by Peter Byrne
(Swans - January 28, 2008) When Sicko hit British screens and spiteful reviews began to appear, a disconcerted defender of the filmmaker asked, "Who's Afraid of Michael Moore?" (1) Who indeed, and why? To badmouth Moore wasn't new. People were doing it in Flint, Michigan since grade school when he started an anti-adult newssheet. (It took a few years more to oust his principal and vice principal.) After March 24, 2003, however, hostility reached a new pitch. That night as he received the Academy Award naming Bowling For Columbine Best Documentary, Moore said in accepting, "...we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you." How did he get to the stage of the Kodak Theater in Hollywood and command an audience of millions? The short answer is not by smothering himself in anonymity or by playing a fatter figure of Justice coolly weighing up pros and cons on a scale.
This needs saying. The attacks on Moore always target his ego, considered to be XL as if, say, a medium-small was the most that could be tolerated. Detractors move on to the numerous stretches in his films and writing. They nitpick and sometimes pull out a plum with delight. Both dodges are of course cover for their real grievance, which targets what Moore stands for. It's obvious that no public figure, going back to and including Jesus Christ, ever put his case before us by any means but a heavy dose of self-promotion.
As for truth telling, the ruse here has been to shackle Moore to the kind of documentary that proceeds like a court case in some ideal judicial system: evidence is amassed patiently in two neat piles of equal height and a dignified judge without any opinions of his own then announces the verdict with a straight face. Now, anyone who has sampled the rich vein of documentary films of recent years knows that this model is not only never achieved but rarely even envisioned. The documentary that does search for truth is almost always one-sided, and that's precisely what gives it bite and interest. Most of the best non-fiction films haven't tried to prove anything. They simply set out for consideration carefully-delineated realities ignored by other media.
Moore puts himself at the mercy of quibblers and cavilers by donning the hat of a reporter. (As editor of Mother Jones in 1986, "He really had it in for fact-checkers. They drove him nuts.") (2) Strictly speaking Moore is a serious entertainer, a Lenny Bruce educated by nuns. His critics are nearer the mark when they call him a buffoon. He is in effect democracy's court jester. It was King Lear's fool, who alone told the old boy the harsh truth to his face. And Lear's buffoon didn't have the leisure out there in the storm to present a balanced case.
The slim, pointed method hiding in the obese, apparently bumbling approach appears as early on as 1989 in the making of Roger & Me. The background can be found in Jesse Larner's Moore & Us and especially in Roger Rapoport's Citizen Moore. After carefully laying the groundwork for a labor history documentary centered on Flint, Michigan and incriminating General Motors, Moore suddenly changed direction. He did so in the way an artist works, all on his own, without explanations. In a word, he made his film personal and entertaining although the turnabout upset his associates and Flint to no end.
The switch entailed discarding footage that his helpers considered so precious as to defy cutting. This showed Moore's sensational intervention at the GM shareholders meeting and his fifteen-minute dream interview with Roger Smith. Collaborators despaired to see events in Flint become a backdrop for a duel between two adversaries who -- this was the structural big joke of the film -- never actually clang their swords together. Critics left and right pointed to the cutting room floor and clamored that the two men had in fact met and talked. So what, said the artist. He wasn't concerned with the preliminary groping, but with the final form of his work and its impact.
Carried away by the subjects he takes on, Moore often blurs his role as a satirist and strikes the pose of an investigative journalist. This inevitably furnishes a handhold for his hysterical critics. Sicko was a case in point. As always with Moore, its brilliance was in the way he slapped the issue down on the national dinner table. He told us not to dawdle over the X millions of Americans who have no medical coverage. We should listen to the plain folks who have private insurance that was supposed to solve their health problems. When asking for the help they'd paid for, it turned out they'd been hoodwinked, not to say defrauded: They were treated as the enemy.
Moore then put into relief with flamboyance the anomaly of the USA, alone of developed countries, not having universal health care. As in his wry exchanges with the victims of insurance companies, his look at the practice of other countries was hilarious and full of surprises. The stopover at Guantánamo Bay with ailing New Yorkers begging care from the US military was the coup of a master satirist, as was its followup when the sufferers from God's Country were looked after amiably by Cuban medical men free of charge.
