Easy Laughs, Easy Money
Daryl J. Grove
A Look at the “Films” of Michael Moore
With predictions that Fahrenheit 9/11 could play a role in the November
elections, Michael Moore is back in the news. He’s received plenty of
criticism already but it’s all been from his ideological opponents, always
right-wing types who disagree with his politics. This allows Moore to counter
their criticisms on a political or ideological level, and as a result he’s
never really addressed on some of the deeper flaws in his filmmaking.
Moore has been labeled a ‘rabble rouser’ by some observers, but
I would question this. As political arguments, or as calls for a pro-active
response to social injustice, Moore’s films have so far been ineffectual.
The closed factories in Flint did not reopen after Roger
& Me, and American firearm laws have not changed in the wake of
for Columbine. I would argue that this is because this “filmmaker”
is more concerned with getting a laugh and making a commercially successful
film than with instigating any changes.
As an argument for America’s need for firearm control laws, Bowling for Columbine should be far more persuasive. Events such as Columbine highlight
the need for tighter restrictions, and any serious documentary filmmaker should
have had a fairly easy time putting together an honest, persuasive piece. Unfortunately,
Moore’s methods ultimately serve to undermine the argument.
A good example appears early in the film. Moore goes to North County bank in
Michigan, where customers receive a shotgun for depositing a thousand dollars
in a new account. Moore simply fills in a form and the clerk hands him a shotgun
over the counter. This allows Moore to quip “Do you think it’s a
bit dangerous handing out guns at a bank?”, and the audience can marvel
at this shocking exposé. They seem to be just handing out firearms to
chubby Americans in baseball caps!
Crucially the bank clerks reply is not shown, and this is because this sequence
has been very tightly edited. Otherwise we would have seen Moore having to produce
photo identification and fill out several federal forms. Then the FBI would
be contacted for background checks, then – and only then – would
Moore be allowed to collect his gun.
It’s pretty stupid giving guns out to anyone, ever. Yet Moore’s
triumphantly ironic suggestion – that the banks are giving firearms to
people who walk in off the street and who are therefore potential armed robbers
– forgets that they would have to positively identify themselves, as well
as hand over a hefty one thousand dollars. Not only that, I doubt this would
be ideal preparation for an armed robbery.
More important is the cut before the clerk’s response. Basically, he’s
been tricked, so what Moore has filmed isn’t damning social commentary,
it’s a Candid Camera- or Trigger Happy TV-style practical
joke performed on an unsuspecting member of the public.
Another example is his filming of the Michigan militia. These are foolish,
foolish people, and as such they have no place in any serious debate about firearms.
They are, however, very easy to laugh at. Moore doesn’t even have to do
any work to get some comedy out of them.
This is my main objection to Michael Moore. In many ways his films are basically
light entertainment, low-brow comedy dressed up as relevant social commentary.
It’s almost as if he’s using a social problem as a springboard for
his brand of entertainment, gaining from it rather than making a serious attempt
to bring social change.
for Columbine with Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line,
it becomes clear that Moore isn’t seeking a real change to American gun
laws. The Thin Blue Line was so powerful and so carefully detailed,
it’s hard not to become invested in the documentary’s tale –
about a miscarriage of justice that (as a result of the film) caused a Death
Row inmate to become a free man. Bowling
for Columbine has the pretence of tackling a deadly serious subject,
but delivers only a sequence of comedic set-pieces.
If this was the film’s stated intention there would be no problem, but
Columbine sets itself up as a film with a serious point. What could be a more
serious gesture than using actual footage from the Columbine massacre? And set
to music no less?
Equally questionable is the treatment of Charlton Heston. Some might say that
as president of the National Rifle Association, Heston is fair game. But like
the North County bank clerk, he seems to be unfairly represented. Many of Moore’s
critics have hit upon his editing of Charlton Heston’s speeches. Different
speeches are re-ordered and cut together to make Heston appear more demonic
and fervent than he really is. Not least among the evidence is Heston’s
amazing technicolour tie that changes colour mid-speech.
All this may be justifiable, depending on your perspective. I believe the bank
clerk and Heston are treated unfairly, but it could be argued that Moore only
emphasizes the truth through his editing. The bank did give out guns, and as
an example of guns in American society it’s almost valid, even though
Moore’s ‘prank’ on the bank clerk means there’s a lack
of verisimilitude. Similarly, Heston is very pro-firearms and while he did not
say certain words in the order they’re presented, he did say them.
However, such stretching of the truth has limits. Following a sequence on the
school shooting of young Kayla Rolland in Michigan, Moore misleads viewers into
thinking Heston held a pro-gun rally just 48 hours later. It’s cut so
that footage of Moore comforting Kayla’s distraught teacher is followed
by a headline that reads “48 hours after Kayla Rollands was pronounced
dead” which is then followed by Heston at an NRA rally. Moore is clearly
saying Heston held a pro-gun rally in Michigan 48 hours after Kayla was pronounced
dead, seemingly as a direct response to events.
