It’s been ten days since I saw the new Michael Moore film, when I was in New York. Then and now, it struck me as being inferior to Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Bowling for Columbine, yet singular none the less in a way that only a Michael Moore film can be, less for its own qualities (cinematic, political, aesthetic) than for the unique cultural function it has. In a country that essentially has no news, only a series of screeds designed to either stroke or else violently refute or ignore one’s own particular biases (pace Rachel Maddow, cued laughs and all), Moore’s movies wind up teaching us things even if we don’t see them because of the way that certain second-hand kernels of information get filtered down to us. And I certaiinly include myself in this process. Capitalism: A Love Story taught me several things I had known either nothing or very little about — perhaps most importantly, Franklin Roosevelt’s call for a “second Bill of Rights” shortly before his death that ensured the right of individuals to have a job, a decent wage, and health care. Seeing that clip of FDR giving that long-suppressed and forgotten speech is reason enough to see this film.
The most limiting factor in Capitalism isn’t so much Moore’s writing or filmmaking as his familiar persona — which has become a kind of trap for him insofar as we expect certain things from this comic-strip figure, meaning that he always has to go through certain paces in order to “satisfy” his public, never mind how mechanical or artificial this process turns out to be in fulfilling this agenda. This is geneally a matter of staging charade-like stunts in front of public buildings in order to “dramatize” his polemical positions. Usually it entails turning himself, the people he confronts (often lowly service workers such as guards), and the members of his audience into a pack of grotesque jokers. I’ll never forget that moment in Sicko when we saw him ambling down a neighborhood street in Havana, asking various locals whether one could find a doctor anywhere in this country, or words to that effect: a bogus gesture of making the American dumbbell figure a “lovable” innocent and a boor at the same time, as if to prove not only his authenticity, but our own authenticity in appreciating this innocent boorishness. I think this Moore trope is beginning to backfire as well as wear thin, not only because he assumes that we expect it from him (which makes his opinion of us even lower than it already was), but also because he doesn’t seem even remotely capable of avoiding it.
But this is small potatoes alongside the importance of what Moore is offering, as usual — which can be characterized, again as usual, mainly as the news, or at least as a corrective to what the “news” omits. [10/6/09]