Monday, September 08, 2008

Why I like Michael Moore's Movies

Despite His Failings of Craft, Moore's Heart is in the Right Place

Someone Needs to Present His Message

Recently I made comments to the effect that I thought Michael Moore is a terrible film maker. Despite the advice of Lee Iaccoca ("Never Complain, Never Explain!") I'd like to explain.

The messages brought to us by Michael Moore's movies are terrific. I'm overjoyed that he made them. I can't emphasize enough what a hero I think he is. I just think that he has no idea of how to make a documentary. In fact on the surface it looks like he has no idea of how to make any kind of film.

The good news is, he seems to be learning from his mistakes and his films seem to be getting better. I only base that on the fact that I thought The Big One was much better than Bowling for Columbine or Roger and Me.

Here are the problems with Moore's films as I see them: First, his poor brand of ambush journalism quickly becomes tiresome and irritating. Worse yet it can leave the viewer almost feeling sorry for the villain!

In Roger and Me or Bowling for Columbine, Moore troops into corporate HQ with the cameras and the victims and what seems like little plan except to get some juicy footage. Moore stands there and snivels and whines and tries to argue with his protagonist about the ethics of what the company is doing.

And for me, that just doesn't work. Nobody is going to argue the ethics of working for their employer. If they like the place, they think they're doing a good thing and want to get on with the job of the organization, not waste time fencing words with you. If they agree with you, they'd be behind you rather than in front of you and their employer would never have found them to send them down to talk to you.

If Moore is lucky enough to get an interview with a corporate officer, that 'captain of industry' isn't going to debate Moore. Hack corporate officers are stupid enough to think their actions are altruistic rather than self interested, but they never get into the ethics argument. All you get from a corporate officer is irritation. In the guy's face you can see him thinking, "After all my hard work to get where I am at the salary I'm making, why am I fencing words with an idiot in grubbies who rented a camera? If I want this type of abuse I can go home to my family."

That's a true and honest emotion with which the audience can identify. Nobody likes to be challenged on their home ground by a guest of the house. And that begins to engender the audience's sympathy toward the villain which is counter to Moore's purpose!

That's why you have to respect people like Dick Clark who, in Bowling for Columbine, blow off Moore as soon as they realize what he, Moore, is up to. You see??!! Moore did it right there! How can I respect Dick Clark, a multimillionaire who made his money in a pursuit Michael Moore is trying to trash? Because Moore showed me how smart Dick Clark is. Moore showed me that Clark is perceptive, hard working and decisive which are all qualities to be admired. I'm sure Moore did NOT want to do that for me.

Worse yet, is when Moore has to interview a corporate public relations flak.

Corporate PR people come in all shapes and sizes. After all, it is said that the devil can appear in the form of an 'Angel of Light'. (2 Corinthians 11.14) The absolute wost PR flack is the green, uninformed youngster who has been given the job because their father, the owner of the company, has been told he needs a PR person, but the father doesn't really believe in the need for a professional in the position. The young person hems and haws trying to present their corporate skulduggery in the best light but, like George W. Bush, a fine example of this type though about 40 years older than usual for the part, they finally fall back on the, "But we're really nice people and just trying to make a living. You can't blame us for a few thousand cases of childhood leukemia on one block." This PR person just enrages you more in view of the fact that the documentarian is wasting YOUR time making you watch their dismal performance.

The next worst PR flak is the tired, late middle ager who really doesn't believe what he's saying, but is trying to keep his job for a few more years so he can retire and move away from the workplace before he catches whatever they're spewing. He's a little more entertaining because he's the visible extension of the company's deceit. Moore brought us this exact person in the auto company PR flack in Roger and Me.

The 'almost worst PR flak' Moore also brought to us in one of his pieces. It might have been The Big One, but I'm not sure. She was a small, petite woman, mid to late middle age and fierce. She was really knowledgeable and persuasive but with the hard eyes of a hired gun who doesn't care what she's saying because in the end, she'd front for whoever pays her well.

Finally, for my money, the worst PR flaks are the ones who are not so young but not so old. They are old enough to be fairly knowledgeable and they haven't been raped too many times by their bosses so they still have some loyalty. And worst of all, they really, really, really believe in what they are saying.

It is not for nothing that corporations employ public relations staff. They are good at what they do and Moore more or less gets his head handed to him. Some of the best PR people who Moore has interviewed have practically been the stars of the movie! It's amazing and highly entertaining to watch someone who is very good at their job. And public relations people who can take questions about death and destruction and hand you back hope and sweetness and light are really good at their jobs. And there's another problem.

When Moore asks the, "Do you think it's right to drop flaming Napalm onto little children?" type question, and the flak's answer is so smooth and so convincing that you discover yourself finding some understanding for the Napalm side of things, then you just get sick and bored and abhorrent over the whole afternoon. Who wants to watch a movie that makes you sick and bored.

This unfortunately is the content of way too much of Michael Moore's films. While the stories that Moore tells need desperately to be told, the way he tells them leave us depressed and squirming in our seats. I don't expect documentaries about corporate atrocities to be light comedy, but when a documentary leaves you feeling dejected and defeated, it's almost better that you not see the movie. Why? I want a documentary that brings me to my feet with rage and the determination to do something and never let it happen again! Really good documentaries can evoke commitment from the audience.

Moore did this in one of his movies. I believe it was in the film The Big One. In the interview with Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, Moore isn't debating the ethics of child labor with Knight. Moore finds out that Knight has never been to Southeast Asia. It just comes out in the conversation that Knight has never been to one of his shoe factories in Indonesia. Then Moore has a scene which is pure genius wherein Moore offers to buy plane tickets to Asia if only Knight will come and visit his own factories.

This is advocacy journalism at its finest. The average person can't remotely imagine what it is like to own factories on the other side of the planet and to be so rich that you have never been to these factories to check on your own money! When Moore offered to buy plane tickets to go visit the factories and even went so far as to give the assurance that they would be first class tickets, he had me on my feet cheering! Yeah! Yeah! This guy is pure slime.

First, I have no idea what first class round trip tickets to the other side of the globe cost, but I'll bet just two would cost about what most people make in a year, give or take. If somebody offered me free tickets to the orient, I'd go just for the ride. If someone were offering to buy 'him-n-me' tickets, plus the tickets for a whole film crew, how could I turn him down?

But Knight is so rich, and the wealth pouring into his pockets from the child labor in Asia is so trivial to him, that he can't even be bothered to take a free ride to go check on his own investment. That to me was astounding. That to me spoke of a man who was so insulated by his own wealth that he not only didn't have the capacity to care about abused children, he didn't even care about his own reputation. Even Cathy Lee at least made a show of claiming to eschew sweat shops.

Knight's life is so sweet that he was barely annoyed that Moore was trying to find fault with Knight's use of child labor. Here's a man who is so rich, he's not even bothered by attacks on his own reputation because, apparently, he's so rich that as soon as this interview is over he can go right back to La Dolce Vita without missing a beat! Yikes! Another guy with a special place in hell already laid out for him. That would sure scare me into church and onto my knees.

And please, I admit to being a critic. I'm not a film maker. I realize I am sometimes raising questions I can't answer. But as with Michael, I hope you excuse this because I'm explaining prior comments here.

I applaud Michael Moore for the documentaries he has made. I long for someone who can make better ones. Hopefully an older, wiser Michael Moore. - © 2008 The Chewed End All rights reserved.

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Seamus O'Bròg is an artist and freelance writer who tries to turn life's irritations into life's lessons.

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