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Cinema of cynicism

Michael Moore brings anti-politics to the big screen.

Sandy Starr

Topics Culture

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How did the irreverent prankster Michael Moore ever become a prominent media figure – much less the left’s new hope for ousting US president George W Bush from power?

Following the Oscar he received for his gun culture documentary Bowling for Columbine, and the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore and his projects have been obsessively followed by the media. He was recently featured on the cover of Time magazine, while every aspect of the wheeling and dealing surrounding the distribution and rating of Fahrenheit 9/11 was documented to death (1).

When it was recently rumoured that Moore would make a documentary about UK prime minister Tony Blair, and then Moore denied the rumour, and then he suggested that perhaps he would make such a documentary after all, each of these inane developments was reported separately as though it were a significant news story (2).

What has Moore done to deserve this level of attention? There’s no doubt that he’s a smart operator when it comes to self-promotion, but that alone can’t explain it. His critics have noted his tendency to exaggerate the forces that conspire to stop him from getting his message out to the public, for example his claim that the publisher HarperCollins tried to suppress his book Stupid White Men, and his claim that Disney – not to mention Moore’s perennial adversary, ‘someone connected to the White House’ – tried to suppress the release of Fahrenheit 9/11 (3). This kind of conspiratorial hype helps Moore to sustain his radical image, when the truth is that he couldn’t be a more mainstream figure.

The handful of conservative cranks who actually did try to get Fahrenheit 9/11 banned from US cinemas actually played right into Moore’s hands, allowing him to depict himself as the oppressed underdog (4). In fact, Moore expresses a set of increasingly popular attitudes toward politics. In particular, he embodies a vivid strain of contemporary cynicism, with his suspicion of any political or commercial vested interest that fails to justify itself in ethical terms. Naked ambition, more than anything else, is anathema to Moore.

Fahrenheit 9/11 has struck a chord because it provides a narrative of world events since Bush became president in 2000 that chimes with popular political attitudes. This is a dubious achievement, which involves mystification rather than enlightenment, but it is an achievement nonetheless. Anyone who feels estranged from American politics – and who finds it difficult to position themselves in relation to Bush’s presidency, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the subsequent wars on terror, Afghanistan and Iraq – can come out of Fahrenheit 9/11 feeling as though they understand how these things relate to one another, and are justified in feeling angry about them.

The anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation and anti-war movements of recent years have also sprung from popular disaffection with politics. But without any body of substantial ideas that might cohere these causes, they have failed to sustain their momentum and their raison d’être. Exploiting the build-up to the forthcoming US presidential elections in November, Fahrenheit 9/11 cannily repackages the misadventures of the Bush administration to date, so as to provide a fresh outlet for people’s bottled-up resentment.

The film tells us that Bush stole the presidency, that he failed to avert (and possibly colluded in) the 9/11 attacks, and that he concocted his subsequent wars as a means of pursuing commercial interests revolving around oil. It also tells us that in doing all of this, Bush devastated the previously idyllic country of Iraq, and needlessly killed and maimed well-meaning American soldiers – soldiers recruited from the ranks of the hard-working poor under false pretences. Moore’s narrative is ingeniously assembled to give the victims of the 9/11 attacks, the US military, and the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, equal victim status – and to cast the Bush administration as the antagonist in relation to all of them. Above all, the film, and in fact Moore’s entire oeuvre, revolves around the consecration of victimhood.

After all, this is a man who hides behind the crippled, the bereaved, and the deceased whenever he tries to make a point. In Bowling for Columbine, he swaggers into Kmart’s head office pushing a wheelchair-bound, bullet-ridden teenager, and demands that the supermarket chain stop selling bullets. Later in the same film, he brandishes a photograph of a deceased child at the veteran actor and National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston, and when Heston walks away from him, Moore nonchalantly props the photograph up in the grounds of Heston’s residence. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore dwells interminably on the angst of a woman whose son was killed while serving in Iraq, as she weeps in her home, and then weeps again before the White House.

