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Moore the Merrier: This first part of a two-part series points out that the success of 'Fahrenheit 9/11' is not the first time Michael Moore has beaten the odds.

The Fire This Time

Part one of a two-part series taking a deeper look at the artistic and commercial success of 'Fahrenheit 9/11' and the hell-raising career of Michael Moore

By Geoffrey Dunn


Because something is happening here,
And you don't know what it is,
Do you, Mister Jones?
-Bob Dylan, 'Ballad of a Thin Man'

IT WAS IN THE summer of 1989 that Michael Moore crashed into the American mind-set with his iconoclastic and sardonic film Roger & Me. Now, 15 years later, he is burning into our psyche yet again with a masterpiece of documentary cinema, Fahrenheit 9/11, an incendiary exposé of the Bush administration and its horrifically failed policies both domestically and in Iraq.

The pre-release hype for Fahrenheit 9/11 had been smoldering for months when the film opened last week to sold-out houses across the nation. While right-wing critics hoped that the film would soon fizzle out, it has done just the opposite: It has exploded.

Fahrenheit 9/11 set all-time opening day box-office records across the nation--from New York City to, well, here at home in Santa Cruz. The film has literally gone off the charts. And not just in so-called bastions of liberalism, but in places like Knoxville, Tenn., and Salt Lake City and even in George Bush's home state of Texas.

Even after Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner tried to squash distribution of the film (he claimed the film was "too partisan" for the Magic Kingdom), the notorious bad boys at Miramax, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who financed 9/11, put together a unique distribution deal with Lions Gate Films of Canada, whose president, John Feltheimer, had worked closely with Moore on his TV Nation series, and with IFC Films, which aired Moore's TV show The Awful Truth, on Bravo.

The film hit more than 850 theaters on opening day--the largest documentary release ever--and well more than the 500 originally set as a goal by Weinstein.

Before its first full week on the big screen, more ink has already been spilt on Fahrenheit 9/11--good, bad and ugly--than on any film in recent memory, and the unprecedented publicity has left Moore and the Weinsteins laughing all the way to the bank.

Beginning last May, of course, Moore and Co. hit the ground at full tilt: At the Cannes Film Festival on May 17, the film received an unprecedented 20-minute standing ovation and, a few days later, received the coveted Palme d'Or as the best film at the festival. It was the first documentary to win at Cannes since Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World in 1956.

By early this month, the Republican right--which has real reason to feel threatened by the revelations in Moore's film and the potential impact it will have on the November elections--was launching a counterattack on 9/11. Groups including Move America Forward and Citizens United have threatened boycotts of theaters that screen the film and of the companies that partake in the distribution collective. They are also crafting video ads for television and the Internet that slam Moore.

Moore and Co. have countered with a worldwide grassroots movement to promote the film. The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org countered the conservative campaign with mass mailings asking members to "pledge to bring their friends, relatives and neighbors" to "Fahrenheit 9/11" on opening night.

In virtually every state, Democrats are registering those coming out of the theaters to vote in the November election. In Santa Cruz, the Resource Center for Nonviolence held a benefit screening of the film on Saturday morning, and the California Peace Action has been using the film as an organizing tool.

Not to be outdone, the Santa Cruz Sentinel weighed in with a bizarre editorial in which the paper declared: "Our reaction to the movie--without having the benefit of seeing it yet--is mixed," though it wondered "how valuable this effort is" and doubted "that the movie really will move the dialogue forward in this country."

Boy.

It should be duly noted that a few days later the paper's Heather Boerner wrote a fine front-page story on the film's powerful appeal locally, and critic Helen Meservey, who did have the benefit of seeing the film, gave 9/11 an "A" in what was a thoughtful and perceptive review.

Throughout all the hoopla, Moore has done his typical tap dance from moral indignation to biting humor. "The right wing usually wins these battles," he posted on his website (www.michaelmoore.com) last week. "Their basic belief system is built on censorship, repression and keeping people ignorant. They want to limit or snuff out any debate or dissension. They also don't like pets and are mean to small children. Too many of them are named 'Fred.'"

It's shaping up to be a long hot summer.

