August 23, 2004

The Moore Chronicles

A month or so back, I had the inglorious occasion to catch Fahrenheit 9/11 at a movie theater in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. The appreciative guffaws from the Left Bank audience added predictable insult to the injury of Moore's cheaply polemical "documentary."

I put documentary in quotes ("(p)resenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter...") because, truth be told, I don't think Moore's film deserves the moniker. Which brings me to this well worth reading (if overly sympathetic and long) review of Fahrenheit 9/11 in the NYRB.

I found a few parts of the review particularly interesting as they showcase some key points (numbered below) I thought of as I watched the movie.

1) Moore's film displays an astonishing degree of provincialism:

Let me explain. Recall the risibly propagandistic footage of Saddam era Iraq before the brutish American bombs began to fall. Kites flying, kids laughing, happy weddings. Life was so rosy in the neo-Stalinist paradise!

This absurd whitewash of Saddam's Iraq in part stems from Moore very likely not giving two damns about the Iraqis or their fate. Which, to a fashion, reveals the extent of Moore's myopic Flint-centric worldview. In this world, the monied and powerful (simply to put down a pipeline here, boost the bottom line of a private equity shop there) send off legions of our young underclass as cheap cannon fodder in monstrously self-interested fashion. This narrative, of course, is all happening in Moore's hyperbolically oppressive America--with little care or concern about the wider world.

As the NYRB review puts it:

Fahrenheit 9/11 is not, finally, a movie about Iraq or Afghanistan, and evidently is not intended to be: it's a movie about America and Americans. The bloody scenes of the Iraq war that follow the dubious montage mentioned above have a frightening effectiveness not because they illuminate in any way the conflicts within Iraqi society but because they demonstrate the unbridgeable gap between the American soldiers and the place where they find themselves. It's as if Moore identified so much with the bewilderment of those soldiers that he can only give us their point of view. The Iraqis themselves are an indistinguishable mass of suffering and resentment, with no distinctions made among different allegiances within the culture: the result, at worst, is another dubious moment where the soundtrack gives us party music—"Come on, party people, throw your hands in the air"—in synch with a crowd of insurgents raising their rifles, who are thereby made to look like a parody of the Arab raiders in some desert adventure movie.

Put differently, despite (because of?) the Cannes international glitterati being all atwitter about Moore's film, it's a work that tells us little about where Iraq stands today or stood under Saddam, or how the world has changed post 9/11, or anything else really that would really earn the moniker documentary.

In this vein, recall too the repulsive scene where, in a manner reminiscent of Abu Ghraib, U.S. soldiers are mistreating an Iraqi corpse. Surely many on the left admire Moore's "courage" in airing such footage so that naive Americans sitting about in Peoria don't swallow all Murdoch's jingoistic slop on Fox about all the kindergarten-building underway in Tikrit. But what such footage instead again reinforces is Moore's deep-seated provincial worldview:

Here as elsewhere in the film Moore has a tendency to make easy caricatural use of any footage involving exotics, whether from Saudi Arabia or Costa Rica. The American soldiers on the other hand are made to seem thoroughly familiar even when they are talking about getting pumped up on a record by the Bloodhound Gang when riding into battle ("The roof is on fire... Burn, motherfucker, burn!") or abusing a bound prisoner in Abu Ghraib fashion (a voice redolent of ancient summer camp hazing rituals howls, "You touched his dick!").

These grotesqueries are not meant as an honest critique of our war effort in Iraq or our handling of Iraqi POWs or dead. They are rather a form of cheap pornography (with a touch of snuff) masquerading as courageous dissidence (Moore securing us the muckracking truth amidst the Big Lies of the Bushies, Big Business, Big Media). All this is part of why, after seeing his movie, what I really wanted to do immediately was take a long, hot shower (instead I had to opt for a bottle of Muscadet...)

2) Moore is intellectually lazy and has but one narrative that he tiresomely revisits.

Moore has merely recycled his earlier oeuvre and repackaged it to fit his hatred of the Bushies and his disdain and (mostly pretend) anger that we went to war in Iraq.

As the NYRB puts it:

Roger & Me tells the story of how General Motors cut its losses in Flint, Michigan, without any regard for the fate of the workers left behind, and turns it into a whimsical quest by Moore for an interview with GM's chairman, Roger Smith. Along the way, an assortment of found footage —home movies, promotional films, TV newscasts, performance clips featuring celebrities on the order of Anita Bryant and Pat Boone, scenes from old Hollywood pictures—are interwoven with the staged encounters that have become Moore's trademark, in which various spokespersons and security officers are enlisted as bit players in a comically timed confrontation with authority....

Substituting the administration of George W. Bush for General Motors, Moore's new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, could almost be a remake of Roger & Me. While operating on a larger scale, it draws on the same formal devices and leads to the same broad and simple conclusion, a conclusion with which Charles Dickens might well have had some empathy: that the big shots do things for their own self-serving reasons and don't give a damn about you or me or all the others who maneuver for temporary advantage in a situation not of their choosing. Indeed, in Fahrenheit, as in his previous film, Bowling for Columbine (2002), Moore eventually brings the movie back to Flint, as if to reaffirm a core of personal experience as his center even when contemplating the most far-flung events. This stubborn subjectivity, grounded in local knowledge, and reinforced by habitual gestures and comic tics, is strained in his new movie almost to the breaking point as he incorporates as much as he can of the history of the past four years, but it is something he can't afford to lose.

So this is Moore's sole world view in a nutshell. The powerful are duplicitous and evil--and always violently oppress the weak in grotesquely self-interested fashion with nary a care for the cruelly suffering masses. The oppressors might change a bit here and there (GM, gun companies, Carlyle, Bush-Saud dynasties, Halliburton) but the oppressed stay mostly the same (the struggling perma-underclasses of places like Flint).

