In Defense of Michael Moore (fact versus fiction & good ol' Oscar)

For years I’ve heard angry right-wingers complain that Michael Moore is not really making documentaries. Why? Well, according to MooreWatch: Watching Michael Moore’s Every Move,” it’s because Moore’s emphasis is on fiction, not fact. For instance, the “editing of Heston’s speeches together to make it look like one speech” proves, according to MooreWatch, that "Bowling for Columbine" is a fabrication. MooreWatch is also upset that “Moore didn’t shoot most of the footage in the movie” "Fahrenheit 9/11," implying that he therefore doesn't deserve credit for the film. And they seem horribly afraid that Moore might win an Academy Award for Best Picture (Or, in the words of Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, "If Hollywood nominates this propaganda tract as Best Picture, you will see a backlash against the movie industry that you have never seen... I have no malice in me at all, but I am telling the Hollywood community: at your peril.")

So, let’s have a quick filmmaking lesson, shall we?

A director does not have to shoot his own footage. The great majority of directors employ a director of photography (DP, or cinematographer) to shoot all original footage -- and many DP's use a separate cameraman (often multiple camera people) to do the physical shooting. With second-unit footage, the director is typically not even around for the shooting. And a lot of lower-budget films -- and tons of TV shows and documentaries -- use stock footage, archival footage, found footage, and public-domain footage to supplement original material. With documentaries and news productions, cutting away to other people's work -- even without paying for that work -- is usually protected under the Fair Use laws, if the footage is being used as an example for analysis. (All crew members and the origin of all footage should, however, be documented during the film or in the final credits.)

Many documentaries, in fact, shoot no original footage at all. Ken Burns (PBS's "The Civil War") is considered one of the great modern documentarians, but he obviously couldn't shoot the historical events he was documenting. So he shoots old photographs and uses moth-eaten news broadcasts, etc. And Errol Morris is possibly the most important documentary filmmaker of the past 20 years, and although his crew does usually shoot all new footage for his productions, this footage often includes extensive re-creations (See: "The Thin Blue Line") that require as much artistic license as anything Moore has done in his films.

So to claim that Moore is not truly making documentaries because he's using footage shot by others -- re-creations, cartoons, etc. -- is ludicrous.

And I don't believe Moore was trying to fool anyone by inter-cutting more than one Charlton Heston speech together in "Bowling" -- it was obvious to me, at least, that a montage of footage was being used, just as multiple George W. Bush statements were effectively cut together in F-9/11. Moore was not splicing and gluing words to form entirely new sentences -- he was juxtaposing real sentences said by Heston at different times. It may not be one complete speech, but they are factual snippets that do work fine out of context. He does, however, have a bad habit of stomping over factual details in the pursuit of a larger truth, and his films would be more powerful if they allowed for shades of gray while fastidiously avoiding even small inaccuracies.

F-9/11 is not Moore's best film -- it's very disjointed and overheated at times -- but it does stay true to the director's aesthetic while delivering a slew of facts, opinions, unique perspectives, and even a few laughs. The final judgement of the film, however, seems to fall across party lines; but even with a supposedly liberal Hollywood voting, Moore would have to be extremely lucky to receive a Best Picture Oscar nom for F-9/11. In fact, I'd bet it won't get the nod. And if it does, it'll be a cold day in hell before it wins. Winning the top award at Cannes and elsewhere with F-9/11, combined with an Oscar for best doc for "Bowling for Columbine" in 2003 , are acclaim enough for Moore at this point -- getting the right to put "Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture" on the DVD cover is not going to significantly boost the sales of a flick already this overexposed.

If Bush had lost the election (or if F-9/11 were competing in the documentary category instead of hoping for a best pic trophy), Moore would have had a better shot at the Oscar, but with Bush still in office, the power of Moore’s film is now in doubt; and the chance of the conservative powers-that-be jumping down the Academy of Motion Picture’s throat for being super-liberal will have Academy voters shaking in their boots.

I respect that people may hate Moore’s politics, or they may not enjoy his movies -- but to claim that he's not really making documentaries is absurd. Moore's films are without a doubt fact-based (even if the odd detail is fudged). A director can express one-sided opinions, make artistic choices not usually associated with a typical documentary, juxtapose footage and sound in dynamic ways, and even interject pointed asides polemic propaganda while still taking a factual (non-fictional) viewpoint. Occasionally Moore might get a fact wrong -- like the exact name of the children's book that Bush is reading in F-9/11 -- but 98% of his facts are correct. Have these facts been spun to favor Moore's thesis? Absolutely. Would an intelligent audience member take this into account when watching the film? Of course. But disagreeing with a film's content does not make the content "fiction." The root of this blather: it's easier to attack the weight and bombasity of men like Moore than to defend a bumbling, silver-spoon president.

MooreWatch also assumes that Moore has been making television appearances lately “under the guise of hawking his newest book . . . but make no mistake about it, he’s campaigning for an Oscar.” I have the opposite theory: he's using the vague-but-buzz-worthy possibility of his film being nominated as an opportunity to score some prime TV guest spots where he can get the chance to publicize his latest tome ("Will They Ever Trust Us Again?") and his upcoming film ("Sicko") while riding the controversial hullabaloo of F-9/11 . Because winning a far-fetched award for a film he made last year is secondary to sustaining a burgeoning career by offering up new product while the public is still paying attention (and it's not often that documentary filmmakers or liberal agitators get this kind of attention, so keeping that attention alive will be the real challenge). Campaigning for an Oscar -- even losing the campaign and then crying "conspiracy!" -- is Moore's best bet for selling a few more Fahrenheit DVD's and a stack of new books. But actually winning the award? Nah... that's so not necessary.


Christian Film Critics Aren’t Always Crap

Many Christians I know hate Michael Moore with a passion, despite only having seen snippets of his films. And yet they bombarded me with emails demanding that I see Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” even before they’d actually seen the film themselves. In one of the great Catholic miracles of our time, the movie was so good it could be raved about before it was even released.

With that in mind, whenever a religious thinker actually breaks from the herd mentality and reaches some sound, thoughtful conclusions, I involuntarily sigh with relief—maybe fundamentalism isn’t the only future available to true believers after all.

So I was struck with a most profound sigh (more like an inhalation of brilliantly fresh air) when The Revealer unearthed an insightful review over at Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal. Pastor Brian McLaren watched “Hotel Rwanda” after seeing the nicely shot but over-hyped “The Passion of the Christ.” He then asked, “Why did so many churches urge people to see Gibson’s film, and why did so few (if any?) promote Terry George’s film?” Also, “Which film would Jesus most want us to see [more], and why?”

Significantly—despite fears of being discounted as a liberal namby-pamby—McLaren takes churches to task for falling blindly under the sway of Mel Gibson’s publicity machine. “If we really had the mind and heart of Christ, [‘Hotel Rwanda’] is the movie we would be urging people in our churches to see,” he says, and admits his “deep concerns about the alignment of major sectors of Christianity with ‘red-state Republicanism,’ and I worry that a kind of modernist, nationalist neo-fundamentalism is trying to claim all Christian territory as its sovereign domain.”

1 comment:

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