INCENDIARY: FAHRENHEIT 9/11 AND THE PASSION ACCORDING TO MICHAEL
Michael Moore's documentary about the failure of the current Bush administration promises to be the biggest independently released film since Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. But can it reach out to broader audiences, or will it merely preach to the converted?
A couple of months ago, I got into an argument with a moviegoer about Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's scathing documentary about the systemic amorality of so-called Big Business, The Corporation. We both admired the film, and even sympathized with its outlook, but my comrade took offense that I insisted on characterizing it ultimately as "propaganda". "Just because we agree with what it's saying doesn't mean it's not propaganda," I argued in vain.
The idea that propaganda can come from the left may surprise the more naive (or idealistic--you decide) since the term has become intrinsically tied to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis. (It's hard not to read Goebbels' official title within the Third Reich as classic Orwellian doublethink: Minister of Propaganda AND National Enlightenment.)
Consequently, nowadays the word is almost exclusively used to describe any work strongly espousing a point of view we disagree with. (The fact that the Soviets were also fond of the term to promote Bolshevism in state-sponsored arts probably doesn't help.) For those on the Left, Rush Limbaugh's radio show fits the bill; on the right, Michael Moore's documentaries. The truth lies somewhere in between: the term applies to both.
The term propaganda isn't a value judgment. Yes, all propagandas are trying to sell you an ideology, but what's they're selling isn't necessarily a bad thing. Propagandas are ideologically motivated--but said work is propagandistic regardless of what the ideology is or how you feel about it.
It's hard to be an ambivalent propagandist. Ideally, the propagandist is passionate about something, and wants to share their passion to reach out and convince the unconverted. We can debate whether propaganda can achieve the desired results in our supposedly media savvy age (although a friend was lead to question her previously unshakable support of capital punishment after seeing Dead Man Walking). I think the true purpose of any propaganda is to solidify the base. Sure, you might sway some of the undecided, but opponents are likely to dismiss the work as "heavy-handed". The real social value of propaganda is to solidify your base, keep the troops motivated, and renew confidence in the true believers.
Michael Moore makes no secrets about his goals for his latest film. He wants to bring down the Bush presidency. If nothing else, he says, he hopes it will "inspire people to get up and vote in November." But after a rapturous premiere at Cannes last night, the question on many people's minds is whether he'll be the first documentary filmmaker in the festival's 58 years to walk away with the prestigious Palme D'Or. (I'm doubtful, with the pragmatic and apolitical Quentin Tarantino as Jury Head--although Harvey did say it was OK.)
Rest assured, however, that all the golden leaves in the world won't mean squat to Moore if he can't get his film out to the American public before the Presidential Election.
Miramax had initially planned for a July 4 opening (get it? get it?), but parent company Disney balked, wanting instead to hold the film until after November. Moore flipped-out, and Miramax head-honcho Harvey Weinstein reportedly bought the film from Disney in order to sell it to a third party to distribute it in the U.S. As of this writing, no distributor was yet willing to take it on (or at least Harvey hadn't agreed to terms).
If the film really is as damning as the advance notice suggests, I understand why image-conscious distributors are shying away. But I have little doubt it'll eventually find a home because everyone knows one thing: it's going to make a ton of money. I normally don't care about these sorts of things, but Moore's Bowling for Columbine already has the record for the highest grossing documentary of all time. Given Bush's approval ratings are dropping by the hour, I think Fahrenheit 9/11 could challenge the propagandistic The Passion of the Christ as the highest grossing "independent" film of all time.
Yes, I think The Passion of the Christ is propaganda. It's designed explicitly to affirm faith in Christ as the Redeemer, Messiah, and Son of God with no fair room for dissenting opinion (hence, in part, the unfavorable depiction of the Pharisees and other Jews). Unlike Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, there's no doubt or uncertainty in Gibson's film. As a nonbeliever, Scorsese's film pulled me in because doubt and uncertainty were so central to the film's conception of Jesus. Beset by human fears and insecurities, this Jesus even questions himself. When He finally chooses to accept His divinity, there's a powerful emotional weight to His sacrifice.
The sheer physical violence perpetuated against Gibson's Jesus I think illustrates how closed The Passion is to outsiders. And Gibson can't claim he's merely telling it like it was. Nothing in the Bible or historical records even suggests Jesus was so brutally tortured. Yet the unrelenting gore is central to Gibson's film because the violence accumulates a symbolic heft: this is the physical manifestation of our collective sin, Gibson suggests. Look at His wounds. He died for our sins.
I'm not going to accuse Gibson of anything so cynical as a cheap money-grab, because I think he made the film out of his own deep faith. (Exhibit A: Gibson funded the movie out of his own pockets when no other backing could be secured and none of the major studios wanted to release it.) But he clearly tapped into a large audience of passionate, like-minded individuals, and made a killing at the box office. I'm sure I saw people at the Cumberland for The Passion that hadn't been out to a movie in at least a decade.
Given Bush's approval rating is dropping by the hour, I have little doubt Fahrenheit 9/11 will be a massive hit if it's released as planned. In fact, I'm willing to bet that every moviegoer who didn't see The Passion will rush out and see Moore's film. (There might even be some crossover.)
And so, despite what you might think, the question isn't whether Moore can sway his opponents. He doesn't need to. If he succeeds in motivating the undecided and apathetic (American voter turnout rate still hovers at 51%), that will be more than enough to comfortably defeat Bush.
But I'm wondering if the film will inspire a backlash that could come around and bite him in the ass. Moore's already an unpopular guy in some circles. This might add fuel to the fire, and if the perception is that he's "picking" on Bush, it could solidify and extend the President's political base.
But if the film follows in the questioning approach of his other filmmaking work, I think he's got a real chance to help sway U.S. politics with an important film. After all, what impressed me most about Bowling for Columbine is his reluctance to quickly blame an easy target, and instead searches for a deeper for answers within the fabric of society. I'm not sure if he came up with all the answers, and I'm not sure if that's the point. The fact that it lead me to think more critically about gun violence in American society seems its most noble accomplishment.
Here's hoping for another success.