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Michael MooreFilmmaker, Newsmaker, Cultural Icon
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2010 University of Michigan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIntroduction MATTHEW H. BERNSTEIN
With the premiere of his popular debut film Roger & Me in late 1989, Michael Moore proved himself an astonishingly successful nonfiction filmmaker. Thirteen years later, Bowling for Columbine's extraordinary box office performance and its Academy Award for Best Documentary confirmed Moore's standing as a cultural commentator to be reckoned with. In the intervening years, Moore diversified his output: he became a best-selling book author, TV show producer, and media personality. When Fahrenheit 9/11 premiered in June 2004, following its winning the Palme D'Or at Cannes, Moore certified his status as a filmmaker, newsmaker, icon, and political celebrity larger than any one of the films, books or TV shows he produced or the website established and maintained in his name.
For 20 years and counting, Moore has served as a comic, unofficial, harried, and harrying spokesperson for the disenfranchised working class and liberal and leftist Americans—a single-handed critic of corporate America and an answer to the rise of Fox News. He had also become a lightning rod for conservative criticism and personal attacks long before he attempted to influence the outcome of the 2004 American presidential election with Fahrenheit 9/11. And while 2007's Sicko was not nearly so ambitious as the 2004 opus—and it's worth recalling that no other theatrical nonfiction film has ever tried to dethrone a sitting American president—Moore's 2007 movie inaugurated a more intensive phase in America's ongoing efforts at healthcare reform that the Obama administration and Congress have begun to address through legislation.
In his essay for this volume, Douglas Kellner explains concisely Moore's phenomenal success:
He is a populist artist who privileges his own voice and point of view, inserting himself as film narrator and often the subject of his film's action. Moore plays the crusading defender of the poor and oppressed, who stands up to and confronts the powers that be. He uses humor and compelling dramatic and narrative sequences to engage his audiences. He deals with issues of fundamental importance, and convinces his audience that the problems he presents are highly significant and concern the health of U.S. democracy. Moreover, despite the severity of the problems he portrays, the films and filmmaker often imply that the problems are subject to intervention, and that progressive social transformation is possible and necessary.
It's worth noting how powerfully Moore has broken box office records for theatrical nonfictional films using his strategic and idiosyncratic combination of irreverent humor and personal provocations of corporate and political leaders. According to boxofficemojo.com, four of the six top grossing theatrical political documentaries are Moore's: Roger & Me ($6.7 million domestic, $7.7 million worldwide), Bowling for Columbine ($21.6 million domestic, $58 million worldwide), Sicko ($24.5 million domestic, $35.7 million worldwide), and, of course, Fahrenheit 9/11 ($119.2 million domestic, $222.4 million worldwide). Among documentaries in general, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, and Blowing for Columbine still rate in the top six highest grossing nonfiction theatrical films (political or otherwise) of all time.
Moore's box office record has been uneven, however. Moore's only effort at fictional filmmaking—the political satire Canadian Bacon (1995), starring John Candy and Alan Alda—was a flop (a limp $163,971 domestic gross). The Big One (1997) performed modestly, but better than Canadian Bacon at the box office ($720,074 domestic). This picaresque account of Moore's book tour (47 cities in 50 days) to promote his 1996 best seller Downsize This! featured bits of Moore's stand-up comic corporate critique interspersed with frequent detours in which Moore learned about and intervened in local unionizing efforts or corporate layoffs. Indeed, Moore did not hit his cinematic stride again until Bowling for Columbine in 2002. Slacker Uprising (made in 2007 but released in September 2008) is another minor effort: it most resembles The Big One as a rambling account of Moore's five-week tour of college campuses (joined by various celebrities and rock stars) during the fall 2004 presidential election. It went direct to DVD and downloadable video on the Web. As I write this, Moore's latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, has earned well over $14 million in 11 weeks of domestic release, placing it eighth on the all-time list of documentary releases, and fifth among political documentaries. Given Moore's popularity in foreign markets, the film's $3 million gross from its international distribution is disappointing. Still, it is hard to imagine another documentary filmmaker whose films will gross over $330 million.
