Camera Obscura: Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11
by Michael Weiss
One of the funniest and most affecting skits on Michael Moore’s short-lived NBC series TV Nation featured black actor Yaphet Kotto trying to hail a cab in Manhattan. The only other fare he was competing against was a white ex-convict done up in a Simpsons-worthy caricature of what a don’t-fuck-with-me jailbird should look like. Taxis invariably flitted by the Emmy award-winning Homicide star only to stop half a block down to pick up the ex-con. If this weren’t enough — and it never is with Michael Moore — the farcical ante was then upped by lowering, as it were, the racist bar all the way to the ground. Yaphet was given accessories to make him appear less “menacing”: first a bouquet of flowers, then a box of chocolates, finally a swaddled baby. Still, the poor guy just couldn’t get a cab.
This was about as well-executed as a Michael Moore documentary fragment got or probably will ever get again. Humorous, uncomfortable to watch and educational not in the least.
Was there ever a greater sociological cliché about New York City propagated through local news channels and awful stand-up comedy routines that needed less proving than the one about bigoted taxi drivers? And to have this hammered home to a national television audience by a “rebel and his mic,” as the tag-line for Moore’s first film once read… Well, if this was rebellion, what must playing it safe have looked like?
Still, given what Moore has been up to lately, it’s nice to reminisce about a time when he actually had a point about something relevant and could present it with the barest scrap of intellectual and moral authenticity.
This is a slight exaggeration. Moore has always found a real challenge really unattractive. He prefers cooking up paradoxically unimpressive films of what might be termed, in this post-Chomskyan epoch, manufactured dissent. And there’s nothing chic about this particular strain of “radicalism” which, for all its one-liners and burlesque animation sequences, still sells itself as policy review.
There’s no second guessing in a Michael Moore documentary despite the fact that a political documentary is, by convention if not by definition, an exercise in second- and third- and fourth guessing. Moore has repeatedly claimed his films are more like audio-visual Op-Ed pieces than documentaries. The trouble with this apologia is that, as Geoffrey O’Brien points out in his Fahrenheit critique in the New York Review, as an op-ed writer, Moore falls flat on his face; his points are occluded by hamfisted prose and a hyperactive pace that could the content of any high school poetry contest a run for its money. He’s much more effective as a cinematic bricolageur, which is why you’ll never hear him say the White House tried to impede the publication of Dude, Where’s My Country?
Much of this has to do with attention span and with passive reception of information. Moore’s ideal audience is already in a state of high dudgeon; it’s impatient to take down a guy like George W. Bush, but it’s even more impatient to have its motivation for doing so descried by the loudest, shrillest voice it can find. This is not to grace a “visceral” or emotive response to global affairs with the benefit of mindfulness–it’s just to rile the gut even further and stoke the limbic system more intensely. Why else would so many film critics trash the homework and data representative portions of this film but extol its power to leave an audience feeling “shaken.” This is Fahrenheit, all right. But it’s higher than the film’s allusive degree of 451, and the temperature has been rising a long while before the projectors rattle into action.
Yet the contradiction in Moore’s seemingly populist style is that he sees himself speaking truth not to power, but to blinkered servility. Otherwise the condescending kindergarten tone of voice would have to go, and the odd (in both senses of that word) thesis would demand complication by antithesis or cross-examination.
Moore revels in assuming even his most loyal audience is energetic but stupid — too much of the latter to edify itself unless dragged marmishly to the blackboard and have its nose rubbed in the lesson plan. (Remember: We’re the culture with the ear-to-ear grin on our face denoting nothing between those two ears. See David Brooks’ NYT piece on Moore.) Either that, or — you’ll pardon the sardonic benefit-of-the-doubt technique in which our man specializes — Moore is more energetic but not quite as stupid himself, and it’s in the spirit of egalitarianism that he anticipates our need for a semi-literate Cliffs Notes to current events.
He is a veritable genius, however, in his ability to synchronicize the volume of his chorus with a relevant public angst. What will he think of next? The answer is whatever we think of first. Each successive instance of a Moore J’accuse has taken on more than a hint of the crowd-pleasing element. Each film grows exponentially crowd-fellating, in fact. Why else maintain, as he was right to do, that his Oscar acceptance speech two years ago was received more approvingly in the Shrine Auditorium than the media persisted in claiming? He has more of the mob on his side than the mob or the media would like to believe.
So when the Big One who done good from Flint arrives as the man of the hour in Hollywood, the rest of the script pretty much writes itself. To paraphrase Moore’s entire political philosophy without oversimplifying it: Wealth, power and prestige always bear an inverse relationship to truth, justice and the UN Security Council way. Stereotypes of conservatism are objective; your worst suspicions of authority are irrefutable facts by virtue of having remained your worst suspicions for long enough, well past the Stupid White Men statute of credible repudiation.
Yet the most “convincing” sections of Fahrenheit 9/11 are excellent examples of the Blake line: “A truth that’s told with bad intent, / Beats all the lies you can invent.” For a film that rests so much of its case on interpolation, it’s a genuine, un-Moore-like irony that interpolation is exactly what damns this film as a bloated self-satire. (If he opted instead for the mockumentary genre, Moore would find a more hygienic and rewarding role as a kind of bastard child of Oliver Stone and Fellini. Give Moore a soundstage and he can wait for Godot, Guffman, Ralph Nader, Wesley Clarke, whomever to his heart’s content and the quarrel between the truth and him will end there.)
