Moore's Utopia

07.3.2004 | David Walley | Film | 9 Comments
Dear Harry,

On Sunday I went with my family to see Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was a mixed crowd of kids, scruffy slackers, and old radicals (you could tell by their whitened pony tails). I’d been wanting to see it, I mean how could you not with the publicity, and Moore if nothing else is a master publicist who was given the golden arches when Disney decided they didn’t want to distribute his film. Did they think they were going to kill it? A good conspiracy theorist (which I am certainly not) would think this was a perfect publicity plow for a non-Hollywood Hollywood documentarian. But then again Walt Disney was known for ratting out communists in his organization during the Forties and the Fifties, and Moore’s film doesn’t really jive well with the Disney version of America or ABC’s for that matter, though I suppose it’s arch to say so in public.

The film was well-received, there were cheers, guffaws at the appropriate Bushisms which we all know and love. The most powerful bits for me were the two interviews with the Flint, Michigan woman. The first time she’s putting out her American flag and talking about the opportunities offered her children by serving in the armed forces, and how proud they are to serve their country, etc., etc. Good American stock she, a classic American character of the sort that Moore is fond of uncovering. And then she closes out the film when she’s interviewed after finding out her son’s been killed in a helicopter accident and it dawns on her that war and or patriotism aren’t abstractions, and she wants to know: her son died for what? Well, don’t we all? That’s the most powerful part of Moore’s film because instead of doing his usual smirky thing, and there’s lots of that, he actually lets people tell their story, and for that alone I was eternally grateful.

To tell you the truth, I thought the film was pretty tame, but then again, Moore wasn’t doing the film for people like me who get their news from places besides USA Today and Fox. And I suppose that’s the point, too — it was done for all the kids and slackers, the MTV generation (many of them now) for whom the whole Iraq business is just so much info-tainment if you follow me, and this war and the businesses it supports are abstractions. Fahrenheit wasn’t the news at Six, sports 10 minutes after the weather — it was some pretty brutal stuff, especially the footage where one sees GI’s getting their legs blown off. You don’t see that on the six-o-clock news, not even on the 24-hour-a-day war channel, do you? You could hear a pin drop when that flashed on the screen. As for the Bush bashing/Saudi/Halburton connection, I thought it was presented well enough, but again it wasn’t news to me, and anyway I’m no longer amused, especially since I think Dubyah is just thumbing his nose at the rest of us and having a grand time doing it, mugging for the cameras with the press as indicted co-conspirators when they should be all over him like a cheap suit as the saying goes.

Which was the film’s point, because all these “revelations” sure were news to Moore’s target audience, so I suppose he was effective, at least I hope he was, if the film’s gross this week have anything to do with it. If they keep going up, and I’m sure they will before they tail off, the Bush operatives are going to be tearing their hair out, pissed as hell that Disney wasn’t able to stop the presses, or deny Moore his first Amendment rights. And I suppose Moore’s genius is having found a way to exploit this media-ocracy that we all are so conflicted about. He’s found a formula which uses film in a very political way. He ain’t no Leni Riefenstahl, he doesn’t have the chops for that, this boy’s an American film-maker from the Midwest, this ain’t art buddy.

It’s not that I disagree with what he says as much as how he says it, for it feels like Radicalism 101. Still, Moore certainly ain’t dumb, and he’s crazy like a fox, and I suppose that America is far better off for having him than not, though he tends to take things to an extreme, and his analysis, like the fabled Pecos River, at times seems about a mile wide and an inch deep. Still he makes his points, ok, ok.

