Truthful Lies

February 8, 2013

Michael Moore’s Movies

michael_mooreWatching Michael Moore’s movies makes me feel convinced and deceived at the same time. At the end I just want to shout: “See?! There’s really something wrong with this world and we have to act right now!” But it is also obvious that Moore – a filmmaker, author and social and political activist – is a brilliant propagandist who plays his audience “like a violin”, as one of his critics puts it, and so I should temper my enthusiasm.

There is no doubt however that Moore’s 2002 movie Bowling for Columbine is a good piece of work. His search for an answer to the question why there are so many gun related deaths in the USA compared to other industrialized nations, leads him from Marilyn Manson to the president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and from Los Angeles South Central to Canada. The film won the 55th Anniversary Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar for Best Documentary.
Its theme is America’s culture of fear, which according to Moore is the cause of all those gun murders. He shows that the media, companies and politicians spread huge amounts of false fears and scares, in order to obtain high ratings, to sell safety products, to pass legislations or to win elections. Moore mentions that in the period 1990-1998 the murder rate in the US declined by 20% while the news coverage of murders increased by 600%. These abundant crime stories arouse feelings of fear and anxiety that cause people to kill more easily, Moore suggests.
It is not liberal gun policy, violent movies, ethnic diversity or ghetto poverty, for his camera shows that these things also exist in Canada, where the annual gun homicide number is 165, compared to 11,127 in the US. A policeman of the Canadian city of Windsor (400.000 inhabitants) tells that only one gun murder was committed in the last three years – by a guy from Detroit who had a stolen weapon from Minnesota.
Moore’s 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11 is cut from the same wood. With a large dose of critique and tragedy, but with a great sense of humour he tries to uncover the US government’s and particularly president Bush’s connection to the 9/11 attacks. The movie begins with the confusing presidential elections of 2000, when George W. Bush doubtfully beat Al Gore. One by one Moore shows the black congressmen who object to Bush’s inauguration, like the representative from Duval County, Florida, where 16,000 blacks were disenfranchised from the elections. Standing in front of Congress she emotionally states that her petition, like the other ones, is not signed by a single senator, which makes it useless. Watching this scene makes you feel stunned and angry, a feeling Moore fuels even further in the next part about president Bush, happily going on vacation 42% of his first presidential year.
The film continues by revealing the supposed family ties between the Bushes and the Bin Ladens, and follows by unravelling the real reason for invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and for signing the Patriot Act. In the end Fahrenheit 9/11 is a movie about inequality, about the poorest people from the worst neighbourhoods who are willing to fight and make sacrifices for the money-making millionaires, for whom Iraq is a business paradise. The film won the top honour Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and is by far the most successful documentary in history.
Besides making a strong political statement Moore also just wants to make a good Friday night movie to eat popcorn to, as he explains in an interview. Both films are indeed very entertaining with their combination of humour and tragedy, the alternation of non-fiction footage and scenes from old Hollywood movies, and the numerous shots of president Bush looking at his dumbest.
Moore is a genius in finding the right interviewees, ordinary people as well as celebrities. Take for example farmer James Nichols, brother of one of the Oklahoma City bombers, who sleeps with a 44.Magnum under his pillow and claims that it is a citizen’s duty to violently overthrow a government that has turned tyrannical. To Moore’s question why he doesn’t do it Ghandi’s way, he uncomfortably answers that he’s not familiar with that. In Fahrenheit 9/11 Moore asks several congressmen if they can send their sons to Iraq, since only one of them has an enlisted son in the war and president Bush could use some more soldiers there. The look in their eyes tells you that they haven’t thought of that possibility for even one moment and they hurry to get away.
But no matter how attractive Moore’s style seems to be in first instance, there is something fundamentally wrong with his way of filmmaking. One of his biggest critics, Dr. David T. Hardy, emphasizes that – according to the Academy Award rules – a documentary is a non-fictional movie. Moore’s work cannot be classified as such, because it contains untruthful, misleading and deceiving elements, Hardy claims on his elaborate anti-Moore website. He even wrote a book called Michael Moore Is A Big Fat Stupid White Man in which he refutes the story from Moore’s book Stupid White Men. Although some of the criticism is far-fetched into irrelevant details, Hardy has a strong case against Moore, and an endless number of other Moore-criticizing websites support him.
