July 2, 2007

When Moore Isn’t Merrier

Yesterday I received an e-mail from my best friend, in which he asked, “Did you hear about the lawsuit against Michael Moore?” I wasn’t positive as to what suit he was referring, however, and my initial thought was the one brought against the portly pseudo-documentary maker by the soldier who claimed that his comments were used out of context in Fahrenheit 9/11. That suit, incidentally, was thrown out a few months ago.

What my friend had heard about was the possible investigation against Moore and the 9/11 workers who accompanied him to Cuba to find medical care for their ailments in Moore’s new movie Sicko by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, given the embargo with the land of Castro. (For the record, you can count me as one person who would support an end to the embargo; if anything, it has helped Castro more than hurt him. His biggest worries in the last few decades seem to have been heart and intestinal problems.)

Anyway, this topic led to me drafting a lengthy e-mail explaining why I’ve come to view Moore as nothing more than an entertainer who has managed to garner a legion of brainwashed zombies by manipulating facts at best and inventing them at worst—essentially the left’s version of George W. Bush (although please don’t think that I’m suggesting that Moore has led us into a war) who did similar things to justify invading Iraq.

In short, I’ve come to view Moore as nothing more than a masterful propagandist with a legion of loyal, feeble-minded followers because, like Bush, Cheney, Rove, et al., his philosophy is identical: lie if it’ll help get your message across. It’s akin to hearing millions of Bush supporters chanting, “We need to bomb Iraq to avenge the 9/11 attacks!” Never mind that Osama bin Laden guy.

The Movies
I’ve watched Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 9/11, and each has had too many falsehoods and illogical connections for me to view them as serious documentaries. My skepticism began after learning that many of the folks who were part of the eviction sequence in Roger & Me didn’t actually have any ties with General Motors whatsoever—even though the viewer is led to believe that each was losing their home because of GM’s downsizing. To be sure, the people were, indeed, being evicted; unfortunately the viewer wasn’t informed that they would have been evicted even if GM hadn’t carried out any layoffs.

I would come to learn that the eviction scene wasn’t the only manipulated aspect of this film. I came across an article from the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael that was published after Roger & Me’s popularity began to grow. Kael wrote:

I had stopped believing what Moore was saying very early; he was just too glib. Later, when he told us about the tourist schemes, I began to feel I was watching a film version of the thirties best-seller A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity, and I began to wonder how so much of what was being reported had actually taken place in the two and a half years of shooting the film. So I wasn’t surprised when I read Harlan Jacobson’s article in the November-December, 1989, Film Comment and learned that Moore had compressed the events of many years and fiddled with the time sequence. For example, the eleven plant closings announced in 1986 were in four states; the thirty thousand jobs were lost in Flint over a period of a dozen years; and the tourist attractions were constructed and failed well before the 1986 shutdowns that they are said to be a response to. Or let’s take a smaller example of Moore at play. We’re told that Ronald Reagan visited the devastated city, and we hear about what we assume is the President’s response to the crisis. He had a pizza with twelve unemployed workers and advised them to move to Texas; we’re told that during lunch the cash register was lifted from the pizza parlor. That’s good for a few more laughs. But Reagan visited the city in 1980, when he wasn’t yet President—he was a candidate. And the cash register had been taken two days earlier.*

Interested in finding Moore’s rebuttal to these discoveries, I found little more than “it’s all a lie.” In a 1998 Newsweek interview with Andrea C. Basora, Moore says that when it comes to Kael, everything is “personal” and that Kael lied because he didn’t send her a tape of Roger & Me.* In 2000, Moore called Kael “a deadly serious historical revisionist” and said that articles in the Sacramento Bee and St. Petersburg Times support his side of the issue.* (I’m not suggesting that these articles don’t exist, but for the record I have yet to find either.)

In an interview with the aforementioned Jacobson, Moore stated:

The movie is essentially what has happened to this town during the 1980s. I wasn’t filming in 1982…so everything that happened, happened. As far as I’m concerned, a period of seven or eight years…is pretty immediate and pretty devastating…I think it’s a document about a town that died in the 1980s, and this is what happened…What would you rather have me do? Should I have maybe begun the movie with a Roger Smith or GM announcement of 1979 or 1980 for the first round of layoffs that devastated the town, which then led to starting these projects, after which maybe things pick up a little bit in the mid ‘80s, and then BOOM—in ‘86 there’s another announcement, and then tell that whole story?...Then it’s a three hour movie. It’s a movie, you know; you can’t do everything. I was true to what happened. Everything that happened in the movie happened. It happened in the same order that it happened throughout the ‘80s. If you want to nit-pick on some of those specific things, fine.*

Apparently nit-picking is bad. (The ellipses in the above quote were added by Richard Palmer and/or Edward Champion, who maintain the Michael Moore FAQ page—not me.)

When it came time to watch Bowling for Columbine, I did so with the same approach that I had when I tuned into the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th movies: I prepared myself to be entertained—not informed.

