15 December, 2004Issue 4.1Film & TVPolitics & Society

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Taking Sides

Niall MacLean

Michael Moore
Farhenheit 9/11
A Dog Eat Dog Films Production, 2003
122 mins

Michael Moore
Bowling for Columbine
A Dog Eat Dog Films Production, 2002
120 mins

Michael Moore
Dude, Where’s my country
Penguin Books Ltd., 2004
304 pages
ISBN 0141013001

Michael Moore
Stupid White Men
Penguin Books Ltd., 2004
320 pages
ISBN 0141019999

The verbal palsy that afflicts George W. Bush has been extensively documented. Entire books have been devoted to the subject, and the ‘50 Hilarious Bush Gaffes’ e-mails have (largely thanks to the efforts of US subcontractors) probably reached even Afghanistan by now. While it’s true that statements like ‘almost all of our exports come from overseas’ are irredeemable in pretty much any context outside management consultancy, it’s also important not to lose sight of the fact that George W. Bush’s artless use of language is, on occasion, one of his most effective polemical tools— witness Al Gore’s implosion in the face of Bush’s sledgehammer platitudes in the televised debates leading up to the 2000 Presidential election.

The relationship between art and polemic is longstanding and complex. There is obviously no necessary relationship, since plenty of works of art do not count as polemics (because they are not trying to prove a point), and most polemical works do not deserve the label of art (usually because they are trying too hard to prove a point). There can, however, be a relationship of functionality between the two forms. It might seem that this relationship tends to run in one direction—while very few works of art are improved as works of art because they are polemical, plenty of polemics are improved as polemics because they are works of art. Orwell’s 1984 and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will are diametrically opposed polemics, but the power of each stems from words and images that are immensely well-crafted. George W. Bush’s debate performances might show the occasional power of artless language, but this power is a function of unusual context—Bush operates in a political climate where nuance is considered by many to be a mark of moral and intellectual degeneracy. In the normal run of things, artistic flair improves the persuasive power of a polemic.

Commentators on the political right in America have tended to dismiss Michael Moore’s most recent film, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), as ‘mere polemic’, and some of the more rabid of their number have cited it as evidence of a growing ‘liberal bias’ in the US media. They are certainly right about the first point, although to label the film ‘mere polemic’ is to make the mistake of assuming that ‘polemic’ is straightforwardly a pejorative term. (As for the second claim, the frequency and vehemence with which it is made serve to show that the art of performative contradiction is alive and well.) To count as polemical, a work need only be one-sided—points are aggressively marshalled in one direction, with little attempt made to deal with relevant counterclaims. 9/11 certainly fits the bill on this score. The central thesis of the movie is that Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ and, more specifically, the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, are sideshows to distract attention from the close relationships that exist between the Bush family and elements of Saudi Arabia’s ruling class—including members of the Saudi royal family and the Bin Laden family. The argument Moore offers in support of this thesis consists of nothing more than a series of suggestive questions. Why were members of the Bin Laden family flown out of the US in the days following September 11th 2001, before being questioned by the FBI? Exactly how extensive are the business relations between the Bushes and the Bin Ladens? What is the significance of Taliban leaders travelling to Texas in 1997 (when Bush was Governor) to discuss with oil industry executives the possibility of running a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan? Collectively, these questions serve to raise suspicion, but they do not nearly convince.