Box office aside, Moore's creativity and popularity cannot be denied. His first television series, TV Nation (1994–96) won an Emmy. His second, The Awful Truth (1999–2000), received an Emmy nomination. Indeed, Paul Arthur suggests in this volume that it was the short-form journalism of his TV work that enabled Moore to regain his prominence and success as a filmmaker with Bowling for Columbine. In the meantime, Moore's books, many of them bestsellers, allowed him to stay near if not in the spotlight of America's political culture. In addition to Moore and Kathleen Glynn's Adventures in a TV Nation (HarperCollins, 1998), there were two more books published in succeeding years, Stupid White Men (Regan Books, 2002) and Dude, Where's My Country (2003,Warner Books), as well as Mike's Election Guide in 2008.
All of these texts draw upon Moore's experience in activist politics. In 1972, he became the youngest officeholder in Michigan history due to his teenage service on the Flint public school board. Moore's cultural output also grew from his work in left-wing muckraking journalism: he founded the Flint Voice, which became the Michigan Voice : he had a very brief stint as editor of Mother Jones; and he held an even shorter tenure as the editor of a media watchdog newsweekly for Ralph Nader.
Throughout his several careers, Moore recognized that putting himself in the middle of social issues would command more attention from a general audience. Beyond his own work, before the fall 2002 premiere of Bowling for Columbine, Moore made guest appearances in TV series such as Mad About You and The Simpsons, and visited the talk show circuit—including appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, as well as at least one appearance on a TV show politically hostile to his views, The O'Reilly Factor. Moore even appeared as an expert talking head in the 2003 documentary The Corporation. He has also turned up on liberal-leaning comedy shows such as The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher that, as Jeffrey P. Jones argues in his volume,Moore's brand of political humor helped to inspire. Often Moore appeared to promote his latest film or book; often he did not.
Several weeks in advance of the premiere of Sicko, the June 1, 2007, issue of Entertainment Weekly featured a photo of Moore on the cover with the headline "Here Comes Trouble." Before this, and well before Moore made the rounds of the talk shows to promote the film in late June, Bill Maher in May 2007 could boast that Moore had granted Real Time with Bill Maher his first TV interview in over two years. More recently, Moore appeared on Larry King Live from late spring 2008 through spring 2010 with no film to promote; he was simply there as a prominent celebrity. In fall 2008, he appeared as a commentator on the Republican National Convention, along with "Plumbers for Obama," or on Larry King Live to discuss the financial and Detroit automakers' bailouts. (Of course, he made the rounds of talk shows when Capitalism: A Love Story premiered in fall 2009, even singing "The Times They Are A-Changing" on the new Jay Leno Show.) Clearly, the American media have discovered that they can attract readers and viewers when Moore shows up. Even Moore's occasional public utterances are reported in the press, as when he, in early 2004 as Democratic presidential primaries were under way, accused George W. Bush of being a deserter during his service in the National Guard in Alabama; the Bush administration took the accusation incredibly seriously, scrambling to refute this charge made well in advance of the June premiere of Fahrenheit 9/11. Since the premiere of that film, Moore has inspired several books and feature documentaries devoted purely to attacking him. The ferocity of the onslaught against Moore, even the dismissive use of his name and persona as a synonym for liberal extremism, only testify to his considerable presence on the American scene. Moore is, quite simply, an instantly recognizable national figure who commands national attention. Put another way, Moore is impossible to ignore.
Within the realm of American cinema, Moore's impact is equally undeniable. Roger & Me alone represents a transformative milestone in the history of documentary filmmaking. Courtesy of a distribution deal (for $3 million, less than half of the film's eventual gross) with Warner Bros., Roger & Me brought its unique alchemy of Moore's filmmaking tendencies—ironic self-presentation, humorous social commentary on the woes of the unemployed working class, and a laser-beam focus on corporate indifference to the communities where people work—into the mass media marketplace. There, it also received searing examination for certain alterations of chronology in delineating Flint's troubles.
More recently, reports have surfaced that Moore deliberately left out of his film the undeniable fact that politically active groups were feverishly at work protesting General Motors's layoffs; as a result, Moore appears to fight the good fight against GM's inhumane policies alone. Even more devastating to the film's reputation is the recent revelation that Moore had actually landed an interview with GM CEO Roger Smith for the film but chose not to include it. Moore chose to omit both these facts so that Roger & Me would be more personal and more humorous. The film's extraordinary box office performance affirmed Moore's decision. Still, the revelation of Smith's availability to Moore undercut a crucial premise of the film and has further damaged its credibility. The controversies and debates that greet each of Moore's films, however, have not diminished his or their impact on American culture and politics. Indeed, as the stage-managed refusal of Disney to allow Miramax to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11 demonstrates, they only enhance his films' impact and enable Moore to thrive.
