Monday, July 16, 2007

There's Something About Michael

I started to appreciate Michael Moore years before I had even learned what the words “liberal” and “conservative” meant. In the late 90s, Moore had a TV show that aired on Bravo called “The Awful Truth”, which was, in essence, a highbrow “Jackass” with the intent of socio-political satire. The show, which I saw on Bravo, basically had Moore pulling outrageous, often hilarious, stunts to either illustrate seemingly obvious political problems or simply to force people into awkward situations of clashing culture. Some of the more memorable segments include: Moore launching a “Sodomobile” across the nation to educate citizens on the fight for gay rights, eventually running into gay-bashing “preacher” Fred Phelps; Moore taking Rage Against the Machine to perform outside Republican and Democratic primaries; and, my personal favorite, Moore gathering a dozen or so nicotine addicts who have been reduced to using voice boxes in order to speak and, right before Christmas, taking them “caroling” outside the Marlboro factory.

These stunts were ludicrous, brave, intentionally shocking and controversial, but never without a sense of humor. In the last five years or so, as Moore has gained enormous success, even infamy, for his feature documentary work, his sense of humor has certainly taken a blow as well.

The name Michael Moore extended to red and blue states alike not because of his work itself, but because of his headline-making speech upon his acceptance of the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award in 2003 for Bowling for Columbine. Not unlike the incendiary reaction to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, most of the criticism of Moore from the far right stemmed from masses who had never even seen the film they were protesting. Since Moore’s speech—and since his smash-hit, $120 million-grossing and Cannes’ Palme d’Or-winning documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which itself seemed to be a response to the criticism of his speech—he has, like it or not, been an outspoken, relevant media figure, and will probably continue to be.

In fact, the growing success of theatrical documentaries must be at least partially attributed to Moore’s work. Since Bowling and Fahrenheit, documentaries have no longer been just for PBS-ers and struggling intellectuals, but have made for profitable filmmaking, with subjects of interest as far ranging as penguins, global warming and fast food.

I find Moore’s work puzzling. Not his politics or the subjects he chooses, but the way he constructs his films.

Moore’s latest, Sicko, should be a subject that most Americans, left or right, can take an interest in. His thesis is refreshingly simple: while capitalism makes our country work the way a democracy should, American health care would operate with better-vested interest for the people if the profit incentive were removed. Unlike the arguments of many critics of socialized medicine, Moore’s stance hardly makes him, or anybody who agrees, a Communist or Socialist. It makes sense that medical institutions and health insurance providers would operate in better interest of the people if they were employed by the state (as Moore points out, America’s public schools and law enforcement work just fine this way). If we’re the richest country in the world, why can’t we put effort into becoming No. 1 in terms of health care? And, in today’s environment of skyrocketing corporate greed and backstabbery, the response to the idea of socialized medicine reverberates as a sensical, not radical, “why not?”

Moore’s thesis is brief and compact, so his examples throughout that support it quickly become redundant, eventually losing their initial impact. Sicko starts off with example after example of horror stories average Americans have had with insurance and pharmaceutical companies, then Moore examines other developed countries that have socialized medicine: Canada, France, and Great Britain. He talks to a doctor in London who makes a great living despite being employed by the government, for he gets paid in terms of how many patients he cures and how many lives he saves. Moore then gathers several Americans who have had injustice done to them by their healthcare providers (or simply can’t afford healthcare) and takes them to Cuba, where they are given the attention their home country couldn’t provide. Throughout, Moore sticks to the same formula: talk to normal people, and play the dumb guy by asking them simple, obvious leading questions, the answers of which largely speak for themselves (such as when he asks a normal Canadian, who obviously receives the government’s health care, if he has ever been a Communist or Socialist).

While the film and argument are certainly worthwhile, and will hopefully continue a national discourse on the problems with our healthcare, I found myself wishing it was made by a different documentary filmmaker, for Moore’s signature style is the only thing that weakens his stance.

While no documentary can be purely objective, the best documentaries are those where the filmmaker simply lets their subjects speak for themselves without lead or direction, the documentarian simply being a witness and not an active participant. If the style be cinema verite (as it happens) like The War Room (1993) or in the style of retrospective interviews and archive footage, like last year’s VH1-esque The US vs. John Lennon, the subject is best-served if we the audience are focusing on that subject, and not the filmmaker.

