October 08, 2008

Politics Politics Politics

So, uh, who here has seen Michael Moore's latest film Slacker Uprising, graciously offered as a free gift to residents of the U.S. and Canada? Spoiler alert! It's about how Michael Moore singlehandedly won the youth vote for John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential election. (You're welcome.) It really is a sight to see, so watch it for free while you can--formerly, and more appropriately, titled Captain Mike Across America at last year's TIFF, Slacker Uprising may be the film that cements his long-term relevance to the art world and emphasizes his newfound irrelevance to everything else. You want a movie that can definitively link Moore to Leni Riefenstahl--so definitively, in fact, that it makes the comparison embarrassingly obvious? Well, here it is: a 62-city rock-the-vote tour that finds Michael Moore energizing enormous, faceless crowds of "slackers" (read: college students) who seem less interested in his message than his presence, which is given extra weight by fawning introductions from Joan Baez and R.E.M.

Predictably, Moore also takes the opportunity to a lodge a hypersensitive defense of Fahrenheit 9/11, wagging a finger at the media for their own propagandistic tactics and refuting the guys who call him a communist without seeing his work. Apparently, Moore tells us, 44% of polled Republicans who saw the movie felt that it offered a fair portrait of the President. In presenting that little tidbit, it seems brazenly prickish (and, it goes without saying, enormously self-centered) to dare right-wingers to picket his tour, and to keep his camera solely focused on the lunatic fringe--the folks who admit their ignorance to the issues but will vote for the guy who has a personal covenant with the man upstairs. I realize that it can be more than a little disconcerting--this idea that no matter how batshit insane or ridiculously uninformed you are, you can vote so long as you're not a convicted felon--but, um, isn't Moore essentially enabling a whole new crowd of scary voters with his indiscriminate bid to get warm bodies into the polling booths? Fight fire with fire, I guess, but I don't know if it's possible to see Moore's crusade against George W. Bush as anything less than a personal vendetta: it's not specifically about the war or the 2000 vote anymore--he wants to hurt this motherfucker, bad. The so-called Slacker Uprising chronicles nothing of the sort; it's just a paean to its own creator and a sissy-slapfight waiting to happen. I'd say that Moore just wrote his own pink slip with this film--but let's wait for the election, and Oliver Stone's W., before we can come to any concrete conclusions.

Imbued with a slightly masochistic desire to watch documentaries about self-centered jackasses, I went to see Religulous over the weekend. Honestly, there isn't a whole lot to say about it, except that I wish that Bill Maher would spend more time talking about the bizarre attempts to reconcile faith and science and less time trying to discredit their interviewees with sarcastic subtitles as they fumble for the right words. In fact, let's say that I wish that Maher had spent more time implicating himself as a member of the human race, instead of placing himself smugly above it--what else can you say about a man who says that he thinks you're smart and rational until faith enters the equation, upon which time he declares that you have a neurological disorder? Oh sure, he drops little hints of his own brushes with faith and religion, but even as a kid, he was too smart for that shit.

If history has taught us anything, it's that fear and passion have a fucked-up effect on the human psyche, but what Religulous taught me is that we can avoid obliterating ourselves with a self-righteous mushroom cloud if we were more like Bill Maher; if we were to adopt his sense of all-encompassing doubt and, perhaps, his messiah complex along with it. Dare we imply that arrogance is one of the reasons why religion has helped steer us onto the path of self-destruction? "Everyone in America needs to see this movie," someone behind me remarked as the end credits rolled, and it's that kind of reaction that I fear most from Religulous, this belief that watching it will endow each and every one its viewers with some mystical sense of self-awareness--more likely, it will convince its own holier-than-thou choir to adopt a sense of apathy to world events, convinced that they're not a member of the unwashed masses. I mean, I dunno, what do you think: when you're discussing something as ostensibly universal--yet so intensely personal--as faith, how distant can/should a director/host remain from the action?

I tried my damnedest to sneak into An American Carol shortly after I saw Religulous, but no such luck--while seventeen of the multiplex's nineteen theaters could be found on the second floor, An American Carol was on the ground floor alongside Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, presumably because they are the films at highest risk to be populated by moochers. You win this round, fall releases not screened for critics! So I pays my moneys and watch the movie with seven other people present in the theater--two of whom walk out about a half hour in. I somehow managed to stick it out and, frankly, I'm still waiting for David Zucker to pop up out of nowhere and throw a pie in my face.

There's one particular scene that leads me to that flabbergasted conclusion: Before a pair cops can search a couple of middle-eastern guys, a cadre of literal zombies representing the ACLU barge in, moaning about the Fourth Amendment. ("I'm premenstrual!" the token female zombie adds. Ha ha! Bitches, man--am I right?) "Thank Allah for the ACLU," one of the Middle Eastern guys mutters, shortly before George S. Patton (Kelsey Grammer) jumps in and blows them apart with a twelve gauge. We never actually get to see the bomb in question before Patton blows them to kingdom come, and... just... no. You can't possibly expect me to see this as even remotely acceptable. My own sense of doubt tends to take over during moments like these, attempting to convince me that I've missed something important. Call it cathartic fantasy if you want, but no one can possibly be this ignorant, no one can be this much of a balls-out hypocrite.