The assumption that underlies Moore’s work is that victims have greater moral authority than anyone else, simply by virtue of their victimhood. This approach does a disservice to those disenfranchised individuals it purports to help, because it casts their predicament in crude emotional terms and thus precludes arriving at a rational understanding of it. Such an approach may appear compassionate, but it is actually about the egotistical display of Moore’s own emotional credentials. This can be seen everywhere in Moore’s work, whether in his patronising habit of hugging and consoling distraught interview subjects on camera, in his account of encountering a homeless man (‘I emptied my pockets and gave him everything I had’), or in his proud boast that he positively discriminates when recruiting employees (‘five of my last hires have been black’) (5).

A fashionable self-loathing also runs throughout Moore’s work. He has apologised for being white (‘you name the problem, the disease, the human suffering, or the abject misery visited upon millions, and I’ll bet you ten bucks I can put a white face on it’); for being a man (‘how many women have come up with the idea of exterminating a whole race of people?’); for being a glutton (‘if you and I would eat less and drink less, we’d live a lot longer’); and for destroying the environment (‘I’m a walking ecological nightmare’). And of course, he never misses an opportunity to rag on America – his response to the UK government’s participation in the Iraq war was: ‘Your people read! They think! They discuss politics! They know where Iraq is! Did you think you were leading a nation of Americans?’ (6)

Moore’s critics tend to replicate his own vices. They resort to ad hominem attacks upon him that are simply a mirror image of his vacuous attacks upon them (see, for example, the new documentary Michael Moore Hates America and the new book Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man). Or they engage in endless ‘Fisking’ – the method of pedantic, point-by-point refutation commonly employed on weblogs (and named after the Independent correspondent Robert Fisk, bête noire of right-wing bloggers) (7).

Moore has already scuppered such vulgar criticism of his vulgar work, going to great lengths to ensure that Fahrenheit 9/11 is immune to Fisking. He boasts that ‘three teams of lawyers and the venerable one-time fact-checkers from the New Yorker went through this movie with a fine-tooth comb’. And in a sign of his commitment to free speech and open debate, he threatens that ‘any attempts to libel me will be met by force’, and that if his critics ‘persist in telling lies…then I’ll take them to court’ (8).

Elsewhere, Moore has been accused of being manipulative, and even – ludicrously – of producing the equivalent of Nazi propaganda. Such accusations risk demonising him simply for having a particular point of view. There is nothing wrong with an opinionated individual making opinionated documentaries from a partisan perspective. To suggest that there is something wrong with this betrays contempt for people’s ability to watch something and make up their own mind about it.

This contempt is discernible in the parallels that critics have drawn between Fahrenheit 9/11 and Mel Gibson’s recent film The Passion of the Christ. These films may well share a crass, bludgeoning approach – but underlying the reaction against both films is a fear that anything with a firm view will initiate some sort of pogrom, whether the fear is that Gibson’s film will foster rabid anti-Semitism, or that Moore’s film will foster rabid anti-Americanism.

The problem with Moore’s work is not that it is partisan, but that it is non-political. He certainly uses his work for political ends, but there is a constant insinuation in his work that political judgement should be suspended, and that the work should be considered in cultural terms instead, as entertainment. When challenged by CNN about ‘glaring inaccuracies’ in Stupid White Men, Moore replied: ‘This is a book of political humour…. How can there be inaccuracy in comedy?’ (9)

On the one hand, Moore explicitly hopes that Fahrenheit 9/11 will ‘inspire people to get up and vote in November’, and will ultimately oust Bush from power – a political aim if there ever was one. At the same time, he insists that he makes his films to be entertaining first and foremost, which is borne out by his juvenile stunts, sarcastic voiceovers, and unsubtle use of dramatic incidental music to underline how he would like you to interpret what you are watching (10).

This confusion about how to receive Moore’s work has dominated the reaction to Fahrenheit 9/11. When the film won the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival, head of the jury Quentin Tarantino told Moore ‘it was not because of the politics that you won this award’, and told the media that the decision had nothing to do with ‘all this politics crap’. In a much-quoted review, the Boston Globe’s film critic Ty Burr argued that ‘Fahrenheit 9/11 is many things, but for pity’s sake let’s not call it a documentary. To do so abuses the word’ (11).

