Wednesday, May 19

Michael Moore's Fictimentaries, pt. 2

The following is of one of a series of posts at Terrette on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.
Genre categories in film are lagging seriously behind film innovations. Michael Moore is far from being the first to meld the presumably distinct genres of documentary film and fiction (not to mention, autobiography). Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I (2000) is another example of what could be called a "fictimentary." It begins as an investigation in art history, history, and contemporary society of a single gesture—picking something up from the ground in an effort to salvage something of unappreciated value—and expands into an exploration of the lives of underprivileged and resourceful citizens of contemporary France.
We should recognize that, according to the written accounts of Moore's latest film and in keeping with Moore's previous work, Fahrenheit 9/11 is neither a strict documentary nor an idiosyncratic fiction of pure fantasy. Before its release, we should be cautious of the two extremes of criticism that are likely to greet it (as discussed in pt. 1, below).

Yesterday, I wrote that Moore's films contain "mythologizing." By this, I mean, for example, Moore's treatment of his hometown, Flint, Michigan. Moore regularly returns to Flint in his films, but he certainly has never made a documentary of Flint. Roger and Me offers historical information and takes places largely in Flint, but the film focuses on Flint because Flint reflects the larger issue of corporate evolution in the United States generally. Flint in this movie, in particular, assumes the metonymic role of blue-collar American. This is not to say that Moore falsifies the history or experience of people living in Flint, Michigan in order to force a pre-conceived idea onto them, but only that, on the basis of certain facts of the social and economic situation of Flint, Moore draws out patterns in their experiences that exist elsewhere in America and thus resonate among viewers from all over the country.

Bowling for Columbine, for its part, is no more a documentary of violence in the United States than Hugo's novel Les Misérables is a documentary of La Commune or political strife in 1840's Paris. Bowling for Columbine does not use the topic of violence in the United States simply as a backdrop for a story of human passions, and it cites figures for gun ownership and levels of gun violence in different nations; but it offers more questions than it does answers, and the answers it does offer come not from the filmmaker himself, but from the contradictory voices of those interviewed.

What most pulls Moore's films out of the category of "documentaries" is that they appeal primarily to the human dimension of the events they narrate. There is nothing particularly "left wing" or propagandistic about exposing the human suffering caused by corporate indifference or gun violence in the United States. For the same reason, it is difficult to imagine a similarly hybrid film made from the political right. What human suffering is there to be found in, for instance, the thought that a prospective billionaire might have to pay an inheritance tax before inheriting her wealth? What human intrigue capable of moving the masses could be displayed in the story of a multinational corporation that is denied a monopoly of a given industry? Could it move audiences to witness the story of a Fortune 500 corporation that, after many years of paying no taxes, is obliged to pay some? The only way I could conceive of such a film is if it were a pure satire: but, in that case, who better to make it than Michael Moore?

Let's try to forecast the type of criticism that will come from the American political right if Moore's film is honored at Cannes and attracts real attention in the States. I would guess that not only will Moore be called unpatriotic and un-American, but that we may even hear members of Congress and radio talk-show hate mongers such as Rush Limbaugh expand their criticism of the film to include the Cannes Film Festival, Hollywood, the French, Western Europeans, the "media," and who-knows-whom-or-what-else. It may even be called "a victory for terrorism." I say this because of what I witnessed after the Spanish elections that ousted a pro-Bush government largely because that government had deceived the Spanish voters. Once the anti-war socialist party was announced the winner, a hideously anti-democratic and self-inflated discourse spewed from the Republican Congressional leadership, and this contemptuous discourse was echoed thoughtlessly throughout the editorials of the nation's major newspapers (see tomorrow's post for more on this topic).

Whether or not this hyperbolic scenario of political hate speech comes to pass, we should be cautious of those would judge Fahrenheit 9/11 on purely political grounds without respect for its being a film designed primarily to entertain the public and raise questions. As for the question of whether the film bleeds into propaganda, as some have charged (I think, unfairly) of Moore's previous work, that is one we cannot address before seeing the film.