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Fast train coming


Commentary

Fast train coming The political pedagogy of Fahrenheit 9/11

Mandy merck

This August, when Fahrenheit 9/11 had long since surpassed all records to become the most commercially successful documentary ever made, the New Yorker ran an article anxiously attempting to establish it within a generic tradition stretching from Grierson and Flaherty to Fredric Wiseman and Errol Morris.

Like Grierson, the New Yorkerʼs Louis Menand argued, Michael Moore focuses on ʻthe drama of the doorstepʼ [1] (presumably that of ordinary life rather than the dramatic doorstepping that the director also practises with such élan). Like Flaherty, whose apparent anthropological studies were often arranged reenactments of obsolete customs,

Moore frequently stages the events he films. Like Wiseman, who unapologetically avows that his institutional portraits are ʻtotally fictional in form although … based on real eventsʼ, Mooreʼs films are markedly subjective. Like Morrisʼs Fog of War, which includes footage of former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara checking sound levels before a statement to camera, Fahrenheit 9/11 displays a whole line-up of White House heavies anxiously preparing to perform on air. In seeking to place this film in cinema history, Menand reaches all the way back to Lumièreʼs 1895 Arrival of a Train, and argues contrary to legend that its audiences, like Mooreʼs, knew they were watching a film, not a massive machine about to flatten them. None of this is entirely beside the point, but no documentary film has taken $100 million in six weeks at the US box office, or been pronounced mandatory viewing by the previous president of that country, let alone assumed to be a crucial influence on the re-election hopes of his successor.

The faint praise of the New Yorker obscures those killer facts, as well as Fahrenheit 9/11 itself.

Critical physiognomy

Mooreʼs work has been described as performative documentary, suggesting that the directorʼs own appearances in his films amount to performances that point to all documentariesʼ ʻperformedʼ or constructed nature. [2] The director cheerfully agrees.

As he told Film Comment, ʻI believe everybody who appears on camera knows that the camera is on them, and you canʼt help but behave in a different way. Itʼs all performance at some level.ʼ [3] From Roger and Me through TV Nation to Bowling for Columbine, Mooreʼs on-screen persona has not only become firmly established (the comically deflating everyman – shambling, bespectacled and unshaven), it is now extremely famous. His 2003 Academy Award speech denouncing Bush and the Iraq War made him an international star, and now America can see him coming.

For a doorstepping reporter this is something of a disadvantage, and Moore changes tactics in Fahrenheit 9/11. Throughout most of the film he is invisible. Indeed, a good deal of its original footage has not been filmed by Moore at all, but instead acquired from sympathetic network and military sources. Although he figures prominently in interviews with House of Bush, House of Saud author Craig Unger and dissident FBI agent Jack Cloonan, as well as bereaved mother Lila Lipscomb, Moore stages only two of his characteristic stunts in the entire film. The first, and funnier, of these involves Moore hiring a Washington ice-cream van to read the Patriot Act over its loudspeaker to members of Congress. In the second, he attempts to persuade these legislators to enlist their own children in the war they voted for, and they do indeed see him coming.

Asked about the ʻpersonality cultʼ that has developed around him, Moore acknowledges this as further reason for rationing his appearances in Fahrenheit 9/11: ʻI donʼt want the public to think that Iʼm the one whoʼs going to correct the problem.… Iʼm asking them to do that.… The catharsis has to happen on November 2.ʼ 4If Mooreʼs reluctance to appear on camera is strategic, it is certainly understandable, since Fahrenheit 9/11 is a great exercise in critical physiognomy. [5] Its key sequence occurs round the titles, which are deferred until the film has narrated the 2000 election, the role of Murdochʼs Fox News in calling it for Bush, its condemnation by African Americans in Congress, and Bushʼs vacation-filled early months in office. Following the presidentʼs own protestations that heʼs really hard at work, this work is suggested to be also that of performance, with Dubya, Cheney, Rumsfield, Rice and Wolfowitz shown being groomed and miked for television as the titles roll. The tropeʼs familiar association of such preparations with deception doesnʼt compromise their fascination.