But don’t get me wrong, I “enjoyed” the film, if “enjoy” is the right word, though part of me was thinking about what this all says about political dialogue in this country, and how we’ve sunk to new lows. I think that generally speaking political dialogue in this country has devolved significantly over the past twenty years, since MTV came around, you could say. We have problems with political discourse generally speaking, but most of all it’s all about high school, which is right on Moore’s level. More on point, the pundits of the Right and Left have relocated to the parking lot before school or the locker-lined high school hallways. There, while changing classes, they rank on each as they pass in the hallways: “Hey Asshole!” No You’re an asshole!” “And you’re a fuckhead.” That’s MISTER Fuckhead to you”, etc. Only they don’t cuss like Dick Cheney, at least when the mics are on, but that’s what they’re doing. Is it any wonder that a few years back Al Franken’s collection of political essays was entitled “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot”? If that’s doesn’t proving my point, I don’t know what would.

The Right weighs in with Ann Coulter or P.J. O’Rourke who view national and international affairs from the comparatively “enlightened” perspective of a beer-besotted frat rat or high school cadet who, joint in hand, looks down from his perch on the bathroom sink to disparage the spirit committee’s do-gooding, soft-minded liberal Democrats and aging peaceniks and their weak-kneed, New Age-demented neohippie spawn.

Sure I liked Fahrenheit, it was effective, it did what it was supposed to do, though in his typical fashion he leaves what should be done open. Vote for Kerry? He doesn’t say. Become involved in politics? He hints at that. Choose to be informed? He should have put together a reading list to hand out at theaters. If Moore wanted to really make a point, he should have done a film which compares the iconography employed in Hitler’s propaganda movies on Waffen SS with the kinds of film which has been coming out of Iraq, similar images, similar helmets, but that’s not his style. And that’s maybe the biggest problem I have —his films are perfect political vehicles in a post-literate age. And in the end, that’s what I took away with me, but then again it’s me, and I’m certain it will be different for you. Which in the end, I suppose, is what he intended, even if he seems to play around with it. Because he can — ha ha.

I suppose Moore wants you to think about the big underlying issues, but he never really concretely and unequivocally spells them out, rather he dances around them, like the holy fool he wants us to think he is, the leader of Moore’s Utopia. All I do know is that we’re really in for it if GWB steals this election…

I don’t know whether you’d call this a review, but you asked me what I thought of the film, and I’ve told you the best way I know how.



Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

Yes, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a political film, openly and gleefully devoted to sowing doubt in the hearts and minds of the American electorate about G W Bush.

With Fox News on 24 hours a day, operating as a propaganda wing of the presidential party, other mainstream media excessively polite for fear of losing access to leaders, and an organized right-wing effort to declare the press leftist -- can you imagine a sillier thing that's ever been taken seriously? -- once again our democracy hinges on our nation's original afterthought, the First Amendment.

Michael Moore and every other unaffiliated crackpot making themselves heard in the current political discussion are the steel frame, the girding power of democracy. In that sense, we are the passengers of Flight 73, who understand that when our shared future has been hijacked by near total power to pursue unacceptable aims and agendas that differ from what we signed up for, that it's time for any of us, individually or in concert, no matter the cost, to figure out how to take down the bad guys.

In my lifetime, such people often get murdered. Malcolm, Martin, Medgar, Bobby, even John Lennon? The anthrax targets were powerful Democratic senators as a Democratic Senate was the biggest impediment to the authoritarian plots these recently leaked government memos reveal.

In other words, the clash of these political ideas -- the unmitigated abuse of power the Founding Fathers rejected 229 years ago today versus elected officials accountable for their actions and chosen by fair elections -- is something akin to a war.

Our side must win, which requires the Republican ticket be defeated in November.

So let critics quibble about the fairness of Mr. Moore's innuendo. Mr. Walley, above, characterizes them well as a mile wide and an inch deep. The point is that so much that stinks in this Administration has been insufficiently aired.

As such, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a glorious stinkbomb of a movie, a celebration of what we are allowed to say and a passionate attempt to discover what must be said.

