Saturday, June 26, 2004
Fahrenheit 9/11, part II

(Warning: contains potential spoilers, as far as a documentary about well-known events can be spoiled.)

If you read this blog regularly, you'll remember that in this post, I linked to a piece quoting Godard saying of Michael Moore at Cannes, ""Moore doesn't distinguish between text and image... He doesn't know what he's doing."

Godard can be a crusty old guy at the best of times, of course, and American filmmakers are a favorite target of his crotchety-ness. As it happened, he hadn't even seen Fahrenheit 9/11 at the time he said that... if he had, he might have realized that Moore might just be a more sophisticated filmmaker than he'd given him credit for.

Moore's work has long been characterized by funny bits that taunt the powers-that-be, which normally feature Moore himself at the forefront of the action. For most of his career, Moore has relied on his chops as a fearlessly obnoxious questioner, as well as his genuinely prodigious sense of humor, to make his films compelling. (I still adore the old bit from "TV Nation" when he took a squad of racially-diverse cheerleaders to a Klan gathering to jump around on the borders of the rally site and cheer "we love you! we love you!" to the Klansmen. That was Michael Moore at his absolute best.)

Alas, as passionate and, in my opinion, correct as Moore's opinions are, when he has a position to get across, he ocassionally allows himself to fall back on techniques that are really not fair. And I don't mean "not fair" in that they don't represent the other side's views -- I don't expect him to do that -- but "not fair" in that no human being could reasonably be anticipated to respond favorably to some of the situations into which he's placed people like Dick Clark (the host of American Bandstand, not the former head counter-terrorism) and Charleton Heston. His beef with those people may indeed be legitimate; in fact, I expect it is. But ambushing people just doesn't do the argument justice... if the point is strong, you shouldn't need to rely on those tactics to make it stick.

So, Moore's films are invariably entertaining (or infuriating, if you're on the other side of the debate), but unless you're really completely ignorant of how these things work, you always come away with some reservations. "It would've been a great film, except..."

But for once, Michael Moore has managed to get over that last bit of himself, and has made a movie strictly from his soul. It's the best work he's ever done. Getting back to Godard's statement about not distinguishing between image and text, in Fahrenheit 9/11 Moore demonstrates that not only can he distinguish, but he can use images in highly subtle and sophisticated ways. The most exceptional example of this comes early in the film; it's a representation of the morning of September 11, 2001.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon are obviously frought with difficulty when it comes to documentary. On the one hand, those images are highly charged, and even now seem almost sacred, untouchable. On the other hand, they've also been used and used and used; the same four or five tapes have been seen ad nauseam by every single American since the day they were made. By now, each of us has our own private baggage that accompanies those images; they are no longer fresh. And while they still illicit a response, it's a well-practised, familiar response, and thus unlikely to touch us on any new levels. So how does a filmmaker portray an event that everyone is painfully over-familiar with? How does he get us in that moment without risking trampling on everyone's well-guarded emotions about the event?

Moore came up with an ingenious solution: don't use the images at all.

Instead, we listen to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, while staring at a black screen. The mechanical projector goes dark, and the mental projections begin: each individual viewer sits, listening to the terrifying, thunderous booming of the impact of jet into steel and glass, spending 30 or 40 seconds watching the private images inside their heads. All those morbid fantasies you lingered over after the attacks -- what would it be like to jump? what would it be like to see the building coming down on top of you? what would it be like to be there, watching it happen? -- come back to visit you in a darkened cinema, and you're there, you're back in that moment. The black screen acts as a vessel for all your emotions, and an entirely different, and very rare, kind of projection occurs.

When the images begin to return, Moore still uses a kind of cinematic negative space to represent the destroyed towers; except for one brief glimpse of the base of one tower, we never see them in the film. Instead, we see the reactions of people watching, we see the horror on their faces, and we know exactly what they're seeing without having to be shown. We're connected to them, and we remember what we felt ourselves on that day as if we were experiencing it all for the first time. It's an incredibly harrowing and masterful bit of filmmaking. Moore definitely knows the difference between image and text.

Another welcome departure from Moore's previous work is his newfound willingness to let others speak for him. Rather than make his arguments himself -- and thus leave them vulnerable to criticism based not on their content but rather on who made them -- he uses video of other people speaking to contruct his narrative. He still speaks, but for the most part the most important words are left to others. When a grieving mother is confronted by a grossly insensitive passerby on a sidewalk, Moore does not intervene. When a badly wounded soldier has something to say, Moore steps back and lets him speak for himself. This is a Michael Moore I like, a Michael Moore I can really respect.

There are still a few of the signature Moore bits, though, and several of them are quite funny; the guy knows how to get a laugh, even if Bush provides him with a particularly easy target. Moore remains, perhaps, a bit too willing to go for the easy conclusion, and suffers from a hesitance to let things remains as complex and messy and confusing as they really are. Now and then I felt a bit of cinematic whiplash when we moved abruptly from solemnity or anger to gleeful mockery of our common foe. But I get the feeling that there will be fewer cries of "manipulator" and "liar" this time around... the material felt solid and well-backed-up, and there was very little need to set up anything. The subject and the argument are so strong that Moore didn't have to work to find a clear shot at it; the Bush administration's failures and gross corruption present a target the size of a barn door. It would have been more of a challenge for Moore to get it wrong.

I still have a few worries about how Moore's work fits into the genre as a whole, although I'm far less bothered by them in this case than I was by Bowling For Columbine. I read a comment by someone -- I wish I could remember where, so I could link to it -- saying that Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't propaganda, it's counter-propaganda. If nothing else, the "counter-propaganda" label at least acknowledges that this is a two-sided fight; it ain't just Michael Moore and his liberal audiences screaming in the desert. But this film I think really has transcended the propaganda label (I realize that others disagree); its point of view is blatantly obvious, but that alone doesn't disqualify it as a true documentary. It's also a record of a specific place and time -- it felt like a first attempt at a historical film at times, even if technically it can't be one at all -- and of the mood of a vast group of people living in that setting. As I sat watching it, I could imagine my kids one day watching it as well and asking, "was it really like that?" And I can imagine myself saying to them, "yes, it really was." This is not just a film against one man's re-election campaign, it's a picture of what life was like for roughly half of America during a critical juncture at the beginning of the 21st century. And that picture is one I want to remember. This is a worthy film.
5:05 PM ::
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