The problem with 9/11 isn’t that it is ‘mere polemic’; rather, the problem is that it’s not very good polemic. Polemical works do not seek to convince in the way that philosophical arguments do. Philosophers try to carry their audience by showing, clearly and carefully, how a conclusion follows in a satisfactory manner from a set of plausible premises. To criticise Moore for failing to live up to these standards is to misconceive his aim. Moore seeks to convince in the way that polemicists do, which is by charming the audience, appealing to their sensibilities as much as to their reason. This is the appropriate benchmark of his work, and 9/11 falls short. Moore is rarely in command of the large amount of information he has to play with, and the movie meanders towards a de facto end rather than building to a recognisable finale. Furthermore, the visual tricks he attempts to play in charming the audience—the art of his polemic—are not entirely effective. The Bush-as-cowboy joke has been done so many times before, and is now so firmly ingrained in public consciousness, that Moore’s splicing of Bush’s ‘smoke ‘em out’ speeches with old episodes of Bonanza seems more obvious than amusing. Similarly, the sportscast-style roll-call of the states forming the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ is both unfunny and misses a trick (no mention is made of significant British involvement). The most visually effective section of the entire film—the evocation of the events of September 11th via an entirely black screen, overlain with the sounds of screams and emergency sirens—is genuinely powerful, but clearly is not an integral aspect of the film’s overall thesis.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing in all this is that Moore is capable of much better. He does have considerable skill in using the visual medium. In the late 1980s, after several years working in print journalism, Moore went back to his hometown of Flint, Michigan to shoot a documentary about the town’s economic and social collapse after General Motors decided to close their local plant. The result—Roger and Me (1989)—is a film rich with images that are immediately striking and beautifully evocative. Moore’s quest for an interview with the eponymous Roger Smith, chairman of GM, takes him from exclusive golf course to expensive restaurant to snooty health club. The oft-mocked Moore dress sense (baseball cap, baggy trousers, greasy jacket) might seem casual bordering on the totally remiss, but there is nothing casual about the way he gleefully juxtaposes his just-a-downhome-guy-looking-for-answers persona against the assortment of complacent snobs, unctuous lobbyists, and whorish minor celebrities he meets along the way. The search for Roger in various high-class contexts is set against the physical and spiritual disintegration of Flint, brilliantly conveyed through a series of vignettes involving town residents. Moore takes us on a tour of the newly-built, state-of the-art Flint jail, staffed by wardens formerly employed by GM, and populated by less fortunate former employees (many of whom are childhood friends of their jailers). Prior to the opening of the jail, we are shown wealthy townspeople in evening wear who have forked out to attend a cocktail party in the building, and for the kitsch fun of spending a night in the cells. As Moore brings the movie to a close, the general theme of the gulf between worlds—in this instance, the gap between how the corporate world views its front-line employees, and the reality of being such an employee—is summarised in an ingenious close-up of a mechanised public relations display at the headquarters of General Motors. A car production robot and a plastic human figure in overalls shake hands languidly, as if in a mutual state of deep stupefaction. Above them is written the legend: ‘Me and My Buddy’.

The surprising box-office success of Roger and Me provided Moore with the platform to produce two television shows—TV Nation and The Awful Truth—which ran sporadically throughout the 1990’s. Each show dealt with a single issue, and many displayed the same facility with brutally streamlined images we see in Roger—for example, Moore conducting a choir of throat cancer victims signing ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ through their electronic voice boxes in the lobby of Philip Morris Tobacco in Manhattan. Unfortunately, there is no doubt that Moore’s polemical skills are showcased best by relatively self-contained topics. When he returned to documentary filmmaking in 2002 with Bowling for Columbine, he undertook a far more ambitious project – to give an account of spiralling levels of gun crime in the US. As with Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore’s central thesis is not convincingly established. The first two-thirds of the movie work towards explaining the elevated numbers of gun deaths as a consequence of the ease with which firearms are available in America. Moore then takes us over the border to Canada, ostensibly to pull the rug from under our feet—Canadians have, he claims, equally free access to guns, and yet commit far fewer gun crimes. He fails to acknowledge, however, that this is not a controlled experiment, since hand-guns (the cause of most gun deaths) are much harder to obtain in Canada. More-over, the causes on which Moore finally settles—a scare-mongering media, fear of crime, poverty (all probably authentic reasons)—are suggested somewhat glibly, and defended with faltering coherence and conviction.

Unlike Fahrenheit 9/11 though, there is enough visual flair in Bowling for Columbine to carry the audience in spite of these deficiencies. Moore once again displays his genius for finding individuals who almost seem to have been put on the planet to make his points for him. The local militia in Flint (he is consistently drawn back to his home town) patiently explain to Moore why they use bowling pins—archetypal American objects—for target practice: because they are ‘roughly human shaped.’ In the background gambolling happily are the children of the militiamen, dressed in pure white on an overcast day, presumably to emphasise the fact they are not bowling pins. Shortly afterwards, we are told by Moore that the gunmen in the Columbine High School massacre began the day of the killings with a 7am trip to the local bowling alley. With great dexterity, Moore has imparted in us the depressing sense that violence is inextricably woven into the fabric of his home country. Polemic, yes; bad polemic, no.