Mr. Moore hit paydirt with that Flint mom, her anti-Bush son, and his subsequent terrible death in the war. But Fahrenheit 9/11 plays it straight and lets the subjects, one alive, one dead, set the agenda in those segments, so I believe Mr. Moore treated them respectfully and with honor. That he used none of his second-unit footage of Nicholas Berg in the final film also speaks well of a general anti-exploitation attitude (more so than in his previous films) while keeping his eye on the ball:

Make prospective voters aware the President does not in fact share their core values, regardless of his Nascar-vocabulary smokescreen rhetoric. The President is a duty-shirking, incompetent, corporate-welfare-chugging, greedy, deceitful, Ivy-League glutton of privilege who is so out of his league as President of the United States that when his nation came under attack it never occurred to him it was time to go back to work. Immediately.

Can one imagine any president in history before him, from Andrew Johnson to Warren Harding to Gerald Ford, not standing up and excusing himself the moment he learned the nation he led was under concerted, catastrophic armed attack?

Mr. Moore's innuendo is appropriate: the best one can say of that 7-minute head start the President allowed the terrorists 9/11 is that he is incompetent. The worst is nearly unthinkable.

Under these circumstances, voting for him again becomes that favorite phrase of the Right since Joe McCarthy: Anti-American!
07.4.2004 | David L Steinhardt
Excellent, if meandering, article! It gets what's worthwhile ? and what's vile ? about a film intended to excite the oblivious with "revelations" that are anything but to anyone paying attention. As to the comment above, is Steinhardt suggesting it was the Republicans who sent the anthrax letters to their Democratic counterparts? And in his poorly chosen flight 73 analogy, is he suggesting that the present administration is made up of terrorists? I enjoy Steinhardt's dispatches, in which wit and intelligence generally keep his obvious (and apparntly election year heightened) paranoia in check, but this is entirely too much.
07.4.2004 | Robert
I'm happy to respond to Robert's comment.

I certainly hope no Republicans were involved in the anthrax attacks, but I found it bizarre that the press failed, ever, to speculate on the object of these attacks: They were designed to kill Democratic Party leaders.

My use of Flight 73 as an analogy is one I'm happy to defend:

A free people cannot be defeated if they understand the consequences of their inaction would guarantee such defeat. Whether that means hastening their own deaths with terrorists on Flight 73 or creating a blockbuster documentary to show the emperor's nakedness, it's what makes America great. And why, on this Fourth of July, I continue to believe that tyrrany will never prevail on these soils.

(I recommend Barbara Ehrenreich's excellent NY Times Opinion piece today on the parallels between the current Administration and King George III.)
07.4.2004 | David L Steinhardt
I can't say I agree with Mr. Walley's piece, especially in what he says about American youth. I am a college student myself, and I would readily agree that Mr. Walley is right about my generation being wildly underinformed. However, according to Mr. Walley, one good way to correct this is to see a movie like "Fahrenheit 9/11." That really is confusing to me, we young people should become informed by being misinformed, and that is what "Fahrenheit 9/11" is all about. That Mr. Moore plays fast and loose with the facts has been well documented by pundits both left and right.

Also, I have to take issue with Mr. Steinhardt, specifically regarding his comments on President Bush and the kindergarten reading session on 9/11. Sure, it would have been easy for him to jump out of his chair, run out of the room, and look like you wanted him to look. But do you realize the sort of traumatic effect that would have had on the kids in that classroom, and in fact, around the nation as that clip was replayed? Our leaders are supposed to keep a cool head in times of crisis, and that is what President Bush was trying to do. It wasn't because he was too dumb to know what to do next, as Mr. Moore implied, but because he cared about the images he would leave with those young children.
07.4.2004 | Matt Luby
What Bush did was preferable to panic, but panic was not the only option available. He should have calmly ended storytime and stode out of the room.

I think that aside from its ridiculous conspiracy theories, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is vaguely fascistic in its imagery and veneration of the volk, vilely racist towards black Americans, Saudis and Iraqis (who are seen either wailing or flashing Kalashnikovs), and displays an appalling ignorance of basic facts about international affairs. (Iran, for instance, somehow goes unmentioned throughout the film, and Moore seems to think that Afghanistan is an Arab, Middle Eastern state.)