Could it be that An American Carol is actually a subtle, complex satire of partisan bickering? Hell, there's even a scene in which Dennis Hopper, playing a federal judge, takes a gun and fires wildly into a crowd of those ACLU zombies before they can take the Ten Commandments off the wall and--gasp--enact gun control! Shoot 'Em Up was a little too obvious to be truly effective, but I was willing to play along, and I thought I sensed something along those same lines here. Patton takes anti-American filmmaker Michael Malone (Kevin Farley) through vital moments in world history to demonstrate where war has been necessary (the Munich Agreement and a hypothetical modern America where slavery was never abolished)--but wait, I thought the George Clooney analogue was there to demonstrate how we shouldn't belabor the past, what with his irrelevant films about Nazis and Joe McCarthy! Malone expresses ignorant surprise that members of the Military went to college--but wait, I thought colleges were hotbeds of anti-American subversion! And so on.

Slacker Uprising more or less confirms that Michael Moore is an almost obscenely easy target, too obvious to ignore. Between the cheap fat jokes, An American Carol attempts to gain mileage by mocking the very idea that he is a documentary filmmaker--not because he routinely fudges the facts or that he's relentlessly self-aggrandizing, but because nobody watches documentaries, and maybe he's just not good enough to make feature films. Finally, after Malone undergoes his Dickensian conversion, he becomes a patriotically positive filmmaker who finally gets to make the narrative that he apparently always wanted to make. I want so badly to believe that it's all an elaborate prank--any film that acknowledges Riefenstahl as an integral building block of the Third Reich just has to be aware that the moving image carries immeasurable power in all its forms. But that little coda finally forces me to abandon any thoughts that the joke is on anyone but me: enforcing the same old ass-backwards belief that movies only exist as an escape, and that feel-good fiction is infinitely preferable to a possibly bitter reality. Maybe it's just too frightening to take seriously at first, wondering if anyone could believe that An American Carol is telling it like it is--almost as frightening as the possibility that Sarah Palin could be anywhere within twenty feet of any big red buttons.

Coming soon from yours truly: an incendiary yet logical interview with Ballast director Lance Hammer, and a leap back onto a certain wagon of insanity that I've owed you all for way too long.


Berandor said...

Maher, as I said in the other blog post comment, is a cook. Sure, he's an atheist, but so was Mother Theresa ;-)

That's why he can't protray attempts to reconcile faith and science, because to him, science is just as tenuous. Big Pharma, vaccination, AltMed... he probably is against ID because it's religious, not because it's dumb.

James Allen said...

Even when I can agree with him, I still want to (figuratively) punch Maher in the face. He so lacks any commucative chops that he falls back on his smug stand-up persona, which passed its sell by date about 15 years ago. At least Penn and Teller (overbearing as Penn is) can do this sort of thing with more panache.

It is sort of surreal when all Michael Moore really has left is self-aggrandizing himself for helping a presidential candidate not win. You did hit on something though, Ian, as it seems that the way that Moore wants to get the college kids engaged in the process is by convincing them they can be above it all, which is a thoroughly useless message.

I haven't seen An American Carol but trailers looked damned lame. Talk about things that have passed a sell by date. Making fun of Michael Moore is only slightly more fresh than jokes about Monica Lewinsky. And I know it's not his fault, but Kevin Farley's resemblance to his brother adds an additional layer of creepiness to the procedings.

rachel said...

One great advantage of the Obama campaign is that the country finally has the opportunity to retire its false prophets-- the Michael Moores and Al Sharptons, whose roles as leaders were largely constructed by a media hostile to liberalism and seeking to abbreviate the left to its most clownish elements. It’s be awfully silly, now, to pretend Sharpton speaks for black America when a black man is almost President; it’s difficult to posit Moore as the leading progressive voice when a liberal Rhodes scholar has her own television show with ratings higher than Larry King’s.

To me, the interesting stories are not about those sticking to the same shtick—it’s the attempts of old guard to evolve. The prospect of Al Franken as a senator is fascinating to me; I can’t wait to see a film about that, hopefully made by somebody who isn’t merely a member of the fawning rabble.

Anonymous said...

I made this same point over at the Viddied board, but it really does take a special breed of asshole to find footage of a woman who thought God told her to kill her kids, and then play a jokey pop song over it. Say what you want about Michael Moore, he knows when to pull it back.

James Allen said...

Rachel wrote:

One great advantage of the Obama campaign is that the country finally has the opportunity to retire its false prophets-- the Michael Moores and Al Sharptons, whose roles as leaders were largely constructed by a media hostile to liberalism and seeking to abbreviate the left to its most clownish elements.

An interesting point, Rachel. Although I don't think the media is hostile to liberalism more than it's simply lazy, and I don't exactly see that trend changing anytime soon, regardless of who wins the election.

