by Rob Gonsalves
What is it about Michael Moore? Why does he polarize people so strongly? Why is he either a savior or a satanist? Why can't he just be a guy making movies on topics he cares about?
No other documentarian has drawn such fire — not even Davis Guggenheim, who enshrined the right-wingers' dartboard Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth and won an Oscar for it. I mean, do you see T-shirts saying "Errol Morris Is Fat"? Do you see backlash movies called Barbara Kopple Hates America? Do you see any blogs devoted to debunking the films of Frederick Wiseman? (All of these filmmakers could be said to pursue liberal agendas — Morris' The Thin Blue Line is the strongest argument against the death penalty ever made.) Why does Moore attract such venom? As well, why does the left look to him as a shining white knight — something he himself would discourage, arguing that he's done his bit by making the movie and the rest is up to you?
I've always seen Michael Moore as an op-ed columnist whose column happens to be in celluloid form. He swings for the fence, and sometimes he whiffs. I've caught various episodes of his TV shows TV Nation and The Awful Truth, and some of them were sharper than others. He can fall into a clownish, self-satisfied mode with disappointing ease — the dryer and less emotional the topic, the more he strains to make it funny. He can also preach to the converted, as I thought he did in Fahrenheit 9/11.
He's essentially a populist, jocular Errol Morris. His work has some of Morris' jangled mood of dark absurdity. Sometimes Moore invites us to laugh along with it. Sometimes what he presents us with leaves us no response other than a kind of strangled snort of disbelief, whether it's the infamous Pets or Meat lady in Roger & Me or the man in the upcoming Sicko given a choice between reattaching the tip of his ring finger for $12,000 or his middle finger for $60,000.
But whenever a goddamn Michael Moore film comes out, everyone jumps out of the woodwork, eager to refute his claims or to point out where he's omitted something or played fast and loose with chronology. This started eighteen years ago with Roger & Me, when Harlan Jacobson did a hatchet job on him for Film Comment (and Pauline Kael approvingly cited it), and it hasn't abated since. Again, why do no other documentarians — many just as lefty as Moore — provoke such nitpicking and pre-emptive harrumphing?
I would guess that Moore's secret weapon is humor: Moore makes films that are fun to watch, except for the parts that aren't (Sicko kicks off with a scene of an uninsured man stitching up his own leg). His films are popular. He's a big target. He's also all over his films, though in Sicko he keeps a lower profile than he has before. He comes off as a regular guy who shambles along trying to get to the bottom of stuff. His shtick works best when he's a Don Quixote tilting at very real windmills and you get the feeling that he's making the movie to find out what he thinks. (He went into Fahrenheit 9/11 knowing exactly what he thought, which made it combustible agitprop but probably not persuasive to the uninitiated.)
For a while there he seemed to disappear. He had his TV shows, which always existed at the fickle pleasure of networks; he made that flat-out unfunny satire Canadian Bacon; he made a lesser-known but entertaining documentary called The Big One (1997), a pretty solid refutation of the charge that Moore only goes after Republicans. It was basically a feature-length Crackers the Corporate Crime Chicken segment, but it was funny enough. That said, Moore wasn't particularly on the mass radar. Then the Internet took hold. Moore started to reach out via his website. His tours sold out. His books were bestsellers. He made a little flick called Bowling for Columbine, his first film in five years. It blew up, breaking documentary box-office records and winning an Oscar. Accepting the Oscar, he took the opportunity to denounce the then-freshly-started Iraq War. Thus began the second-wave juggernaut that is Michael Moore as we know him today.
At this point, Moore could make a sedate documentary about chess-playing grandmothers and he'd still get the cover of Time and get the right-wing blogosphere all in a tizzy. The question is why there aren't many other filmmakers like him; Morgan Spurlock seems poised to take up the mantle, though few would contest that eating nothing but junk food for a month is bad for you and living in a particular unpleasant or unfamiliar environment for 30 days is eye-opening. There are no right-wing Michael Moores; they're all on talk radio or bloviating on Fox News, and the witless cinematic attempts to smack Moore (like Fahrenhype 9/11) just sound like "Oh yeah?? Well, you're...you're fat!"
Moore does have a face for radio, and he knows it; he's looking slimmer these days, thanks to taking Roger Ebert's advice to go on the Pritikin Diet, but he's pretty much always going to be the lumpen guy in the baseball hat (he's weed-whacked his facial crabgrass for Sicko, thank God). He's not a pretty boy, and that helps him. The more his enemies slag him off for being fat, the more juvenile they look. He likes sports and food, and his ideas really aren't all that radical; they just sound that way now (H.L. Mencken would've shrugged at Moore's films and said "So? What else ya got, kid?"). And his movies are rarely about what his detractors think they're about. Bowling for Columbine isn't about gun control; it's about how America is scared of its own shadow (in the Jungian sense). Sicko isn't about the health-care crisis; it's about the American apathy and fear that have allowed corporations to pull our strings. With Moore, it always comes back to the rich exploiting the poor or the working-class. That Moore has become part of the class he tweaks is an irony that his foes willingly misinterpret as hypocrisy.
So: Moore is popular, funny, and angry at corporate vultures. The worst-case scenario, in the eyes of his right-wing detractors, must be that Moore will use his rock-star status to agitate for bloody revolution by the have-nots against the haves. He won't, any more than Spike Lee ever would have, but remember that some excitable critics thought Do the Right Thing would spark actual riots in theaters (number of Mookie-inspired riots: zero). When you have a lot, you have a lot to lose, and you worry about losing it. You know damn well there are thousands of people who resent you and what you have and its bloated disproportion to what they have. And along comes the fat man to question the machinery by which you have your summer home in the Hamptons or your private jet. And if enough people listen to him, you might lose all of it. [BR]
I like the questions Michael Moore asks and the way he asks them. I like the discomfiture of the type of people who avoid or try to discredit his questions. When the shit goes down, I'd rather stand with the rich fat man on the left than the rich fat man on the right (hi, Rush). Moore is a comedian and a columnist, not a bloodless compiler of data. You like him or you don't. (Some people on the left don't like him — they feel he puts himself too much at the center of his arguments and gives the cause a bad name by making the debate about himself rather than the issues. I sympathize with the charge but don't agree — he's a jovial point of entry into raw, painful topics.) As a good populist, he couldn't even work up much ire over Sicko being bootlegged and put up on the Internet. "Share the wealth" is the point of Sicko and most everything else he's made. If the right-wing blogosphere expected him to feel differently about his own work, they deserved to be disappointed by his reaction.
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originally posted: 06/19/07 00:13:54
last updated: 09/07/09 20:25:13