Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Is Michael Moore an Artiste?

Movies matter to people in different ways depending not only on what you need from the particular movie but what you need from the genre.

I told a friend in passing -- literally in passing; he was walking fast and heading elsewhere -- that I not only liked Fahrenheit 9/11 but that I also enjoyed it. That stopped him in his tracks. There was so much wrong with it, he said, and he didn't mean factual errors. He ... was in a hurry. No time to explain. So he sent me this email.

What I mean by F-9/11 not being a good film is to differentiate between what's being said and how it's being crafted. It IS, indeed, an IMPORTANT film. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say HISTORIC. Wonderful! I loved every single minute. I love every single thing it SAYS -- which is why I sent $20 to Portland to entice my conservative cousin and wife to enter a movie theater for the first time since re-release of Gone With the Wind maybe 15-20 years ago. But it AIN'T a well done film. There are touches that are nice, but there's just SO much disjointed rambling and poor set-ups for parts that could have really been lyrical -- as WELL as hitting hard (in fact HARDER, because of such better crafting) -- and writing that is simply second-rate. It wanders and is anything BUT elegant. A documentary is composed in the editing room, largely. Bits like many of those Moore uses (confronting congressmen at Capitol, etc) are pre-planned, obviously -- but with no idea at ALL how they'll turn out, since reactions and events are unknown when putting it together. The editing room -- and the writing (which should derive from a general draft done before hand -- or even just a rough outline, perhaps) is what makes the film. And Moore ain't an artist.

It's the "Crumb" syndrome I see at work in those of my friends who call it "great". (And yet AGAIN -- I really LIKE F-9/11, okay!?!? For WHAT IT SAYS.) Crumb" was SO damned interesting -- such odd and strange people -- plus, if you feel as do I that Robert Crumb borders on genius, well simple "fandom" keeps you glued! But it WASN'T great film-making! The subject of a documentary in itself -- and the angle of attack on that subject -- DOES NOT a good film make! It's important to divorce oneself, when discussing whether a doc film is "great" or not from affinities to the subject itself. They're entirely independent. NOTHING to do with each other.

Hmmmmmmm. Do I agree? Given the fact the movie (ah, that's so much better than calling it a film) is a polemic, an angry and personal argument making no effort to be fair and balanced, it seems to me that a kind or roughness or lack of elegance is part of the art. What tone do we want a scurrilous attack to have? I would say the film's associational, conversational style suggests a work in progress, as if the filmmaker were hustling to get the images recorded and out there because the film is surfing on the news as it were. I'd say that's an example of form consistent with the purpose of the film.

What is great documentary film-making? I recall reading somewhere that a work of art in which the message is one of utter despair for humanity and the impossibility of meaning in an absurd universe, that if that work of art is done with "greatness" it, of course, is self-contradictory since the fact that you can shape the shapeless is itself fraught with positive meaning. So form must fit message (that's one idea, anyway, and you can build a career as a critic on it), and what then IS the proper form for a message that is part fierce indignation, part sympathy to the suffering of the innocent and part cool amusement at the the silliness of the villains. For these villains are presented as vain, flawed and mediocre.

I don't know how this film could have been "better" art without being a different film and a lesser film. I don't have a model in mind. The movie is a series of quick disconnected hits, but as Neil Postman has argued about video as a means of communicating serious, coherent, linear argument: IT CAN'T. We can't hold the images and the argument in our minds. I appreciate the fact Moore's movie is not complete in itself. Its point of view is clear enough, but any viewer would be a very great fool if he did not place Moore's information next to other information from other sources. Its one-sidedness is a virtue; it asks even the partisan how far he is willing to take Moore's arguments; it DEMANDS the involvement of the viewer's qualification of and addition to what's presented. For instance, some critics fault Moore for showing pre-war Iraq as a place of kite-flying children and quiet family life. Well, DUH! I say. His point is that we know all about the mass graves and the rape rooms, but let us not forget that even under the most horrific despots people stand to the side and find a way to live. When we attacked, no matter how precise we tried to be with our own weapons of selective destruction, we killed innocent people whose lives were uneventful and in many ways tolerable. Moore's images are a reminder that this is the balance even the "just war" strikes: This much innocence over here suffers to defeat this much evil over there. Keep that in mind and decide if you are happy with the balance. Only an idiot would conclude that Moore was trying to sum up all of Iraqi society in 45 seconds of film.

Ah, I've wandered away from a consideration of the documentarian's art qua art. I will ask my friend to help me make the key distinction: Wasn't Leni Riefenstahl a better artist, and thus a better propagandist, than Moore? What could possibly be more dishonest that Art with a capital A?

Hmmmmm. What I am apparently saying is that the most graceful thing about this movie is its clumsiness. Hmmmmmm, again.

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