is there such a thing as a teevee season anymore?
is it a tradition yet?

one of the problems with michael moore

I'm reading student essays about Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, and I am reminded with each paper just how problematic Moore's work is. Here's the relevant section of the assignment:

In "Bowling for Entertainment," Steven Rubio wrote:
The search for an easy laugh too often compromises Moore's populist stance. It's hard to doubt the sincerity of his commitment to the common folk when we see him fight for our rights, or when an unexpected victory brings a heartfelt combination of tears and smiles to his face. But when Moore makes average people the butt of his jokes, that populism is tainted.
Analyze Bowling for Columbine in the context of Rubio's critique. Is Rubio correct in his criticism? Is Michael Moore a "populist" filmmaker? If not, how would you define his work in Bowling for Columbine? How important is the "entertainment" factor in documentaries and other films trying to push a particular point of view? You may draw on other films by Moore (and/or movies by other filmmakers) to illustrate your argument.
Most of the student papers take Moore to task for his self-promotion, his seeming disdain for common folks, and the supposed lies in his material. I want to explain how it doesn't matter, that the points Moore is making are on target, but I can't, because I don't believe it myself, and because it's a class on critical thinking. I've seen an example of what happens when we turn off critical thinking ... one student who likes Moore argued that he was a vital communicator, even though the student believed Moore lied at times and distorted facts at other times.

It's tiring having to clean up after this guy.


Charlie Bertsch

I think you may be trying too hard to be hard on Moore, actually. It's hard to think of a documentary that doesn't distort "the facts" in pretty obvious ways. Distortion is intrinsic to editing. That's not to say that he couldn't do better, but I'm starting to wonder whether we shouldn't give him more of a break.

I've been thinking that his in-your-face, outwardly self-aggrandizing persona in his documentaries actually serves to help viewers realize that he's not simply presenting the facts. By facilitating an identification with the embodied ironist, Moore may even be doing a favor for Truth.

Steven Rubio

I wouldn't complain so much about him if 1) he wasn't such a shit to people who don't deserve it (I don't mind when he picks on the head of GM or Charlton Heston), and 2) if he didn't have the disturbing ability to insert himself into touching private moments that don't need Michael Moore's presence. I am happy that Moore wears his politics on his sleeve ... I think that's one of his best features. I just think his populism is mostly fake.

Charlie Bertsch

I dislike those "touching private moments" too, though they played better for me in Fahrenheit 9/11 too. But I've been reconsidering their function from the perspective of film theory. As you and I both know, the confessional essay in which the first-person is not generic, but specific -- "warts and all" -- has a lot of power. When well done, it often gets people reading and then gets many of them to read to the end. And there's something about the identification that sort of essay elicits that makes an argument feel less dry, more immediate. The thing is, when that kind of writing works, the first person is almost always exaggerated for rhetorical effect. It swells with self-deprecation and idiosyncracy which, while not exactly falsehoods, only tell a partial story of the person behind the first-person. Frequently, the effect of the first-person essay that tries to make an argument is to inflate the first person at the expense of other people. Nonetheless, I think you'd agree that such exaggeration and inflation doesn't necessarily turn readers away. What I'm getting at is the idea that perhaps Moore has found a way of translating that rhetorical strategy -- one you, I, and many good bloggers excel at -- into something that works in the context of documentary cinema. He certainly wouldn't be the first filmmaker to have succeeded in that quest, but he is also certainly by far the most successful filmmaker who works in that mode.

Steven Rubio

Good points. And I feel kinda bad complaining about Michael Moore, who I like. It's not really fair of me to dismiss Moore because he didn't make The Sorrow and the Pity. But I do have a high standard for documentary excellence, The Sorrow and the Pity is that standard, and I wish Moore could be more like Marcel Ophuls. He's not, though, and as you point out, he's not trying to be anyone other than Michael Moore.

I don't complain about The Daily Show, which ridicules people far more harshly than does Moore. But The Daily Show is comedy first, everything else second. I like Funny Michael Moore better than I like Populist Michael Moore.

And my own solipsism is always available for critique, and I'm far from perfect in this regard, but I at least try not to fuck with people who don't deserve it. The only things I ever deleted on this blog, through 2 1/2 years, were posts that inadvertently hurt former friends who I used as fodder for some personal remembrances. I am sorry to this day that I posted the hurtful material, and don't regret for a second removing that stuff from my blog. I don't mind placing myself at the center of the universe, don't mind ignoring everyone but me ... what I object to is when I, or anyone else including Michael Moore, use other people who don't deserve it, just in order to make a point about ourselves. I have no problem jabbering about myself, and I think people like George Bush or William Hung are fair game. But when I step beyond the boundaries I have set up, I'm wrong.

Here's something I wrote for BS back in the day ... it was the field trip to the mall, and we were in a restaurant, the Red Robin, that featured a bird mascot who made the rounds of the tables:

I found myself contemptuous of some poor sucker in a bird suit making minimum wage, demeaning themselves just so I could include them in my mall experience, just so I could have something to write about for Bad Subjects....

