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 at August 23, 2004 11:42 PM

I can never wholly condemn Moore after living through his TV Nation shows on the BBC in the mid-90's. They were truly hilarious, and didn't have the same preachiness as his later work. I still have some of them on video. He seems to have concluded that the latter pays more than the former.

Everybody, help me to change this calculus. If you must see Fahrenheit 9/11, pay to go into another movie and then amble into the F 9/11 screen. And if you must read his books, get them out of the library. Then maybe we'll get the old Moore back - a comic first, a polemicist a very distant second.

Posted by: PJ at August 24, 2004 01:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I haven't seen F911 yet, so perhaps I'm not qualified to comment. Also I've noticed that people get very upset, and accuse me of being a rightist, a Republican hack, and a Bush apologist (even though I voted for Mr. Gore in 2000 and won't vote for Mr. Bush in 2004) whenever I offer any criticism of the great Michael Moore. It seems like I am the only Democrat who will admit to despising that man.

Yeah, well, I don't care. The fact is that Mr. Moore and his supporters like to pretend that they are more open-minded, more cosmopolitan than other Americans. But I was struck by one common reaction observed by reporters interviewing people who watched Mr. Moore's film outside of the U.S.: even though the viewers mainly agreed with Mr. Moore's politics, they were offended by his highly insulting portrayal of other nations (those who had joined the "coalition of the willing").

I don't think that Mr. Moore is as patriotic as he now pretends to be, but in one way, he is very American: he doesn't know much about the rest of the world, and he doesn't care.

Posted by: Arjun at August 24, 2004 03:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I much prefer your review to that of John Berger in the guardian today (,3604,1289430,00.html ). I disliked that enough that I was forced to waste 2 hours fisking the thing

Posted by: Francis at August 24, 2004 06:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

One of the more interesting angles left unexplored, was the process by which those bases in Saudi
Arabia, were approved; which supposedly vitiates
Bin Laden's great anger. According to an otherwise
hagiographic Vanity Fair profile of him; it was Richard Clarke, who was the official involved.

Posted by: narciso at August 24, 2004 06:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The pictures of the "Happy Iraqis under Saddam"
reminds me old images of "The happy darkies
on de massuh's plantation". Makes me think
Moore is most like D.W. Griffiths.

Posted by: Dennis at August 24, 2004 07:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Weeell, documentaries have been making stuff up since Nanook's family was placed in a halved igloo, the better to fit in a camera, and asked to asked to do multiple takes of 'falling asleep to the smoking seal fat.'

I've said this a million times. F9/11 is like a bad referee call in my favor. It's wrong, but I'm stepping to the line and shooting my two, thanks. When Arjen Robben gets healthy for Chelsea, just paste 'djangone' on his uniform back every time he gets a penalty kick for a dive in the box (and it's gonna happen quite a bit for Robben). It's just the way the game is played.

In a perfect world, from the near-left, I'd rather Michael Moore found other things to do films about. In a world of less perfection every day John O'Neill has the ability to open his mouth, I'm more than content with a relativist morality that compares his impact to the unadorned garbage coming out of Fox, NewsMax, Drudge and the Sun Myung Moon / Scaife press and says, you know, we're about 25 F9/11's short of parity even now. Where's the Bush 'death list'? Where's the story of condoms Laura Bush hung from White House trees? Where's the 'W was a KGB spy'? We're miles from equal in terms of 'things we produce to convince the village idiots.'

Because ultimately and rater sadly, many viewers experience F9/11 like the dog in the Far Side cartoon. Man speaks, but dog only hears, blah blah blah, Charlie, blah blah blah, Charlie. In this case, it's blah blah blah, Bush looks like an idiot, blah blah blah, Wolfowitz looks like an idiot, blah blah blah, I call you my base, blah blah blah, won't get fooled again. I sat watching the film in Los Angeles, looking around at people--mostly lesser-informed liberals--satisfied that they probably wouldn't be able to retell in any detail days later the dumb, blunt-instrument theories that Moore tries to weave. What they or even the neutral viewer would remember would be the incredible denseness of George W. Bush in the video clips. These didn't really need the context of a Moore film. It was all the movie needed to be, except nobody would have show up to a film that merely showed George Bush being George Bush. I was simply happy that these things that I've known for quite awhile were getting an airing, and if there was a little song-and-dance in-between, little harm would be done.

