FEATURE: How Much Moore Is Too Much?

For some he’s a symbol of a renewed political activism, champion of the underdog, a working class emancipator, a baseball-capped David taking on the corporate and government Goliaths. For others, he’s a self-righteous egotist, an expedient manipulator of truths, a baseball-capped multi-millionaire more interested in his net worth than the causes he champions. Love him or loath him, Michael Moore is having an impact.

Since the release of his breakthrough film, Bowling For Columbine (2002) America’s media monster Michael Moore has, for lack of a more appropriate expression, been getting bigger and bigger. Moore’s prominent stature is not unsurprising; in the last five or so years he’s helmed best-selling novels, Stupid White Men and Dude, Where’s My Country, orchestrated a mass tour of universities in 2004 intended to oust President Bush, and directed two more feature films, Fahrenheit 9/11, and the just released Sicko.

For Moore however, all this exposure, most of it self-willed, has resulted in a heightened examination of his practises, politics and past. Over the past few years Anti-Moore websites, novels, and articles have sprung up in increasing numbers. One such investigation into Moore screened recently at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Directed by Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk, the Canadian documentary Manufacturing Dissent captured Moore’s reticence to open himself (and his work) up to broader scrutiny. What they do discover is highly interesting. For instance, Moore apparently spent weeks setting up the opening sequence of Columbine so that he could walk out of the bank with the gun – apparently the weapons aren’t stored there. Then there’s the misinformation about Heston’s NRA appearance in Flint after a schoolgirl was shot – it occurred months not days afterwards, the staged re-shoots of material inserted into press conferences, and his own corporate portfolio which contained transactions for Halliburton stocks. Manufacturing Dissent no doubt has its own agenda, but it does raise some interesting questions in the process.

In spite of issues over factuality, Moore’s work is still entertaining – in hindsight it should’ve come as no surprise that it’s made it into the mainstream multiplexes. Ever since Roger & Me his films have conveyed what could be easily termed a populist postmodern sensibility, shifting between contemporary interviews, older stock footage, archaic advertisements, punchy animations, and the very best and worst of trash TV. All the while Moore’s voice-overs serve as the origin of meaning in his documentaries; it’s the anchor that provides his films with their continuity.

In another life, Moore could’ve made a living working on infotainment television selling obsolescent technology and beauty products to middle class couch potatoes. His on-screen presence serves up a near perfect combination of charisma, charm, and compassion. Underscored with a cynical wit, Moore’s infectious screen persona works well to his political advantage. Aiming for emotions over intelligence, it’s hard not to feel motivated towards the ‘cause’. Then again, how could anyone not feel something for a 22-year-old single mother diagnosed with cervical cancer, or the mother of an only child killed on an Iraqi battlefield?

And that’s where my problem with Moore begins. The emotional manipulations of Moore’s films are effective, but their influence, as a provocation towards political change seems limited. The more you think about his films, in particular Sicko, the more cheated you feel. There’s an instant gratification, a quick trade-off of anger, despair, or sadness, and then it’s roll the final credits. But it’s not just what he puts in that seems so staged, but what he leaves out. In Sicko Moore makes the French, Canadian, and British health systems out to be the utopian medicinal equivalent of a Willy Wonker chocolate factory. The ‘reality’ of those systems is something quite different. Anyone who’s been to Paris can tell you that hardship there is far from invisible. For Moore, the French “working class” family is dual income, resides in a comfortable apartment, and collects sand from beach holidays. It’s hardly representative journalism, or perhaps Moore just decided to aim for humour over substance.

But there’s another slightly irksome aspect to Moore’s political provocations, and that’s the absence of any verifiable answer to the social problems he depicts. His films often conclude with an overriding tone of despair. Admittedly, it’s not the responsibility of a documentary filmmaker to provide a solution to every social inequality or historical conflict represented by the camera, but Moore doesn’t present himself as a documentarian. Moore’s films are organised contemporary political problems, in which he, as the central figure of the narrative attempts to propel towards a solution. In the end though, the answers Moore provides are less than concrete; in Columbine it’s that America is in the grips of a culture of fear, or it’s all Charlton Heston’s fault. In Fahrenheit 9/11 it’s the work of Bush and the corporations. In Sicko, it’s…well…it’s time to move overseas.

Regardless of these debates however, Michael Moore seems to have come along at the right time. While the revival of documentary filmmaking at present may have little to do with him (though he might argue otherwise), he may have inadvertently helped its continued popularity. Perhaps like the Harry Potter novels, which got kids and adults alike away from the computer and TV and back into books, Moore’s films may produce a similar spill over effect into other documentaries. That is something I doubt even the strongest of Anti-Moore campaigners would have a problem with. For the time being however, the rest of us can only sit back and ponder, how much Moore can we bare?

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