Proof of presidential misconduct is splashed across the screen in this movie in eureka-shots of excised passages of declassified records that have been treated liberally with black magic marker — always a sign of someone up to no good. And yet what is Fahrenheit itself but a 40’s newsreel-velocity pastiche of excised passages and blackened-out records of recent American history?
We’re shown Donald Rumsfeld happily shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983 (or rather re-shown it, as this grainy piece of gotcha evidence had been circulated on the Internet for over a year now.) Bad, morally nullifying stuff, to watch the current Defense Secretary make archival nice with public enemy number one. But never mind that as special envoy to Iraq during the Reagan administration Rumsfeld was obligated to negotiate with Saddam lest he commit a hostile act of state against a American ally. It should nauseate (not to mention implicate) us all now to even have to refer to Saddam as an ally in the past tense or to watch this sleazy piece of Washington deal-making with a genocidal bastard. But does Moore care to go to the videotape of Kofi Annan doing the same thing and to a greater extent, under the veil of multilateralism, just a few years ago, after the first Gulf War and after Saddam had become a transcontinental byword for psychopathic brutality? Of course not. The suggestion is that diplomatic competence on Rumsfeld’s part in 1983 de-legitimizes his war-making capacity in 2003. Never mind that incompetence back then might well have inaugurated an even earlier “drumbeat” to war with Iraq. Would Michael Moore have preferred a confrontation with Saddam when Iraq was embroiled in its own “quagmire” against Khomeinist Iran? Saddam didn’t lack weapons of mass destruction at that point on the timeline, nor was he afraid to use them within and without his own borders. Should the U.S. have invaded rather than coddled Baghdad twenty years ago to spare the humanitarian crises that any student of Baathism could have predicted would occur? And how might a preemptive war of choice have inflamed Arab opinion of a military-industrial superpower that was not then the only nation on earth worthy of such a title? Important questions, but not important enough for Michael Moore. Five seconds of incrimination beats a few minutes of investigation.
You also wouldn’t know from what’s presented in the course of this 122 minute sideshow that the current Defense Secretary, whatever his shortcomings, has at least partially reduced the moral deficit incurred by American realpolitik by his direct involvement in the overthrow, capture and imprisonment of his former hand-palpating dictator buddy. (Edging your way to the head of the statecraft learning curve is at best an example of inconsistency and at worst one of hypocrisy to Moore). Or that as a member of the Ford cabinet with the same job as he holds now, Rumsfeld and a White House chief of staff by the name of Dick Cheney spent their days plotting to subvert the architect of client-state foreign policy and the man arguably most responsible for America’s geopolitical blunders in the Middle East: Henry Kissinger. Or did the Carlysle Group call all the shots in Saudi-US comity before George Bush, Sr. was even head of the Central Intelligence Agency? Once again, tricky stuff — too tricky for Moore to wade through. The logical threads to his arguments never do find more definitive punctuation than pseudo-provocative, cowardly ellipsis.
And what exactly was proved by exhibiting the worst elements of our armed forces reveling in the destruction of Iraqi homes and the murder of innocent civilians? Would Moore have it that this level of sadism is systemic in the US military and that — to update his post-production material by a few months — the insane torturers of Abu Ghraib occupy majority status on the frontlines as well? If so, it would have been brave of him to come right out and say this. Instead, a malignant tissue is magnified a thousand fold to represent a wasting, pathologic organism. But then the mood switches and this visual is juxtaposed to an image of the same patient, now healthy and robust. We get a Flint, Michigan mother sharing her pain in a languorous uninterrupted scene, after learning that her enlisted son has been killed in a black hawk helicopter crash in Iraq. Certainly, Moore doesn’t think this cut-down boy was ever blasting the Bloodhound Gang while civilian rooftops burned, or turning giddy at the prospect of pillage and destruction. This can’t be the same guy who’s there to “comfort” the grieving mother and help her redirect her suffering into righteous rage at the Bush administration, can it? Anti-war is not anti-troops, after all. At least Moore accords his audience this single opportunity to decide something for itself: which is the more exploitive of his depiction of American soldiers?
Moore knows that Fahrenheit is full of distortions, lies and frenzied, look-here-but-not-here sleights of cinematic hand. He admitted as much by plying the trade of non-fiction and then boasting about his zero tolerance policy towards criticism or hostile questioning. A slightly more sinister shade of this syndrome of guilt-paranoia was offered up earlier in the blockbuster season by Mel Gibson. Thanks to Mike and Mel, we now know the telltale signs of auteuristic bad faith: the entering into defense mode from the storyboarding phase; the unwillingness to carry the debate out of the cineplex and into the public forum; and the kind ofattention to select detail that would make Richard Hofstadter roll over in his grave.
It occurred to me halfway through watching Fahrenheit 9/11 that what distinguishes this movie from The Passion of the Christ is Moore’s total lack of devotion to his particular gospel. Imagine what that smug grin of his must have undergone in the hours upon hours spent editing his precious masterpiece. What footage might have caused those fleshy jowls to avalanche in a rictus of opposed self-judgement? Or are we to believe there never was anything on the celluloid that Moore deemed unprintable for reasons of lending credence to counterpoint? Believe that, and wait a year or two… Michael Moore will tell you another one.