In particular, Bushʼs adolescent grimaces and nervous eye movements (including one spookily recalling Norman Bates at the end of Psycho) are offered as revelations of his character, setting up the subsequent sequence showing his stunned response to the 9/11 attacks.

Formally, the filmʼs opening sequences are its most accomplished, effectively evoking the surreal quality of American politics from Mooreʼs first question, ʻWas it all just a dream?ʼ The nightmarish feeling of those months is intensified by slow motion and punctuating fades to black, leading to 38 seconds of darkness, explosions and screams from 9/11 itself. In a reversal of this device, these sounds then cease over a ghostly montage of shredded paper, fleeing people and devastated survivors. Throughout these sequences Moore performs off-camera, in a narration by turns ironic, indignant, sardonic and sad.

Over to Bush on that fateful morning, already aware of the first crash but, ever the photo-opportunist, proceeding with his Florida classroom reading of My Pet Goat.

Then the second occurs, and an aide whispers to him ʻThe country is under attack.ʼ

My favourite construal of Bushʼs reaction to this announcement was the Private Eye cover of him being told ʻItʼs Armageddon, sirʼ, and replying ʻArmageddon outahere!ʼ

Whatever he was thinking initially appears as another physiognomic puzzle, but Moore then pre-empts this by launching the first major contention of his film, that the president was concluding that the perpetrators were Saudis, rogue members of the families who were business partners and friends of the Bushes.

This is, to use one of the more polite descriptions it has evinced, a tendentious way to introduce Ungerʼs evidence of the financial alliances between the Bushes and the Saudi ruling class, including the Bin Ladens. Although the film goes on to raise powerful questions about the permission granted to members of that family to leave the United States immediately and unquestioned, and although it indicates something of the Saudi money invested in Dubyaʼs dry wells and his fatherʼs more successful interests, it attributes rather more prescience to Bush than seems plausible, while crudely conflating the Saudi royal family, Saudis generally and al-Qaeda activists (many, of course, not Saudi). As with the filmʼs ridicule of the USAʼs less powerful allies in the Iraq War (the Netherlands represented by a large joint), ethnicity threatens to replace exploitation as the issue in question. And nowhere is this clearer than in the derisive roll-call of the Coalition, which ignores the participation of the less dismissible Spain, Italy and the UK, and never examines the role of Blair as its cheerleader.

To be fair, a filmed version of Ungerʼs book would have taken up the whole of Fahrenheit 9/11ʼs two hours, and still failed to convince the likes of Louis Menand that the war in Iraq ʻwas about moneyʼ. To develop precisely that argument, Moore eventually refocuses in sequences indicting American-installed Afghan President Hamid Karzaiʼs involvement with the US oil pipeline company Unocal; Marine recruiters cynically targeting poor teenagers for enlistment; Bushʼs black-tie banqueting of ʻthe haves and have moresʼ who constitute his ʻbaseʼ; US corporations preparing to score super-profits in Iraq; and, finally, in a quotation Moore reads from Orwell, the ʻruling groupʼsʼ perpetual war on its own subjects to keep its interests intact.

Political economy

Outlined like this, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a work of the most audacious economism, saluted by John Berger for reviving ʻone of the main theses of Marxʼs interpretation of historyʼ. [6]

To make it palatable for Menand, Bill Clinton, producer Harvey Weinstein and the millions of other non-Marxists who have gone to see it, Moore interweaves its material analysis with a more popular cause – to wit, opposition to an unjustified, brutalizing and murderous conflict conducted by a unelected cabal fronted by a moron. In filmic terms, this opposition is sustained by the acute use of archive footage (most impressively, that of black congresswomen gavelled down while trying to record the exclusion of their constituents from the 2000 electoral rolls) whose previously unseen status is itself an indictment of the class interests of the US media.