That bird was annoying, performing bizarre routines for the restaurant patrons; it was also anonymous, the worker toiling beneath a bird costume that covered all identifiable features. It was safe to attack this bird in print, because the human inside the bird could be ignored....

Which leads one to ask, what happens to the relationship between a cultural artifact worthy of a BadSubjectian response, and the Bad Subject doing the responding, if we stop for only a moment and consider the human being hiding beneath the costume that identifies that human as an artifact?

I'd feel a little better about Michael Moore if I thought he cared about the person in the bird outfit.

Charlie Bertsch

Sometimes he seems to care and sometimes he doesn't. I don't think it's absolute. I guess what I'm driving at is that his persona, contempt and all, is recognizably human, i.e. imperfect, in the same way that Bill Clinton's is. I have major issues with many of Clinton's actions as President. But damned if I wasn't totally with him during his speech yesterday.

Kim Dot Dammit

Anyway, I think it's kind of ridiculous to dissect Moore to this length. First of all, his movies do play to a large popular audience. They are not limited to tiny obscure art houses. In that, the message that his films ultimately deliver to a large popular audience is a hell of a lot better than that of most mainstream productions. Regardless of his political stance, Michael Moore is mainstream and I think you should dissect him in the same pool as other media that is being fed to the mainstream audience. In that regard, he is admirable regardless of how irritating he may be as an individual. Why are we so inclined to rip apart and find fault in people who actually are having a positive effect on a mass audience? All art, all media has its faults. I think we need to be a little more tolerant here.

Steven Rubio

I agree with this:

you should dissect him in the same pool as other media
Not sure I agree with a single word of this:
Why are we so inclined to rip apart and find fault in people who actually are having a positive effect on a mass audience? All art, all media has its faults. I think we need to be a little more tolerant here.
It is not our job to be tolerant in these cases. No one gets a free ride, just because we agree with them. And if all art and media have faults, our job is to analyze those faults. I look at Michael Moore in the "same pool" as I do everyone else. Some folks seem to think that if we agree with someone and have a general appreciation for their work, that we should refrain from criticizing that work. I think that's nonsense.

Charlie Bertsch

Hmmmm. I don't agree with your point about needing to remain critical, Steven. But I do think there's a tendency on the Left to nitpick in our own backyard at the expense of picking bigger nits in the yard with the Republican pit bulls. I think Kim was suggesting that we might consider giving Moore a break, which is not the same time as refraining from critique. Kim and I have spent a lot of time discussing the strong and weak points of Fahrenheit 9/11, both with each other and with friends and acquaintances. So it's not like we're nominating him for sainthood.

One thing that I wonder about is the emphasis on fact-checking. Sure, some things are clearly wrong. But a lot of the "facts" Moore supposedly plays fast and loose with are only "facts" in the loosest of senses. Watching a little Fox News will remind anyone of that circumstance.

Kim Dot dammit

Whatever. It's not like I was expecting a positive response or anything. I'm just glad people are watching his friggin movie.

Steven Rubio

When it is appropriate to turn off your critical thinking skills? "Giving someone a break" is precisely to turn off those skills ... it's saying "there are more important things than truth."

And why nitpick on me? I just did a Google search of my blog. There are 19 references to "moore" and 152 references to "bush." My comments on Michael Moore do not come at the expense of bigger nits. I spend a lot more time around here complaining about Bush than I do complaining about Moore.

And I refuse to allow Michael Moore or anyone else to live up to a factual standard that is only "better than Fox News." We're all better than that.

Steven Rubio

"Whatever. It's not like I was expecting a positive response or anything."

I hate to keep on about this, but I'm sorry, I find these kinds of comments to be extremely repressive. Here's how this conversation looks to me: I am being attacked for using critical thinking skills, being told that it's "ridiculous" to try and work through Moore's films, being told that I'm "trying too hard to be hard on Moore," told to be "more tolerant," told to "give Moore a break," and finally dismissed with a casual "Whatever." All of these comments feel to me like people are saying "shut up about Moore, he's on our side, you're just making trouble." It's quite disturbing.

If I posted something about someone with whom we all disagree, no one would be complaining. But when I post about someone we all like and agree with for the most part, I'm told to be tolerant and give the guy a break. That's not how it should work.

Charlie Bertsch

You know, Steven. I never told you that we should turn off our critical thinking skills. Neither did Kim.

And I'm sorry you find our comments "extremely repressive."

If you're curious why Kim wrote "whatever," I suspect it has to do with previous exchanges between you and her.

From where I sit, you are both very sensitive about certain things -- though not the same things -- and have a hard time making the other party feel like she or he is being treated civilly.

Incidentally, there's a typo is my previous response. It should have read, "I don't disagree," and not "I don't agree."

Steven Rubio

My mistake, then ... I didn't see the typo and assumed you were saying "I don't agree."

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