BEA 2011 — Michael Moore

A somewhat trashed Michael Moore arrived ten minutes late for his Wednesday morning “signature event” (“a unique new opportunity here,” according to the man who introduced him, who also declared that Moore “forces us to react”) at BookExpo America. Moore, dressed in a red baseball cap and green cargo shorts, began his presentation by offering tepid yet crowd-pleasing quips about the Republicans cutting the Veterans Administration, eliminating traffic lights, and getting rid of kittens.

“Enough picking on them,” said Moore. “They’ve got a rough road ahead of them.” He then continued with a lot of football metaphors for the audience, which didn’t really look like sports enthusiasts. “I was saying last night, you know, they caught this great pass back in November and they started running in the opposite direction back on the football field away from their goal!”

It appeared that Moore didn’t quite understand the type of audience that comes to BEA.

“I assume most of you work in bookstores?” uptalked Moore. “The librarians are here?” When a handful of teachers responded to his Catskills act, he replied, “Some teachers? Oh great. Of course teachers are to blame for everything. All the money that they’re taking from us.”

Then having secured a low-key audience, Moore announced his new book, Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life, due out in September. The book, a collection of two dozen short stories (“but they’re all nonfiction”), chronicles Moore’s life before Roger & Me.

“There’s a short story about getting lost inside the Capitol building at eleven years old,” said Moore. “I didn’t see the sign that said SENATORS ONLY.” A man reading a newspaper — who turned out to be Robert Kennedy — helped Moore find his parents that day.

Another story involves Moore asking his parents if he could leave home at fourteen. “I said I wanted to be a priest. So I went to the seminary at fourteen years old.” Moore explained that the story allowed him to investigate his Catholicism.

“There’s a whole bunch of things like that,” said Moore. “I found myself present at a terrorist incident in the 1980s.” That incident allowed Moore to “write about what it’s like to actually be present at one of those terrorist incidents and live.”

The book, continued Moore with his masterful aw-shucks put on, “explains how I got to be where I got.” Yet he never explained how any of his stories, which also concern how he hired many ex-Navy SEALS for his security detail, would be of value to someone who was unemployed or trying to pay off a subprime loan. Moore reported that the stories were “interesting and wild. Some are funny and not so funny.”

Moore than read an excerpt from his book (and most of his presentation time was devoted to this). The excerpt recreated his infamous night at the 2003 Academy Awards. “It’s weird,” said Moore in the middle of reading. “It’s the first time I’ve read those words out loud since that night.”

Moore’s excerpt revealed that Moore was convinced that he had let everybody down. “I ruined their night and I suddenly sunk into a pit of despair,” read Moore. But there was more than a hint of self-aggrandizement in his excerpt. “People stepped away from me for fear that their picture would be taken.” This correspondent had to wonder if other people considered Moore to be as important as he clearly thought himself to be. Moore noted that film studio executive Sherry Lansing came up to him and said, “It hurts now. Someday you’ll be right. I’m so proud of you.” Moore’s excerpt revealed that he “believed they were right. I got to listen to more boos over the next 24 hours. Going through the hotel. Walking through the airport.”

But Moore’s excerpt was disingenuous. Because he failed to observe that when you say something outrageous and/or contrarian before a large crowd, they’re not exactly going to welcome you in open arms. When he returned home from the Oscars ceremony, he saw signs tacked up on his property.

“It was time to call in the Navy SEALS,” Moore read with typical subtlety. Moore explained that he had hired a security group composed of former SEALS, that he had been assaulted and people had tried to assault him, and that one person had tried to blow up his house. “The SEALS basically saved me and kept me alive.”

Kept Moore alive? Moore has certainly said and filmed many brave and provocative moments in his career. But I wasn’t quite sold on his pity act. Perhaps there’s an additional moment in his forthcoming book in which he comes to terms with the fact that he’s a loudmouth. But that pivotal introspection and unapologetic acceptance of his nature seemed to be missing.

This discrepancy proved especially troubling when Moore painted two of his enemies as obsequious types seeking an apology. One guy who called him a “shithead” allegedly recanted. “I told him that we had more in common than not. Eventually I got a smile from him.” Another man working the boom mike on The Tonight Show approached Moore shortly after his guest appearance. He had apparently yelled “Asshole” at the Oscars. According to Moore, this man had tears in his eyes and said, “I never thought I’d see you again. I can’t believe I’d get the chance to apologize to you.” “You did nothing wrong,” replied Moore. “You believed your President. You’re supposed to believe your President. If we can’t expect that as the minimum in office, then we’re doomed.”

To turn Moore’s logic around, if we can’t expect the filmmaker to consider that there may be problems with his approach and that not all of humanity will bow in sycophantic deference, then perhaps his book project is a doomed prospect for anybody who disagrees with his politics or his methods.

When he finished reading, there was a loud applause.

“That was really cool,” said Moore. “I got to do this for the first time.” Moore didn’t thank the crowd.

