Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Fahrenheit 911

No matter what I say about this movie, it will make someone mad. I guess that's the point, so prepare yourself.

In fact, it may well be that the rage people feel over the kinds of issues Moore raises in this film is to blame for how we got where we are. That may be the only thing everyone can agree on: Things are a mess now, and whether or not you blame George W. Bush, the situation in the Mideast, the East Coast, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, West Coast, or hell, all of the United States, is extremely volatile in a way that it was not four or five years ago.

Correlation is not causation. But four years ago, there was an election, and I believe that at the time of the election the country already had become mired in a morass of tarry indifference. Before you call me some kind of a partisan, biased person and say I'm laying the blame on Bush, I want to make sure you know that in my view, that indifference at least in part can be attributed to what went on during the Clinton presidency. But that, undoubtedly, can be traced to still another partisan issue... This is where I start to nod off. Where did the finger pointing start? When did they start calling each-other names and chasing each-other down dark avenues of sin with night-vision cameras? I lost track. All I know is somewhere in there I--and so many of my generation--stopped caring. It just stopped seeming to matter when politics began to feel like a childish game of smear the queer that got utterly out of hand and only the meanest and strongest kids played and you finally went inside and said fuck it and watched Speed Racer instead. Yes, I understand that we are to blame for losing sight of the fact that national and international affairs are infinitely more important than Speed Racer. But something happened. We felt powerless, as though nothing we could do would have any effect.

Most people my age were taught about politics in a democracy, that every person has a vote, that "all men are created equal" (this is hardly a place to start a debate about women). These were times when one could discuss the idea of the American Dream without the prefix of "The Myth of..." That is to say, it didn't sound cynical or insincere to talk about the promise of an individual apart from his privilege. I know that is naive. Maybe the era of my recollection is a time that never really existed, and we all just grew up and woke up. But something happened at the end of the Twentieth Century and more people than just me felt it. We gave up. That is my only explanation for the series of events that allowed George W. Bush to be elected president.

Michael Moore's first premise, mainly, is that George W. Bush very clearly stole the election. I disagree. I think we handed it to him with a collective shrug of our liberal shoulders. Fuck it, we said. "Who's on American Idol?" It was just so convoluted. I admit it. The whole tabulation debacle seemed so horrible and impossible to fix. Yes, it seemed shady, but by that time, the damage was too far done. There certainly wasn't a coverup about it. On the contrary: Moore and I would agree there was no dearth of news about the events leading up to the election and about the election itself. My God, no. It was exactly the opposite. There were so many news stories. I may have tuned out, but clearly I'm in the minority. If there weren't an audience for this kind of information, a market for the muckraking articles, the 20/20, Dateline, 48 Hours brand of "investigative journalism," the newspaper articles that straddle just this side of The National Enquirer--if there were no market for this sort of journalism, then it would have stopped. So that means someone bought it, read it, consumed it, watched it. And by doing so, we all
became immune to the horror, or just stopped asking the right questions.

So, according to Michael Moore, don't say we weren't warned. Think about all those times you heard the story of the big bad wolf when you were little, the one where you weren't supposed to speak of danger unless there was really a problem. Well, in the fall of 2000, when a terrible wolf came out and stole the election, we just changed the channel. That's what Michael Moore tells us. This is really important. He's saying, you guys have all heard these
stories, but it got to the point where you tuned them out.

So now, when Moore tries to do his documentary, he is faced with a unique rhetorical challenge: He has to figure out how to reach an audience that's been there, done that, seen those whooshing graphics, the crawl of competing horrors at the bottom of the screen, those sensational stories every time Bush flushes the toilet, as it were. So Moore had to use two absolute attention-getting rhetorical strategies here, a loud one and a surprise. The first one is obvious: Humor is his signature, but it works here because it is surprising to joke about death and destruction. Humor is incongruous with the inexplicably and unbelievably sad, upsetting, tragic, horrific scenes we see in the movie (sorry kids--I'm pretty liberal, but this one really did earn its R rating). His other strategy is the loud one, and rhetorically I think Moore set out to cry wolf louder than you're used to hearing. Put simply, ladies and gentlemen of the audience, he's turning up the volume. It's the only way you will listen.

