Wednesday, August 25, 2004

hitchens v moore

With all the fashion sense of an unmade bed and an equally muddled grab-bag of cheerfully partisan politics, Michael Moore is without peer as this season’s most disorderly star. When he’s not busy fanning the flames of a cultural inferno, he seems to be scooping up gold statuettes and embarrassing the heck out of studio moguls. Rambling into plain view, as he does almost daily, the bloke in the baseball cap has become for many the most annoying and inevitable pop culture fixture since Paris Hilton was first caught on home video.
It’s no great shock that proud pro-War conservatives find Moore every bit as engaging as a single lesbian mother who lulls her child to sleep with tales from the Koran.
An unabashed muckraker, Moore had no trouble in telling the New York Times last June, "It's my personal aim that Bush is removed from the White House." To conservative critics, Moore is a deceitful one-man-band playing the requiem for The War on Terror. That he has a willing army of right-leaning detractors is not exactly a bombshell.
What is a mild surprise, however, is the growing number of leftist critics who find this ramshackle auteur both dangerous and distasteful.
In a widely cited piece from Microsoft Corp’s website slate.com, stylish celeb hack Christopher Hitchens let fly. “To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental.” So wrote the soft-left journalist in a piece entitled Unfairenheit 9/11.
When prominent Vanity Fair contributor Hitchens lobbed his scatological chestnuts, open season was declared on an ample target. Moore, the cuddly clown prince of conspiracy theories, had a new and unlikely enemy. Avowedly progressive critics attacked his Bush Burning, high grossing film Fahrenheit 9/11 as childish liberal fantasy.
Hitchens, a contributor to US liberal weekly magazine The Nation for more than 20 years, has led the leftist charge against F9/11. Unlikely commentators worldwide have now joined him in accusing Moore of reheating “half-baked fantasies” to audiences hungry for conspiracy.
Australian critics of all hues have not been at all reticent to slap Moore with similar accusations. According to many local commentators, he is guilty of joining the dots with a poison pen; of confusing historical fact with emotional memory and, worst of all, becoming an extraordinarily well paid subject of dinner party conversation.
It has become chic in the most unlikely circles to dismiss Fahrenheit 9/11 as low down agitprop trickery. For some leftist commentators, its director has become a one-dimensional commodity every bit as uncool and omniscient as the Starbucks chain of coffee houses.
There’s a relentless queue of punters, however, who take F9/11 much more seriously than they might a propagandist Frappuccino with a twist. To eager admirers worldwide, Moore has emerged as the leading international roaster of specialty brand doubt.
Moore himself has freely admitted that his most commercially successful work to date is a visceral piece intended to rouse the emotions and oust the incumbent US president. Many viewers of the work willingly take this emotional ride, if not all of its occasionally shaky details.
Certainly, the film cannot be divorced from its political context. F 9/ 11 is nothing if not a film with a capital-A Agenda. Moore has made this point explicitly in interview and, significantly, within his film.
No one who sits through F 9/11 could genuinely suppose for a moment that it presents a scrupulous and impartial expression of the truth. The pronouncements of world leaders are spliced into TV westerns; jokes abound and our host shows himself commandeering an ice-cream van.
There is rarely an instant where we are unaware that we are watching a Moore translation of reality rather than reality itself.
It is Moore’s iconoclastic enthusiasm that wins him fans and not his supposed Leni Riefenstahl-like skill as a propagandist. As a propagandist, he’s no great shakes. As an especially funny human, he excels.
Within F 9/11, there are multiple instances where audiences are reminded that the “reality” they are watching is filtered through the grubby Moore lens. This film repeatedly disobeys documentary convention with gags, down-home tropes and a gaudy rock’n’roll sound track.
While Moore’s politics might be akin to documentary makers John Pilger or David Bradbury, his film-making techniques are not. F 9/11 is no professedly unbiased bleeding heart doco shot through a gritty lens. This entertainment is, very explicitly, armchair current affairs. Like a peculiar left-leaning uncle who guffaws with scorn through 60 Minutes every Sunday night, Moore lets us know: this is the stuff that I’ve been thinking about.
In the thrust of fashionable lefty zeal to dismiss the Moore Franchise as cheesy and cheap, many commentators overlook the details that make F 9/11 so very engaging.
In an apparent eagerness to safeguard the defenceless public, critics repeatedly warn that this documentary, although it may appear very real, depends on the fairy tale of objectivity. We are repeatedly cautioned that Moore’s apparent realism is, in fact, just his own version of the truth.
This is precisely why so many loved F 9/11 to bits. Not because it’s a reliable document of irrefutable fact but because it’s the charming handiwork of a chunky man from Flint, Michigan with whom audiences wouldn’t mind sharing a beer and an idle afternoon. We know that this document is The Truth According to Moore. We are aware that it’s every bit as skewed as the 6 O’clock news.
It is the film’s refusal to be a genuine documentary and its folksy partiality that has landed it in the multiplexes of the western world.
However, it is not just Moore’s charming gall that has delighted audiences and appalled so many liberal critics. Hitchens and others have specifically disputed many of Moore’s claims. One writer in a newspaper I contribute to insisted that most of Moore’s assertions “disintegrate on any contact with evidence.”
While Moore does maintain the same fluid relationship with truth that any raconteur might is beyond dispute. Certainly, within F 9/11 rigid fact and unassailable evidence often play second fiddle to the goal of amusing spectators. That media commentators might want to unpick these assertions for the benefit of suggestible audiences is not surprising. What is astounding is the volume of this painstaking critique and the fact that it so often originates from those who might be predisposed to a Moore’s Eye View of the world.
F 9/11 is not a documentary. It is a gloriously rickety vehicle for Moore and his passions. That being said, many of its broad central contentions are difficult to dispute: George W. Bush is marginally less statesmanlike than Brintey Spears, the urban poor are over-represented in the US military and, importantly, the war in Iraq has been shamelessly sanitised for electronic media consumption.
Moore cannot be blamed for deluding audiences any more than he could be legitimately accused of being a snappy dresser. While his document is a polemic, it is not, in the strictest sense, a “lie”. He is not guilty of untruth. What he is guilty of is outrageous success. Moore’s fault is to take a marginal political view, usually relegated to late night viewing on public television, and make it sizzle.
Moore makes current events much more entertaining than most journalists possibly could. Perhaps that’s why Christopher Hitchens remains so unduly miffed.


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