But Michael Moore is, in fact, the subject of each of Michael Moore’s films, with health care (or 9/11, or gun control, or GM CEO Roger Smith) coming in at a close second. Moore has a dense presence both in front of and behind the camera; when he’s not in the same frame of the people he’s interviewing, he’s narrating. His editing techniques are especially worth notice, and so is the manner in which he uses bombastic music to incite immediate emotional responses. His interviews and archival materials are often peppered with brief footage from old films or obscure television clips to add some humor to the piece (such as when he incorporates a clip of some Eastern European medical comedy show when he states that Slovenia is right above the US in terms of serving medical need). And his musical cues, ranging from tired Rolling Stones numbers to orchestral scores from other movies (Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer), are anything but subtle. At one point, he even uses a Star Wars intro parody to show a list of conditions that would keep you from qualifying for medical care, complete with John Williams music. It’s sensational documentary filmmaking at its pop-cultural, postmodern best. With this constant visual and oral blast to the senses, Moore’s documentaries can be pretty damn entertaining, something easily consumable for our decreasing attention spans and far removed from any pre-Michael Moore documentary you’d see on PBS (yawn!).

Unfortunately, this skilled style makes the documentary far less substantive. His filmmaking techniques—sensation-driven and not content-driven—and simplistic interviews (usually devoid of conversations with experts or scholars) hurt the value of the information he’s presenting, and cause his films to lose most of their power upon multiple viewings. It's the documentary equivalent of style over substance. Michael Moore is basically the Guy Ritchie of documentary filmmaking...(okay, that's not entirely accurate, but it's fun to say).

While the facts Moore brings to the table in his films seem to be technically accurate, the information he chooses to omit becomes more and more apparent. Had Moore chosen to show the downsides of universal healthcare in Canada, England, France and Cuba, followed with an argument as to how the positives outweigh the negatives, then Sicko would be that much more powerful and influential in promoting socialized medicine. (Anybody who has taken College Writing 101 knows this.)

Like visiting Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine, like asking Congressmen to sign up their children to fight in Iraq in Fahrenheit 9/11, and like the entire premise of “The Awful Truth,” Moore does an over-the-top stunt in Sicko to make his point. Arguing that political prisoners in Guantanamo Bay get excellent health care (for free, nonetheless), Moore takes some of the victims of unjust American health care to the “American soil” on Cuba to ask for medical assistance. The point is made long before the ridiculous gesture is completed. In Moore’s two previous films, he performed these stunts only at the potential embarrassment of himself (and I thought they were pretty clever), but watching Moore yelling towards Guantanamo Bay prison on a boat with some very sick people did not seem in the least bit funny. Moore knew that they were going to get sent away (just like he knew the Congressmen would ignore him, and that Heston would walk out on him) because it’s his very intent to use these stunts to incite something abrupt that would drive his point home. Why did he waste his time? Why didn’t he just get these people to free medical care in Cuba (which he does right after) first? It’s one of the instances in the film in which it becomes perfectly clear that this movie is about Moore, and not the sick people on the boat. It makes me look at that clip from “The Awful Truth” differently. Is Moore just pulling an outrageous stunt to make his point at the expense of embarrassing the people with voice boxes, or is he actually making a positive impact?

Dr. Gupta of CNN recently went head-to-head with Moore regarding the specific details of Sicko. Moore seems to go through a process like this after each film he releases and, as with each film Moore has been previously criticized for, Gupta didn’t dispute the facts themselves, but the way they were presented as well as the ones he chose to omit.

And in the anti-Michael Moore documentary Manufacturing Dissent (2007), the filmmakers show how Moore’s examination of unlocked doors in Canada in Bowling for Columbine (to show the Canadians’ sense of safety) was inaccurate: only about 40% of the doors he encountered were unlocked, when all of the doors shown in the final cut were unlocked. Moore critics often run into a trivial mess like this; debating how many doors are locked or unlocked in Canada at any given time doesn’t get anybody anywhere. Moore pulls these stunts to make a point, so of course he’s only going to include footage that supports his point. One wouldn’t need a documentary to tell us that, most likely, not every door Moore came up to that day was unlocked, and showing the raw footage of Moore knocking on doors all day certainly wouldn’t make for an entertaining documentary, at least not in the Michael Moore style. To reverse an old phrase, it’s not in the details.