Revolutionary Cinema

Michael Moore has always had serious detractors from across the political spectrum. A practical populist, rather than a radical ideologue, he's not afraid to mix it up with critics from the left or the right. One of the rumors coming out of Cannes was that 9/11 won the Palme d'Or not because it's a great film but as a result of French political animus for Bush and the war in Iraq. There were further inferences that Miramax's resident auteur, Quentin Tarantino, who headed up the Cannes jury, carried the Weinsteins' water by lobbying strongly on behalf of 9/11.

That, I can assure those of you who have yet to line up at the Del Mar, is unadulterated merde.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is Moore's most mature and nuanced film to date, and certainly his most ambitious: by taking on "the leader of the free world" and trying to bring down his international reign of terror, Moore has raised the stakes in this film perhaps higher than any other director ever has. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a work of revolutionary cinema. Literally.

I attended an advance screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 in San Francisco three weeks ago, and I entered the small theater on Market Street with cautionary anticipation. I have often been troubled by the "cinematic license" (fudging facts and timelines) employed by Moore in his earlier films and by his self-congratulatory and egocentric posturing. It has all made, admittedly, for some hardy laughs, but most of them were cheap and many of them misdirected. And they came, I believe, at the expense of Moore's larger political message.

There's nothing cheap or misdirected in Fahrenheit 9/11. The film goes straight for the jugular. And it draws blood for the better part of two hours. I left the theater, turned down the street and realized that my view of the world had been shattered. I was disturbed by what I saw and remain disturbed. The film is nothing if not disquieting.

The title of Moore's latest polemic is a play on the fabled Ray Bradbury classic, Fahrenheit 451 (much, apparently, to Bradbury's dismay), in which all books are burned in a post-utopian society (451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper burns).

"Fahrenheit 9/11," says Moore, "is the temperature at which freedom burns."

The film dices up the Bush adminis-tration from the 2000 election debacle right through to the most recent revelations from Iraq. It's a tour de force of montage cinema--the juxtaposition of imagery creating a message far greater than the sum of its parts. It presents Bush not only as an incompetent leader--by now that conclusion is hard to escape--but arrogant, vapid, condescending, mean-spirited and lazy as well.

It is not an endearing portrait.

Michael & Me

For those who have been sleeping in the Catskills for the past two decades, Michael Moore is the prodigal son of Flint, Mich., in the heart of the U.S. auto industry. During his adolescence, Moore attended a Catholic seminary, but politics and rock & roll soon competed for his attention. He re-entered the secular world of high school, earned an Eagle Scout badge, graduated in 1972 and later attended the University of Michigan for part of a year before dropping out, as he is wont to claim, because he couldn't find a parking space on campus.

Moore never worked on the assembly line (a blue-collar life was not to be his), but he became a political rabble-rouser in Flint and soon founded a weekly newspaper, the Flint Voice (later the Michigan Voice), which he helmed for the better part of a decade. In 1986, he left the Voice to assume, at the age of 32, the editorship of the liberal monthly magazine, Mother Jones, then headquartered in San Francisco.

It was not, to put it mildly, a match made in heaven.

Moore and I had a mutual friend at Mother Jones at the time, and through her, it was proposed that I write an article on the decline of the West Coast fishing industry, in which I had been raised, much as Moore had with auto production in Flint. A meeting was arranged, but Moore was canned before it ever took place by M.J.'s aristocratic publisher, Adam Hochschild.

Moore claimed that he had been fired because he opposed the publication of an article by Paul Berman critical of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua; Hochschild claimed that he fired Moore for "inadequate job performance."

The firing became a cause célèbre on the American left, while Moore had his first real taste of national notoriety. He left San Francisco dejected, but equally determined, and eventually won a $58,000 wrongful termination settlement from Hochschild.

By then, Moore had moved back to Flint and quickly put his settlement on the line; he decided to make a movie about the G.M. plant closings in his hometown, the relocation of union jobs to Mexico and the devastating impact the plant closures were having on his community. Moore was a man on a mission. And he had a camera.

It was on Sept. 1, 1989, that Roger & Me, largely unheard of prior to its initial screening, premiered at the influential Telluride Film Festival. It was an instant hit. Over the course of the next several months, the film played to huge ovations at the Toronto and New York film festivals. Moore was quickly becoming an ascending star in the big-time world of American film.

