Tuesday, May 4, 2010
(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2004)
I must admit that despite my clear sympathies with the film’s politics, I have only a half-hearted desire to write about Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. My general mixed feelings about it are shared, it seems, by the great majority of critics; like The Passion Of The Christ a few months ago, this is one example where it might be more interesting to review the press coverage than the film itself. But if you’re going to do a movie column, this is clearly a film you have to write about, so here it is.
I saw the film at 3:50 on the opening Saturday afternoon in one of the Paramount’s bigger theatres, and it was virtually sold out. The audience, apparently consisting mainly of people in their twenties or early thirties, had a film festival feel about it. Moore deserves huge credit for having raised the status of political documentary to such a commercial level; even if he’s lucky in his timing, you can’t fault him for taking his chances. Some see this a different way; Mark Kermode in The Guardian wrote: “in the area of shameless self-publicity, Moore remains unsurpassed, finding a way to turn every situation to his egotistical advantage.”
Bottom line: I don’t think the film has any insights as intriguing as Bowling For Columbine’s dissection of America’s self-fuelling culture of fear. It takes on an even larger subject, but even though Moore is more disciplined in limiting his trademark stunts (he’s seen on screen only a few times in the film), he barely seems in control of the material as a whole. His anger is so all-consuming that he can hardly let any target go, regardless of the consequences for overall coherence.
The film’s opening third, concentrating on Bush’s idiocy and his web of connections (in particular those between the Bush family and the Saudis) is a peppy feast of montage, operating on a “no smoke without fire” kind of basis (as Gwen Ifill pointed out on Meet The Press, Moore builds his case on much the same basis as the Bush administration pieced together the case for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and links with Al-Qaeda). The closing third concentrates on the blue collar soldiers who carry out the orders, and in particular on a grieving mother from Michigan, whose dead son deplored the war’s uselessness in his last letter home. The contrast between the two doesn’t break new ground but it effectively reinforces old notions of complacent, ignorant generals who barely spare a thought for the men they treat as cannon fodder.
In between he recounts how the Bushites seized on 9/11 to push through regressive, ill-considered anti-civil rights legislation. Moore seems to imply that this was a piece of rank opportunism, representing the realization of a long-held right-wing dream, but he doesn’t pursue the point – another potentially fascinating line of investigation that gets away from him.
Moore isn’t a simple pacifist – for example he seems to attack Bush for waiting as long as he did to go after bin Laden in Afghanistan. Although that position obviously doesn’t necessarily contradict his opposition to the aggressive stance on Iraq, it seems here more than a bit opportunistic and hindsight-driven. One could make similar comments about much else in the film. How much one cares about these things will probably depend on one’s preconceptions. But I doubt that a great documentary (such as the work of Frederick Wiseman or Marcel Ophuls) ought to lean so heavily on the indulgence of its audience.
A few writers have hypothesized that just as The Passion Of Christ was red meat for the right wing fundamental base, Fahrenheit 9/11 will be a rallying cry for the left. The movie is a staggering success, so in a close race Moore may well achieve his ambition of helping to kick Bush out of office. That’s fine with me, but there’s not much to be said for a society where a glib film might have such an impact. Even a cursory awareness of the media over the term of the Bush presidency renders the film’s information content minimal.
As for the film’s top award at Cannes, every juror stated specifically that they cast their vote because of the film’s artistic merit, not from political sympathy. Well, I flat out don’t believe them.
In another kind of political statement, Mario van Peebles’ new film depicts the making of the 1971 black cinema classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Assss Song. The film, featuring the provocative adventures of an emblematic black protagonist sticking it to the Man, was written and directed by Mario’s father Melvin, who also starred in it after he couldn’t find anyone better, and it was a huge success. I haven’t seen the film for a while, but it’s probably more interesting now as a political statement than as a viewing experience. Many commentators on the Internet Movie Database (which, by the way, I find an increasingly useful source for taking the current cultural temperature on movies) dismiss it as poorly made soft porn. But as Baadasssss makes clear, Melvin van Peebles astutely realized that true black cinema had to reject all conventions of the well-made Hollywood film, including aesthetic standards as well as norms of standards and taste.
There’s nothing as radical about the new film, but it’s a very effective telling of the tale, starting out generally as broad comedy as Melvin scrounges around for money and assembles a wackily diverse crew, and gradually becoming more morose as his problems become profound and the whole thing nearly collapses on him. In a much-debated scene, Melvin used 12-year-old Mario for the scene where young Sweetback loses his virginity. Now grown up, Mario recreates the arguments surrounding that scene in much detail, but ultimately presents it as the springboard for a better relationship between the father and son. In this and other ways, Baadasssss could almost be intended as a love letter to the old man.
Sweetback broke the barrier – it’s said that Shaft, originally meant for a white actor, was only rewritten for a black man after Melvin Van Peebles’ success, and then everything else went on from there. But he wasn’t able to build much of a film career from it, and he now seems like a marginal, catalytic figure. Mario’s recent filmography (like that of Wesley Snipes, Eddie Murphy and most other black leading men you can think of) also consists of acres of crap, in which the new film stands as a lonely island of quality. I find this rather poignant, as though the original exclusion or belittlement of black culture, rather than being transformed, had now been replaced by another form of stereotyping and nullification, and the only way out was to grab again at past glories, in the hope that they might have more staying power the second time around.