Tuesday, June 29, 2004

If you're a typical right-wing conservative hoping to gauge the threat posed by Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, you hopefully weren't listening to Rush Limbaugh's radio show on June 18 -- you might have left with a huge dose of false hope. Here is the Dittohead-in-Chief, offering fatherly consolation to a teenage girl who wanted to know how to best protest the film:

I found out that Moore is lying about the number of screens his movie is playing on. He's out there saying it's going to be on a thousand screens, then he revised it down and said it's going to be on 700 screens, then he says no, we'll get it on 600 screens. Turns out it's on 412 screens now. That's the screens where it is scheduled to appear, 412 only.

What a difference a week makes. On June 25, Moore's hilarious Bush-slapping phillipic opened in over twice the number of theaters Rush claimed, and became the Number One movie in the country, a fairly impressive feat considering that the movie's nearest competition -- White Chicks and Dodgeball: The Movie -- opened with triple the screens.

For the moment, I'd say the numbers say about everything you need to know about the mood of the country. Over half the voting public rejected George Bush for the White House, half (more or less) think he's doing a shitty job, and I suspect it was a kind of "representative half" that came out to see him drawn and quartered Moore-style.

If my Friday evening viewing is any indication, this is the kind of movie that people who don't watch movies turn out to see. It wasn't a movie crowd. It was a crowd of Democrats: young people, progressive grannies, hippies, dogmatic leftists, the two or three people in town with Kucinich stickers and -- so I gathered from the restless vibe that settled over the house as we watched trailers for one blockbuster after the next -- people who would only come out to see a movie if it was "true."

Whether that's what they were watching is debatable, at the very least; like all Moore's movies, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a creatively edited melange of both original and funniest-home-video moments (as well as some flat out disturbing ones), layered with nifty cool musical cues, and it's forceful and impassioned eventhough I can't say I ever was able to completely lay my skepticism aside.

Moore pieces together this extensive conspiracy theory which makes the case, first, that the 2000 election was a fraud (which it was), stage-managed entirely by all the Bush family forces in TV and government (which I didn't quite buy, although it was interesting to know that Bush's brother-in-law worked at Fox News); second, that Bush is a blithering idiot (no argument here) who had his head up his ass when the planes struck the World Trade Centers, and third, that the Bush family and the Saudis have historically been partners in crime, and that the war is more than anything about keeping them and Dick Cheney and his friends at Haliburton up to their collective asses in profits.

He also does the usual bit of grand-standing, like asking Congressman to sign up their children to participate in the war -- as iof they could -- and driving around washington in an ice-cream truck, reading the Patriot Act over the loudspeakers.

How much of Moore's theory of the Bush-Saud connection is true? Can't say, although he does spend a lot of time with the author of House of Bush, House of Saud, which seems to give it a little heft. It's believeable more in the parts than as a whole; like one of Limbaugh's rants, what you mainly come away with is a sense of his own paranoia.

But paranoiacs -- as critics nationwide continue to argue -- do have their points, and the movie has it's share of stuff you haven't seen elsewhere. For starters, there's Bush's immediate response to the attacks; as it turns out, he heard about the first plane hitting before the photo op where he read "My Pet Goat" to an elementary class in Florida, and went ahead with his plans anyway, which either makes him a sterling example of grace under pressure or (Moore's version) a confused leader of the Free World who had heretofore been too busy taking vacation and playing golf to really grasp the terrorist threat.

We see frankly cynical oil executives who speak about the money to be made in Iraq. We see poor black kids in flat-on-its-ass Flint, Michigan, site of Moore's classic debut Roger and Me, where recruiters try to interest them in career in the Marines, possibly their only way out of grinding poverty. We meet a cranky old leftist who got a visit from the FBI for publicly calling Bush an asshole. We visit a group of aging peaceniks who find one of their members is a spy. We see young soldiers -- eerily reminiscent of the ones in Three Kings -- going into war all gung-ho, blasting away at targets as speed metal music pounds through their helmets and fucking with prisoners Abu Ghraib-style. We also see kids coming home limbless -- and, most poignantly of all, and most effectively -- we see a military mom whose life is changed when her own son dies in Iraq; who goes from hating war protestors to becoming one.

None of which, as David Edelstein pointed out in his agreeably mixed review in Slate.com -- one of the best pieces of writing on film I've read all year -- quite gets Moore off the hook. Hard as it is not to be stirred by the movie's anger and passion, it's equally hard to give it a total pass. William Raspberry got it right in The Washington Post:

Some of his facts may be wrong and some of his connections strained, but his attitude is right. What's more, he'll say in plain language what nice educated people cannot bring themselves to say: The man is a devil.

