Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 12, 2004 7:13 pm 
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Explosive, or merely leaky? The critics duke it out, but many miss the substantive issues

[Also published on FilmWurld, now Filmleaf]

One of the first pieces about Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 on the eve of its US release was about facts and fact-checking. "Michael Moore Is Ready for his Close-Up, by Philip Shenon, published June 20, 2004 in The New York Times, listed various points where the film might be questioned and said Moore’s staff was ready with a "political style 'war room' to offer an instant response to any assault on the film’s credibility."

Most of the advocates of Bush’s policies and especially his invasion of Iraq were poised to attack Moore’s movie as a wrong argument based on wrong information. Surprisingly – or perhaps not; wasn’t this the safest approach? – most reviewers of Moore’s film in the US nonetheless focused on its style and tone rather than the validity of its facts or arguments. As the reviews emerged, they weren't as enthusiastic as some leading critics’ raves and the enormous public turnout to see it would have led you to expect. Perhaps the Cannes prize put American reviewers, spoiling for a fight with the French, in a contrary mood. There were grumbles that the film only fed European anti-American feeling and that Cannes was rewarding that (never mind that the president of the Cannes jury this year was Quentin Tarantino). Or maybe they were just annoyed at having so many facts and arguments to deal with, presented in such an inventive and outrageous variety of ways.

There is logic in the focus on tone. Fahrenheit 9/11 (the very title underlines its incendiary nature) is above all an impassioned polemic. It’s wrong to argue that documentaries are never biased and that therefore Moore’s film isn’t one – they often are, and intensely so. What emerged from the reviews was that the first half of the film is tightly edited and contains stunning moments, most notably the coverage of Bush’s non-election and the haunting way the attack on New York is presented as a darkened screen followed by shots of running, grieving people, rather than the familiar footage of the Twin Towers in flames. J. Hoberman wrote in his tellingly entitled "Eviction Notice" in the Village Voice that Moore’s opening sequence is the best work he has yet done.

"The film's long opening movement," Hoberman wrote, "which segues from the stolen election of 2000 and Bush's 2001 summer vacation through the events of 9-11 and the cowboy invasion of Afghanistan to dwell on the oil politics uniting the Bushies with the Saudis, is the strongest filmmaking of Moore's career. Moore shamelessly exploited 9-11 in Bowling for Columbine, but Fahrenheit's first half-hour, tightly edited and scored for maximum impact, is succinct and hilarious in making its points—as well as infuriating and tragic."

Perhaps J. Hoberman gave the movie its finest praise because it is both serious and frank: he wrote, "If Moore is formidable, it's not because he is a great filmmaker (far from it), but because he infuses his sense of ridicule with the fury of moral indignation. Fahrenheit 9/11 is strongest when that wrath is vented on Bush and his cohorts. Let us not forget that Dana Carvey did more than anyone in America, save Ross Perot, to drive Bush père from the White House. There are sequences in Fahrenheit 9/11 so devastatingly on target as to inspire the thought that Moore might similarly help evict the son."

This recalls the fact that Jonathan Swift, whose impassioned satire had some little effect in his lifetime and has echoed down the centuries, spoke on his own tombstone of his "savage indignation."

Yet many of the critics "didn’t go there." A.O. Scott, now chief New York Times movie critic, was typical of writers who depicted Moore not as a bitter ironist but a charming bumbler. In his piece entitled "Unruly Scorn Leaves Room for Restraint, But Not a Lot" (NYTimes, June 23, 2004), Scott wrote that the film’s confusions are a strength in the sense that it’s "an authentic and indispensable document of its time. Blithely trampling the boundary between documentary and demagoguery…[Moore is] obnoxious, tendentious and maddeningly self-contradictory. He can drive even his most ardent admirers crazy. He is a credit to the republic."

Very good, as one of my professors used to say, but what does it mean? Given that Fahrenheit 9/11 has the power to attract an audience and hold its attention, and that the film may be both provocative and convincing, what are the strengths and weakness of its arguments? And does it marshall the most relevant facts? The answer is yes and no.

It seems to have been an anonymous blogger published on the Tom Paine website -- "Blind, Or A Coward?" -- (June 30, 2004) who was the first to point out a stunning omission: that Moore never mentions Israel -- or the fact that it was the Israeli government that wanted the Iraq invasion, not the Saudis.