Furthermore, Moore's films have played a major role in film history, specifically by helping to transform theatrical documentaries into viable commercial properties more frequently than they ever had been in the past—even when they take the form of an extended PowerPoint presentation, as did An Inconvenient Truth (2006). Moore has also inspired a new generation of filmmakers who use his personalized, humorous, quickly cut combination of archival footage, found films, home movies, and newly shot scenes to explore problems in American society and politics. To take just one example, Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me (2004) is clearly in the tradition of Moore's highly personal brand of muckraking, here accomplished amiably and somewhat masochistically, but definitely framed as an incisive critique of a fast-food industry that can destroy Americans' health.
Moore's films can also be seen as anticipating the work of more recent cinematic exposés of corporate greed. Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) detailed one company's jaw-dropping greed and malfeasance in the energy markets in such detail that it made the General Motors of Roger & Me almost seem compassionate by comparison. Several of the issues raised in Fahrenheit 9/11 have been elaborated by a string of documentaries critical of the Iraq war and its catastrophically incompetent execution: Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight (2005), Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight (2007), and on the subject of torture, Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), as well as Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure (2008). In retrospect, we can see that Moore's films, particularly Fahrenheit 9/11, provided a sketchy overview of various flaws in American politics and society that subsequent nonfiction films have explored with greater intensity and focus—and, quite appropriately, with considerably less humor.
Given Moore's importance in American political culture, a broad assessment of Moore's work is overdue. True, countless reviews of his books, films, and TV shows are not hard to find. Recent years have seen the publication of three informative trade press biographies of Moore, as well as one scholarly book on the impact of, and firefights over, Fahrenheit 9/11.
Still, this volume fills an important gap. It examines individual films but also Moore's filmmaking as a whole, which remains his most influential form of personal expression, and his most important contribution to cultural and political debates in this country. We offer analysis of his populist approach to American politics, in particular, and his eclectic method of critiquing America, its media, and most of all, its politicians. We look closely at the cinematic techniques Moore uses to convey his ideas, his views of gender and class among the latter.
We also consider Moore's ambivalent relationship with documentary filmmaking traditions. Moore has tried to distance himself and his films from documentaries. At the same time, the ways in which Moore has shaped his films have often been greeted with cries of propaganda. He is indeed commonly and casually described in talk shows and the news media as a left-wing propagandist, a view that reflects a highly limited understanding and the history of the documentary form and an extremely naive view of the documentary's relationship to reality. The authors in this volume recognize that the nonfiction film represents the filmmaker's revelation of and response to events that occur in the world. The controversies that have arisen over Moore's films—their strong point of view or their misleading use of facts—do not compromise their status as nonfiction works, nor do they invalidate the documentary form as a whole.
Moreover, in this volume we look beyond the American movie theater, with considerations of Moore's status as a celebrity, his forays into TV production, the reception of his films and TV shows in the United Kingdom, and an analysis of Moore's development of a website relative to the lightning-fast development of American political activism on the Internet, a movement that grew after 2004 to become an essential tool of political organizing during the 2008 election cycle and into the present day.
We begin with two general overviews of Moore's filmmaking career. Sergio Rizzo examines Moore's celebrity persona. Few people think of Moore as an auteur, but Rizzo argues persuasively that Moore thrives in an era when the auteur functions as a marketing brand. Rizzo examines those elements of Moore's personal biography that his films emphasize to make him a distinctive figure. Key among them is Moore's close identification with Flint, Michigan, as a true locus of average American life and, as Rizzo puts it, "a symbol of his personal authenticity." There was also Moore's all too brief sojourn at Mother Jones, a humiliation Moore blamed on the intellectual liberal elite from which Moore stridently distinguished himself. Rizzo then examines the star persona created in Moore's "commercial performance" of himself as a muckraking reporter, appealing to a class-based identity politics that ignores the film business. In Rizzo's hands, the contradictions of Moore's persona multiply: Moore's prominence in the brand-name marketing for his films is at odds with the traditional stance of the documentary filmmaker as oppositional artist; like any working-class movie icon, Moore's status as "the left's biggest star" complicates Moore's everyman persona (a "schlump in a ball cap").
Excerpted from Michael Moore Copyright © 2010 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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