Raspberry's comments irked Andrew Sullivan -- friend and defender of that beacon of journalistic ethics Matt Drudge -- who finds both Moore and Raspberry lacking in character. Understandably, Sullivan's main beef with Moore is that he doesn't share Sullivan's viewpoint; the grieving mom was robbed of context, mainly that "the war might have been justified, that it has done some good, that the casualty rate has, in fact, been remarkably low, and so on."

This misses the point. It's not a fair, judicious, sober-minded film; it's a case for the prosecution that strings together the most damaging facts in the most damning possible way. And I think what is true with Moore's film is what's true of a lot criminal cases: even when you give the defendant the benefit of the doubt, truths emerge that, maybe, can't quite be argued away. That's the difference between a false portrait and a successfully exaggerated one; the latter draws the attention to real flaws.

Think of Michael Moore -- if you dare, and I'll admit it's a bit of a stretch -- the way Peter Gay described Charles Dickens in his book Savage Reprisals. For Gay, the man who wrote Bleak House was an "angry anarchist" who "set out to offend as many constituencies as he could manage ... an equal-opportunity satirist" whose great novel is a "lovingly cultivated display of hatred," a radical who would far rather point out abuses against society -- sometimes completely outdated ones -- than he would the reforms that were made in his own lifetime. For Dickens, "politics was a matter far more of passion than of information," his "hostility to authority never faltered," and he could never exaggerate the goodness "quite as much as he exaggerated the vices of his all too imperfect country."

(A personal aside: Crass exaggeration is vital to understanding a culture, isn't it? Why else is the liveliest character in Spanish literature a lunatic named Don Quixote? Why else do the French venerate Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi? Why else would Ireland find its reflection in the snotgreen cesspools of Ulysses? Why else are Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson the two most vital American TV characters of the past fifty years?)

In the best Dickensian tradition, then, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a panorama of all the war-loving, Bible-waving, gun-toting greed and grime of the last four years; a Molotov cocktail lobbed in the direction of President Dumbass, and -- as even old Rush should be aware by now -- it's a hit.


Michael said...

Hey rodney, it's michael from thehighsign. I just wanted to give you that definition you asked for; sorry for not giving it summer (it's summer, I'm lazy, whatever). Anyway, all the excerpts are drawn from Fredric Jameson's book, Postmodernism (Duke University, 1991); it's a really great read, so if you got the time, I really recommend you check it out.

OK. I'll start with the contentious issue of Late Capitalsim (this definition doesn't include dates, but it's clear that these characteristics are already appearing as early and the 1940's, right after WW2). According to Jameson :
"As far as I can see, the general use of the term Late Capitalism originated with the Frankfurt School; it is everywhere in Adorno and Horkheimer, sometimes varied with their own synonyms (for example, "administered society")... which stressed two essential features:(1) a tnedential web of bureaucratic control (more nightmarish in Foucalt) and (2) the interpretation of government and bir business ("state capitalism") as related systems (usually socialism is on the agenda).

As used today, late capitalism carries different overtones as these... What marks the development of the new concept over the older one is not merely an emphasis on the emergence of new forms of business organization (multinational, transnationals) beyond the monopoly stage but, above all, the vision of a world capitalist system fundamentally distinct from the older imperialism, which was little more than a rivalry betweem the various colonial powers.

Besides the forms of transnational business mentioned above, its features include the new international division of labor, a vertiginous new dynamic in the international banking and the stock exchanges (including enormous Second and Third World debt), new forms of media [**Jameson's media is a mass-produced object of consumption, print ads, television media, film, the internet, etc.]interrelationship (very much including transportation systems such as containerization), computers and automation, the flight of production to advanced Third World areas, along with all the more familiar social consequences, including the crisis of traditional labor, the emergence of yuppies, and gentrification on a now-global scale."

