Friday, August 3, 2007

You Make Me Sick, Michael Moore

It’s always interesting to hear people lambaste Michael Moore. Or, more precisely, it’s always revealing to hear those who basically agree with Michael Moore’s positions lambaste him. It seems that Moore has managed—besides shocking and disgusting many a right-winger—to alienate a good number of liberals as well. Though the average liberal (and even moderate) is likely to agree with Moore’s fairly unradical assertions—we have become a dangerously trigger-happy nation, president Bush is and has always been the pits, our healthcare system is crying out for some serious changes—it is far less clear that he will agree with A.O. Scott’s statement that Moore is “a credit to the republic.” What else, one might ask, must a documentary filmmaker who has raised hard questions in popular films do to win respect from those who ought to like him best, the converted to which he is supposedly preaching?

Some of the insults that have been leveled at Moore are that he’s “extreme” and pushy and that his films are biased and manipulative. You say that like it’s a bad thing! As far as I can tell, Moore has never pretended to be anything but a provocateur and propagandist, out to transmit his message and ruffle some feathers in the process. He is big. He is annoying. He asks faux naïve questions of his interviewees in order to push his point. He has questionable taste in attire (why always the baseball cap?) But beneath his exterior—in fact, apart from the persona altogether—remains Moore’s work, from “Roger and Me” to “Bowling for Columbine,” “Fahrenheit 9/11” to the current “Sicko.” These are films that have demanded attention and generated debate at a mainstream level, a rare feat for documentaries to begin with. Why are we so caught up with what’s at the surface, with the packaging of these films and of Michael Moore as a brand? Why are we so quick to dismiss the work itself?

Some liberal moviegoers I have spoken with worry that Moore has hopelessly alienated those “middle of the road” types that might have been convinced by his message if he hadn’t collected it into such a potent little package and hurled it in their faces. But would people even have heard of Moore if he hadn’t been such a barnburner, I wonder? Isn’t that what it takes to get noticed around here? Paradoxically, it is the pushy persona that Moore’s detractors loathe which made him such a (key word) controversial figure to begin with. After all, who would have gone to see “Bowling for Columbine” if it had been a complacent little documentary that meekly suggested that perhaps, just maybe, we should stop shooting each other up with such fervor? Not even those middle-of the-road-types, I think.

And why, oh why, is it acceptable for conservatives to sing the praises of the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter, public figures of such intense obnoxiousness and comparatively little substance, while liberals feel obligated to distance themselves from Moore for fear of being contaminated by his offensive radicalism? Few conservatives expend much energy bemoaning the fact that O’Reilly and Coulter are alienating moderates or pushing people’s buttons. Au contraire.

But liberals are warier of causing offense, it seems. We are in such a rush to beat Moore’s critics to the punch and admit with heads hung low that he is a disgrace to our kind that we fail to realize that in doing so we are really only hurting ourselves. By anxiously trying to separate ourselves from Moore’s camp of lefty fringe lunatics we tacitly accept the judgment of Moore as a crazed zealot when what we really ought to be doing is demanding that the messages in his films be recognized for what they are—in the final analysis, as I have said, fairly unradical. By being apologists for Moore, liberal moviegoers simultaneously participate in the marginalization of his message and reinforce the image of him as an unhelpful extremist.

It seems to me that we could all stand to be a little less afraid of heated debate and the passionately argued opinions (or films) that it produces. Why do pundits get to spew the most astonishing garbage while the average person must pussyfoot around for fear of *gasp* causing offense? I would be thrilled to see a conservative filmmaker make a counterpoint movie to one of Moore’s, if—aside from being provocative and borderline infuriating at points—it also happened to make as many salient points as Moore chances to do in his work.

I don’t know about you but I would see that movie. Well, if A.O. Scott approved, of course.

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