It also angered me because Moore passed up so many strong arguments in favor of cheap ones. He mocks the "coalition of the willing," for instance, in a funny scene, but doesn't mention that Britain, Spain, Italy and Australia were part of it. Mightn't he have done better by pointing out that those governments supported the invasion over the objections of their own people, and then drawing a parallel to our own country?

More important by far than these objections, though, I think that for its unmediated footage of war- particularly the night raid on an Iraqi home- this movie should be required viewing for every American who supports the war. Honest supporters of the war have to explain how it is worth its human consequences, and Moore is practically alone in presenting them. That night-raid footage goes as far towards explaining popular support for the insurgency as anything could.
07.4.2004 | Tim Marchman
I strongly agree with Mr. Marchman about the "coalition of the willing" scene. It was blatantly deceptive for Mr. Moore to avoid mentioning our biggest and most powerful coalition allies. Yes, Britain, Spain, Australia, and Italy deserve mention, and so does Poland. The Poles ended up looking after a wide swath of Iraq, more than a few of our more famous allies could lay claim to. You can't tell me Mr. Moore just forgot to mention those countries--that was deception pure and simple.
07.4.2004 | Matt Luby
If Moore had mentioned Poland it would have been to show someone eating kielbasa.
07.4.2004 | Tim Marchman
That seems about right, he sure did enjoy mocking the respective national cultures of the countries he did mention. I think this goes along with his contemptuous attitude toward African Americans, Saudis, and Iraqis that you mentioned earlier. Maybe his racist tendencies bring him closer the common man he so loves.
07.4.2004 | Matt Luby
Sorry if I'm a bit late to this particular party, but I've only just stumbled onto your generally excellent website.

If one concedes that the right sometimes engages in deceit, guilt by innuendo, and even outright lying, I fail to see how this excuses the many instances of deceit, guilt by innuendo, and yes, outright lying that permeate Moore's latest propaganda piece.

David Walley wrote: "I suppose Moore wants you to think about the big underlying issues, but he never really concretely and unequivocally spells them out, rather he dances around them, like the holy fool he wants us to think he is, the leader of Moore?s Utopia. All I do know is that we?re really in for it if GWB steals this election?"

There's a good reason for this confusion. Moore continually flirts with some of the most shocking, pernicious accusations and then, just before another person with the courage of his convictions would drive home his point, Moore instead coyly bats his eyelashes and moves on to the next target of his paranoid fantasies. It's quite obvious to anyone with a modicum of critical thinking ability (and not blinded by a predisposition to adopt his peculiar weltenschauung) that there's simply no "there" there.

The simple fact is, Moore can only conjecture and insinuate and nudge, he can't actually prove a damn thing. It's the filmmaker who has no clothes.

Fahrenheit 911 is the 21st-century equivalent of those "Bill Clinton murdered Vince Foster" videos of the '90s. The differences are: 1) the Vince Foster video makers never made the covers of Time and Newsweek, nor were they featured on 60 Minutes, David Letterman, the Today Show, and Entertainment Tonight (yeah, the mainstream media sure wants to silence this guy); and 2) the Republican Party never embraced the Vince Foster videos the way that John Kerry, Terry McAuliffe, Tom Daschle, Nancy Pelosi, and other leaders of the Democratic Party have embraced Michael Moore's propaganda.

"Duty-shirking, incompetent, greedy, deceitful, glutton, anti-American":

Did anybody else find it ironic that these insults were liberally sprinkled throughout Mr. Steinhardt's comments immediately following Mr. Walley's eloquent lamentation of the schoolyard-ization of our present-day political discourse?

Mr. Steinhardt again: "I found it bizarre that the press failed, ever, to speculate on the object of these [anthrax] attacks."

And I find it immensely refreshing (if depressingly rare) each time that the media actually reports the facts without speculating or editorializing or otherwise telling us what we're supposed to think about them.

Some say you need to fight fire with fire. Only trouble is, it never works. The fire just keeps getting hotter, until you both end up engulfed in flames.
07.12.2004 | Andrew Lee

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