Michael Moore: Filmmaker, Newsmaker, Cultural Icon (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by John Fidler
Edited by Matthew H. Bernstein. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2010. 336pp., illus. Hardcover: $75.00 and Paperback: $26.95.
The bespectacled, potbellied Michael Moore has been making documentary films for more than twenty years. In a review of Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) for The New York Review of Books, Geoffrey O’Brien, the critic and editor of the Library of America, gives us what might be the most accurate description of Moore’s modus operandi. According to O’ Brien, “In his first film, Roger & Me (1989), Moore invented for himself—and more or less perfected—the genre in which he has continued to work: call it first-person polemic, or expressionist bulletin board, or theatricalized Op-Ed piece.” The late Paul Arthur, in an essay in the vital Michael Moore: Filmmaker, Newsmaker, Cultural Icon, a collection of thirteen essays and reviews edited by Matthew H. Bernstein, professor and chair of film studies at Emory University, writes that Moore’s eclectic films are part of that “venerable and increasingly vital genre,” the documentary essay. Arthur, who died in 2008 and was professor of English and film studies at Montclair State University, identifies “the director’s first-person presence and a structural propensity for segmentation, digression and clashing rhetorical tones” as the most salient textual features of his films. Douglass Kellner puts it another way in his contribution to Bernstein’s book, “Roger & Me began the construction of a unique genre, the ‘Michael Moore film.’” Kellner, the George Kneller Chair in the Philosophy of Education at UCLA, calls the fifty-seven-year-old Moore “storyteller, fabulist, satirist and witness.”
Regardless of which description fits your own perception of the work of the man from Flint, Michigan, Moore’s films are brave and bold. They are technically as far removed from the work of, say, Frederick Wiseman, as you can imagine. Wiseman is nowhere to be seen in his pictures; Moore is at the center of his. What then is Moore doing in his films and how does he do it? Bernstein writes that Moore has helped “to transform theatrical documentaries into viable commercial properties more frequently than they ever had been in the past.” (His films have grossed more than $330 million worldwide, Bernstein tells us.) In that sense, Moore is also a pioneer in the commercialization of the documentary. Bernstein’s collection provides the reader with a first and important examination of where Moore is at something like mid-career, and an assessment of Moore’s films, Moore himself, and where he fits into the domestic political discourse.
Bernstein divides his book into four sections—“Overviews,” “Moore and the Documentary Tradition,” “The Major Films,” and “Beyond the American Multiplex: Moore in the Media Marketplace.” Kellner and Arthur occupy the second section. In the first, Sergio Rizzo, who teaches English at Morehouse College, writes that while he portrays “the outsider on the inside,” (of the Hollywood studio system) “Moore’s success indicates someone who works the system as only an insider can.” Rizzo’s view is at odds with that of Gaylyn Studlar, David May Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Washington University, whose essay on class, gender, and race in Moore’s films completes the first section. She asserts that Moore is distinctly an outsider, someone who, like ordinary citizens, “just wants to know the truth.” She further asserts in discussing Bowling for Columbine (2002) that “Moore’s shambling, overweight appearance allows his onscreen persona to take on qualities of insufficient manliness, of softness and almost feminine sympathy that contrast to figures of hard masculinity like [Charlton] Heston.”
