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Weapon of mass instruction Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.(Critical Essay)
Publication Date: 22-SEP-04
Publication Title: Cineaste
Format: Online - approximately 4678 words
Author: Porton, Richard

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Since the American release of Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore has been hailed by the left as the new Tom Paine, denounced by his right wing opponents as the incarnation of Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl, and compared by film critics to such disparate figures as Sergei Eisenstein and Kenneth Anger. Moore has become a lightning rod for hyperbolic praise and disgust, and the vigorous, and unusually vehement, responses to his bracingly sardonic anti-Bush salvo are probably as moth aligned with the polarization produced by this unsavory administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq as with the persona of its--to invoke the ubiquitous and perhaps inevitable cliche--'controversial' director. For those of us who initially viewed the film at Cannes with nary a Bush supporter in sight, the eventual Palme d'or winner was one film (and one documentary, if the many other nonfiction films screened out of competition are included) among many; speculation concerning Fahrenheit's potential to influence the upcoming American elections was of course rife but there was also an opportunity to discuss its esthetic strengths and weaknesses in a relatively dispassionate fashion. On its home turf, as op-ed columnists who rarely comment on movies chimed in with their often stale 'takes,' Fahrenheit became a full-fledged media event with both supporters and naysayers assuming a virtually take-no-prisoners attitude as the actual film became a mere pretext for sets of liberal or conservative 'talking points.'

The assault on Moore's film from assorted attack dogs at Fox, MSNBC, and David Horowitz's website FrontpageMagazine.com has only been instructive for letting us know that these pundits don't believe that their bete ,mire has made a documentary; after all, it has a 'point of view,' is less neutral than a National Geographic special, and might well be 'propaganda.' Unwittingly throwing decades of documentary history down the collective memory hole, Joe Scarborough, Bill O'Reilly, and their cohorts inadvertently demonstrate the necessity of some sort of antidote to the noxious 'spin' and outright lies disseminated by the Bush Administration over the last three and-a half years. (Listeners to New York's NPR station, WNYC, were also treated to a film professor's startling revelation that we should be wary of Moore's cinematic sleight of hand since voice-over commentary can transform an audience's perceptions of meticulously edited images--Gee, hold the presses!) As the pseudonymous "Vern," an on-line, self-proclaimed "outlaw" critic, fulminated, "If the American news media had been doing their job, there would be nothing new to report. So you fucks in the media, stop complaining about this movie. It's your fault it even exists."

However highly leftists might esteem Noam Chomsky, Robert McChesney, Alexander Cockburn, and other eviscerators of the mainstream media, these mainstays of Z and The Nation have been--if not precisely 'preaching to the converted' on all occasions--instructing a much smaller audience than the populist Moore. As a popularizer, Moore compresses and synthesizes a large chunk of research and invective that surfaced in the alternative press as well as a hit parade of post 9/11 best sellers Greg Palast's painstaking inventory of official deceit in Florida before and after the 2000 election, journalist Ahmed Rashid's incisive history of the Taliban's rise to power, Craig Unger's insistence on casting a cold eye on the affinities between the House of Saud and "the House of" Bush," as well as the contributions of lesser Internet luminaries featured in postings on, among others, MoveOn.org, Tom Paine.com., and CounterPunch.

It's easy to empathize with left-of-center critics who are distraught that their lack of enthusiasm for Moore's shameless self-infatuation and freewheeling polemical style will be falsely construed as de facto conservatism. On the other hand, there's something slightly prissy and myopic in the refusal of Moore's critics to acknowledge that his wildly popular meld of humor, media critique, and anti-Establishment ire implicitly skewers the self-delusions of many esthetes (I don't exclude myself') who tend to equate popular appeal with selling out. To wit, while Fahrenheit is arguably the most straightforward and rhetorically effective film the Big Guy has yet made, the source of its considerable verve as ad hoc political rabble-rousing--as well as its sporadic annoyances--can be traced to a clever fusion of the documentary-essay tradition (a genre that, from the erudite radicalism of Chris Marker and the muckraking of Emile de...



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