Michael Moore, not to mention most of the media today, certainly has a very odd definition of “truth”. His television show was called “The Awful Truth” and his website that supports the facts of Sicko is called “The Truth.” When reading Gupta and Moore go back and forth about different facts from different sources, one quickly becomes aware of the fruitlessness of discovering “truth” in the confused, misinformed, often fear-driven and increasingly prevalent media of today (in both news and documentaries). No wonder Steven Colbert’s term “truthiness” was quickly coined as a legitimate word in our culture. And debating the details of Moore’s films still seems to be missing the point entirely. Why is everybody so concerned with overturning facts in such an obviously subjective documentary? What good would it have done Michael Moore to intentionally make a movie full of lies, and what do critics prove by countering everything he says? (I would pose the same question regarding Al Gore and the criticism of An Inconvenient Truth as well.)

One of the best political documentaries in recent years is Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (2004), about the hardly fair or balanced partisan news reporting at the Fox News Network. Because Outfoxed is criticizing a sensationalist style of news reporting, the film itself is very straightforward in its style, with simple interview techniques, non-manipulative archive footage (ie. no old movies or obscure TV clips), obvious iMovie-style cuts when an edit has been made, and pretty much no music. While the film is in no way amateur, the filmmaking style is simplistic as to not receive any of the same criticism in media technique that they are criticizing Fox News for. They’re trying not to fall in a trap that would undermine their own argument. As a result, however, the film is not entertaining. In the world of the political documentary, entertainment value and substantive argument are, quite unfortunately, mutually exclusive terms.

But there has been an even more powerful style of documentary filmmaking recently. Two films from last year, Jesus Camp and Deliver Us From Evil, criticize the subjects they are presenting not through asking leading questions, fancy editing, or fact omission, but by simply letting their subjects speak for themselves. They leave the opinion up to the audience. And through their professional and seemingly objective style, they drive their point home much more powerfully than any of Moore’s films.

Yet no documentary can be purely objective, and docs that seem purely objective, but in fact may not be at all accurate, can be dangerous (ie. propaganda). While Jesus Camp and Deliver Us From Evil are two of my favorite docs in recent years, and I have outspokenly praised their attempts at objectivity, any subject presented as objectively as these has the capacity to be powerfully manipulative.

That being said, maybe what Michael Moore is doing with his docs is actually good for Americans. Maybe because his technique and style are so obvious, and the details of his content are so criticized as a result, that it unintentionally enables viewers to be just as critical and able to decide for themselves where they fall in respect to Moore’s argument instead of merely being overwhelmed by the sensation of its technique. Maybe he’s creating a critical discourse not just of himself, but the issue at hand, that would otherwise not be so relevant without such a controversial and prevalent figure.

In 1920s Soviet Russia, filmmakers of the country manufactured “propaganda,” but not propaganda in the traditional sense. With films such as Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928) or Dziga Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera (1929), the Soviets used obvious editing and montage techniques (in expense of narrative cohesion) in order to express an idea, but, along the way, intentionally used this to educate audiences on how films express ideas through editing (and even sensational emotional techniques) so that they can view “propaganda” critically and objectively. Realizing the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary potential of this “cinematic education”, the Soviet government quickly censored this practice in the nation’s film schools.

However, had this practice persisted, perhaps the Soviets, and citizens of other nations around the world, would be more educated when viewing media not be “duped” by the subjective media techniques used commonly today.

I’m not saying Michael Moore is the next Eisenstein, and I’m certainly not saying he’s intelligent enough to do this intentionally, but as his filmmaking style continues to keep audiences in critical discourse, maybe we can take this knowledge and criticism to other media outlets, like the news, and use our education to keep ourselves from being duped anymore.

Maybe then we can decide for ourselves what “truth” really is.


(For further reading on Moore's odd obsession with our neighbors to the north, see his only narrative feature (and John Candy's last screen appearance) Canadian Bacon (1995), a surprisingly clever comedy about a cold war between the US and Canada. At one point, two American characters realize that every door in Canada is unlocked. Funny how Moore's narrative fiction eventually became documentary fact...)

(Because I love this nation, I love my right to criticize it.)


Paige said...

Interestingly enough, on the Sicko posters I've seen, it's not called a documentary, but a comedy. No idea what to make of it (because I haven't seen the movie) except that because it doesn't follow classic documentary conventions, the marketing moguls decided to push away from that label (even though you can't with Michael Moore as the director/star).

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