Wednesday, July 07, 2004

What Does it Take To Make a Best-Selling Documentary? - Scrutinzing Michael Moore's Farhenheit 9/11

It’s been a while since I’ve had time to sit down and write about film. Sadly, it seems that 2004 has not been a great year for movies unless you have access to some the new Criterion releases on DVD – (“forgotten” classics by Visconti, Kurosawa, Ozu, Bergman, and Pasolini, among others); also, in the past year a German distributor has mounted the task of presenting the complete works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder on home video and DVD (Criterion recently released his award-winning BRD Trilogy). If you’re a film lover and you don’t like what’s in the theaters these days, there are options…

All of that aside, Fahrenheit 9/11 was released last week to American audiences despite considerable efforts to keep it out of theaters. The film attempts to connect the dots between the 2000 Florida presidential election debacle, the devastating events in New York and the Pentagon on September 11th, the Bush Administration and its ministry of fear, war profiteering, military recruitment and their prime target audience, innumerable lies about weapons of mass destruction, innumerable military follies in Iraq (needless brutality of Iraqi civilians that U.S. forces are liberating, needless destruction of Iraqi homes and families, the controversial use of torture on captives, etc.), the Bush Family (Poppa Bush in particular), the Osama Bin-Laden family, the ever increasing costs at the gas pump and finally, the mystery that most of us are dying to solve: is George W. Bush really as stupid as he looks? Is he a puppet manipulated by men and women that are cleverer than he is (conceivably everyone else in the country including my cat George)?

It would be daunting for anyone to take on such a monumental task, for the above mentioned themes amount to material for several films, not one. But Michael Moore seems to enjoy presenting himself with impossible feats, and he usually does a decent job of dealing with difficult subject matters despite his messy narratives and ill-supported claims. I often think of him (as many do) as a left-wing Rush Limbaugh – doling out a social critique that reads more Op/Ed than documentary – through the proliferation of film footage can border on the miraculous – his work seems to raise the inevitable question: how the hell did he get that on film?

It is notable that Moore’s newest effort had higher box-office receipts on its opening weekend than any other documentary – ever. Fahrenheit 9/11 brought in $21.8M in its first few days on the screen – not bad for a film that Disney Pictures decided it could not release due to unpopular themes. It was said that Miramax had picked up the film, but Miramax’s name does not appear in the title sequence (although Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s names do appear – aren’t they the heads of Miramax? – what happened? – did stockholders express overwhelming resistance?). One imagines that the rest of Hollywood will soon take up the charge of light brigade and start producing politically penetrating and controversial documentaries – given (of course) they get the right responses from test audiences and focus groups.

For a documentary to be this popular, it’s worth asking what exactly has earned the film all the attention. Are Americans really fed up with George W. Bush, or do they just want to see what all the hoopla is about? Was it the controversial nature of the film, the film’s celebrated struggle to reach distributors; or, did George W Bush’s (and others) unsavory comments about Michael Moore create a renewed (and increased) interest in his work? Are there really so many people who identify with Moore’s rhetoric? If so, why have they chosen to be silent these past few years? The answers to these questions are difficult to pinpoint; perhaps all of these reasons (and more) are part of why it is still difficult to see the film without buying tickets in advance.

As usual, Michael Moore knows that his audience is rife with prime-time expectations and he fails to disappoint their challenged expectations. His Comedia del Arte routine plays out without a great concern for presenting facts that could otherwise strengthen the mass of exposition that litters his film. This is often the weak link in Moore’s work. It disappoints because documentation (on the Florida election, for example) does exist. If writer Greg Pallast can get his hands on the document that Jeb Bush issued in Florida that profiled voters who would not be allowed access to the polls, surely our Canadian watchdog would have had access to Pallast’s work, or the document itself – apparently not. Moore also overlooks the fact that the White House spent $20M on an advertising campaign to get America “behind the war effort” – an important missing link in his rhetoric because he tries to examine the Bush Administration’s penchant for instilling fear among the populace. Rather, he chooses to sweep over the rug with images and voice-over narrative to tell the story in a way that more often that not feels like handholding.

There is also the difficult to dismiss evidence (that Moore chose to ignore) assembled by the MoveOn.org folks in the documentary Uncensored – a film that used insiders from the CIA and the White House to present the truth behind the lies that Colin Powell used in his presentation to the U.N. on weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps Moore didn’t want to tread on familiar ground (but seriously, compare the number of viewers of Uncensored with Fahrenheit 9/11 – whoops! Sorry, there is no comparison – Uncensored was distributed to those who made a contribution to the making of the film and it has not yet found its way to theaters).

It is hard, however, to criticize him for making Fahrenheit at a time when so many people seem out of the loop on the motivations behind the invasion of Iraq and indeed, behind the “work” in Florida that allowed Bush to take office. And yet it is important not to just let the film just wash over you and walk out afterward feeling like you really are informed.

On the other hand, it’s impressive that he has crystallized the enormous socio-political dung-heap that the Bush Administration has produced, and has put it out there where audiences can get to it in an easy to digest format. Most folks resist working too hard to get the facts unless their son or daughter is killed in a senseless war, conceivably designed for no other reason than to get corporations salivating over the potential for huge profits in this oil-rich region. This is a point that doesn’t go unnoticed (or perhaps unexploited) in Moore’s recent offering.

Unfortunately, what often lies behind Moore's film is a deft ability to present social and political satire that's so well packaged, so finely integrated into the fabric of the film, that it can go unnoticed, and Farhenheit 9/11 is packed with such moments. The title sequence alone, with the lens focused on GW Bush while he waits to announce that the US is about to strike the people of Iraq is a memorable example.

If nothing else, the film stands as an effort to wake America up – and it is possible that the best way of waking people up is to set an alarm – and surely Michael Moore’s film has all the alarming points of light associated with a wake-up call. It is clear that many Americans have been sleeping on the issues, perhaps fearful of stirring a fuss that would secure a reservation at a newfound resort in Guantanamo Bay. Perhaps we are the victims of a barrage of media images and sound-bytes that have neglected (or have blocked) a clearer presentation of the facts. While watching the film, it seems impossible that all the facts will ever be collected and digested without a certain amount of destructive bias.

Like Nixon’s Watergate scandal and countless other political mishaps, the facts are often hard to find, and it seems that Americans may never know the truth behind the issues. If the American public and the people of Iraq are lucky, Fahrenheit 9/11 may just live up to Michael Moore’s goal: to de-throne Child Bush and his war-mongering, capital-hungry cabinet members. Of course it remains to be seen whether or not Bush’s imagined successor will be able to withdraw US forces in Iraq as quickly as some would like to believe.

Finally, if the film were to have such an impact on the psyche of the American body politic (swaying an election as it were), it merely proves the fickle nature of that delicate and temporary condition: popular opinion in America and the public’s faith in media images to tell them how and what to think.

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9:51 AM  

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