An example of the widespread bad faith in reviewing Sicko can be seen in Stephen Hunter's Washington Post piece (June 29, 2007). Hunter demanded nothing less than a detailed, fully argued new health-care system for a country of 300 million people presented in 113 minutes. It had to include the counterarguments and their proponents. Of course it also had to be entertaining. Since this wasn't forthcoming, "The American health-care system is busted and Michael Moore is not the guy to fix it." It was like saying the global economy has tanked. Put together another one for us in a couple of hours and throw in some good jokes too.
As for Moore's genial, uncritical tour of other nations' health-care systems, Hunter, like other critics, insisted that France, Canada, Cuba, and the UK's services really weren't all that good. Here the reviewer's evidence was anecdotal and hearsay, just the sort he accused Moore of using to discredit the American system. That, however, is by the way. Moore was no more presenting a comparative study of national health services than he was a new overall plan for America. He was muckraking; he was satirizing; he was telling us we'd got everything upside down. And he was being funny.
Moore's book Stupid White Men lays out the path he follows. It begins with a letter to George W. Bush that takes for granted the man has just stolen the presidential election. Moore piles on his solid reasons for believing so. However, there's no space at all allotted to objections to his conviction. In other words, he makes a strong statement of opinion and gives his reasons, all of them bristling with humor. Another chapter begins with Moore's casually meeting an airline pilot. He can't believe how little the man earns in such a responsible position. The chapter develops into an attack on the outlandish salaries paid to corporation executives while people on whom our lives depend have to scrape along on their own. But, again, Moore doesn't make a study of how income is distributed in the country, though this would surely back up his contention.
Moore the shrewd satirist appears in a chapter entitled "Kill Whitey," after the phrase bandied about years ago by Black Panthers to buck themselves up between lethal police raids. Blacks, says Moore, are not only equal but superior to whites. Like any blunt paradox this sets off a tumble of amusing elaboration. Do Afro-Americans lynch, manufacture guns, start wars, exploit workers, practice racism? Of course not. It's the white man we ought to be afraid of when we meet him in the street after dark. Whites commit most crimes. Once more, there's no attempt here at a survey of society or more than a glance at history. It's simply a good, swift kick in our white pants. Just as Moore purported to get his facts in informal chat with an airline pilot, he tells us about talk with his hardworking black employees whom, in another dig at conventional wisdom, he finds more conscientious and enterprising than whites.
Stupid White Men continues in this vein but without always hitting nails so resolutely on the head. That public schools have hit bottom, that males have lost ground in nature and society, that the U.S.A. lags behind many developed countries in essential matters, that it puts too many people in prison -- haven't we heard all that before? Only when Moore manages to come up with another sharp paradox do we prick up our ears. Thus in the 2000 election "Ralph Nader represented the country's only hope toward pushing Gore toward doing the right thing." (3) See also the glorious barbed irony of "A Prayer to Afflict the Comfortable." (4)
Apart from the bold polemical splashes, a good deal of the book seems like last year's punditry recycled in regular-guy speak for a mythical six-pack crowd. Moore's injection of the personal note and his off-the-dirty-cuff delivery is significant. It's what would make his films riveting. But in the films we see his picturesque personage popping up in unexpected places. We see the unease of the people he gets in a corner and provokes. It's delicious because generally they represent unsavory causes and deserve a custard pie in the face. On the page of a book, however, such situations don't arise. Moore might be delivering an older-brother spiel to high school kids looking for tips on how to graduate into militant liberals. The prose is as banal and dull as just such a lecture would be. The teacher alone has the floor. He interrupts his hectoring with an occasional cute joke. The book sold a lot of copies, but no one is going to read it twice.
Stupid White Men was a sprightly enough performance to have heartened down-in-the-dumps progressives, but it doesn't explain why in March 2003 Moore would have a world audience before which to call shame down on the "president," (his quote marks indicating illegitimacy). To understand that, we must backtrack to Moore's ouster as editor of Mother Jones after a few months reign in 1986. (Being fired, he would afterwards call his luckiest break.) He'd been at a loose end, the folding of his Michigan Voice leaving him with nothing more than a reputation as a blue-collar muckraker from the rust belt. He took on the San Francisco editorship in uncertainty covered with bluster. ("The magazine you've been publishing is shit, and we're going to change that.") (5) His lone-artist's ego strained at the leash from the first day, and he pulled away from then on. The serious investigative journalism for a national audience that Mother Jones specialized in was simply not his cup of tea. He sensed from the start that he couldn't edit an enterprise of the sort and in no time so did everyone else.
