The Transforming Art of Michael Moore

Random Lengths News | June 18, 2004
1374 words

The Transforming Art of Michael Moore

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor, Random Lengths News

"I don't think I've ever cried so hard at a movie in my life," Madonna told a crowd at Madison Square Garden during a break in her performance. "And I'm sure I still have a lot to learn from it." Ordinarily, a documentary filmmaker could only dream of such an endorsement. Ordinarily, it would be the sort of buzz a publicist would kill for. But when the movie is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, well, it’s just an extra little treat—particularly since Moore was in the audience, enjoying the show, and Madonna went on to thank him personally.

For Moore, the real publicity bonanza is—as it has been since 9/11 itself —the knee-jerk attempts of ham-fisted powerbrokers to try to shut him up. Each attempt at censoring what he has to say has only made him stronger, and made people all the more eager to know what’s so dangerous and forbidden.

First it was the librarians in their chat rooms, who saved the entire press run of Stupid White Men from being destroyed by the publisher, and never seeing the light of day—a story that Moore has delighted in retelling. It quickly skyrocketed to the top of the best-seller list. The attempt to boo and hurry him off the stage when he won his Oscar for Bowling for Columbine only prolonged for days the focus on his attack on Bush’s fictitious election and fictitious evidence for war.

Now, repeated roadblocks for Fahrenheit 9/11 have given Moore more free publicity than any documentary has ever had. First there was Michael Eisner’s implausible refusal to distribute it through Disney. Moore quipped that, “Disney, instead of telling the truth, turned into Pinocchio.”

While many of the disputed facts involve private conversations, Disney’s public claim that it was trying to avoid partisanship was an obvious nose-grower, as Moore quickly pointed out. “Hmmm. Disney doesn't distribute work that has partisan politics? Disney distributes and syndicates the Sean Hannity radio show every day. I get to listen to Rush Limbaugh every day on Disney-owned WABC. I also seem to remember that Disney distributed a very partisan political movie during a Congressional election year, 1998—a film called ‘The Big One’... by, um... ME!”

Next, one Palme d' Or and one distributor later, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) set out to top Eisner. The saddling the movie with an R-rating for "violent and disturbing images and for language"—something it almost never does, as movie critic Roger Ebert has repeatedly pointed out. Not only is there a double-standard between sex and violence, but honest sex is more verboten than cheesy exploitation. Now, however, the MPAA suddenly discovers that violence, too, should be kept from young eyes. It’s like Donald Rumsfeld belatedly discovering that Saddam Hussein is a bad man.

If it stands, the R-rating would primarily cut down on the teenage audience—the prime candidates to be recruited to join the military within a few years, Moore noted. “If they are old enough to be recruited and capable of being in combat and risking their lives, they certainly deserve the right to see what is going on in Iraq,'' he said.

Moore’s distributor, Lions Gate Films, hired former Governor of New York Mario Cuomo to appeal the ruling, which could cut the films gross by up to 20 percent. But teenagers don’t vote—and they do rent DVDs. While the rating could hurt the first-run bottom-line, the controversy only underscores one of Moore’s perennial themes—the hypocrisy of would-be moral paragons—and helps raise interest among potential voting-age viewers.

Also joining the fray are some very partisan Republic operatives. There’s David Bossie, a former aid to Congressman Dan Burton, fired for inserting Hillary Clinton’s name into a Webster Hubbell tape transcript—and more importantly, getting caught. His group, Citizens United, is working on video ads targeting Moore along with philanthropist George Soros.

But first out of the box was the Sacramento-based GOP campaign consulting firm Russo Marsh & Rogers (RM&R), with an anti-free speech message. They launched a web-based attack on Moore, labeling him a "domestic enemy" and encouraging people to harass movie theatres into canceling screenings. On its website, RM&R brags, “The principals and associates at RM&R have been involved in more than 350 campaigns at the local, state, federal and international levels,” including, “countries such as Nicaragua and the Ukraine.”

They had previously succeeded in bludgeoning CBS into canceling its mini-series, “The Reagans,” for being insufficiently reverential. But these anti-free speech campaigns were done behind an astro turf front of “Move America Forward.” Once they were outed, RM&R quickly transferred the website’s registration to a close ally, self described “street fighter” Howard Kaloogian, a former GOP State Assemblyman from San Diego, who launched one of the earliest efforts to recall Gray Davis—an effort that only succeeded because of the big-spending Congressman Darrell Issa.

CBS may be intimidated by these guys, but Moore is made of sterner stuff. Indeed, the more the so-called “liberal media” moves rightward under such pressure, the greater the void there is for Moore and other like-minded documentarians to fill. A recent column by Christian Science Monitor film critic David Sterritt was titled “A perfect storm of issue films,” and cited fare such as "Control Room" (a behind-the-scenes look at the Al Jazeera TV network), "The Corporation" (which applies standard mental health diagnostics to the corporate “person” to reveal a highly anti-social “personality”), "The Hunting of the President" (the movie version of Gene Lyon and Joe Conason’s expose of the hidden forces behind the Clinton impeachment), and "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," which opens theatrically in theaters in August, having already sold 100,000 video copies via the web.

These are actually more traditional—if edgy—documentaries. But others, such as “Super Size Me," in which the filmmaker eats nothing but McDonald's products for a month, follow Moore’s lead by making documentaries both more personal and more political—as well as appealing in pop-cultural terms.

Still, Moore is the undisputed leader of this burgeoning form, and this leadership takes two forms, beyond his obvious commercial success.

First, as Madonna pointed out, is Moore’s humanity, his capacity to move us emotionally, without diminishing his capacity to outrage or shock. Fox News entertainment reporter Roger Friedman called Moore’s film “a really brilliant piece of work” and went on to say, “As much as some might try to marginalize this film as a screed against President George Bush, ‘F9/11’—as we saw last night—is a tribute to patriotism, to the American sense of duty — and at the same time a indictment of stupidity and avarice.”

Second is Moore’s matter-of-fact post-modernism. He does more than deftly deconstruct cherished truths, he turns everything he touches into part of his art. His life is a 24/7 demonstration of how to survive total information war, where you are always the target. In film—this is how you jujitsu General Motors. In real life—this is how you jujitsu Dinsey. It’s like the Balinese say. “We have no art, we do everything as well as we can."

Kaloogan attacks Moore’s film as “political propaganda” that’s anti-American. “This is not the fare that passes as entertainment—let alone documentary,” he says. But what could be more American than Michael Moore, the little guy out to discover the truth? The truth, it should be noted, that CBS and ABC/Disney can no longer handle—or hide. That, ultimately, is what Moore documents now, as he always has—the little guy’s quest for truth, eased against its brutality with whatever wit he can muster.

Aptly enough, Ray Bradbury’s book, Fahrenheit 451, the namesake for Moore’s film, was about a society in which books are outlawed. In that world, firemen are social guardians whose job it is to burn books—books which burn at a temperature of 451 degrees Fahrenheit. The outcast heroes of Fahrenheit 451 are people who memorize—no, who become books, in order to preserve them. Michael Moore is one of them—with a twist. He, too, is fighting censorship, ignorance and forgetting with his very being. He is a man who has become his movies.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior news editor for Random Lengths News, which is the leading progressive alternative newsweekly for the Los Angeles Harbor Area in California. His work also regularly appears in Publishers Weekly and he is currently working on a book on post 9/11 politics.

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