I was entertained and similar to Roger & Me, I would eventually learn that reality and fantasy were whatever you want them to be. My two favorite fabrications in Bowling for Columbine became the doctored Bush/Quayle advertisement* and the accusation that the Lockheed-Martin plant in Littleton, Colorado, produced “weapons of mass destruction” around the time of the Columbine attack. What kind of WMDs were produced there? Apparently the mentally-destructive kind: the plant made space launch vehicles for television and telecommunications satellites in the late-1990s. The latest date that I could find for anything related to ICBM production in Littleton was the mid-1980s and that was on an unattributed Wikipedia entry.*

Perhaps Moore should have waited a few years to release Bowling for Columbine because he could have included footage of his bodyguard being investigated for having a gun at JFK airport that wasn’t licensed in New York.* (Then again, this story has taken on a life of its own, too. The bodyguard was said to have really been a “former Moore employee”—but not a “bodyguard” per se—who worked as a bodyguard for others, but not for Moore. Um…okay.)*

After viewing Fahrenheit 9/11, I found myself scratching my head not because of the inaccuracies that were presented*, but simply because of the contradictory nature of the film: on one hand we see that George W. Bush is the world’s biggest moron (a notion with which I agree), but on the other hand we are supposed to wonder if he might be genius enough to have pulled off a 9/11 conspiracy. The nature of a jump like this reminded me of a scene in the 9/11 conspiracy theory flick Loose Change, in which we are told that witnesses at the Pentagon who claimed to have seen a passenger jet fly over cannot be believed but a few seconds later we are told that we should believe the same witnesses when they also claimed to have seen a C-130 flying overhead during the attack.* Sorry, but this is like trying to argue that the Earth is both round and flat.

I haven’t seen Sicko yet, but some of the reviews that I’ve read thus far make it apparent that it’s following in the footsteps of Moore’s other mockumentaries. Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post says that just when you think that you’re about to see something of substance make an appearance, Moore does an about-face in the name of humor and entertainment.*

MTV’s Kurt Loder has provided a more in-depth review of the movie, one which might very well earn him a few death threats from Moore’s minions. In it Loder points out: Moore gushes over how wonderful Canada’s healthcare system is, but he fails to inform the viewer of how long the average patient must stay on waiting lists for both major and minor medical procedures; he fails to mention how many Canadians travel to the U.S. on a daily basis because they can receive faster care here; and he fails to mention that the quality medical care in Cuba shown in the movie is readily available only for non-Cubans and Cuban politicians who can easily pay for their procedures with cash—not the impoverished Cuban commoners.*

In Defense of Lies
The Internet is chock full of Moore apologists and they offer similar themes: his movies are entertaining; his movies are funny; his movies are riveting; his movies have an important message. Hence, truth be damned.

The best way to illustrate these descriptions is via quotes from support for Moore’s approach to movie-making:

• From a fan who is offended that another Moore fan suggested that Fahrenheit 9/11 might have been “manipulative” and “unfair”: “How do you put it all in one film? Keep in mind that in making such a film, if you concentrate on only one or two misdeeds, and really get into the details necessary to do that you will have defeated your purpose in all likelihood. The movie will be too forensic and not many will be compelled to see it. You also have to make the movie funny.”* Thus, popularity trumps facts.

• From a customer review of Roger & Me on Amazon.com: “[I]f Moore strictly adhered to documentary ethics, would Roger & Me still have been the most successful documentary of its time?” He also states that “one problem Moore’s critics are overlooking is that they are lumping Roger & Me into the largely diverse and loosely defined genre known as ‘the documentary,’ as if all films showing real footage of real people and events should be held to the same standards.” Finally, he summarizes it best by saying: “Like fiction films, the documentary genre has become increasingly more complex and experimental[,] blurring the boundaries of its classification. Moore may have created a new sub-genre of documentary: one that combines [Bill] Nichol’s documentary modes in a heuristic visual essay where accurate historical representation is eclipsed by unbridled personal emotion.”*

Documentaries are “loosely defined”? They’re “experimental”? Accurate historical representation is now eclipsed by unbridled personal emotion?

• A third and final description is more succinct but just as telling: “[Fahrenheit 9/11] holds the viewers’ interest from beginning to end. The film is entertaining in that the events on the screen did not appear to be ‘documentary’ in nature—rather they were riveting, much as a good suspense/action film unfolds before the viewer’s eyes. To ask oneself why this could be so reveals the layers upon which the film is built.”*

Entertainment value becomes the most important concept.

What’s the Big Deal?
For me, Michael Moore has become no better than Bush, Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld, et al. in the propaganda department. In an effort to win the hearts and minds of his audience, Moore has shown that misinformation is a valid weapon and should be used liberally (no pun intended). Who are the “good” guys if both the far-right and the far-left become masters of misinformation?

Unfortunately, discussions on this topic don’t get very far because they quickly turn into a cesspool of rhetorical nonsense: if you criticize Bush it’s said that you’re a supporter of terrorism or that you’re unpatriotic; if you criticize Moore it’s said that you’re obviously a Bush supporter and you’re a war-monger.

Using facts to bring BushCorp down shouldn’t be a problem; there are more than enough things against this administration to make Bill Clinton’s perjury case look like a strawberry social—and Slick Willy was actually impeached over it. Sadly, sensationalism for the sake of impact has become more popular and acceptable.

As we’ve seen, though, this sensationalism is what has made both Michael Moore and George W. Bush as big as they are.

Make no mistake about it—my criticisms of Moore should not be in any way perceived as somehow being support for gun violence, George W. Bush, or any problems that we have with our healthcare system (and there are many). This, however, has become the usual retort of diehard Moore fans; if you question him, the theory seems to be, you must be supportive of the other side.

Instead, my argument is that if you adopt your enemy’s tactics, how different from your enemy are you?

While I’ve watched Moore’s previous movies, if I don’t get around to seeing Sicko it won’t bother me. Besides, I’m busy working on a script for an “experimental” documentary on the Civil War in which Napoleon and Robert E. Lee square off against Ulysses S. Grant and Gerald Ford after Napoleon and Lee bomb Pearl Harbor. In it, Lee and his Nazi forces are pitted against the Grant/Ford army in 1920s Nepal. When things look bleak, Grant whips out his cell phone and says, “Let’s roll.”

Due to the length of this post, asterisks have been placed in the appropriate locations to provide sources.