Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Moore power to you
by William S. Kowinski

We saw Fahrenheit 9-11 at the evening show on Sunday of its opening weekend, at the movie house in Arcata, up here in far northern California. There was a long line for tickets that went around the block, and the theatre was filled. A few shows earlier in the weekend had sold out---several political groups sent emails urging people to attend on opening day. We stood in front of a couple who had driven down from Crescent City, more than an hour to the north, expressly to see it. In the theatre, we sat in front of a woman who actually recognized the Oregon state trooper shown in the film---he was the only one the state could afford to keep on duty to guard a long stretch of coastline (there were a total of eight troopers on duty for the entire state.) The Oregon coast starts just past Crescent City.

I guess I had expected the same older crowd that predominates at peace marches, and they---or we---were certainly represented, but there were a lot of younger people, too: more of the coveted moviegoing demographic. I had also expected the possibility of the same kind of reception for the film that the better speakers at rallies often receive: boisterous appreciation of the views held in common, each laugh or round of applause the equivalent of a vote. But though the film got a share of laughs and occasional applause, there was also a lot of stunned silence, a lot of cries and exclamations of surprise and shock, and some tears.

Michael Moore's point of view was not as simple as a party line screed, though given his previous movies---especially his first---and his background, it turned out to be characteristic. But the emotion came mostly from the power of the images and from the pattern, the assembly of images. Many of the most powerful images were original or otherwise hadn't been seen much before. But the power of the pattern was precisely in the fact that many images had been seen on television, especially on news reports; moments that came and went over many months were put together. I remember seeing many of them, though some of the most powerful early on were ones I hadn't seen---of the attempts of black Representatives to contest the supreme outcome of the 2000 elections on the floor of Congress (with Al Gore presiding), but failing because not a single Senator joined them; and of the protests at Bush's Inaugural that disrupted the parade. I'm not sure if such images were broadcast or not, because I remember not being able to stomach watching TV at all right after the Supreme Court coup, or during inauguration week.

You can argue about how Moore put these images together---did they really make his point, was that the point that should be made? But I would also argue that assembling these and other similar images, without Moore's interpretations, would have been just as powerful, and would lead to the same "actionable" conclusion: America was duped---all too easily duped---and sold out, and George Bush should not only be retired in November, he and his administration deserve nothing less than permanent exile and ignominy. That's not to say just anybody could have made THIS movie, but that another movie with that particular effect could be made simply in this way, especially with such an abundance of damning images to select.

I'd seen a few TV segments focused on Moore's "distortions," which were minor even if they could be considered distortions. But as I watched the film, what these segments chose to criticize was trivial compared to what the TV critics never mentioned: the main argument in the first part of the film, of the financial connection between the Bushes (and Cheney) and the Saudis, and all the oil, arms and other businesses they and other big Republicans are involved in, stand to gain from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the hoped-for outcomes of those wars. The recently published book-length description of the Bush-Saudi connection was written by Craig Unger, who appears in Moore's film---the two of them getting questioned by the Secret Service while standing outside the Saudi Embassy in DC (Craig Unger was a colleague of mine in Boston and Washington).

Though the basic points of Big Oil's determining influence and the Bushies nefarious self-interest in using government for their business interests is clearly demonstrated, Moore's voiceover analysis does seem to overreach beyond the material he shows on this point. But after he makes the point, he pretty much drops it and moves on.

His second major point is more powerful and more effectively shown: that the Bushies manipulated the nation after 9-11 with the potent tool of fear. The manipulation of fear, you may recall, was a major theme in Bowling for Columbine, when Moore asked why there was so much gun violence in the U.S., while there are lots of guns in Canada but only a small fraction of the violence. Moore presents only a scattering of images that should haunt and embarrass Americans and their media for generations (though at least until now the media is functionally so shameless that they’ll erase this from memory and history. At least in person, TV newspeople typically preempt criticism by being more sarcastic about what they do before anyone else gets the chance, but when it comes right down to it, they won’t wound their image.)

From 9-11 through Iraq, the major media and much of America were completely suckered and coopted. However, I thought it would have been worth five minutes of film time to show at this point some of the massive worldwide protest against the war BEFORE the U.S. invasion, which was unprecedented in my lifetime. The Bushies bulled ahead despite the opposition of most other nations, ignoring the warning of knowledgeable people who predicted pretty much what has happened, and especially mocking the outpouring of global preemptive grief.

In this section, Moore shows an unappreciated gift for artful subtlety with footage shot on 9-11 in Manhattan that never actually shows the Twin Towers. We hear the planes hit, we see faces reacting, we see people running, and the haunting images of paper swirling slowly in the wind. Remember that image in American Beauty, of the paper caught by the wind? This was almost as beautiful in a truly awe-ful way, as the wind itself is created by the devastation in progress. This was shock and awe for real.

Moore’s third major point is the most powerful of all. Symbolically and actually, he went back to Flint, Michigan (scene of his first film, Rodger and Me) and its broken streets and its black and white working class. He merely had to show images from today’s Flint that are so much like images from his first film to tell us that the economic pain continues (with a young black making the point that the devastation Americans created and are paying to repair in Iraq looks a lot like the devastation nobody is repairing in Flint), only to be joined by another profound source of pain: working class young people as Bush cannon fodder.

Here are the most powerful images Moore shot for this film: the white Marines recruiting black teenagers at the inner city (not the suburban) shopping mall, with their smooth sales pitch and their salesman lies; the black Marine who has refused to go back to Iraq, joining Moore in trying to get members of Congress to sign up their sons and daughters (only one was serving in Iraq); the actual images from Iraq, including shots of prisoner abuse that go by in a fast and confusing way, but with searing images of combat, of haunted faces, of real and ugly wounds; and finally, the mother whose soldier son was killed in Iraq, in her Flint living room reading his last letter, which condemns Bush for sending them there for no good reason, and in Washington, as she is accused of being a fake by some unnamed interloper in front of the White House---the same kind of rabid right winger, we surmise, who tried to get theatres not to show this film.

Moore had the courage and the guile to show some of these soldiers at their worst in Iraq, pumping themselves up with vicious music as they slaughtered people like video game blips. By doing so, and then showing some of them chastened, haunted, the enormity of what they had to do revealed, he provided real weight to his third point---that the worst Bush/Cheney crime was to exploit these working class young Americans---turn them into killers, or corpses, or with life-changing physical and mental wounds---when this war was, at minimum, not necessary.

It is this final section that I believe earned its large audiences not only in lefty enclaves but in military towns in the South. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns, at which books burn. Fahrenheit 9-11 was the temperature at which the American soul burned.

This film was the #1 movie over the weekend, and its influence has only just begun, even if Spiderman now steals its box office thunder. The DVD and video come out in October. That the rabid right wing tried to crucify this film isn’t very surprising. That the film industry establishment tried to marginalize it---first by Disney refusing to distribute it, then with the R Rating and censoring of its current advertising, while threatening to halt all advertising after the conventions---may seem a bit odd. But though it sometimes has a liberal reputation, the movie industry has never been very brave. It was Hollywood, after all, that created and enforced the Blacklist. The collusion of Big Media corporations that own today's Hollywood with the interests of the mega-corporate Bush government only serve to make Moore’s relevant assertions more credible.

As for the R Rating, it wasn’t because Dick Cheney told someone to fuck off—--that isn’t in there. It’s probably for graphic violence---for the briefest glimpse of the only honest footage of the Iraq war so far seen by many Americans. No, we need to make sure our children continue to believe that warfare is just like a video game, or they might not fall for the recruiter next time.

That even anti-Bush people who came to cheer left this theatre somber, shaken and teary-eyed is a testament to its power both as a movie and as truth-telling.

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