Moore Easy Targets, Moore Money
With predictions that Fahrenheit 9/11 could play a role in the November elections, Michael Moore is back in the news. Hes received plenty of criticism already but its always for either his politics or his weight. As someone who believes that Moore should be able to eat whatever and however much he wants, and whose political leanings coincide with his, I find it frustrating that so many of Moores critics are either right wing types threatened by his increasingly high profile or people who take cheap pot-shots at the man's girth. As a result, hes never really been challenged on some of the deeper flaws in his filmmaking, most crucially his possible lack of integrity when compared with other documentary makers.
Moore has been labelled a rabble rouser by some observers, but this seems a bit generous. As political arguments, or as calls for a pro-active response to social injustice, Moores films can be found wanting. The closed factories in Flint did not reopen after Roger & Me and American firearm laws have not changed in the wake of Bowling For Columbine. This may be because this filmmaker is more concerned with getting a laugh and making a commercially successful film than with instigating any social upheaval.
Moores filming of the hilarious Michigan Militia in Bowling For Columbine is as good an example as any. These are foolish, foolish people and as such they have no place in any serious debate about firearms. They are however, very amusing and Moore doesnt have to work very hard to get some 'point and laugh' comedy out of them.
Compare Bowling For Columbine with Errol Morris The Thin Blue Line and it's clear how lightweight Moores film really is. The Thin Blue Line was so powerful, and so carefully unpacked a miscarriage of justice that as a result of the film an innocent man was freed from Death Row. Bowling For Columbine has the pretense of tackling a deadly serious subject but delivers only a sequence of comedic set-pieces. More Trigger Happy TV than rabble rousing.
Similarly Moore's work pales next to thoughtful documentaries like Andrew Jarecki's Capturing The Friedmans. Jarecki's film constructs a documentary from the Friedman family's home videos, taken while the father and son were accused of indecent assault on children. Jarecki's balanced work credits the audience with enough intelligence to make up their own mind about the Friedman family. He doesn't manipulate the evidence in order to bludgeon us with his opinion, and I can only imagine how the Friedmans would have suffered had it been Michael Moore who had been granted access to their home movies.
In some ways Moore's treatment of the Michigan Militia is just harmless fun, easy targets for easy laughs for easy money, but theres a real lack of integrity in Moores treatment of Charlton Heston, specifically in his editing of Charlton Hestons speeches. Like an evil version of Sergei Eisenstein, Moore has employed his considerable editing room talent to deliberately misrepresent Charlton Heston. Different speeches are re-ordered and cut together to make Heston appear more demonic and fervent than he really is. Not least among the evidence is Hestons amazing technicolour tie that changes colour mid-speech.
It could be argued that Moores cavalier approach to facts is a justifiably creative approach to representing the truth. However, if you like metaphors, you could say that Moore stretches the elastic band of truth until it snaps.
Moore misleads us into thinking Heston held a pro-gun rally just 48 hours after little Kayla Rolland was murdered in Flint, Michigan. The sequence is cut so that footage of Moore comforting Kaylas distraught teacher is followed by a headline that reads 48 hours after Kayla Rollands was pronounced dead, which is then followed by Heston at an NRA rally. Moore is clearly saying Heston held a pro-gun rally in Michigan 48 hours after Kayla was pronounced dead, seemingly as a direct response to events.
Its now known that Heston and the NRA didnt come to Michigan until many months afterwards. Worse, the full text of the headline reads 48 hours after Kayla Rolland was pronounced dead, Bill Clinton is on The Today Show telling a sympathetic Katie Couric, 'Maybe this tragic death will help.'" Bowling For Columbine zooms into the text very quickly, obscuring everything but the incriminating 48 hours after.. headline.
Why does Moore do this? I have no sympathy for Moses himself Charlton Heston, especially not in his role as NRA figurehead, but its worth considering why Moore has chosen to victimise him. The answer lies in the film that launched Michael Moores career: Roger & Me.
