Fahrenheit 9/11

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.


  1. I’d still make the case that Moore’s “scattershot” approach means something else (to parapharse Jameson). I don’t think the film (or any film) is capable of holding together all of the contradictions that Moore is introducing.

    That being said, it’s still a flawed film, and those flaws seem more manifest as a result of the rhetorical approach of the film (“connecting the dots”). Like you, I’ve got little problem with the cheap shots at Wolfie, Rummy, and Bush.

  2. Chuck, I’m not sure I’m entirely following you — you’re suggesting that the film is intentionally scattershot, but nonetheless fails in what it was aiming at via that scattershot-ness? I think I might agree with that, given the ways that Moore attempts (not entirely successfully) to tie together a wide range of Bush & Co. failures into one complex polemic. But I also think of that scattershot-ness as a kind of discursive equivalent to buckshot — if you spray lead over a wide enough area, you’re bound to hit something. The failure for me is less in the scatteredness of the shot, and less in the way the shots/dots are connected, than in the way that Moore implies without asserting connection. It’s less the “over here you’ve got a dot… and over here you’ve got another dot” part that’s troubling to me; it’s the “know what I’m sayin’?”

    That may perhaps be the weirdest bunch of mixed metaphors I’ve ever produced.

  3. I’m struggling to articulate this concept, which means I may be completely off course (or simply trying to defend what is clearly the film’s biggest flaw). Moore’s “scattershot” style in the film *may* be intentional, but I think the unintentional (and unconscious) significance of that style reflects something about cultural contradictions (or contradictions within the neo-con/Halliburton/religious fundie alliance) that Moore’s film can grasp only partially. In other words, I’m trying to do a “symptomatic” reading of the film, and it’s not quite working.

    Moore’s inability to put all of the pieces together might be understood as reflecting all of the contradictions in Bush’s America (the lack of accountability in Congress, the exploitation of working class people, the lack of media pressure on Bush, etc).

    But as a rhetorical effect, it is a problem precisely for the reasons you describe. 2 or 3 of my students came into class after seeing the film and felt that Moore’s argument failed becaues of the lack of connections.

    I’m still having trouble making this idea work, so I’m starting to think that I’ve talked myself into a corner. But does this explanation make more sense?

  4. Haven’t seen F911 yet, but my impression of Bowling for Columbine sounds like it would apply here, too; it’s a combination of preaching to the choir and cheap shots that are, in my opinion, no less reprehensible just because the targets are guilty of the same crime. An example from Columbine: in addition to making me uncomfortable, Moore’s picking on a senile Charleton Heston isn’t even particularly effective, since he (Moses) doesn’t seem capable of coherently representing himself. It’s easy to make smart people sound stupid (see the Daily Show) but it’s REALLY easy to make stupid people sound stupid, and when you do it just because they happen to be conservatives it makes you look like a dick.

    My concern is mainly that I ought to wholeheartedly love Moore. I’m solidly in his demographic, and generally speaking I agree with his sentiments. But they’re couched in such a repellent way that I have a lot of trouble cheering his success. If we’re trying to convince the “undecided” to side with the Dems, maybe we should show a bit of restraint. Not a ton, but enough to distinguish us from those on the right willing to imply a connection between Hitler and Kerry.

  5. Chuck: that does make sense — both the scattershot style of the film and the failures of that scattershotness are symptomatic of that Jamesonian impossibility of representing the totality of the movements of late capital, and particularly the effects of those movements on our lived experience. It’s a fascinating idea — which makes me begin to wonder if Jameson’s much-vaunted “cognitive mapping” is in fact an impossible political project, if the more we try to map the postmodern the more we end up with a schema that makes plain not the nature of the postmodern but the flaws in the map…

    Jake: I dunno. I’d love it if we on what passes for the left in this country were able to keep to the moral high ground. But I fear that such high ground is utterly invisible in contemporary culture. Lord knows the right is going to keep using the same cheap-shot demagogic tactics it’s been using so effectively for the last two decades; if the left disavows such tactics, it’s all but ceding the entirety of the media to the right.

    I’m not suggesting, by any means, that the intellectual or artistic heart of the left should follow Moore in this mode of discourse. But we do have to acknowledge that, for better or for worse, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter serve several serious purposes for the right: by leading the charge out into the wingnut extreme, they not only give the true-believers a rhetorical line to repeat whenever necessary, but they also make the mainstream intellectuals of the Republican party seem moderate and sober by comparison. We desperately need a Rush on the left; until there’s somebody that public and that far out there, somebody whom at least some subset of the U.S. will listen to, then the pundits on the right are going to continue to be able to treat the John Kerrys as if they’re the extreme. I’m growing increasingly to believe that we need a sacrificial Michael Moore if we’re ever going to be able to elect a John Kerry.