Suffice it to say, it wasn't a movie for a Belgravian. Consider yourself not in the target audience if you knew who Bandar was before the film, let alone before his New Yorker profile of a few years ago.

Posted by: djangone at August 25, 2004 08:43 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

People who choose to be informed by propaganda - which is ALWAYS one-sided - will ALWAYS be misinformed.

Policies based on misinformation will always collapse and fail - as surely as a tower built with no regard for the principles of engineering.

One cannot decide who wins a debate on any issue when one only listens to a single side of the debate.

It's like trying to determine guilt or innocence in a trial by only listening to one side present its case.
Again: It cannot be done; no conclusion or opinion based on a one-sided presentation can be reliably true.

Sadly, this is the current case for most of the Left: they rely on their favorite organs of the MSM, usually one TV network - and then a clown such as Moore - to reinforce their opinions - rather than reach out to a broader spectrum of experts to INFORM their opinions.

When I try to talk to my Leftist friends about the facts - they put their hands on their ears and refuse to listen; they refuse to open email with articles; they are in deep denial.

I read ten papers a day - on-line - and dozens of opinion columnists and bloggers from every side of the spectrum.

That's why this 4th generation Democrat will be voting for Bush.

I do not make up my mind on an issue before I hear the facts presented by both sides.

Most Leftists just follow the Party Line; they say: "If Bush is for it, then I'm against it!" If Clinton wanted to overthrow Saddam - "that's good" the Left says. But if Bush actually DOES IT: "That's BAD!" the Left says - and they'll do whatever it takes to convince themselves of it - EVEN LIE TO THEMSELVES!

Kerry - and the anti-War crowd - are as informed, fair-minded, truthful, and reliable as Moore and his slanderous movie F9/11.

The 6th arrondissement crowd you saw the movie with is virtually the same as the crowd on the Upper West Side, or in the Village in NYC, or in LA or SF or anywhere else liberals COCOON themselves in their misinformed little worlds.

They deny that Reagan was right.

They deny that cutting-off support for the government of South Vietnam was bad and wrong.

They even deny that we are in a war because of a proactive plan by our enemy.

I ask them: "What did the Buddhas of Bamiyan" have to do with USA hegemony? What do the bombings of Shia mosques all over the world have to do with the "Bush Crime Family"? What does the genocide of Darfurians have to do with the GOP? What does the fire-bombing of trainloads of Hindu pilgrims have to do with "AshKKKroft"?

They have no response.

They'd rather cheer the lies of Moore, than accept that we are in a horrible existential war and defending our civilization against the most brutal ideology of all time: Jihadoterrorism.

Let's face it: it's easier for them to hate Bush, and pretend that if they "could ONLY defeat him everything will be okay" - then to admit they have been totally wrong about politics for the last 35 years, and that we are in an awful war NOT of our own choosing.

Well... They will wither in their little twisted worlds until they get the courage to climb out of their "self-dug pits of denial" and begin to listen to the other side - the way you crawled into their little world of lies and distortions by seeing the Moore movie.

Which proves, Greg, YOU are a brave and honorable and intellectually honest person.
If only the Left had a few people like you, then the political debate in the USA might be better, and we might be evermore to have the truthful and vigorous kind of debates which are most likely to yield us the best possible policies.

Posted by: dan at August 25, 2004 11:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Francis, since you spent so long on John Berger's review, maybe you would be interested in the comments I posted on Harry's place.

Dan, if you read the links, you'll see the Left does have a few like him. Only a few, true.

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