Eavis's Worthy Farm and included free milk in the £1 ticket price. Thirty-five years later, the flower child had become a carnivorous beast, its 150,000 tickets selling out in less than three hours. At the heart of Temple's film lurks an unsettling thought: how can utopia exist when everyone wants to live there?

Using archive footage and Super 8 film from every stage of the festival's history, Temple distils 36 years of history into three imaginary days. Music fans will revel in the performances but, like the festival itself, Glastonbury isn't really about the bands. Instead, it's a revealing social history, showing the slow assimilation of the counter-culture and the neutering of its ideals. Footage of the early days is pricelessly quaint: a tweedy local who looks as if he would be happier shooting something to hang over his mantelpiece declares that "a number of them do smell to high heaven. Somebody has to make a stance against these very unwashed people." John Craven soberly reports on "naked dancing", something he must have missed after joining Newsround.

As the whole festival grows up, however, The Man suddenly stops ogling from the perimeter and throws himself into the action. The rise of the mobile phone minimises the chances of losing your tent. The hairy freak-outs have been replaced by the tall-decaf-latte rock of Coldplay. There are even cashpoints on site. Yet, tellingly, Glastonbury shows the festi-val's biggest enemy to be within: not the forces of branding and big business, but the revellers who fail to realise that their free- spiritedness comes at a price. Eavis gave the travellers' convoy refuge from the police after 1985's notorious Battle of the Beanfield; they repaid him by demanding money and, in 1990, indulging in ugly rioting. With 150,000 people insisting on the right to "be themselves", cynics won't be surprised that something has to give.

Glastonbury does not indulge in the gloriously pretentious Albion myth-making that drove Temple's 2000 documentary about the Sex Pistols, The Filth and the Fury. Instead, viewers are treated to forensic close-ups of the toilets being emptied, confused people stumbling over tent pegs, the squelch of mud beneath combat boots. You can almost smell the noodles, the bonfires, the rivers of effluent. There's also a shot of a juggler setting himself on fire, which, as any festival- goer will know, is very gratifying. Too long, with too many shots of hands-in-the-air ravers and too much Damien Hirst, Glastonbury is still hugely evocative, developing a keen sense of place - an achievement, considering that it's a film about somewhere that doesn't exist. "It's not real, is it?" ponders Eavis. "It can't be real." Unfortunately, it seems not.

Spirituality and commerce also duke it out in American Dreamz, Paul Weitz's outrageous satire in which extremists of every stripe fight for airspace on prime-time TV. On the one hand, there is Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a small-town girl whose peaches-and-cream complexion belies a brimstone-and-sulphur heart. On the other, there is sweet-natured wannabe-terrorist Omer (Sam Golzari), who is too clumsy for extremist training camp. Sent to America ostensibly to await "activation", he is able to indulge his secret passion for show tunes. Both end up as contestants on American Dreamz, a Pop Idol-style talent show run by Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant, playing a Simon Cowell-like Svengali with admirable creepiness). Meanwhile, the newly elected president (Dennis Quaid) is suffering a crisis of conscience, wondering whether he should have found out sooner that there were three kinds of "Iraqistani".

There are some very funny moments - Omer's version of "The Impossible Dream" deserves a Grammy - while a lively supporting cast, including Chris Klein as Sally's simple Iraq war vet boyfriend and Tony Yalda as Omer's talentless cousin Iqbal, give a lurid depth to the parade of grotesques. As Weitz brings these disparate people together to suitably calamitous effect, he daringly explores various kinds of nihilism, comparing the self-obliterating nature of both extremism and fame.

If hippies saw the original festival revellers as the avatars of a brave new world where shoes were the stuff of oppression and every adult had the right to bear pan pipes, American Dreamz shows just how redundant those dreams have become today. Glastonbury's lesson might be "never trust a hippie". The moral of American Dreamz is even bleaker: trust no one.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The real first casualty of war