Wednesday, May 19

Michael Moore's Fictimentaries, pt. 1

The following is one of a series of posts at Terrette on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.
As we wait in anticipation for Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 to find a distributor in the U.S., it is worth noting, before the onslaught of movie reviews have their way with it, that this film is likely to be met with the same critical incomprehension that has often greeted Moore’s previous films. This incomprehension is due, I think, to a confusion concerning the nature of the films, which are neither documentaries in any strict sense of the word nor works of pure fiction.

Critics who railed against Roger and Me because of potential, minor factual inaccuracies (such as the question of whether Roger Smith really ever dined in that restaurant where Moore had gone to look for him) or Bowling for Columbine because Moore had not consulted criminologists or sociologists, both start from the same false assumption that Moore is a documentary filmmaker. Such critics are encouraged in this both by Moore’s Bowling for Columbine having been designated a "documentary" in various awards ceremonies and by Moore's own use of the term to qualify the film. It is no wonder that Bowling for Columbine was the first "documentary" to win an Oscar, because, well, it isn't one! At the same time, while not being documentaries, Moore's films are not fictions in the sense in which, for instance, Charles Perrault's fairy tales or any classic novel or Walt Disney production are fictions. In an effort to both distill, and question, the crux of contemporary life, they dig into recent events and collect narratives surrounding shared, traumatic experiences.

In a word, Moore's films participate in elements both of documentaries (interviews, the presentation of statistics, the framing of a problem or issue) and fictions (humor, irony, mythologizing). For this reason, perhaps they would best be called "fictimentaries."

In calling them so, one should not confuse different senses of the word "fiction." Moore's films are not fictions in the way that, say, Bush campaign ads are fictions or videos the Bush administration has made to promote the new Medicare law are illegal propaganda. They are not designed to deceive. Often, those from the political Right who claim that the films are "loaded" and "propagandistic" simply dismiss out-of-hand the very obvious fact that the films are primarily a form of entertainment. Such critics are motivated to contest the political and cultural perspectives of the films and so unjustifiably treat them as if they were political treatises. Thus, they dismiss their entertainment value. Moore frequently points out (as if it were necessary) that his main goal is setting out to make a film is not to ram home a political agenda (which goal would kill the entertainment value of the project) but rather to entertain. It is Moore's particular strength that he manages to do this consistently while imbuing his films with social consciousness and humanity. The fact that Moore's films have sold well attests to the fact not only that there are a lot of left-wing people in the world but also, more importantly, that people enjoy watching the films. They appeal to the viewer as any classic work of fiction appeals to its audience: by entertaining.


To those who say of Moore's newest film, "Oh, that's just politicizing the war on terrorism," or "that's propaganda," the proper response in all likelihood will be: "Well, if you call that propaganda, what does your idea of an investigative, entertaning 'documentary' look like?" If anyone argues that the film "politicizes" something that is not already political, or that it uses "propagandistic" tactics, the film will still have to be assessed as a film. And if, as a film, it turns out to be a good show, enjoyed by many, well, that will speak volumes for the film as a film and put the narrowly political criticisms of it in their place.

To those, however, who say, "It wasn't fully documented: it didn't consult all the specialists or treat the issues exhaustively," the answer will most likely be: "So, what? It wasn't meant to." Such viewers would be better off watching documentaries that they may have the fortune to find in their local libraries.