I won't summarize the film here in the hopes that you will see it. The story and the cinematic choices Moore makes are reason enough for you to see it, whether or not you take his side. I think in several ways he makes his point well. For one, his humorous juxtaposition of popular music and the folly of the president are funny, like the much overplayed clip of the president's many vacations against a soundtrack of the Bananarama song. Even if you take no issue with the president's many golf trips, it's nearly impossible not to question the soundness of the judgment of the leader of the free world when, after he makes a very serious statement to the press, cracks a smirk and says, "Now, watch this drive." The juxtaposition there is humorous--between the suffering of the impoverished and hardworking in the rest of the world and this leisurely president, but his consciousness of it and his supreme lack of humility about it make him nothing other than detestable.

Moore also is brilliant in the way he shows us the events of that fateful day when the terrorists struck. Knowing that we were visually bombarded with the videos of the planes hitting those towers and the Pentagon so many times, Moore left the screen dark for that part, playing only the sounds. In this case, the sounds were the more terrifying, and the images my brain supplied more than enough. After the impact, he showed us the terrible images of the falling paper and ash and the people running, but this time no sound. It was an incredibly sensitive portrayal, his knowing that removing one of our senses was the only way we could manage that kind of pain on the big screen without complete overload--or without a dulling of sensation, the kind of which we regularly experience at the hands of TV news producers. Moments like this in the film made me see why it won an award.

There are stunning revelations in the film about the relationship between the Bushes, Dick Cheney, and the Saudis that to me are grounded well enough in fact to cause me great alarm. On Monday morning (6/28) as I started to write this, the turnover of power to Iraq was taking place. I looked up to the television screen to see a member of the Saudi Royal family prominently placed between the new Iraqi leader and the American who was placed there symbolically to hand over the power. What was that Saudi doing there? I would never have thought to ask before watching Moore's film. But based on my mediocre reading of current events before, I often had wondered why we were friends with the Saudis, who seem to be shafting us any chance they get. It's frightening.

That said, I want to make it clear that I took issue with a number of things in Moore's film as well. One example that comes to mind is the way Moore makes fun of Bush's reaction to the first plane hitting the tower. Bush, as you may recall, was on his way into a third-grade classroom in Florida. He chose to go in, according to Moore, for the photo-op. I take issue with that. I have trouble believing Bush could have known another plane was going to hit the towers and just ignored it. Moore spends several comic minutes with the clip of Bush sitting in front of the primary classroom while the children read, Moore says, because no one was telling him what to do at the moment. It seems to me more as though Bush's face is absolutely ashen. He seems to be collecting his thoughts. Furthermore, he's in a room full of eight year-olds, who might have been traumatized by a sudden bolt from the room--and we liberals would have had a heyday with that, just as we would have had a heyday with a split-second decision gone wrong. Nothing could have happened in that seven or nine minutes that would have allowed Bush to change anything. I think saying otherwise is just meanspirited. In this fight, I want my side to play fair. So in this case, and in a few others, where the appeal to emotion colored the argument too much detracted for me from the parts of the film that were solidly based in fact. Moore also would do better to move away from the notion that anyone who has more than a couple of bucks in his wallet is corrupt, particularly since he himself is a multimillionaire as a result of this film (and previous ones).

I'll end the examples with my very favorite part of the film. I loved it because in humor and message it summed up the entire spirit of Moore's idea: we see a terrible landscape of destruction in Iraq. An Iraqi grandmother is sobbing and cursing God for what He has allowed to happen. Her pain is so universally understandable; it is impossible not to grieve with her. Then an abrupt edit takes us to an interview with a brassy blonde, busty, gum-smacking Britney Spears, who is saying, "Y'know, like, I think we should, like, respect our president? Because he's, like our president? and we should, like, listen to him?" Beautiful. No explanations needed there, folks. Let Britney do the thinking for you.

Fahrenheit 911 is not a perfect film, and it is by no means an unbiased documentary--nor was it meant to be. I don't agree with everything Moore said, but I do think that people who strongly disagree with Moore should take note of that part of his message that is grounded solidly in fact. Moore's work artistically and rhetorically, though, is really fascinating and well worth writing and thinking about, since it's taking documentary (and comedy) in a new direction.

No comments: