The Evolution Of Michael Moore

“…oh and remember let’s defeat the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them here.”
Michael Moore (SiCKO, 2007)

So Michael Moore’s latest event movement movie-doc is opening Friday at my local hometown theater The Varsity but like many folk here on the internets I watched a copy online. I’ll still see it at my theater and urge everyone I know to do so ’cause as my review below sez it’s a keeper. Since Moore and me have had our ups and downs through the years I thought It would be cool to look back over his movies (this is film babble blog so I’m not going to discuss his books or TV programs) and break them down a bit.

A formula of sorts emerges when we look at the basic ingredients in a Moore movie – first though we must look at one of his principle inspirations. In April of 1986 shortly after General Electric bought NBC, David Letterman – the top-rated late night talk show host at the time – on his old 12:30 broadcast Late Night With David Letterman did a camera remote film piece in which he took a fruit basket as a welcoming gift to GE’s corporate headquarters in New York. Letterman kept a good game-face as he was told to leave and his director scolded to turn off his camera. This bit which should be regarded as a TV classic (I’ll settle for the “memorable moment” status that Wikipedia has granted it) is the template for Michael Moore’s entire schtick. You can see the bit here. Moore took that bit and ran with it as far as his fat ass can take him. Moore even acknowledged it as a huge influence on The Late Show With David Letterman when promoting FAHRENHEIT 9/11 in 2004.

You’ve got to have more than invading corporation lobbies and harrasing the staff that to make a full fledged documentary so let’s look at :

5 MICHAEL MOORE MOVIE METHODS

Yep, one can’t imagine Moore’s films without these tried and true stylistic devices

1. Idyllic 50’s stock footage – In the first third of all of Moore’s films we see archival footage depicting a supposedly simpler time. Public service films, shots from grainy newsreels, bits of TV commercials, clips from forgotten drive-in fodder, sometimes even Moore’s own childhood home movies are presented to put us in a Leave It To Beaver-Father Knows Best mindset before showing us a series of modern atrocities. This definitely shows the influence of Moore’s mentor and cinematographer Kevin Rafferty *. Rafferty’s own documentary made of likewise footage – THE ATOMIC CAFE (1982) is another huge piece of the Moore movie puzzle.

* Incidentally Rafferty is a first cousin of President George W. Bush. Thanks again Wikipedia!

2. Baby Boomer Era Hit Songs – The precedent was set in ROGER & ME when auto worker Ben Hamper talks about the groove (yes, groove) he had trouble working up listening to The Beach Boys’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” on his car stereo after telling his employers he couldn’t take it anymore. The song plays as shots of boarded-up houses, abandoned storefronts, and a TV report about the rat population escalating after the factory closing in Flint, Michigan rolls by. That groove resurges in the well known songs by the Animals whose “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” – in FAHRENHEIT 9/11 serenades the sequence of planes taking off to drive home the point about the Bin Laden family being given the privilege to fly in the days after 9/11, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” played at the end of the same film, The Beatles “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” made an obvious point in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, and most aptly Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” is used to great effect in SiCKO.

3. A Megaphone – In SiCKO we see Moore in a boat in Guantanamo Bay with a group of 9/11 rescue workers after learning that terrorist detainees are getting top notch medical treatment. With trusty megaphone in hand Moore yells “we just want some medical attention – the same kind the evil doers are getting!” This should be no surprise to Moore movie-goers because he employs the same tactic in almost every movie. This also can be traced back to Letterman – he disrupted a taping of The Today Show from a window above Rockefeller plaza with a megaphone. Of course Dave’s agenda wasn’t political – “this prime-time program was my idea and I’m not wearing any pants!”

4. Stern Evil Unemotional Old White Men – Of course General Motors President and inspiration for Moore’s first film – Roger Smith is the archetype but throughout his canon we have more old money villains who apparently rule the world than we know what to do with. His book Stupid White Men confirms this premise. It’s as if the Cancer Man (sorry Cigarette Smoking Man) and his elite friends from the X-Files have truly an identity and source of blame that we can finger. ‘As if’ indeed.

5. Bringing It All Back Home To Flint, Michigan – Moore’s hometown has a pivotal place in all of his films (oddly not SiCKO – this is the only method on this list that isn’t used) even the wide-ranging Global kaliedoscope that is FAHRENHEIT 9/11 has the story of Lila Lipscomb a Flint resident and proud flag waver whose son Michael was killed in Iraq. I would make some lame pun about Flint ‘sparking’ the whole Moore-apolaza but I digress…

Now let’s look at the movies themselves :

THE BLUEPRINT ROGER AND ME (1989) – “My mission was a simple one. To convince Roger Smith to spend a day with me in Flint and to meet some of the people who were losing their jobs.” So it was, a young aspiring documentary film maker centers on the legacy of his hometown. The devastation that occurred after major auto factories laid off thousands of workers then later closed down. The evictions and fat-cat revisionisms that plagued normal workingman’s schedules and laid bare the prospect of America at its outsourced greediest. It’s all here in this grainy wet behind the ears debut. Though it has been noted that while Moore documented his struggle to get behind closed doors to interview General Motors President Roger Smith – he did actually talk to him before the film was made – in a question-and-answer exchange during a May 1987 GM shareholders meeting (seen in the doc MANUFACTURING CONSENT). The backlash was just beginning.