When stripped of the visual medium and confined only to words, however, Moore is a much less effective polemicist. An enthusiastic blurb on the back of his most recent book (Dude, Where’s My Country? [2003]) gushes, ‘What Moore has to say needs saying again and again’. This is handy, since when writing this is exactly what Moore does. To stultifying effect. Humour is often taken to be Moore’s trump card, but he never constructs polemical jokes as lastingly funny as Robin Williams on the NRA (‘The Constitution says we have the right to bear arms – or arm bears – actually we can’t remember which’) or Bill Hicks on the American pro-life lobby (‘If you’re so pro-life, don’t block med-clinics, OK? Lock arms and block cemeteries’). Instead, we are presented with feeble puns (‘Reagan, Bush, Cheney, and the whole Lott of them…’) and a strange obsession with the open letter format. The net result is that is Moore’s arguments are much more naked on the page than they are on the screen, and the kinds of deficiencies we are charmed into overlooking in Bowling for Columbine are upfront, obvious, and annoying.

Both Dude, Where’s My Country? and Moore’s previous book Stupid White Men (2002) are rife with these deficiencies. One well-worn blunder is for Moore to lament how the members of some group in society are denied access to power, before going on to laud the members of the same group for not committing the kinds of crimes only the powerful can commit. Perhaps the deepest problem in both books, however, concerns the status of the claims Moore makes in support of what he takes to be a better America – one marked by workplace democracy, higher spending on public services, affirmative action, gun control, and a greater willingness to work in partnership with the international community. While in his films Moore attempts to beguile the audience into sympathising with the causes he supports, on paper he assumes that we are already sympathetic. Towards the end of Dude, he cites poll evidence suggesting that ‘most’ Americans are in favour of his model society, and he loftily states that his claims ought to be accorded the status of ‘common sense’.

If there is a ‘majority’ in America sympathetic to Moore’s model society, it cannot be a very influential one. How else are we to account for the many millions of Americans who will always instinctively prefer the views of a Bush to those of a Gore or a Kerry and who elected him to second, this time uncontested, term? Moore is sometimes accused of explaining away the views of conservative Americans by attributing ‘false consciousness’ to them. This is an unwarranted accusation based on lax usage of the Marxist concept, since Moore never claims that in voting Republican these conservatives act against (as Marx and Engels would put it) their ‘real’ or ‘objective’ interests. In fact, Moore’s view of these Americans is less sophisticated, and more mysterious – he claims that when they vote Republican, they act contrary to their own beliefs. If only these people were sufficiently educated, or less in the thrall of a right wing media, they would realise what their values ‘really’ are – ‘deep down’. I suspect we’d reach Australia before we dug up the latent liberal core of Jesse Helms, Rush Limbaugh, or George W Bush, and the same must go for millions of ordinary Americans who share their views.

We might be witnessing the gradual demise of Michael Moore as an effective polemicist. In recent interviews, he often cites with relish the sheer numbers who have bought his books or watched 9/11, as if this is further evidence of the ‘liberal majority’ he assumes he is now addressing. Good polemicists know that those who buy their books don’t necessarily buy their arguments – there has been as much negative coverage of Moore’s work as there has positive. Good polemicists always assume there is work to be done in getting the audience onside, often a great deal of work, and they continually seek to tailor their output in relation to the type and magnitude of this task. The very best work from a forensic knowledge of their audience, its sensibilities and foibles, and craft their output in such a way as to press all the right buttons. Moore undoubtedly realises this, and it is surely no accident that he chose to begin his career as a print journalist back in his hometown, utilising to the full his deep understanding of the people of Flint. Since then, Moore has grown into a national—indeed, international—figure, and the scope of his polemics has grown in proportion. His return to Flint in Fahrenheit 9/11 to document the effects of the war in Iraq on the town residents almost has a sense of nostalgic longing to it, a search for the security blanket of local knowledge. Moore knows his reach is, and must be, broader than this. But he is struggling. When we see a polemicist who attempts to expand his reach by assuming that the audience is already on his side, we see a polemicist who has lost touch with the fundamental nature of his art.

Niall Maclean is a Glasgwegian DPhil student in political philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford. He currently lives in London.