Thursday, May 27, 2004
On Michael Moore

I've been putting off blogging on the saga surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11 for a good couple of weeks now. Michael Moore is a difficult subject for me; as a liberal documentarian, he's a doubly evocative figure in my mind, and my feelings about the man and his work are often very mixed. Half of my response is simple; the other half is complex and frought with qualifiers that make it difficult to form any concrete opinion. And yet, Moore seems to require exactly such a concrete opinion, and so, rather than babble endlessly, likely making little sense to those not as familiar with the issues, I tend to simply remain silent.

But this is, after all, meant to be a blog about a) liberal politics, and b) movies (especially documentaries), so I feel like I'm undermining my purported reason for existence if I don't address this subject, especially as it may prove to be rather significant in both arenas.

As a liberal, my response to Michael Moore is very simple: I love him, and I want to see him succeed beyond all our wildest dreams. For years, when Rush and his ilk dominated both mass media and political publishing, Michael Moore was one of only a tiny number of really balls-out, aggressively liberal voices available, and we all came to adore him for it. He was bombastic, yes; he was loud and frequently obnoxious, but he was also extremely funny at times, and was our only antidote to the equally-as-bombastic-and-obnoxious Rush Limbaugh. That response is only heightened these days; even while liberal media progresses and grows (Al Franken's show on Air America beat Rush Limbaugh in New York City last week, an event that would have been seemed impossible only a few months ago), for much of the last few years, Moore has remained a very significant voice for liberals in America. He's flawed, but he's ours, and we love him.

As a documentarian, though... ugh. Suffice to say, my feelings on Michael Moore in this context are rather more complicated. It's not that I dislike his work -- I always enjoy his films as a viewer, and he's very good at what he does. But I remain very unconvinced that what he's doing should count as "documentary," and I fear that his effects on the genre will be much more negative than positive.

Contrary to popular perception, documentary film can be a rather contentious subject, and ideas about exactly what constitutes "documentary" vary widely. There is a general consensus that a documentary is any film that is about real things. That's not a simple statement, though... another well-known quote on the subject is that "dramatic film is telling the truth with lies; documentary film is tellings lies with the truth." Which isn't to say that all documentary films are inherently false or wrong, but that documentary films are much more heavily manipulated than most people think, and that the perception of "real truth" is not nearly as realistic as it seems to be.

Thus, in the wrong hands, documentary film can be a powerful tool for misinformation. A documentarian, who is not held to the same conventions and practices as a journalist, can tell enormous lies and make it appear to be god's own truth just by virtue of the "reality" of the source material. Documentarians tend to be mostly self-policing in this regard; an accusation that one's film is too heavily manipulated, one's perspective too warped, threatens the documentarian with the worst kind of failure. To make a too-manipulative documentary is to bleed off into the land of propaganda, a term which in itself makes no value judgement (some of the most innovative films ever made have been solid propaganda, and many would argue that propaganda is in itself an artform), but which implies the artistic failure of the documentarian.

So how does this relate to Michael Moore? Well -- again, pointing out that there's no value judgement inherent in this statement -- I would argue that most of the time, Moore's work often blurs significantly into propaganda. It's propaganda that I happen to agree with, yes, but that doesn't mean I can't see it for what it is. Moore manipulates his subjects heavily; some of his tactics are more akin to those used by tabloid journalists than by conscientious truthseekers. Whereas ideally the documentarian begins with a subject and a viewpoint, and allows those to lead her naturally to a conclusion, Moore starts with a conclusion and shapes his subject to fit. Sometimes the shaping is very natural, but sometimes it's quite aggressive.

I'm also acutely aware, however, that there is a long tradition in documentary of people declaring the work of others to be substandard or impure. Attitudes towards what does and does not qualify range from loose and all-encompassing to stringent and rigid; most of the films I love most would never qualify as "documentary" by someone's definition. As I have never cared for that game, feeling that the only person who can ultimately decide whether a given film qualifies is the person who made it, I am extremely hesitant to declare Moore's work insufficiently "true." I don't want this to become a question of being more-doc-than-thou. And yet, my opinions are what they are, thus much of my hesitance to discuss the matter.

Aside from questions of artistic merit, there are practical considerations as well. Regardless of his doc pedigree, like it or not, Moore has a tendency to dominate the market for documentary film (which is already suffocatingly small), thus inadvertantly undermining the success of the genre as a whole. Brilliant films -- films that were made with painstaking love and devotion over years in some cases -- have been overwhelmed by the Michael Moore juggernaut. Inarguably better films have had their productive life strangled off by the lumbering presence of this one man's work; recognition, funding, and precious access to viewers has been denied to worthier films because Michael Moore happened to release a film the same year.

Some argue -- hopefully correctly -- that in the long run, Moore's success improves the chances for all, generating more interest in documentary film among the disinterested viewership, and proving that docs can be commercially viable. This is possible, and there's some evidence that it's happening already, with the success (in documentary terms, at least) of films like Supersize Me!, The Fog of War, and The Control Room. I still worry, however, that if Moore becomes the template for documentary commercial success (much as The Day After Tomorrow is very much of the template for Hollywood commercial success), we might see the formation of a two-tier arrangement like that of dramatic film, with the "blockbusters" like Moore inhabiting the top, while the indies languish below, struggling with insufficient funding and recognition.

All of this is probably getting ahead of myself; as relatively successful as Moore's films are, I still doubt that he receives much of a payday from them (getting most of his personal cash from book sales and television). And hopefully, most of my anxieties will prove to be unfounded; documentarians, as a rule, hate to see anyone else doing well commercially anyway. (With a very limited pie, any one person getting a big share tends to translate directly into someone else going without.) Perhaps Fahrenheit 9/11 will prove to be a solid film in every respect and will reignite interest in the genre, making it easier for all of us to get noticed and, hopefully, paid.

Anyway, yes... Moore always presents something of a dilemma for me. As a liberal, I want to see his work recieve as much attention as humanly possible; as a documentarian, I wish he'd, y'know, go away for a while. I'd feel a lot better about the guy, though, if he'd do more to help the rest of the documentary community, parlay that enormous influence to the benefit of somebody else as well.

Obviously, I'll be writing more once I actually get to see the new film. Apparently U.S. distribution has been secured (no big surprise there), and the film will hit the cinemas during the first week in July, as planned. I am very much looking forward to seeing it.

PS: This is basically off-topic, but intriguing. Apparently Moore has an interview with Nick Berg, the American who was recently executed in Iraq, that he shot for Fahrenheit 9/11 while Berg was still safe in the United States. The interview isn't in the final cut of the film, and he's not releasing it to the public (at least not at this point)... but I have to admit, I'd love to hear what the interview was about.
3:20 PM ::
Amy :: permalink