Vincent Canby of The New York Times declared that "America has an irrepressible new humorist in the tradition of Mark Twain and Artemus Ward. ... Roger & Me is rude, rollicking ... witty ... leaving the audience roaring with laughter."

Moore's celebrated independent film agent, John Pierson, capitalized on the media frenzy and ratcheted up the bidding war on Roger & Me (a process celebrated in his book Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes), and eventually secured a $3 million advance for the film from Warner Bros., a figure positively unheard of in the world of documentary.

Not everyone bought into Moore's shtick. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael responded acerbically to Canby's praise by declaring that "the film I saw was shallow and facetious, a piece of gonzo demagoguery that made me feel cheap for laughing."

More troubling to me, however, were the underlying politics of Roger & Me. Moore, as is his penchant, focused his moral outrage on a single individual, G.M. president Roger Smith, rather than on corporate capitalism. It was the individual that was to blame, not the system. As Larissa McFarquhar noted in a recent profile of Moore in The New Yorker, "For Moore, everything is personal."

It's why, ultimately, Roger & Me didn't pose a threat to Warner Brothers and the film industry and why it was embraced by the mainstream media. Moore's message in the film was reformist, not radical.

Moore weathered the criticism, as is his wont, all the way to the bank. The film was a runaway hit at the box office (Moore would later claim a gross figure of $25 million, while Pierson contends it was half that much). Either way, he had become a media sensation. His moment on the American stage was to last much longer than 15 minutes; he had become a cultural icon.

Green Day

Moore's next film project was an unabashed failure, a pathetic comedy called Canadian Bacon, starring Alan Alda, John Candy and Dan Aykroyd. He also tried his hand at cable television comedy in the '90s, first with TV Nation (1994) and later with The Awful Truth (1999). Both relied heavily on the Moore formula developed in Roger & Me, but they never quite found their respective audiences.

Timing, as they say, is everything in show biz, and that may have been Moore's undoing with the TV shows. I think that Roger & Me, coming as it did at the end of the Reagan era, served as a corrective balance to the Reagan myth of a reborn America and called lie to the pretense of widespread prosperity. During the Clinton era, however, Moore's voice was less urgent, his message more muted.

In 1996, Moore published the first of several books, Downsize This!, which quickly climbed its way onto the New York Times bestseller list. The following year, Moore came back with another documentary, The Big One, a solid documentary on the internationalization of the world economy by corporations like Nike. It didn't quite go boffo at the box office, but it was a moderate critical and financial success and got Moore back in the movie game.

With Downsize This! and The Big One, Moore had found his audience--the disenfranchised Generations X and Y--the twenty- and thirtysomethings who were dropping out of the political process, alienated from both major parties, and who were taking to the streets in protest of the globalization of American capital.

It was essentially a Green political agenda, and Moore--who has always been something of a cross between the Pillsbury Dough Boy, P.T. Barnum and H.L. Mencken--had become its principal polemicist. While it placed him moderately at odds with the Clinton administration and the mainstream of the Democratic party (largely due to free-trade initiatives like NAFTA), it nonetheless secured for him a solid and unyielding audience base.

Enter W.

The contested election of Bush fils for the presidency, ironically, thrust Moore back to center stage in American political theater. He became one of the country's most vocal critics of the Bush administration, challenging its domestic and foreign policy initiatives in the wake of 9/11 in ways that timid Democrats refused to do.

Moore's book Stupid White Men (2001) spent more than a year on the Times bestseller list (59 weeks), and he followed it up again with yet another No. 1 bestseller, Dude, Where's My Country? (2003).

His 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, a scathing, if muddled, exploration of gun violence in the United States in the aftermath of the Columbine High School slayings, earned a cool $20-plus million at the box office and won Moore an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.

At the Oscars, Moore set the stage for the launch of his new film when he declared: "We live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons ... Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you."

Michael Moore was a cause célèbre once again.


Next week: Part two. Longtime Metro Santa Cruz contributor Geoffrey Dunn's latest film, 'Calypso Dreams' (co-produced with Michael Horne, Eric Thiermann and Mark Schwartz), is being honored this week by the United Nations' World Conference on Culture in São Paulo, Brazil.

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From the June 30-July 7, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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