It’s now known that Heston and the NRA didn’t come to Michigan
until many months afterwards. Worse, the full text of the headline reads “48
hours after Kayla Rolland was pronounced dead, Bill Clinton is on The Today
Show telling a sympathetic Katie Couric, “Maybe this tragic death will
Bowling for Columbine zooms into the text very quickly, obscuring everything
but the incriminating “48 hours after..” headline.
Michael Moore seems to be a sort of 21st Century Sergei Eisenstein, except
that where Eisenstein made it appear that the statues were reacting to events
in Battleship Potempkin, Moore makes it appear that individuals have
said and done things that they have not.
does Moore do this? I have no sympathy for Charlton Heston, especially not in
his role as NRA figurehead, but it’s worth asking why Moore has chosen
to victimise him. The answer lies in the film that launched Michael Moore’s
The film was about the General Motors plant closures which had decimated Moore’s
hometown of Flint, Michigan. But to avoid being just another worthy documentary
about economic depression, Moore had given the film a narrative. His repeated
attempts to interview General Motors CEO Roger Smith, and Smith’s constant
refusal to grant him an audience, allows plenty of room for Moore’s wryly
amusing voice-over. Made for just $160,000, Roger
& Me made nearly $7 million
at the box office, launching Moore as a media personality.
However, since Roger
& Me was released in 1989, Moore had found another
commercial success hard to come by. To make this style of documentary filmmaking
work, Moore needs a villain to anchor all his less focused antics. In The Big
One, Moore attempts to cast Nike CEO Phil Knight in the Roger Smith role, but
is ultimately frustrated. He must have been short of footage for the final edit
because there’s a sequence that shows Moore playing a practical joke on
a member of his own staff. Knight seems to be too media savvy for Moore, probably
having seen Roger
& Me, he’s ready for him, and successfully gives
him the brush-off.
Bowling for Columbine could easily have been called Charlton &
Me as Moore has now cast Heston in the Roger Smith role. While much of
the film is a series of stunts loosely linked by the theme of firearms, the
figure of Heston ties it all together. However, in Bowling for Columbine,
Moore gets an interview with Heston.
This is where it all falls apart.
Heston is revealed to be a fragile and confused old man who has basically been
ambushed by Moore. You can’t help but pity Heston as he sits down for
an interview he assumes to be with a member of his organisation, but is instead
confronted with several difficult (even impossible) questions. For example,
he is asked why he held a rally so soon after the shooting of Kayla Rollands.
We know now that he didn’t, but in the context of Bowling
for Columbine we are led to believe he did. He cannot answer this question
satisfactorily. Once Heston realizes he’s been set up (and it takes a
while) he cuts short the interview. Moore takes this as a moral victory.
Moore counters by piously leaving a picture of Kayla Rollands outside Heston’s
house. Despite Moore’s best efforts, this is the moment where you can
really see the shallowness of his intentions. It attempts to cast Moore as the
caring everyman who’s so moved by this little girls death, but it’s
really a self-serving stunt and a self-important attempt at moral one-upmanship.
The Heston interview underlines why Roger
& Me was successful. To portray
Roger Smith as the uncaring villain he wants him to be, Moore goes to great
lengths to ensure he won’t be granted an interview. A great example is
when he gatecrashes the lobby, telling security he’s going up to see Roger
Smith. He knows it doesn’t work like this, it’s all for our entertainment.
More tellingly when security ask him for identification, our intrepid filmmaker
doesn’t produce his respectable journalistic credentials (Moore had been
a political journalist in Michigan for many years prior to being a filmmaker)
he produces his Chuckey Cheese card, an absolute guarantee that he won’t
get an interview.
This underlines the point that Moore’s films are not the investigative
documentaries they may be mistaken for. He has been called a ‘rabble-rouser’
in sections of the press, but do these films really inspire any political activism?
The contrived comic set-pieces that make up a Michael Moore film serve no purpose
other than to entertain, and in doing so make Michael Moore a little richer
every year. How else can we explain the endless procession of Michael Moore
books that drop off the conveyor belt each year?
remains to be seen exactly what Fahrenheit 9/11 is like, but advance
word is that he’s cast Bush as the villain and himself as the voice of
the people once more. In many ways Moore has taken the safe, commercially sensible
option. Bush is a prime target, high profile and easy to mock.
However, with it being so close to the elections and with Bush already unpopular
with many, it really could be the case that for the first time one of Moore’s
films, no matter how one sided and self-serving and full of practical jokes
dressed as social commentary it is, could produce a real, tangible and lasting