It's a hugely simplistic take on the world--and Moore will likely sputter out of gas soon as a single story-line only takes you so far. (And, worth noting, much of the international acclaim for Moore, really, was mostly a function of the Bush hatred that infects artistic 'elites' rather than any real talent. Cannes hadn't awarded the Palme D'Or to a documentary in 48 long years. Did Moore's merit such a rare honor? Well, no, of course not...)

But surely there is something in his work that generates all this buzz. Part of his appeal, of course, is simply that he brazenly pisses on and mocks the powerful. Like a hooligan throwing a pie into Bill Gate's face--the long My Pet Goat camera sequence appeals to many who like to see the powerful humiliated. Made to appear small, dumb, moronic (by the way, what should Bush have done? Stopped the reading and told the gathered kiddies that maybe tens of thousands of officeworkers has just been de facto cremated in the Towers? C'mon!).

But there is something else that doubtless impressed the Quentin Tarantino types as the jury deliberated. And yes, it does involve a form of talent or gift. Moore is not wholly talent-less. He does ingeniously inject popular culture references (a la Tarantino) in a way that appeals to a lazily cynical, fed-on-MTV, mostly apolitical swath of the public.

3) Moore adeptly uses postmodern devices (pastiche, irony, bricolage) but, unlike much of the cynical detachment of postmodernists vis-a-vis taking political stances, employs these devices in an overtly politicized, polemical fashion.

He needs to do this partly because his theses--if they appeared purely in written form without all the interspersed parodic 'entertainment' (music soundtracks and such)--wouldn't garner much interest among the wider public.

It must be said that Moore is a good deal less persuasive when he doesn't have his audiovisual displays at his disposal. On the bare page he is the artist stripped of his tools, however strange a statement that may be to make about an author whose books sell in the millions of copies. Funny as he sometimes is in print, Moore finally cannot resist bludgeoning the reader into submission with his reductive prose:

Everyone—except those who die in it—loves a good war, especially one you can win quickly. We, good. Them, bad. Them, dead. We win! Cue the cameras, the victorious POTUS is landing on the aircarrier.

In Fahrenheit 9/11 the gist of this passage is conveyed, to quite different effect, by a clip from the early days of the Iraq war of the TV anchorwoman Katie Couric chirping "I just want you to know I think Navy Seals rock!" and by actual footage of Bush on that aircraft carrier, beneath the now notorious MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner, the scene underscored by the maddeningly buoyant theme of the early 1980s TV show The Greatest American Hero ("Suddenly I'm up on top of the world,/Shoulda been somebody else./Believe it or not I'm walking on air,/I never thought I could feel so free"). Rather than a succession of slogans and one-liners that become tiresome even if you agree with them, the film offers signs captured from the air, little pieces of the environment we inhabit. An overt connoisseurship of sources comes into play. The fun that Moore has mixing his materials—including the fairly cheap fun of the Dragnet clips, the Bonanza bit with Bush and Company riding off to Afghanistan, the music video effect of REM's "Shiny Happy People" as backdrop to scenes of Bushes and Saudis socializing together, the World Wrestling–style roll call of the Coalition of the Willing—is meant to be shared by an audience sufficiently at home with all forms of sampling and downloading to take a virtually professional interest in the fine points of Moore's mix tape.

A written polemic about Bush pere hobnobbing with Crown Prince Abdullah to fill Carlyle's pockets (Moore hasn't a clue how the private equity business works) wouldn't get nearly as much attention. But finding footage of all the key actors appearing a bit unreal, awkward (theatrical handshakes amidst muggy Riyadh palaces with preppy George Herbert Walker surrounded by smiling, beturbaned Saudi royals)--with REM's 'Shiny Happy People' blaring--well that does have an effect on the movie-going masses. This "sampling" and "downloading" keeps the viewer involved, entertained, ready to shell out the 10 bucks to see a soi disant political documentary.

Moore is, in some ways, a caricature of an Oliver Stone (his flights of factual fancy much greater even)--but one who knows how to jazz up the set a bit more than gloomy Oliver so as to keep the crowd better entertained. His style of work (using postmodern devices to entertain so as to keep people attentive during his boorish, propagandistic and tedious quasi-documentarian excursions) might well constitute a dangerous form of propaganda were it not for the innate B.S. detectors people carry with them.

Put differently, I suspect, for those that hate Bush, they will leave the theater still hating him--but not really anymore than before. For those that like Bush, they will leave unpersuaded and further convinced that Moore is a cheap charlatan. And for any Bush undecideds, they will leave in a blur of pop culture references, a REM song here, a 'Keep on Rocking in the Free World' riff there, a Marine recruiter plying his trade in an iconic mall parking lot there.

So they will leave bemused and entertained--but not truly interested, persuaded on the merits, advanced in knowledge, fulfilled spiritually, improved in any real way (as true art is meant to do). That such efforts are even considered art and worthy of significant prizes speaks to the cultural desert we inhabit today. It's a sad state of affairs--but at least the dangers of a Leni Riefenstahl are not presented by this faux-artist who is really an imbecilic Howard Stern type shock-jock with a camera and a bone to pick from the old Flint days.

So yes, I'm clearly deeply underwhelmed, and doubtless others will increasingly be so going forward. The emperor has no clothes (much like the Cannes jury's selection process).

And yet, like it or not, Fahrehheit 9/11 passes for compelling fare among many. Surely though, better times must beckon? Or has cultural production truly become so desparately bleak? It hasn't, I know (many talents toil in near anonymity), but critics need to yell more loudly so the boorish lout that is Michael Moore is unmasked for the charlatan, publicity-hound and talent-challenged fraud that he is.

Posted by Gregory Djerejian at August 23, 2004 11:42 PM
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