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The Filmmaker’s a Clown

Here’s a dilemma. Say you always complain that filmmakers need to be more socially responsible, that they need to—not to put too fine a point on it—get off their cinematic asses and make films—no, movies that reflect that, aside from Michael Jordan, Mohammed, or Jesus Christ, nobody plays a greater hand in forming how and what people today believe and do than filmmakers.

Then say that certain filmmakers come down the pike who gladly soldier that responsibility—who labor to craft movies entertaining enough to draw in their audiences into what’s indubitably a good cause. Say, for example, you’re one Michael Moore, director/writer/star of such documentaries as Roger and Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine (2002). Or you’re his fervent admirer, at least working under the assumption that imitation is the highest form of flattery: Morgan Spurlock, the director/ writer/star of the recent documentary Super Size Me.

Now say that despite everything that you officially believe and espouse, you think that Moore makes shoddy films that pat themselves on the backside with less nuance than anything else save maybe Tarantino fare. While you’re at it, say you think his little acolyte with the sensitive stomach, Spurlock, should have named his anti-fast-food doc Super Suck (Me), and, well, you got yourself a Class A dilemma.

Is it permissible—the term used before the Bush 1 administration corrupted it was "politically correct"—to even dislike these films when they’re, uh, healthy for the nation? What’s the best way to respond esthetically to the recent rash of movies that could be called cinematic catalysts—movies that not only address a cultural problem but effect specific, direct social solutions?

Maybe it’s best to take a cue from Moore himself. Last month he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for the anti-Bush II administration doc Fahrenheit 9/11, which as of this writing has very notoriously yet to acquire a distributor due to a battle waged between its financier Miramax and its conservative parent company Disney. "I did not set out to make a political film," Mr. Moore said at a news conference after the ceremony. "I want people to leave thinking that was a good way to spend two hours. The art of this, the cinema, comes before the politics."

Or so he says. Consider Bowling for Columbine, his Oscar-winning treatise on, uh, the United States and its guns. If you had a hard time describing the actual argument or plot of that movie, you’re not alone. Like a bad abstract painter, it’s as if he just screwed his eyes shut and, hoping for the best, threw everything at the canvas—from war footage accompanied by Louis Armstrong crooning "What a Wonderful World," to a KKK-infested animation to his standard haranguing of a powerful figure (NRA prez Charlton Heston here) to his also-standard mini-action, this time enlisting Columbine survivors in a successful effort to regulate K-Mart bullet sales.

And audiences ate it up, as did most critics, albeit with a few reservations. Bottom line was, whether or not the movie was entirely esthetically intact, Moore has developed a formula that preached to more than the choir, and who was anyone to complain? He’d managed to not only craft a wildly successful anti-corporate America doc but also land a best Oscar doc, accepting it with an anti-war speech on a night when most of left-ish Hollywood was too blacklist-phobic to peep, let alone roar.

The problem is that Moore’s formula irks. There’s something smarmy about his willingness to transform himself into a moving, wisecracking (anti-)corporate logo that mugs through every frame. (To be fair, Fahrenheit 9/11 is rumored to feature less Moore—all attendant jokes applicable.) It’s an approach that especially rankles when others like Morgan Spurlock try it on for Super Size Me

Morgan Spurlock and McDonald’s
Morgan Spurlock and McDonald’s "face off" in "Super Size Me."

By now, most people know the story of that film. Two teenage girls had sued McDonald’s, claiming that their food had made them obese. Their claim was rejected, but it caught the attention of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who tested McDonald’s counter-claim that their food was "nutritious" by eating and drinking solely from its menu for an entire month. The results were immediate and startling, even for the doctors and nutritionists monitoring Spurlock: He gained over 25 pounds, developed heart palpitations, depression, and as one doctor phrased it, a "liver turning into pate." In between shots of Spurlock mawing at McDonald’s across the U.S., cataloging his symptoms like an only semi-amusing health activist Woody Allen, an overall picture of the health of the nation is painted by the likes of nutritionists, scientists, educators, "average Americans," and of course, a series of animations.

It’s high time someone brought our diet and exercise habits to the forefront of the public’s attention. America is the fattest country in the world, with 100 million overweight people and 400,000 individuals dying each year from obesity-related ailments. And the results of the movie have been immediate: Government initiatives to address national health habits have been announced (we’ll see how far corporate lobbyists let those go); McDonald’s is discontinuing their "Supersize" option; and, as is the American way, a score of lawsuits are being waged against fast-food enterprises.

Spurlock himself is no Michael Moore, however. For all of Moore’s bombast, he’s curiously polite, even deferential, especially when interviewing subjects. He’s also an amusing man whose impromptu asides often make for good copy. Alternatively, Spurlock, who was rejected from USC’s film school five times before he went to NYU’s Tisch and fills his Web log with fratty phrases like "I am stoked," fails to take a page from Moore’s etiquette handbook. He seems to be laughing at rather than with his subjects, and his decision to blur the faces of the obese Americans during certain montages is problematic at best: Although no one wants to appear onscreen described as "obese," reducing obese people to generic "fat Americans" makes it seem, somehow, more "us and them," which is the problem with having Spurlock rather than, say, Michael Moore, make this doc. I doubt Moore would be puking up his Big Mac out of his car—all attendant jokes applicable, again. Moore is always as much his subject as anyone else is. He knows the America he’s describing and loves it, though he thinks it could and should be much, much better.

Perhaps it’s best to improvise on the model of another doc that’s become its very own current event. Control Room sticks closer to a more standard, less-character-driven doc format to a preferable end, both ideologically and esthetically. This story about Al-Jazeera, the satellite network for the Arab-speaking world, and the Arabian and U.S. coverage of the first few months of the Iraqi war, has served as a touchstone for many looking to see how flawed media coverage has been. Film Forum reported that the film’s opening weekend grossed more than any other in its history. Straight-ahead interviews with military men and Arabian and English speaking journalists and some prodding at the U.S. news footage of the Iraqi war turns out to be all it takes, really, to make your point. Any edits to interviews with subjects are overt rather than covert, ensuring that the kind of media manipulation being described is not being perpetuated. And the same cannot be said of Spurlock and Moore’s approach; in Spurlock’s interviews, in particular, you can’t help but wonder how unjournalistic his methods were. How many little kids did he have to torture before he found the ones dumb enough to recognize Ronald McDonald but not George Washington?

That said, rendering yourself a Ronald McDonald for the left isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Moore and Spurlock’s movies are by all counts useful. Even the controversy surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11 has highlighted corporation-government bed-sharing, as Disney has been wary of pissing off Florida governor Jeb Bush. But there’s something queasy—yes, queasy—about them, too. You can’t topple the master’s house using his own tools. Even if the master is a clown.


Lisa Rosman


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2004

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