Michael Moore’s Problems Are Our Fault
That quote is the unintentionally revealing tip of an ego iceberg lying below Moore’s public persona of Mr. Aw-Shucks Everyman. Moore clearly sees himself as a liberal Atlas, shrugging under the weight of a ungrateful world. Yet, for all his self-regard and all the attention his work gets, Moore has really only made two films worth watching in his twenty year career: Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine.via Joseph Childers – Ephemera Etcetera – Liberals to Moore: ‘Thanks, but we got this’ – True/Slant.
The reaction to Michael Moore’s new movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, reinforces a suspicion I started having a few years back: that most of us Americans are much better at being movie and TV critics than we are at being political organizers. When we come out of a film like this, we find ourselves focusing on the flaws in Moore’s moviemaking and not on the film’s content, which just happens to be the reality of our own day-to-day political existences.
We’re not thinking about how to fix our lives, in other words, but how to fix the movie about our lives.
Now, I agree with most of the criticisms of Moore’s new movie. One of my editors at Rolling Stone put it best: “I just wish I could edit him a little.” Moore’s bizarre decision to inject himself into the movie at odd (and sometimes crucial) junctures undermines his ability to be an effective propagandist.
I was particularly struck by the way he very effectively portrayed the sit-down strike at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors factory at the end of the movie, i.e. an example of real people with real problems really organizing to lift themselves up a little, and then leaped at the very end of the film to a bizarre non-sequitur in which Moore, a multimillionaire taking care of the artistic problem of how to finish his movie, asked the rest of us to “Join me” (me, Michael Moore) as he unfurled crime scene tape around the Goldman Sachs offices in a purely cinematic action.
I thought that was really strange and I had no idea what the hell he meant. How do I join Michael Moore in this movement? Am I supposed to watch the movie again? Absent of any coherent context or further explanation, the end-of-film injunction was almost comic, sort of like the old, “Me, Al Franken” routines on Saturday Night Live.
But let’s give Michael Moore credit. Most of the movie isn’t about Michael Moore. It’s about what’s happened to this country, how far it’s fallen, in the age of financial deregulation.
Even just looking at the historical context provided by Moore’s own movies, the progression is kind of scary. Back when Moore made Roger and Me, he was describing how blue-collar workers could no longer could find jobs to support themselves. In Bowling for Columbine he talked about the workfare programs we cooked up to keep those ex-employed blue collar workers alive, how brutal and inhumane those programs can be.
In Capitalism: A Love Story we’re now talking about how the compensation for professional jobs we used to consider upper-middle class, like the job of airline pilot, have dropped below subsistence level. This is a portrait of a society steaming toward a feudal structure.
He then shows that the mechanisms we’re supposed to appeal to to correct these problems — the combination of public awareness (i.e. the media) and the elected government (i.e. congress) — have been almost completely corrupted. We have a media that doesn’t pay attention to the fact that airline pilots are giving plasma in order to buy groceries. Even after deadly crashes, they don’t focus on the real causes.
I found most of the content of Moore’s movie horrifying. It was also striking to me that the theme he is addressing here, i.e. the rapid peasant-ization of most of the country, is basically a taboo subject for every other major media outlet in the country. The vast majority of our movies are either thinly-disguised commercials for consumer products (Law Abiding Citizen), remakes of old shows and movies designed to transport us back to the good old days when life was better (i.e. Fame) , or gushy nerf-tripe with no hard edges crafted to serve as escapist fairy tales for stressed-out adults wanting to dream of happy endings (Love Happens).
What we call a “good movie” is usually also escapism, and sometimes even also a nostalgic remake, it just happens to be well-done and expertly directed, with great production values and acting performances (I haven’t seen it yet. but I assume Where the Wild Things Are will fall into this category).
But we’re living in a time of extreme crisis almost nothing on TV or in the movies is designed to get us thinking about how to fix our problems. If anything, most of the stuff on TV is designed to jack up our anxiety level without offering any solutions except the short-term fixes of buying and eating — witness the endless reality shows in which ordinary people slave away and scheme against each other for weeks on end for a 1 in 12 shot at a (pick one) modeling job/date with a non-deformed, non serial-killing person/chance to be shouted at by Donald Trump.
Now that stuff is cynical and monstrous. It is my sincere hope that the people who are producing these programs will someday be tried and executed by war crimes tribunals at the Hague.
At least Michael Moore is getting us talking about the right topics. And while I get that the right way to start a revolution is not to wildly misinterpret the nature of capitalism in a coffeeshop conversation with Wallace Shawn (whose line about the grabber product was the funniest thing in the movie, by the way), well, it’s not really Michael Moore’s job to start a revolution. He probably thinks it is — and this is that “Atlas” complex fellow True/Slant writer Joseph Childers is talking about — but that’s only because nobody else out there, in the major media at least, is doing a freaking thing.
It’s natural for Michael Moore to behave like someone who thinks he’s taking on the world alone. Because he is, sort of. If we want him to stop behaving like this, it’s kind of on us to do something about it. At some point we’re going to have to make a commitment to giving up our escapist entertainments for a while while we fix our actual lives. I’m as guilty as everyone else, spending half my time watching movies and sports. putting off my problems until later. If we all did less of that, my guess is that we might start thinking less like movie and TV critics, and more like citizens — at which point the flaws in Moore’s movies won’t seem so bad at all. We might not even notice them.