Review: Capitalism: A Love Story


It seems to me that, if you’re rolling out the howitzers with the intent to destroy an ideology, you should probably blow the shit out of everything. But Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, feels passe and diffident, despite the fact that it has gone out of its way to include footage from only a few weeks ago. Maybe this film’s dated feel has much to do with our present information age. In an age of YouTube and Twitter, how can any well-meaning documentary capture a permanent image for posterity? But Moore’s best films (Bowling for Columbine and Sicko) have worked because they operated within a specific focus. By examining one aspect of the failed American system, Moore has demonstrated a knack for showing a regular audience how the world works according to his mind. But with a more general emphasis, Capitalism: A Love Story, much like Moore’s narcissistic offering The Big One, is unfocused, messy, and even contemptuous of its intended audience.

For example, Moore suggests that the derivatives which guide the stock market cannot be understood by anybody but the Wall Street guys. As one economist explains a derivative to Moore, we see Moore’s eyes glaze over. Moore then cuts to an academic having difficulty explaining a derivative. Lost within all this didactic comedy is the fact that a collective website called Wikipedia allowed people to come together to explain a derivative in fairly straightforward terms .

But forget how the Internet can galvanize the people (and lead Obama to presidential victory). Let’s talk about the distinct possibility that Moore’s starting to rust within his gilded cage. Since Moore has clearly not thought much about his thesis, he seems to have fallen asleep at the wheel of his liberal limousine. He looks into the recent Pennsylvania child care scandal, in which two Pennsylvania judges bartered kids for cash. But he doesn’t use his ambush tactics to interview the two judges. (In fact, unlike Moore’s other films, this film lacks a heavy along the lines of Phil Knight or Charlton Heston for Moore to confront at the end. And without that perceived villain, Moore’s hollow demagoguery is revealed for what it is.)

To the film’s credit, it does go after Democrats — including Senator Christopher Dodd — and points to Democratic complicity in the Goldman Sachs bailout. Moore hasn’t been this vocal about the lies of the two-party system since he campaigned for Ralph Nader in 2000. (He later campaigned against him in 2004.) But Moore is hardly the fearless agitator he thinks he is. He’s too afraid to criticize Obama’s many failings, preferring instead to dwell on that hopeful day in November when we elected “our” candidate and we used “our” votes to get the Democrats into office. Of course, months later, millions of jobs have been lost, the unemployment rate hovers around 10%, and universal health care — part of FDR’s Second Bills of Rights, a clip of which is included in this film — remains distant. But Moore doesn’t pin any of this on Obama. In fact, Bush 43 receives more camera time than Obama. (That’s a bit like a bunch of philosophers arguing about the 1968 riots as people are losing their jobs. Oh wait. I saw that happen last year when Bernard-Henri Levy and Slavoj Žižek argued last year at the Celeste Bartos Forum. I guess we’ll never have the guts to discuss current predicaments.)

Moore points out that Jonas Salk offered his polio vaccine for free. And at the film’s end, Moore suggests that the audience should be doing what Moore’s doing. Of course, this comes after we’ve paid $10 to see the movie. Moore stands to make millions from this movie. Is he really all that different from a rapacious CEO? Glenn Beck may want all of his pie, but then so does Moore. It’s insulting to have someone in the film referring to mainstream media coverage as “propaganda,” when this film clearly serves the same function.

This is not to suggest that our nation doesn’t need a corrective or that Moore’s services are no longer required. There is, frankly, no other filmmaker out there who can get progressive messages out to a mass audience. He is not, as The New York Times suggested, our little tramp, but there’s nobody else out there stepping up to the plate in quite this way. But Moore’s party mix of stock footage, snarky narration, and righteous indignation is starting to wear thin. It’s the kind of thing we expect out of a filmmaker in his twenties and his thirties, not a 55-year-old filmmaker. Moore naively believes that Wallace Shawn’s presence will somehow attract his established liberal affluent audience. But this is clearly a film made for Middle America, and it doesn’t understand that Middle Americans are often much smarter than bicoastal elitists.

Case in point. The naive majorette Rachel Sklar, who participated in an intellectual sweatshop during her tenure at the Huffington Post by collecting a salary while not paying her contributors, tweeted in response: “WOW. Michael Moore’s latest movie is gonna stir up some SERIOUS shit. Wow. Wow. One more time: Wow.”

No, it’s not. You can cream your pants like it’s the first time all you want, but capitalism isn’t going away.

In fact, Moore’s film really isn’t all that anticapitalist. As Moore points out, capitalism under a more equitable tax system wasn’t so bad for the middle-class. (See this helpful spreadsheet from the IRS containing lowest and highest bracket tax rats from 1913 through 2008. From 1944 to 1963, the highest bracket tax rate hovered around 91%.)

Moore pins the blame on Reagan. And the highest bracket tax rate did indeed fall from 70% to 50% in 1982, eventually down to 30% in Reagan’s second term. But drops, as we all know, occur in degrees. This didn’t happen overnight. Surely President Johnson should be held just as accountable.

So if we accept Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, as a series of generalist sentiments designed to fire up the masses, then, to my mind, it’s probably Moore’s most toothless and tepid film. The film is entertaining enough. We get the obligatory shots of Moore being denied entrance into corporate buildings by security and Moore shouting through a bullhorn. We are horrified by Wal-Mart filing a life insurance policy against one of its employees and collecting a tidy sum (without a cent going to the family), as well as the phrase “dead peasants” used in the insurance policy. On the other hand, if people have allowed capitalism to continue, shouldn’t they be taken to task just as much as the corporations? The film’s credits feature numerous quotes from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. One key Jeffersonian sentiment that’s missing: People get the government they deserve.