The film was about the General Motors plant closures which had decimated Moores hometown of Flint, Michigan, but to avoid being just another worthy documentary about economic depression Moore had given the film a narrative. Moores repeated attempts to interview General Motors CEO Roger Smith, and Smiths constant refusal to grant him an audience, allows plenty of room for Moores wryly amusing voice-over. Made for just $160,000 Roger & Me made nearly $7million at the box office, launching Moore as a media personality.
However since Roger & Me was released in 1989, Moore had found another commercial success hard to come by. To make this style of documentary filmmaking work, Moore seems to need a villain to anchor all his less focused antics. In The Big One Moore attempts to cast Nike CEO Phil Knight in the Roger Smith role but is ultimately frustrated. He must have been short of footage for the final edit because theres a sequence thats nothing more than Moore playing a practical joke on a member of his own staff. Knight seems to be too media savvy for Moore, probably having seen Roger & Me hes ready for him and successfully gives him the brush-off.
Bowling For Columbine could easily have been called Charlton & Me, as Moore has now cast Heston in the Roger Smith role. While much of the film is a series of stunts loosely linked by the theme of firearms, the figure of Heston ties it all together. However, in Bowling For Columbine Moore gets an interview with Heston, and this is where it all falls apart.
Heston is revealed to be a fragile and confused old man who has basically been ambushed by Moore. By this point you should be hating Heston, even more so as he takes his place on a director's style chair with his name on the back. However, you cant help but pity this poor old soul as he sits down for an interview he assumes to be with a member of his organisation, but is confronted with several difficult (even impossible) questions. For example, he is asked why he held a rally so soon after the shooting of Kayla Rollands. We know now that he didnt, but in the context of Bowling For Columbine we are led to believe he did. He cannot answer this question satisfactorily. Once Heston realizes hes been set up (and it takes a while) he cuts short the interview. Moore takes this as a moral victory.
He counters by sanctimoniously leaving a picture of Kayla Rollands outside Hestons house. Despite Moores best efforts this is the moment where you can really see the shallowness of his intentions, and you could argue that its a microcosm of the whole film. It attempts to cast Moore as the caring everyman whos so moved by this little girl's death, but leaving the picture is really a self-serving stunt and a transparent attempt at moral one-upmanship.
The Heston interview underlines why Roger & Me was successful. To portray Roger Smith as the uncaring villain he wants him to be, Moore goes to great lengths to ensure he wont be granted an interview. A great example is when he gatecrashes the lobby, telling security hes going up to see Roger Smith. He knows it doesnt work like this, its all for our entertainment. More tellingly, when security asks him for identification, our intrepid filmmaker doesnt produce his respectable journalistic credentials (Moore had been a political journalist in Michigan for many years), instead he produces his Chuck E. Cheese card, an absolute guarantee that he wont get an interview.
This underlines the point that Moores films are not the investigative documentaries they may be mistaken for. The contrived comic set-pieces that make up a Michael Moore film serve no purpose other than to entertain us and make money. Depsite this (and despite the seeminly endless line of books that drop off the Michael Moore conveyer belt) I wouldn't suggest Moore is only in this game to make money. I believe his heart is in the right place, but he seems to have decided that audineces are lacking either the intelligence or the will to sit through a 'serious' political documentary and so falls back on his now patented series of gimmicks. He may even be right, and as such Moore is just another symptom of the dumbing down of political debate.
I'm yet to see Fahrenheit 9/11, but the word is that Moore has cast Bush as the villain and himself as the voice of the people once more. In many ways, Moore has taken the safe, commercially sensible option. Bush is a prime target, high profile and easy to mock. If you want to see a real, thought provoking and intelligent political documentary by a proper documentary filmmaker, which contains genuine revelations about America at war, I would suggest The Fog Of War: Eleven Lesson From the Life Of Robert McNamara by Errol Morris.
However, with the presidential elections being so close, and with Bush already unpopular, one of Moores films, no matter how one-sided, self-serving, and full of light entertainment dressed as social commentary it is, could serve a purpose beyond merely making us laugh.