Friday, 16 April 2010

Provocative, Powerful and Proud: Michael Moore, Controversy and Self-Controversy

Introducing someone to Michael Moore celluloid is a Romantic thing: most people react with either a humbled or repulsed awe, and those who sit on the fence are doing their best not to fall off. In Bowling for Columbine, the Canadian confronted and humiliated screen-legend and NRA-rallier, Charlton Heston, in a surreal interview, as if a conversation was taking place between two different species speaking the same language; in Sicko, Moore led a boat-expedition of ill and untreated American citizens to Guantamano Bay, where imprisoned terrorists were receiving free health care; in Fahrenheit 9/11, he soundtracked footage associating Bush and the Saudi Royal Family with REM's 'Shiny Happy People'; and in his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore attempts to make a citizen's arrest on the CEOs of investment banks. These are just a few memorable highlights in Michael Moore's unique anti-tradition of film making.

Because of the nature of Moore's films, cinematic and political critiques become inextricably linked. Christopher Hitchens, the debate-maestro whose words are always so thoroughly researched, clearly communicated and difficult to wrestle, committed to an ethical damnation of Moore in the conclusion of his 2004 piece on Fahrenheit 9/11:

"If Michael Moore had had his way, Slobodan Milosevic would still be the big man in a starved and tyrannical Serbia. Bosnia and Kosovo would have been cleansed and annexed. If Michael Moore had been listened to, Afghanistan would still be under Taliban rule, and Kuwait would have remained part of Iraq. And Iraq itself would still be the personal property of a psychopathic crime family, bargaining covertly with the slave state of North Korea for WMD. You might hope that a retrospective awareness of this kind would induce a little modesty. To the contrary, it is employed to pump air into one of the great sagging blimps of our sorry, mediocre, celeb-rotten culture. Rock the vote, indeed."

Meanwhile a few months ago, of all the likely British broadsheets, it was surprisingly the Daily Telegraph who ranked Fahrenheit 9/11 as the greatest film of the last decade. And there were reviews that eulogised and gushed, in Empire especially:

"For Moore, this is exquisite payback for a moment when he and Bush came face-to-face for the first and only time. "Behave yourself, will you?" sneered Bush. "Go find real work." And so much of this film is Moore's sarcastic reply. Real work? Like being declared President after a rigged election, decided in a state governed by your brother, then spending the first 42 per cent of your initial eight months in office on holiday? It's a testimony to Dubya's idiocy that Moore doesn't have to try too hard to make him look inept [...] Moore's greatest achievement is the handling of 9/11 itself, rendered on a black screen with sound effects, followed by reaction shots of the stunned crowds nearby. He doesn't milk it, leaving you to your own revulsion at the sight of Bush sitting helplessly in a Florida schoolroom for a full seven minutes after the second plane hit the World Trade Center. This is the film's smoking gun; the unforgettable moment [...] Showmanship it may be, and in the wake of the Al Ghraib prison scandal, the anti-war lobby is not so hard to impress, but this is still passionate filmmaking with a strong, idiosyncratic voice [...] Moore's assault on the Bush administration is a terrific polemic. It's sprawling at times, but still uncomfortable, angry viewing in a time when apathy and resignation rule.

Fahrenheit 9/11 shocked and divided worldwide audiences with its truth-elucidating and conspiratorial soliloquising on the ties connecting Bush and Bin Laden, and while the stirring gun-culture documentary, Bowling for Columbine, was worth more than the Oscar it won, Moore's most important films to date are surely Sicko and Slacker Uprising. Through their ruthless exposure of America's elitist health care program and the threat of another four years of self-harm posed by a Republican government, these films played an important role in persuading many undecided or apathetic US citizens to vote Democrat. Glazed in rhetoric and sexed up to the erotic max (his patronising eulogies to the British NHS is misleading, if understandable in the context of 47 million Americans deprived of health care) they are nonetheless inspirational and incontrovertibly Enlightening. Michael Moore's documentaries are excruciatingly partial. But to put it crudely, these ironically Odeon-adopted documentaries are both more informative and more substantial than either arthouse gold or blow-shit-up dogma.

And yet, in response to his banker-bashing, as many have suggested he ought to, wouldn't it be jaw-dropping to see Michael Moore make a film about corruption in the film industry? I would go one further. A film in which Moore replaces (not all, but much of) the expendable, sentimentalistic footage of tears and silences with a thorough examination of, and response to, the arguments of Hitchens and co. Or, if Moore were to elaborate on what
he would do if he was President, as so many t-shirts and posters and Facebook pages around the world have fantasized. It's facing up to such challenges that will elevate Moore above simply the lightweight paeans of student-types like myself, and yolk him in the oeuvre of serious political commentary. More importantly to people who see both hope and reason in his film making, tackling his most intelligent critics this decade is what will secure Moore's place among the great auteurs, and further improve his cause.

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