It's certainly true that at bottom control of the Gulf region and of Iraq is all about oil and so is the Bush administration (and so is the United States of America). Still, this focus on the Saudis is a bit of an unhealthy obsession of Moore’s. Indeed, the most thorough and sympathetic discussion of the film and of Moore as an artist and political being -- "Michael Moore’s Contribution" by David Walsh, on the World Socialist Web Site, June 30, 2004 -– it runs to just over 3,000 words –- points out that “Moore strikes his most truly false note” in his section about the Saudis. They’re merely puppets, not manipulators of US moneyed interests, Walsh points out.

Walsh also quotes with approval Moore's quotation from George Orwell, "The war is not meant to be won, but it is meant to be continuous.... The hierarchy of society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. In principle, the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects, and its object is not victory...but to keep the very structure of society intact."

The use of the poor as tools and victims of war is a theme implied by Moore’s treatment of the lady from Flint and the young people recruited from the shabbier malls. Even if it may not seem so explicit in Moore as it is in Orwell's statement or Walsh's socialist interpretation of it, this undercurrent of advocacy for the working class and poor and abhorrence of the oligarchy of the rich the Bush administration represents runs throughout Fahrenheit 9/11 and many critics seem to misinterpret the film in failing to see that. That's the power and the anger behind the famous clip of Bush at one of his rallies saying, "This is an impressive crowd -- the haves ... and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite; I call you my base."

Frank Bardacke has written -- "Erasing the Anti-War Movement: What Michael Moore Left Out" -- (CounterPunch, July 29, 2004) that Moore omits coverage of the global pre-Iraq anti-war demonstrations in Fahrenheit 9/11, arguing that Moore does so because his primary interest is not in fostering independent acton against the war but in "helping the democrats beat George Bush."

Israel isn't the only glaring omission in discussing the origins of the Iraq invasion. Hussein Ibish, an Arab writer who writes frequently about the Palestinians and American policy for the Daily Star and the Electric Intifada website, points out in a column, "'Fahrenheit 9/11' Misses Mark on Concpiracies," (Daily Star, Beirut, July 12, 2004) that not only are the Saud-Bush links something of a red herring in the overall discussion of the war, but Moore never even talks about the neo-cons’ long-prior plans to invade Iraq -- a topic thoroughly discussed in the later documentary release, Sut Jhally and Jeremy Earp's Hijacking Catastrophe. Ibish asserts that the Saudis are demonized in the US now, while in the US there is no “Iraqi perspective on the conflict other than [the] howls of suffering and rage” that this and other films record. But while Ibish has a bone to pick, he, like A.O. Scott, sensibly praises Moore for the remarkable feat of seeming to “have found a formula which allows blistering criticism to come across as not only acceptable but even patriotic…”

That's true: as A.O. Scott's remark suggested ("he is a credit to the republic"), Moore has become nothing short of a national treasure. And in an imperfect world, I’m glad to have him, and awed by the success of his movie. It has its faults, and they’re as big as the man. But I'm also awed by how the connected narrative he builds can have such a powerfully depressing impact even on someone like myself who has followed the events so closely; and by how Moore's sympathies for the working class come out as a powerful anti-war message. But what counts to me most is that he’s proven a political polemic can not only bring out Americans in droves -- to vote with box office receipts against the war in Iraq -- but also can get them talking, just as Bowling for Columbine did and more so. I hope this is the beginning of a more politically aware electorate, and a US in which the Rush Limbaughs are on both sides, yelling out their arguments for all to hear. I hope also that Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t just fast-food politics; that it will stimulate people to think and actually will grab those undecided voters critics and viewers argue over and not let them go. As film critics we have to discuss the merits of Moore's work objectively, but the material is crucial.

Which brings up the issue: is attacking the movie political suicide if you're anti-Bush? That's actually kind of a tough question. Stephanie Zacherek in a review for Salon.Com, "Fahrenheit 9/11: Nay!" -- panned the film, saying that "Moore's latest has some powerful images that are invariably overwhelmed by his jokey, faux-populist self-righteousness." Some of us don’t agree. "Populist self-righteousness"? yes. "Faux"? I don't think so. But Zacherek could have a valid point when she rebukes Moore fans for ad hominem attacks on critics of the film. "For them," she says, Michael Moore is the issues he talks about, so his detractors must be enemies of democratic principles. It's an old trick, akin to the way Pauline Kael was accused of being insensitive about the Holocaust when she didn't like "Shoah." That's right -- isn't it? Only, the thing is, there’s a big difference between writing about Fahrenheit 9/11 and writing about Shoah: the Nazis aren’t up for reelection in November.

Or are they?

Think about it. Which side are you on?

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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