The section on “The Major Films” seems to work better as an introduction than as a source of revelation for someone who might not be familiar with Moore’s work. Yet I found the essay by Charles Musser of Yale University on truth and rhetoric in Fahrenheit 9/11 to be the richest source of the new. He lists four “structures or tropes” that the filmmaker uses to get to the whole truth—showing the audience “what has been left out or forgotten,” “going beneath the surface of deceptive appearances,” showing “that previous accepted ‘truths’ are not true but false (are lies) and so offer new truths in their stead” and “the simple reiteration of ‘facts’ or events that have already been presented by ‘the other side.’” He thoroughly analyzes George Bush’s “performance” in the Sarasota, Florida classroom on the morning of 9/11, where he sat for some minutes (part of the debate centers on whether it was five or seven), a time of what Moore calls “nobody doing anything.” Efforts by others, notably Alan Peterson in his rebuttal to Moore’s film, FahrenHYPE 9/11(2004), provide an alternative view by challenging Moore’s approach to the truth. Richard Porton of Cineaste similarly shines a strong light on some of the shortcomings in Moore’s Sicko (2007) by pointing out that the filmmaker refuses “to offer a nuanced account of the weaknesses, as well as of the strengths, of the European, and especially the Cuban, health bureaucracies.” The truth (whatever that might be) may be as elusive as a solution to the nation’s health-care crisis.
The final section of the book held the most interest for me because it forced me well out of my comfort zone. Moore is much more than a filmmaker. He has written books (Stupid White Men, 2002, and Dude, Where’s My Country?, 2003, among them), produced successful, award-winning or award-nominated television shows (TV Nation, 1994-96 and The Awful Truth, 1999-2000) and has a vibrant website, MichaelMoore.com. In the liveliest essay in the book, Cary Elza, a Ph.D. candidate in the radio-TV-film department at Northwestern University, explores the subject of marketing online political activism. Elza says that the founding fathers would have been pleased “that the people should be able to interact with authoritative figures and bodies.” This interaction, on both Moore’s Website and that of MoveOn.org, leads to a dialog between the activists and “the people.” Elza points out, for example, that the success of this activism in getting people to register to vote in 2004 was reflected in the activists telling those who registered that they should “feel like better people…like part of a community.” The process became “easy and entertaining.” She reminds us that both Websites are powerful brands, generating a product that is just as powerful: social activism.
Bernstein has produced a valuable collection. We now have this glimpse of Michael Moore’s contributions (so far) in one volume. A force as vigorous as Moore needs to be chronicled, studied, and scrutinized. I only wish that the copy-editing staff at the University of Michigan Press had taken more time to scrutinize Bernstein’s text. While mistakes seem to be common in books today, they are no less annoying. In Bernstein’s introduction, Bowling for Columbine becomes Blowing for Columbine. Studlar’s essay could have profited from an editor’s thick red pencil. When she refers to Moore’s books, speaking tours, and films, she calls the films “the latter” (instead of “the last.”) In another passage, she writes, “As James Gilligan as remarked” (the h is missing from has) and in another omits the word “to” in “…their own systems of health care that allow them [to] live well as professionals…” One other complaint: I would have appreciated knowing the provenance of these essays. Bernstein tells us in his “Acknowledgments” where four of them originated. But what about the rest? Were they written expressly for this book? The source could have been listed following each piece, or Bernstein could have included the source for all contributions in his Acknowledgments.
Geoffrey O’Brien captures Moore’s passion with beauty and assurance when he writes, “Michael Moore’s version of what has been happening lately is only one possible narrative; but by its very existence it encourages a more active, more confrontational approach to the images that surround us, anything to break through the numbing effect of the endless flow of TV news broadcasts and official bulletins that has become something like the wallpaper of a distorted public reality, a stream of images that moves forward without ever looking back.” He burrows deeper: “The movie [Fahrenheit 9/11] works by the primal curiosity that lured people into nickelodeons, the desire to see what comes next in the string of attractions; and unlike some of those nickelodeon operators, Moore makes good on the promise.”
This is why we keep going back. Moore has hooked us. We want to see what he’s up to today, whom he’ll go after next, and what kind of ambush he has up his sleeve. Like the barker at a circus sideshow, he waves his cane, cajoles, seduces, and darts across his little stage, always pointing to the curtain behind him. And even if the barker is fat, not terribly handsome, sports a scruffy beard, and wears a baseball cap, we stick around because we can’t wait to see what’s back there.
John Fidler is an editor and writer for The Reading Eagle, a daily newspaper in Reading, PA, and also writes for Senses of Cinema.
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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.