This confusion between politics and entertainment has been a hallmark of Moore’s career, ever since he created the satirical TV show TV Nation with his wife Kathleen Glynn in the 1990s. Moore and Glynn revel in the confusion, explaining that ‘there had never been anything like TV Nation on the air before. Was it news? Was it entertainment?’. Elsewhere, Moore says he agrees with Noam Chomsky that we need ‘to find a way to make politics as gripping and engaging as sports’. And his advice to anti-Bush protesters is: ‘Be loud. Be funny. Signs, street theatre, mock trials.’ (12) This attitude corresponds with the carnivalesque style of modern demonstrations, where performance is more important than principle.

There is an element here of Moore lurking in culture as an evasive tactic, carping at politics without being accountable to its standards. But perhaps the moribund political sphere has itself become superseded by culture, such that a slapdash piece of politically themed entertainment such as Fahrenheit 9/11 has much broader public appeal than any political programme that is currently on offer.

‘Is Moore a new kind of politician?’, asks one commentator. ‘Is he a way forward that conventional politics has not fully grasped?’ (13) Unfortunately, it seems that politics is already following Moore’s example, in seeking to cast off the shackles of its formal conventions and relate to the public in the terms of emotion and victimhood. Our challenge is to come up with an alternative to the sorry excuses for politics that are on offer from Michael Moore and George W Bush alike.

Read on:

Fahrenheit 9/11 sparks Bush fires, by Helen Searls

Stupid white self-loathing, by Neil Davenport

spiked-issue: Film

spiked-issue: Anti-capitalism

(1) See Time, 12 July 2004

(2) Director Moore to focus on Blair, BBC News, 12 June 2004; Director Moore denies Blair film, BBC News, 13 June 2004; Michael Moore may make Blair film, BBC News, 7 July 2004

(3) White House ‘tried to block film’, BBC News, 16 May 2004. See Stupid White Men…and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!, Michael Moore, Penguin, 2004, pxi, xv-xxiv (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(4) US groups want Moore film banned, BBC News, 18 June 2004

(5) Downsize This!: Random Threats from an Unarmed American, Michael Moore, Pan Books, 2002, p6 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Stupid White Men…and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!, Michael Moore, Penguin, 2004, p85 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). Moore could be said to practice what Patrick West calls ‘conspicuous compassion’ – see Tears of a crowd, by Brendan O’Neill; I’m an uncaring celebrity, get me out of here, by Patrick West

(6) Stupid White Men…and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!, Michael Moore, Penguin, 2004, p61, 147, 158, 121 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Dude, Where’s My Country?, Michael Moore, Penguin, 2004, pxv (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(7) See the Michael Moore Hates America, MooreWatch, MooreLies, MooreExposed, Bowling for Truth, and Centigrade 9/11 websites; Gone to the blogs, by Brendan O’Neill. Buy Michael Moore Is a Big Fat Stupid White Man, by David T Hardy and Jason Clarke, from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(8) My first wild week with Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore, 4 July 2004; Will Michael Moore’s facts check out?, Philip Shenon, New York Times, 20 June 2004

(9) Lou Dobbs Moneyline, CNN, 12 April 2002

(10) Fahrenheit 9/11 could light fire under Bush, Charlotte Higgins, Guardian, 17 May 2004

(11) Moore film ‘won Cannes on merit’, BBC News, 23 May 2004; Moore’s anti-Bush outrage fuels his riveting Fahrenheit 9/11, Ty Burr, Boston Globe, 23 June 2004

(12) Adventures in a TV Nation, Michael Moore and Kathleen Glynn, Pan Books, 2002, p6 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Stupid White Men…and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!, Michael Moore, Penguin, 2004, p88, 28 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(13) The power of laughter, Jackie Ashley, Guardian, 20 May 2004

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