So, being the registered lefty and the media scholar that I am (though which was more dominant at this precise moment is open to some debate), I went out this weekend to see Michael Moore’s newest, Fahrenheit 9/11. You may have heard of it; it seems to be getting a little press these days. Largest box-office gross last weekend; largest grossing documentary of all time. Annoying little attempts by Republican groups to get the Federal Election Commission to pull the plug on the film’s advertising after July 30. With all the press, and the slew of reviews and counterattacks that I knew were coming, I wanted to make sure I saw the film as soon as possible after its opening, to try to see it as clearly as possible.
How clear that viewing was is, well, unclear. I saw the film in West Covina, which (a) is still in Southern California, so only so right-ward leaning, but (b) is no Santa Monica. The crowd seemed pretty mixed — plenty of academic-looking folks, but plenty of just plain folks, too. The theater, on Sunday afternoon, was all but full, with only scattered single seats remaining. And the audience was largely very involved, gasping at key moments, laughing at others, and, as I’ve heard similarly reported by friends both locally and around the country, bursting into applause as soon as the film ended.
But I got the distinct feeling that the film was preaching to the choir. And that some members of the choir, in fact, to judge by reviews ranging from Chuck’s to David Denby’s, find themselves disturbed by the easiness, the superficiality, the — to be frank — cheap-shot nature of much of the film’s critique. It’s certainly true: the image of Paul Wolfowitz combing his hair with a generous helping of his own spit, the speculations about what Dubya was thinking during those seven minutes in front of the Florida schoolchildren, the Bonanza parody — all these (and more) are cheap shots indeed. Personally, though, I’m not bothered by their cheapness; after years of Rush Limbaugh and his descendants, after the hypocrisy of an impeachment carried out against a man who got a blow job by men who fathered illegitimate children and left their wives for their secretaries (all the while preaching family values to the rest of us), after enduring an unending slew of cheap-shots from the right, I’m more than happy to countenance some coming from the left.
What leaves me less than thrilled with the film’s line of critique is what Chuck refers to as its “scattershot” nature. There was a guy who was in the MFA program with me a bajillion years ago, who was famous within the program for once having said in a workshop, by way of explaining how a particular piece of fiction worked, “See, it’s like, over here you’ve got a dot. And over here, you’ve got another dot. Know what I’m sayin’?” This strikes me as a not-inaccurate rendering of Moore’s method in the film: he never really connects the dots, but instead plots them, one after another, followed by a bit of wink-wink-nudge-nudge that suggests a causal relationship between the dots without demonstrating conclusively that such a relationship exists. If the film were really a documentary, that might be an issue.
The fact is that it’s not. It’s an extended editorial, a polemical meditation on the ways that privilege has been wielded to keep the American public ignorant, afraid, and disempowered — and as such, it’s my hope that some of its viewers, those who might have been inclined toward apathy, who might have assumed the outcome of the next election was already determined and so not bothered to vote, might be compelled to get up and do something. It’ll be some time before we know if the film has had that result.
In the meantime, of course, it’s producing attacks from the right that are, in their usual fashion, personally directed at Moore, ranging from that of the only slightly unhinged-sounding Christopher Hitchens to the forthcoming book (and I’m not linking to it, but you can find it on Amazon) Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man. Some things never change.
But administrations can.