    So as far as I’m concerned, more power to him. And more power to Al Franken, and Janeane Garofalo, and Bill Maher. There’s a reason, I think, that the pundits on the left are coming out of comedy: the real political battles of the twenty-first century aren’t being fought in the capital; they’re being fought in the media.

  6. Think of what is achieved but not connecting the dots… there is a narrative gap that is created, a zone of undecidability. The problem may not be with such a structure but how it is fufilled. I use the prophetic term (fufillment) advisedly. There seems to be genre confusion in dealing with the Moore film. There is a distinction between polemic and prophecy. I am willing to argue that certain audiences will seize upon those gaps in the narrative (argumentation without explicit conclusions) as moments of Jetzeit whereupon the projection of a saviour-a-coming may take hold.

    And that is for other audiences deeply disturbing. See Lizzie Borden’s faux-documentary “Born in Flames” for a very different set of relations to audience empowerment. That film depicts a variety of modes of organizing. The audience can not only identify with some but also resist with others. The options are not dichotomous.

    A while ago there was a thread on Jason Rhody’s blog about apocalyptic narratives. Not all postmodern narratives are apocalyptic. What is unapocalyptic about Moore’s film making? Perhaps the detachable moments that play well independently (from Fahrenheit 9/11 one can think of the scene of confronting members of Congress with request that their children enlist). In a sense Moore’s films are commercials for the Brechtian gems embedded in them. As cultural interventions in a postmodern era they are perhaps not meant to provide a modernist whole and hence the scattershot form which in and of itself is not a reflection of unmangeable contradictions or paradox. Jameson’s work on Weber here might be apposite. The reaction to Moore’s demonizing of Bush et al. may also be a reaction to the charisma of Moore himself. Will Moore cross the line between art and life and run for office?

  7. I was wondering if you guys know anything about he Skull and Bones Conspiracy that’s starting to go around. It’s not just a anti-bush thing. All I’ve really heard of seen is that it’s a type of cult that’s at yale and kerry and bush were both in it. I’ve seen video of them both admiting to being in it, but nether of them will say anything about. They’ll change the topic extremely quickly or say that they have no comment. I was looking at the list of current bonemen (cult members) and there are alot of powerful people that are part of it. If you could shed any light on this. that would be cool. I know it’s off topic, but it’s a consern of mine.

  8. S&B isn’t a cult; it’s just a playhouse/social club of supersaturated privilege. Embarrassing stuff for politician-types.

  9. Well, I finally saw it, and to my great surprise it wasn’t the same as Columbine. It was far more depressing, disappointing, and egregious. Of course, the gruesome images of war were powerful, and the innorance (ignorance + innocence) of the troops abroad was disturbing and compelling, and all that, but: I agreed with Moore w/r/t Bush and his administration before I saw the movie. And I have a sinking suspicion that those who didn’t agree with him before seeing it still wouldn’t afterwards, and I understand why. Moore’s rhetoric is disingenuous and one-sided, and he’ll employ every trick in the book to make it look like the obvious, unvarnished truth. I mean, wow, congressmen won’t volunteer their children for war? Who fucking cares? It’s not like they could legally do it anyway, so it’s just an empty, mean-spirited, bullying tactic that makes me want to disagree with Moore just so I don’t have to implicitly ally myself with his bull-in-china-shop behavior. I will stop now, but I could go on for pages about how frustrated I was after seeing F911.

    I guess my problem is summed up in this observation: while I watched the movie, there were probably 20 or 30 times when a clever juxtoposition or bald-faced lie elicited laughter from the audience, and I was just thinking “this isn’t funny, this is our country.” It’s all well and good to find humor in national tribulations, but at some point in any work alleged to be Important I’d like to see outrage resolve itself seriously.

    It’s not all Moore’s fault; as you noted above, KF, in some ways the Left needs this kind of overblown, extreme mouthpiece to balance out its conservative counterpart. What I find discomfiting, I suppose, is that so many people see it as gospel, as accurate, as fair and balanced, when it isn’t.

    And, on a personal, gut level, I’ve got to say that Moore really rubs me the wrong way. He shares the characteristics of those he pillories–he’s smug, condescending, and opportunistic–but I’m supposed to overlook that because I agree with him about Iraq? Not bloody likely.

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