THE MISFIRECANADIAN BACON (1995)

“Canadians are always dreaming up a lotta ways to ruin our lives. The metric system, for the love of God! Celsius! Neil Young!” – Gus (Brad Sullivan)

After the success of ROGER & ME it’s understandable that Moore would want to try his hand at making a fictional funny film. He had a great premise – an unpopular US President played by Alan Alda tries to get a polling statistic bump and votes by starting a fake war with Canada. Years ahead of WAG THE DOG and with a great cast including John Candy (his last film by the way), Rip Torn, Kevin Pollack, Rhea Perlman and Steven Wright how could you go wrong? Well, it went really wrong and became a slapsticky forgettable mess. The unfunniest of Moore’s films despite a few random laughs CANADIAN BACON now stands as an oddity in his career. Thankfully he went back to non-fiction and wiped his hands clean of this mess.

THE P.R. PIECETHE BIG ONE (1997) Moore, not yet a household name but finding himself with a best selling book Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American he decided to film his publicity tour across America. Pretty fluffy but still has some sharp segments – especially a meeting with Nike CEO Phil Knight (the only such corporate head that would meet Moore on his tour) is an essential bit that can not be easily dismissed. When Moore asks why his companies shoes are made abroad and not here – ” But what about Indonesia’s genocidal practices against minority groups?” Knight uncomfortably responds “How many people died in the Cultural Revolution?” An incendiary moment in an otherwise glorified infomercial.

THE RELOADING:
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE
(2002) This re-established film going folk to the Moore method. Few film makers would attempt a pop doc about gun control but Moore brought such sweaty passion to the subject that it could not be ignored. Sure it maybe plays around with facts (Moore had arranged the “free gun when you open a bank account” transaction weeks in advance, and that customers have “a week to 10 days waiting period”) and the showdown with a senile but still grand Charlton Heston was misguided and more embarrassing than point making but overall BOWLING deserved the Oscar it won for best documentary. Visiting With Timothy McVeigh’s brother James Nichols and hearing out his militia views, Moore asks: “Why not use Gandhi’s way? He didn’t have any guns and he best the British Empire.” Nichols blankly replies: “I’m not familiar with that.” Right there – that’s America caught on film.

With just a few allusions to 9/11 and the administration’s ties to the Saudi family the gun-site was almost completely in line:

THE GUNSHOT HEARD AROUND THE WORLD: FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004) Moore’s controversial (can’t write a piece on Moore without using the word “controversial”) Oscar speech really set the bar high for this one. Beginning with the grossly mishandled 2000 election and dogging President George W. Bush’s every stupid move, Moore’s movie won him a lot of movie fans and he became a world wide celebrity but at the same time he became a divisive personality. FAHRENHEIT 9/11 has aged a bit badly – it creaks with sloppiness at times – understandably it was rushed into production to have an impact on the election in 2004 -and some of its conclusions are speculative at best but the bottom line as stated in the Oscar speech referred to above “we live in fictitious times, with a fictitious president who was elected with fictitious election results and we’re fighting a war for fictitious reasons” is pretty damn effectively played out.

And now, the new one :

SiCKO (2007) The most focused and funniest of Moore’s films by far. SiCKO has little by way of manipulative editing or Moore’s particular brand of muckraking – it just simply presents people and their stories – for the most part. Sure, most people will be cynical about the objectivity here – which in a way is the point – but the basic facts about Canadian, then French, then most surprisingly Cuban healthcare is enough to make even a Moore hater raise their eyebrows. The irrefutable facts like – “And the United States slipped to 37 in health care around the world, just slightly ahead of Slovenia” and the testimony of Dr. Linda Peeno, a former medical reviewer for the health insurer Humana in which she admited :”I denied a man a necessary operation” are just a few of the examples that brought tears to my eyes. Yes, there are liberties taken and many will label this as propaganda (but what documentary isn’t?) most likely dealing with the close to the ending bit where Moore sends a 12,000 dollar check to one of his most out-spoken critics Jim Kenefick (Moorewatch.com) whose wife was sick and his web site needed funding or had to shut down. SiCKO may be Moore’s best film – don’t let biased naysayers tell you otherwise.

Moore In Other’s Mediums :

As a celebrity – a household name, a well-known entity, a figurehead, and most aptly a target Michael Moore has really arrived. A few examples :

TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (Dir. Trey Parker, 2004) Apparently them there South Park guys thought their appearance in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE was mishandled and the cartoon in said film was too much in the style of South Park (Parker – “We have a very specific beef with Michael Moore. I did an interview, and he didn’t mischaracterize me or anything I said in the movie. But what he did do was put this cartoon right after me that made it look like we did that cartoon”), so yeah Moore had this coming – he appears as a hot dog eating jerk who straps explosives to his body to blow up the heroes of the film’s title – as reported on MSNBC – The puppet was reportedly stuffed with ham when it blew.

Family Guy (1999-when the show is no longer profitable) Now I’m Pro-Simpsons Anti-Family Guy but this bit should be noted even if it is a bad fart joke – “like that time I outfarted Michael Moore” Peter Griffin (voice of Seth MacFarlane) recounts then we see him and Moore in a Men’s room enter parallel-walled toilets. Then the farting begins. Actually maybe this shouldn’t be noted. Oh well.

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Moore later…

No! I meant :

More later…

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