As ever with Mooreʼs work, the film is an essay in political pedagogy, and this time he casts an exemplary student in Lila Lipscomb, a conservative Democrat radicalized by her soldier sonʼs death in Iraq. Patriotic, religious and wholly without irony, Arrival of a Train, Lumière, 1895 (detail).Lipscomb is meant to be false consciousness in the flesh, until her sonʼs letters alert her to the futility of the war in which he later dies. If not quite the conversion experience visited upon the redeemed stripper in the anti-porn documentary Not a Love Story, her transformation is still unconvincing, in part because Lipscomb is already an articulate critic of economic injustice when we first meet her. More importantly, her appearances before the camera generate suspicion for the same reason that Bushʼs do, because the film has made us hyper-alert to them as performances. Despite her protestations to a passer-by that her tearful visit to the White House isnʼt staged, the Jerry Springer style of her emoting is too identifiably mediated to be entirely engaging.

Lipscomb, of course, is a stand-in for Moore, another angry, overweight activist from the devastated Michigan town where he grew up and made Roger and Me. But no surrogate can deflect attention from the real star of this documentary, however off-screen. And here Mooreʼs foregrounding of performance, particularly mediated performance, rebounds on him. Thus, when I proposed seeing Fahrenheit 9/11 to a BBC documentary director, she declined, with a very uncharacteristic diatribe about how Moore made millions from his films and treated his researchers badly. Similarly, in the liberal press (ʻthe preening Michael Mooreʼ, ʻbuffoonish self-aggrandisementʼ [7] ) Mooreʼs work seems to attract such ad hominems, since its interest in the deceptiveness of mediated performance directs the spectator to scrutinize his own, in and out of his films. In apparent acknowledgement of this, Dude, Whereʼs My Country? includes a letter from the author to the president, thanking him for his 4 per cent tax cut in a year where his savings were more than Bush and Cheneyʼs combined – and then pledging them to the campaigns of opposition candidates. ʻThere is great ironyʼ, he admitted to the Guardianʼs Gary Younge, ʻthat, by railing against the wealthy, I have had the fortune of this financial success.ʼ [8]

Can Mooreʼs candour about his financial success re-establish the sincerity of his public persona? It certainly canʼt bridge the gap between representation and reality that his own performative documentaries disclose. But Mooreʼs success may be the point.

Surely the closest precedent for his career is not that of Grierson or Morris but of an earlier ʻpublicist of geniusʼ criticized by E.P. Thompson for ʻglibnessʼ and described in his lifetime as ʻno Examinerʼ. [9] Like Moore, this self-educated egalitarian stood for a graduated income tax, public funding for education and pensions, arbitration instead of war. And, as we know (not least by his own statements), his publications broke all sales records. Such was their fame that they vastly extended a public sphere confined by limited literacy. Recently Tom Paineʼs writings have been reconsidered as a harbinger of modern celebrity culture – massified, commercial, phantasmatic but (sometimes) transformative. [10] If the polemics of his political descendant have anything like their influence, Bush could lose on 2 November. On the other hand, that train could run over us all.

Notes

1. ^ Louis Menand, ʻNanook and Meʼ, New Yorker, 9 August 2004, pp. 90–96.

2. ^ Stella Bruzzi, New Documentary, Routledge, London, 2000, pp. 153–80.

3. ^ In an interview with Gavin Smith, ʻThe Ending Is Up to Youʼ, Film Comment, July–August 2004, p. 25.

4. ^ Ibid.

5. ^ Iʼm indebted to Laura Mulvey for this observation.

6. ^ John Berger, ʻThe Beginning of Historyʼ, Guardian, 24 August 2004, p. 13.

7. ^ Mary Riddell, ʻThis Is No Parody Presidentʼ, Observer, 5 September 2004, p. 28; Kent Jones, ʻMuch Moreʼ, Film Comment, July–August 2004, p. 20.

8. ^ Gary Younge, ʻThe Capped Crusaderʼ, Guardian, 4 October 2003, reprinted in Michael Moore, Dude, Whereʼs My Country?, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 2003, p. 262.

9. ^ William Blake, quoted in E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968, pp. 98–102.

10. ^ Chris Rojek, Celebrity, Reaktion, London, 2001, pp. 107–10.

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