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Cinematically Thinking
   Still More on Moore
   by T.B. Meek

By now the world’s familiar with the pot stirring shenanigans of Michael Moore. In Roger & Me it was the documentary filmmaker’s impossible quest to land an interview with General Motors head, Roger Smith; in Bowling for Columbine, Moore chased after former NRA president and iconic actor, Charlton Heston; and in Fahrenheit 9/11, he escorted the mother of a slain GI to Washington, DC to confront President Bush. With Sicko, Moore continues the trend by loading up a boat full of 9/11 rescue volunteers afflicted with various respiratory illnesses and sails them into Guantanamo Bay, propelled by the premise that the terror suspects held at the notorious US detention camp are receiving better health care than the 9/11 volunteers.

The stunts make for amusing cinema, especially with Moore situating his bulk before the camera, part impromptu referee, part enlightening commentator and ever ready court jester, but such gimmicks also carry the tang of exploitation. As Moore pursued Smith in Roger & Me, the only one with their neck at risk was the intrepid filmmaker. Impassioned and earnest his unorthodox in his topsy-turvy stone turning was applauded as a refreshing change up. Bowling for Columbine too was blessed with a stellar touching moment as Moore led two boys, both wounded in the Columbine shootings, into a Wal-Mart to confront the store’s management about their policy to sell ammunition across the counter with few restrictions or safeguards. Later, the trio notches victory when the store pulls ammo stocks from their shelves, but what if it had gone another way? What if during their time on the road with Moore, the boys missed too much school, their grades slipped and later, their families slapped with a suffocating lawsuit by the corporate superstore? That might make for better onscreen drama for Moore to rattle his saber at, but at what price to those spurred into the polemic’s crusade?

For point of reference, let’s cut into the fast food horror story, Super Size Me. The fact that filmmaker Morgan Spurlock plugged himself into the role of human guinea pig and quaffed down copious amounts of transfat leaden burgers and fries gave the film instant credibility and a profound sense of intimacy. Now imagine for a moment that Spurlock had tapped a homeless person in need of a meal as the one who consumed nothing but McDonald’s super meals for months on end? At first it might be warming to see a starving individual eat, but then as malnutrition and life critical measures like blood pressure and cholesterol veered off the charts and into the realm of death invoking, how then would Spurlock’s experiment be received?

Cruel? Exploitative? Disingenuous?

Somewhere in the making of Bowling for Columbine, Moore began to cross that line. It’s there that wafts of the self-aggrandizing, so stifling in Fahrenheit 9/11, and jury-rigged confrontations, began to show their unsavory roots. As human and defining a moment it was to see Moore champion the cause of the two shooting victims and give them a leg up in the healing process, his dogged pursuit of Charlton Heston lacked integrity and compassion. Sure the former NRA head with a famous mug would ordinarily be fair game, but at the time confronted, he had been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Even applying a gentle hand, Moore’s takedown of the addled Heston echoed more schoolyard bully than the righteous vanquisher he embodied in Roger & Me. And who could forget Lila Lipscomb, the grieving mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, who after reading her son’s last letter in Fahrenheit 9/11 is led across the country to the Washington Mall to exact some form of vindication from the Bush administration. For all the build up, the payoff never comes. There’s no cathartic moment. All there is is an emotion-charged Lipscomb pacing to and fro with the White House looming ominously in distance. Her wounds are ripped open. Her pain and frustration are palpable, but the horror that rises to the top is the realization that she’s ostensibly a carefully positioned pawn in Moore’s at-all-costs campaign to condemn Bush and the wars in the Middle East.

Sicko however features the most grandiloquent gem in Moore’s portfolio of incendiary artifices. As I watched the boat load up and set sail to Cuba, I was left with questions that had little to do with what was on the screen. I totally forgot that Moore had earlier made me stop and wonder if my health care provider could screw me in some devious way as depicted in his catalog of American health care horror stories. I forgot about the machinist forced to choose which of his severed digits he wanted to get sewn back on his hand because he could not afford them all and the nurse denied last hope treatment for her otherwise terminally ill husband because it was “experimental.” I also forgot about all the nagging “how does it work?” concerns I had as Moore hopped from Canada to London and France showing us just how rosy social medicine was at that no one ever had to pay a dime for it. It was all gone the second that boat drifted across the screen. Instead of questioning the ills of the American health care system, I was more concerned with what Moore had said to these people to get them to buy into his pied piper harbor cruise. Did these people sign waivers indemnifying Moore from any down stream repercussions, legal suits and so on? Or did they just blindly trust in Michael? It was then that I realized the documentary I wanted to see was some sort of alumni reunion of Moore’s films where the subjects could speak candidly about their experiences and the process enroute to the final firestorm on screen. Just think of it, Moore on Moore, it has kind of an Adaptation-esque surrealism to it.

Still Moore’s an imposing force. Whether you think he’s a circus showman or reform minded pundit, his ability to spark debate is incontrovertible. Wherever he shines his camera talk ensues, even if it’s talk about Moore being pushy. It’s what he wants. He’s turned documentary film into a political swaying power. And it’s a medium that growing. Just look at the amplitude that Super Size Me and An Inconvenient Truth have had on such issues as the ills of fast food and the dire need to preserve the planet’s fragile ecosystem. Moore may gotten to big to be the kind of documentary filmmaker who can slide in under radar, but in his last few go rounds Moore and his stunts have been more press worthy than the issues he has chosen to champion. A little less Moore and a little more Flint, Michigan (Moore’s home town depicted in Roger & Me) fire.

T. B. Meek


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