Sunday, September 02, 2007

Manufacturing Dissent?

Subversive truth warrior or cynical distorter of facts? Opinion of highly successful and staggeringly rich documentary film-maker Michael Moore is often split between the two extremes and not often anywhere in between - and that's just within the left. I've been reading about the makers of Manufacturing Dissent, a film released this year which claims Moore's films deliberately mislead viewers by distorting facts to suit a preordained agenda, and are thus at odds with the basic principles of documentary-making. It's not the first film released in criticism of Moore and the claims within it are certainly nothing new either. The only difference is that the makers of Manufacturing Dissent aren't your average conservative Republicans on a mission to discredit a major thorn in their side. Instead, it was made by two 'left-wing progressives' who originally intended a straightforward biographical film but say they found Moore so uncooperative and evasive (just like many of the figures he mocks in his own films) that it led them down new paths.

The thing is, from the sound of it (I should point out I haven't seen this film and am just spouting off on the basis of second-hand information - but what's new?) most of the criticisms centre on Moore's personality, which shouldn't be relevant. The film is packed with former colleagues talking about the unpleasantries of working for Moore. Arrogant, egotistical and difficult to work with? Probably. Is that important? Not one bit. Next. The more telling criticism, that he distorts truths or even creates his own untruths, is more important. There's been plenty of talk since Farenheit 9/11 about the alleged flights transporting Osama Bin Laden's relatives from US soil 48 hours after the collapse of the World Trade Centre, and whether or not the Bush administration was directly involved, as Moore claims. Throw in lots of other lines like selective historical references and manipulative editing and presentation of footage and you have an idea of where a lot of the criticism of Moore's films is centred.

The thing is (second time I've said that), any of the perceived factual inaccuracies and supposed manipulations are on a decidedly minor scale in comparison to Moore's greater objective. They don't affect the legitimacy of his overall statements. Of course documentaries should seek to do what they say on the tin: documenting the truth. Naturally, for his films' agendas - highlighting corporate-induced economic devastation (Roger & Me), liberal gun laws (Bowling For Columbine), and illustrating the US' disastrous foreign policy and destroying the erroneous perception of Iraq's links to the September 11th attacks (Farenheit 9/11) - he seeks supporting information. He's a polemicist, but are his occasionally selective versions of events any worse than what all the major American news networks do on a daily basis? In a US media culture consumed with vested interests and resultantly a selective news agenda, maybe the only way to succeed in the manner Moore has was to play them at their own game.

I see Moore's influence in the past five or six years as overwhelmingly positive. There's no denying he's a master of effective and emotive filmmaking. Personally, I don't care much for many of his methods, but I recognise the end he's striving for is a noble one. There's been enough cause for dissent in the past few years that it didn't need manufacturing. But sadly, apathetic people do need prodding into dissent, and that's what Moore does. Expertly. The fact he's become rich in the process is an irrelevance. His films and books made dissident politics accessible to a wide audience. I remember people I knew with no previous interest in politics whatsoever reading 'Stupid White Men' and watching 'Bowling For Columbine', engaging with what they were about, and looking into the topics further. That's quite an achievement really. Yes, you'd be far better off reading Noam Chomsky for a more comprehensive understanding of some similar issues, but it's not realistic to expect every man in the street to do that. Although he's had his shortcomings, Michael Moore's works are still refreshing, positive, and vital.


Blogger D.B. said...

Good post and I totally agree with you about Moore. I've always thought of him as something of a left-wing shock jock in a culture of right-wing shock jocks, but that probably doesn't fully do him justice.

He's an excellent TV polemicist, and I think his films are for the most part witty, moving, provocative and informative. They're not critically balanced or even impartial, but nor do they claim to be. At times he becomes a little too crass, opportunistic or sentimental for my liking, but nevertheless I still feel like he's Hollywood's answer to a well-written punk zine from the 70s, or a radically profound but simplistic pamphleteer from the 18th or 19th century, getting the message out there in a way that enthralls and inspires.

I've been meaning to write a blog entry about documentary films and I will do shortly (and I'll post a link to this post if you don't mind, which is great stuff).

There are 2 in particular which take documentary to a whole new level IMO: one is Spike Lee's epic 'When The Levees Broke' which I only saw last week on BBC4 and it blew my mind. The other is 'The American Ruling Class', an amazing reality-drama-documentary-musical (!) about American power and society. Awesome.

September 06, 2007 11:46 pm  
Blogger D.B. said...

I sound like I'm being a bit harsh on Moore in the above comment ...

Another thing I forgot to mention is how influential he's probably been when it comes to popularising both left-wing ideas and just the idea of entertaining political documentary films. Hats off.

Here's a clip from "The American Ruling Class" if you're interested. It lasts 10 minutes and is probably one of the best scenes in the movie. And it contains a song.

I think it's possible to see Moore's influence in it too: the quirkiness, the radicalism etc.

September 07, 2007 12:01 am  
Blogger Paddy said...

Cheers for that link - I enjoyed the clip and will have to try and track down more of the film. I think the majority of people really don't really consider how or why those kinds of low-waged and low value jobs exist in increasing numbers. Or for that matter, that they exist in the first place. All these service sector 'McJobs' arise from our expectations for cheaper and quicker service, squeezing more productivity but not considering how it's being arrived at. That Voltaire quote sums it up ("the comfort of the rich depends upon an abundance of the poor").

I hear you about Moore. "Hollywood's answer to a well-written punk zine from the 70s" indeed. Really it's just amazing that he's managed to build such a profile that his subject matter can be part of Hollywood blockbusters. Quite an achievement. He knows how to milk the emotional udders though, as you say. I always remember the scene with the dead soldier's mother outside Capitol Hill in Farenheit 9/11 as being unncecessary and over the top in my eyes. But I'm sure he just realises that a lot of people require a heartbreaking, personal story to make them sit up and take notice sometimes. That's where he demonstrates his ability for pulling people's heart strings, which is really the basis for all his success.

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