He accurately analyzes Moore’s propaganda techniques and demonstrates the filmmaker’s mastery in creating false impressions, “in a way that leaves the viewer with the belief that X is true, without Moore ever quite saying X”. This way Moore can never be blamed of saying something that is provably false.
Take for example the scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 about 142 Saudis – including 24 members of the Bin Laden family – who flew out of the USA immediately after 9/11. Moore notices that the airspace was closed in the days after the attacks, but then, who wanted to fly? Nobody, says Moore, except the Bin Ladens, and he cuts to an image of a plane taking off speedily. Meanwhile he tells that a number of Saudis were picked up by a private jet and flew abroad after the 9/11 events.
Hardy rightly remarks that the viewer now concludes that the Saudis sneakily flew out of the country when everybody was supposed to be grounded. But, Hardy stresses, Moore in fact never really says that. Thus when the 9/11 Commission Report was published, which states that all the Saudi flights were legally arranged after the airspace was opened, Moore’s reaction was that he didn’t intend to suggest that the Bin Ladens took off while all other flights were grounded.
And Moore goes further than merely making false insinuations. Hardy shows that the moviemaker deliberately deceives his audience by decontextualizing certain footage and perfectly editing it into a new context, which gives it a whole new meaning.
One of the figures in Bowling for Columbine is Charlton Heston, Hollywood actor and president of the NRA. His pro-gun speeches at Denver, only eleven days after the Columbine high school shooting, and in Flint, immediately after an elementary school shooting where a six-year-old boy killed a six-year-old girl, are one of the big moments in the movie. Right after images of crying girls outside the school, the film turns to Heston, who holds a big rifle above his head shouting: “I have only five words for you: from my cold, dead hands!”
Hardy however provides Heston’s real Denver and Flint speeches. It turns out that Heston spoke those five words at a completely different occasion in North Carolina a year later. Indeed Heston wears a purple tie and lavender shirt saying the words, while the rest of the speech his shirt is white and his tie red. Moore handily switches between the two locations by editing shots of an applauding audience.
Another striking fact which Moore fails to mention, is that the Flint rally was not exactly right after the shooting, but eight months later, for the occasion of the Bush/Gore elections. Moreover the NRA meeting in Denver was the obligated annual members meeting, planned years in advance, and the NRA cancelled all the supporting festivities out of respect for the Columbine victims. Hardy shows how Moore carefully edited this information out of Heston’s speech, leaving only those parts that sound appalling in the context of the school shootings.
Ben Fritz, reporter on manipulative political rhetoric, criticizes Moore for being inconsistent and confusing in his argumentation. He points out that Moore’s analysis of, for example, the Canadian situation is full of contradictions. In Bowling for Columbine Moore tries to show how the Canadians’ lack of fear accounts for their low murder rate, dismissing all other potential causes, because they exist equally in Canada and the US, as Moore argues. But then why does he film a Canadian ghetto, which looks like Beverly Hills compared to the American ghettos, while he claims that poverty is the same in Canada? Or why does he focus on Canadian health insurance while he states that the culture of fear is the real cause? And why does he attack the NRA while he literally says that guns aren’t the problem?
Another Moore critic, author and columnist Christopher Hitchens, underlines Moore’s hasty way of directing, which hurries the audience past the contradictory claims. I have to admit that while watching Moore’s complicated and up-tempo analysis of the Bush and Bin Laden business relationship, I sometimes lost track. Hitchens also stresses the fact that Moore uses every opportunity to damage president Bush, no matter if he is contradicting himself in that. Whatever Bush does is wrong: not taking action concerning terrorist threats, or taking too much action; sending troops to Iraq, or not sending enough troops. With this opportunism, Hitchens argues, Moore asserts everything and nothing.
In fact Moore is guilty of exactly the same lie telling and mind playing games as the people he criticizes in his movies. In Bowling for Columbine, Hardy analyzes, Moore argues that the media distort reality and hype fear of other Americans, because fear is good for a fast buck. Hardy’s response: “Moore distorts reality, hypes fear of other Americans and, well, made several million fast bucks”.