We can address Postmodernism as a product of this form of hyper-purified capitalism. As destinguished from High Modernism (itself an incredibly contentious object of study, but roughly, the 100 or so year movement distinguished from Romanticism, where High Art (personal statements and style, where innovation and personalization are given a premium) reigned supreme), Postmodernism has several obvious characteristics (this is not by any means a comprehensive list): "the effacement of the older (essentially High Modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass culture, the emergence of new kinds of texts infused the forms, categories, and contents of that very culture industry so passionatly denounced by all the ideologues of the moder. The postmoderns have, in fact, been fascinated precisely this whole "degraded" landscape of schlock and kitsch." Postmodern art has a clear "flatness and depthlessness," a consequence of the intervention of the machine into the process of reproduction (think Warhol), where art no longer makes some great statement (which would be something like Bergman or Felinni) but is "read" through the process of reference (a Tarantino film "about" Kung Fu films, etc.). There is also a clear emphasis on fragmentation, the denial of a true, structured subject; the distrust of any form of perception (like Derrida); the familiar failure of language itself. What emerges in PM is this new form, which Jameson calls "pastiche" (taken from Thomas Mann, who got it from Adorno). "Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry [again, think Tarantino], without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tounge you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs: it is to parody what that other interesting and historically modern thing, the practice of a kind of blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the "stable ironies" of the eighteenth century... The producers of culture have nowhere to turn but the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture."

"The remake is, however, anachronistic to the degree to which our awareness of the preexistence of other versions (previous films of the novels as well as the novel itself) is now a constitutive and essential part of the film's structure: we are now, in other words, in "intertextuality" as a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect and as a operator of a new connotation of "pastness" and pseudohistorical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces "real" history."

So having addressed just about everything the conversation was hinting at, I'd like to briefly talk about "reading" a Postmodern film (as a reference to Lizzie's review). Essentially, intertextuality is the key, where a film no longer exists as a single, complete object, but as a fractured mess that refers to and endless mass of cultural product that was drawn in to compose the film. This is clearly no simple process (I liked how Lizzie's post made a clear reference to the original film, but obviously, much more is at stake), as the process of intertextuality is essentially endless. But that of course, is only the truly Postmodern task; accepting the impossibillity of a "total view" of text (just like accepting Lacan's, or any other postmodern's fractured subject), in an attempt to grasp (the vastness of?) our modern cultural machine.

And if you don't buy that, just think of PM as a dissolved form of Modernism, leading to an endless supply of crappy modern films.

RW said...


Thanks for such a generous response -- I hope I didn't give the impression I was completely clueless as to what postmodernism is, I think I was just a little baffled seeing it applied to Scorsese or the Rolling Stones, who always struck me as sincere traditionalists (whatever their other plusses or minueses), accent on sincere. When I think of postmodernism, and the definitions you supplied tend to buttress it somewhat, I think of a type of art where the awareness of form, and the mockery of it, is a huge part of the design; that there's a kind of deliberate insincerity to it almost, to the point where it seems to become all about form. I think of postmodernism as the auteur saying to the audience: "Let's not kid ourselves -- I'm a bullshit artist. You know it and I know it. In the old days, you submerged yourself into an imaginary story, but that game is up, because both you as a reader (or viewer) and I as an author (or filmmaker) have reached the point where we're both a little too aware of each other -- you're aware I'm trying to pull something off, and I'm aware that you're aware. So why don't we just admit it? Why don't we acknowledge the presence of each other?" The ragged result of all this, I think, to at least some extent, is that movies and novels are now only about themselves, you know? Tarantino is a perfect example of what I think pomo has come to -- his movies aren't really about anything but how much he loves making movies. "Kill Bill" is about his love of staging violent scenes; "Pulp Fiction" is about narrative -- so, twenty years earlier, were Bunuel's "The Phantom of Liberty" and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie."

I don't want to sound as if I reject all this, exactly, because I like Tarantino's films (and Bunuel's) and I like a number of postmodern novels. I also think it kind of reaches a conceptual dead-end, and that maybe John Updike was right when he said pomo mainly amounts to a kind of "bored playfulness."

Michael said...

Yeah, I definitely agree that run of the mill PM, with the overladen sense of irony that you mentioned, is far worse than a large majority of older individualistic pieces of art. The problem is, and maybe reason to lament it even more, is that our culture, which is at a rate of consumption far faster than anything history has ever seen, is too aware that everything innovative has already happened, and so all were left with is regurgitating the great things with saw a long time ago (the noveau roman, the closest thing to a literary movement of recent history, being just a distillation of Faulkner).

I think the idea of traditionalism seems to be a postmodern effect as well though (and I guess this is where we both disagree), where nostalgia for the past (Scorcese's love of Truffaut and film noir for example) becomes an intrisic part of an artists work, instead of reacting against and innovating. Thanks for the discussion, I really think we could go on forever with this, so this will probably be me last post.

Take care.