Moore nevertheless extracted cash in a wrongful-dismissal settlement from Mother Jones that would later prove useful in financing his film work. For a while he worked with Ralph Nader in Washington, not without dissatisfaction. ("Ralph Nader fired me in 1988 - kicked me out in the street penniless!") (6) Then he came back to Michigan and threw himself into the project that would end in 1989 with the showing of Roger & Me. Over the rocky road of making the documentary, he not only learned filmmaking but grasped the fact that his talent and method was in fact made to order for the camera. Writing and editing could only be a sideline.
All the same, the success of Roger & Me did not help get his next film project, Canadian Bacon (1995), off the ground. It did, however, get him into television and the 105 segments of TV Nation (CBS and Fox 1994-5) (7) were the result. Here was final proof that Moore wasn't an investigative journalist but an entertainer and inventor of original stunts that had social and political teeth. His team set out to create embarrassment and then put it on film. He invaded rich American gated communities. He made the head of Muzac, Inc. listen to his own music in the middle of the night. He dismayed corporations by offering them donations. He pitted US, Canadian, and Cuban health services against one another in a sporting competition. (Cuba won but CBS said to make Canada the winner.) He accompanied black dancers and a gay choir to entertain Klan and Aryan Nations conventioneers. The spice of provocation made for fresh, funny TV and his small screen work put the finishing touches on Moore's way with a camera.
A couple of films and a tad more TV later, Bowling For Columbine shows him in command. He's chummy, determined, unafraid of pathos or a horselaugh. The film is based on asking people questions to their face and letting them put their foot in it. At the same time it's a successful mishmash of a half-dozen techniques that makes for informality and fun: bits of animation, old film clips, manipulative cutting, security camera footage, and travel across and out of the U.S.A. Anyone doubting that Moore can act should watch him try doors in Toronto that he'd been assured were never locked.
In Columbine the main thrust is once again tabling a problem. Here it's America's infatuation with guns. Moore has no answer to the question of why so many Americans shoot one another, but he's relentless in turning up the elements of a reply that his compatriots would rather ignore. As always his aim is less to pile up evidence than to underline attitudes and look into paradoxes. Putting the Columbine shootings to the fore leads to a choppy progression of the film. When he suggests the two adolescent shooters were influenced by a neighboring missile factory and US foreign policy from Chile to Kosovo, we hope he will come back to earth quickly. He does, but we never quite get over our surprise that the Columbine incident isn't at the center of Bowling For Columbine.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) will also show something of what we might call, intending no pun, a scattershot approach. Moore gets entangled in the connection of the Bush and bin Laden families before settling down to an effective broadside against the "I'm a War President." Though this is Moore's weightiest film, touching war, death, destruction, and their exploitation by politicians, he still manages to weave a narrative enlivened by brilliant stunts and some wild blush-making footage. The clip of the warrior Prez hiding his head in a children's book, The Little Goat, while the Twin Towers fall is a visual indictment of the first water. Moore as a sidewalk interviewer inviting mealy-mouthed congressmen to send their children to fight in Iraq is unforgettable. We'd like to think that the sickening shot of Paul Wolfowitz spitting on his comb before going on TV was the beginning of the downward spiral of that worthy.
Despite the tacky industry that has grown up around Moore, there's no reason to believe his career has stalled. His influence on the last presidential election was less than many hoped. This time he may wait till after the votes are counted to embarrass the new occupant of the White House and the country he or she presides over. We shall still be wondering why a millionaire entertainer suited out like an off duty assembly-line worker should scare the powerful. It could be for the same reason that another wealthy comedian -- one called Charlie and favoring a tramp outfit -- was driven out of the country a half century ago. He made people in power laugh till it hurt. They are all afraid of Michael Moore.
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