It is a pity that Moore’s work inclines more to fiction than to fact, to an opinion rather than the truth, because I do agree with that opinion and regret to see it damaged by Moore’s manipulative and mendacious way of filmmaking. The issues he speaks about – violence and fear, the war in Iraq and on terrorism, unbalanced capitalism and its consequences – are not lies, they are major problems in today’s society that have to be addressed.
Sociology professor Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear. Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (1999), claims that nowadays too much attention and money is given to fears that are unlikely to occur on a large scale, such as terrorist attacks, drug deaths, gun murders, plane crashes and scary diseases. Instead the focus should be on common problems like unemployment, poverty, health care and environmental pollution, because these affect millions of people every day. Glassner supports his claim with loads of statistical evidence and for example points out that approximately 11 million American children lack health insurance and 12 million are malnourished.
Moore based a substantive part of Bowling for Columbine on Glassner’s book, who actually appears in the movie. Together with Moore he walks the streets of Los Angeles South Central, which is known to be an extremely dangerous neighbourhood, since it appears in the crime section of the news almost every night. Glassner however shows that there is nothing to be afraid of, it is a typical case of fear blown out of proportion.
Also law professor Cass R. Sunstein warns in his book Laws of Fear (2005) for the negative consequences of excessive fear. He attacks the influential Precautionary Principle: the idea that regulators should take action to protect against potential harm. President Bush used this principle as a justification to start the pre-emptive war against Iraq and to pass the Patriot Act, which legitimizes far-reaching infringements on people’s privacy. Sunstein argues that the Precautionary Principle is incoherent and dangerous, because risks exist in all thinkable situations. Taking precautionary steps with an exaggerated focus on one risk creates dangers of its own, as the situation in Iraq clearly demonstrates.
Another big issue where Moore puts his finger on is the current practice of capitalism. In Fahrenheit 9/11 he notices that the president of the USA earns a year income of 400.000 dollars, while his economic relationship with Saudi-Arabia yields 1.4 billion dollars spread over three decades. Moore quite rightly asks: “When the president wakes up in the morning, wouldn’t he sooner think about what’s best for the Saudis, instead of what’s best for you and me?”, followed by a collection of photos and videos of a big smiling George W. Bush meeting with Arabs, accompanied by happy music.
Whether or not Moore’s figures are correct, the above gives an accurate picture of what current politics is about. Noreena Hertz, one of the world’s leading young experts on economic globalisation, argues that democracy is heavily losing the battle from capitalism. In her eye-opening book The Silent Takeover (2001) she shows how corporate interests are undemocratically taking over politics, leaving governments with no other choice but to surrender. In today’s global environment a refusal to cooperate with big business means economic suicide, Hertz claims, since the hundred biggest multinationals possess 20% of all global credits, and 51 of the 100 largest economies are companies instead of nations. Everything is about market interests, she writes, at the expense of democracy, human rights and ethics.
In Fahrenheit 9/11 Moore furthermore tries to reveal president Bush’s connection to the 9/11 attacks. While his evidence is not convincing, Moore has a point in naming the president a terrorist, or the US government in general. Political philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek explains in Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002) that the current Islamic fundamentalism is an excess of western capitalistic politics. The global capitalistic system is just as fundamentalist as the Muslim terrorists, according to Zizek, because it blindly believes in the free market and uses every means to keep the system in place, and even expand it to the farthest corners of the world. Muslim fundamentalism is nothing but a reaction to this, Zizek argues, and both Islamic as well as western fundamentalism have to be fought. He emphasizes that “the choice between Bush and Bin Laden is not our choice; they are both ‘Them’ against Us”.
Moore’s contribution lies not in making a truthful documentary, but in uncovering certain major problems of current society for a broad audience. Because of his incorrect filming practice however, these problems are not being taken seriously, particularly not by the people who should. Still the discussion continues about whether certain scenes are fact or fiction, thereby overshadowing Moore’s important, truthful message, or even a debate about it.
I doubt if Moore will ever make a non-deceiving movie. He evidently has a talent for filming, but as one of his critics says: “Moore knows the power of images. He knows that a series of George Bush jr. bloopers has more effect than a political scientist’s argument. Therefore he will always choose for the fun and the bloopers instead of the nuances.” I can only hope that he finds a way to combine Friday night popcorn with sound argumentation. Meanwhile the real problems continue to make real victims.