Monday, September 20, 2004

"Fahrenheit 1941"

Many people loathe Michael Moore's America-mocking "Fahrenheit 9/11." I'm one of them. But to simply dismiss it and insult the filmmaker's girth is to miss the depth of the depraved genius in it. The movie is a very capable bit of propaganda. It is right out of the school of Frank Capra's "Why We Fight" films from World War II.

Yet the nefarious irony in that comparison is that while Capra's depictions were meant to rally Americans to uphold the torch of freedom and overcome latent isolationism in the name of civilization, Moore's modern equivalent is propaganda made here at home for the benefit of the enemy. The religious authorities in Iran, for instance, scrapped the scheduled program at the Farabi Cinema complex in Tehran to put Moore's masterpiece on display. "This film unmasks the Great Satan America," a spokesman said. "It tells Muslim people why they are right in hating America. It is the duty of every believer to see [this film] and learn the truth."

"Prelude to War" won the Academy Award for best documentary of 1942. Moore wants his to win best picture of 2004. How ironic is it that the most significant piece of Hollywood propaganda produced in this war is lauded by the people who would burn Hollywood to ash and sow its soil with salt if they had the chance?

Yet he fed it to us, and we ate it up.

Capra's propaganda films began as orientation pieces for U.S. troops. At Roosevelt's urging, they were released in public theaters as well. Capra's bright idea was to damn the enemy with his own work. Instead of shooting new film, he picked out snippets of existing footage and pasted them together in a way that presented a grotesque vision of the Axis.

Capra's raw material was millions of feet of confiscated or captured newsreels and propaganda films; he even used Japanese samurai movies and domestic dramas from the 1930s. With his legendary cutting-room skills and his eye for bold juxtapositions he made America and her allies shine (including the murderous Soviet Union), and showed off the Axis -- not just its leaders but the whole people of Italy, Germany, and Japan -- as demonic: regimented nations of ruthless killers, blindly devoted to their leaders. The enemies' menace contrasted with the freedoms and accomplishments of the Americans and their allies; the free world and the fascists; the Allied "way of life" vs. the Axis "way of death."

Like Capra, Moore mostly used footage shot by others when he cobbled together "Fahrenheit 9/11." The IMDB "cast" list for the film names 40 public figures; of these, 37 are credited as from "archival footage." Even the common soldiers portrayed often weren't filmed by Moore. Some are from an Australian documentary, "Soundtrack to War," and were used despite the objection of film-maker George Gittoes.

"I was concerned of course for my soldiers because their interviews were taken out of context," Gittoes told the Nine Network. "There are about 17 scenes from my documentary in his film. I wouldn't go so far as to say he lifted (them). Michael got access to my stuff and assumed that I would be happy for it to be in 9/11. I would actually have been quite happy for it not to be in 9/11." Gittoes said he had no idea his work was in "Fahrenheit 9/11" until it was screened at the Cannes film festival.

Moore's archival footage of Baghdad before the invasion shows the kind of happy glow Capra might have given to the American hearth: "a place filled with nothing but happy, smiling, giggly, overjoyed Baghdadis. No pain and suffering there. No rape, murder, gassing, imprisoning, silencing of the citizens in these scenes." [Jeff Jarvis, Buzz Machine weblog] And where Capra showed the devastated cities of China strewn with civilian corpses, Moore gives us a U.S. military campaign in Iraq that seems to have killed only women and children.

Even when he does use his own footage, Moore edits it mercilessly to make it say what he insists is true. Rep. Mark Kennedy, one of the lawmakers buttonholed by Moore and asked why he won't send his children to fight in Iraq, ends up on the screen looking "bewildered and defensive." It was such a good few seconds that Moore put it in his trailer. But that was the initial shock of the accosting. The rest of the exchange, as transcribed on Moore's own Web site goes, in part, like this:

Moore: Is there any way you could help me with that?

Kennedy: How would I help you?

Moore: Pass it out to other members of Congress.

Kennedy: I’d be happy to — especially those who voted for the war. I have a nephew on his way to Afghanistan.

But that, of course, ends up on the cutting room floor. Meanwhile, another Congressman among those Moore says would not "sacrifice their children" in Iraq is Mike Castle of Delaware, who has no children.

A scene that has been re-enacted at least a dozen times in my hearing by the denizens of my newsroom is the one where Bush speaks to a tuxedoed audience and says, "I call you the haves and the have-mores. Some call you the elite; I call you my base."

The joke follows several segments in which Bush is accused of having started the Iraq war to enrich big corporations. Juxtaposition, juxtaposition, juxtaposition. The speech actually comes from the Oct. 19, 2000, Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. Bush and Gore were the co-guests of honor at the event, and they followed the dinner's tradition of speakers poking fun at themselves. So far from raking in plutocrat gold, Bush was speaking at an annual dinner that raises money for Catholic hospital charities in New York City.

Another big laugh-line is the one where Condoleezza Rice says, "Oh, indeed there is a tie between Iraq and what happened on 9/11." Here is what Rice really said on the CBS Early Show, Nov. 28, 2003:

Oh, indeed there is a tie between Iraq and what happened on 9/11. It’s not
that Saddam Hussein was somehow himself and his regime involved in 9/11, but, if you think about what caused 9/11, it is the rise of ideologies of hatred that lead people to drive airplanes into buildings in New York. This is a great terrorist, international terrorist network that is determined to defeat freedom. It has perverted Islam from a peaceful religion into one in which they call on it for violence. And they're all linked. And Iraq is a central front because, if and when, and we will, we change the nature of Iraq to a place that is peaceful and democratic and prosperous in the heart of the Middle East, you will begin to change the Middle East ....

Capra didn't want to be a propagandist at first. When Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall approached him with the idea, he demurred, saying he'd never made a documentary before. Marshall told him, "Capra, I have never been Chief of Staff before. Thousands of young Americans have never had their legs shot off before. Boys are commanding ships today who a year ago had never seen the ocean before." Capra apologized and signed on to make "the best damned documentary films ever made." After he began the project he said that all he had to do was let the enemy be himself on film, "and our fighting men will know why they are in uniform."

Michael Moore doesn't have to be talked into propaganda. He wallows in it. And just like Capra, he knows very clearly who the enemy is, who the heroes are, what he hates, and why:

"The motivation for war is simple. The U.S. government started the war with Iraq in order to make it easy for U.S. corporations to do business in other countries. They intend to use cheap labor in those countries, which will make Americans rich."


"The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not "insurgents" or "terrorists" or "The Enemy." They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow -- and they will win."

He fed it to us, and we ate it up. The modern-day Capra is working for the benefit of the new Nazis. He's so powerful John Kerry is afraid to speak his name. Yet the most rabid Kerry backers in my precinct chant it like a mantra to one another.

My blowhard Chomskyite co-workers think he's the most important man alive. One dismissed the attrocities of Sherman's march through Georgia in 1864 as of no moral importance, saying, "That was OK because we did it to ourselves." The same person's reaction to our banner headline coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks was, "don't you think we're going overboard about this?"

I recognized the same voice, and the same mentality, when I read Ed Koch's account of a post-9/11 conversation with Moore, in which the filmmaker said, "I don't know why we are making so much of an act of terror. It is three times more likely that you will be struck by lightning than die from an act of terror."

Like a lot of people in this election, I find myself preparing to cast a negative vote. I'm not "for" George Bush. I'm for "anyone but Michael Moore."