P.S. By the way, since we were talking about docs, I would absolutely recommend Man on Wire, a film that, despite being about an event that happened 34 years ago, reaffirms my belief in the joys of human creativity and spirit.

theoldboy said...

Again harkening back to a recent Viddied post, I'm kind of a fan of Maher, or at least a fan of his show. His opening monologues are terrible, but the discussions are always far more stimulating than cable news discussions that have been largely neutered by partisan hackery and far more in-depth than Jon Stewart's 5 minute interviews, and his New Rules segments at the end are almost continually on-point.

I haven't seen Religulous and don't particularly want to now, since that's the subject on which he is most problematic in his approach.

jacksommersby said...

Small error in the "Bright Lights, Big City" review:

-- When you saddle's McInerney's book with McInerney, there's bound to be a tendency to respect the text too much. --

"saddle's" should be "saddles"

Bill C said...


(Though actually it shoulda just been "saddle.")

Paul said...

Re: Body of Lies Review:
"(the lovely Golshifteh Fasahani, the first Iranian actress to appear in an American production since 1979)"

What about Shohreh Aghdashloo in House of Sand and Fog?

Walter_Chaw said...

Good point - should have clarified that Fasahani still lives. . . rather, lived, in Iran at the beginning of filming. She has, I guess, been afraid of returning to Iran because authorities have threatened her with imprisonment for participating in this film. Aghdashloo has lived in LA since 1987. She fled Iran during the revolution in 1978 and completed her education in England.

Also - saw the worst film of the year tonight. Zack and Miri Make a Porno. It's not shocking. It's just bad.

Bill C said...

Y'know, there are a lot of filmmakers who've turned to shit after their first few movies, but few have caused me to reevaluate my positive reaction to their early work quite like Kevin Smith. These days, I think I might actually dread his movies more than Brett Ratner's. Anyone read his year-in-the-life diary? It's like AMERICAN PSYCHO without the killing.

Anonymous said...

I've long wondered whether the rest of Kevin Smith's career will end up in an infinitely-repeating loop, alternating between some disastrous personal project and sheepishly retreating back to Jay and Silent Bob because "there's more of the story to be told." Clerks II seemed like an attempt to definitively end the franchise (with the message that it's okay to be a hateful, condescending douchebag so long as you're a self-sufficient one), but you just know that there's some kind of sequel lurking beneath all of that self-deprecating Mallrats banter.

Berandor said...

I read a couple of blog posts from Kevin Smith (it was a Clerks II diary) where he also described whether he had sex with his wife the respective night, and since then, I have not seen one of his films. So I know Chasing Amy, Clerks, Dogma, and I think I once saw ten minutes of Jersey Girl on TV while waiting for someone. From what I hear, there's not much I'm missing.

On another note, here are movie posters featuring all the product placement in the film:
movies with brand integration

Dave Gibson said...

I gotta say I'm quite amused that the talking dog and a cheapjack, horror flick knocked out Leo and Russell this weekend.

Shrug said...


Extended Cut of The New World now allegedly out on DVD.

I know I'm excited.

Bill C said...

I'm excited, too, but I'm gonna hold out for a Blu-ray release. I've waited this long anyway.

Tried to get the DVD for FFC to review, but New Line's so splintered now I didn't know where to go.

rachel said...

Hi Ian:

In your review of "The Big Bang Theory," I noticed a small error when you call Sheldon "obsessive-compulsive." That should be "autistic."

Also, my heart shriveled when you compared the series to Napoleon Dynamite. The gulf between them, I think, is wide and deep. Just on a basic level, NP targets contempt at characters played by the smug and talentless; TBBT is affectionate about persons fleshed by actual comedic performers. (Wondering if, since NP, all entertainments about nerds are now immediately suspect, if Heder and co. didn't do a lot to poison the well.) Laughing at the characters' "technobabble" is complicated by the fact that the babble is so well-constructed-- Sheldon's Superman speech is surely one for the ages-- that you're laughing somewhat in marvel; that Penny clearly feeds off the passion even as she can't penetrate the meaning. (That Sheldon is a respected scholar, while Penny suffers a crappy waitressing gig, should point out the lie of her pedestal.) I also figure it's a waiting game, with characters programmed to develop slowly. It wouldn't have made sense for anyone to make great strides yet; in this case, stubbornness is the greatest sign of veracity. Mostly, I'm looking forward to see if the creators can actually deliver on the first season's promise.

Berandor said...

Why is Napeolon Dynamite shortened to NP?

And when will we see the review of Disney's Sleeping BEauty BlueRay, with its 120-page-EULAs? And, more importantly, does the Sleeping Beauty BlueRay Online feature even work?

Questions, questions.

Bill C said...

Rachel: Ironically, I changed Ian's review to read Asperger's instead of OCD then changed it back having concurred with The Onion AV Club that they're being stratetegically noncommittal about it Sheldon's autism.

I'm actually in agreement with you as far as the show goes, esp. with regards to Penny (who's really kind of a loser). Any sitcom with the line "I'll fold like a Renaissance triptych" can't be all bad. But I do think Ian's onto something in that it's definitely the product of a post-Napoleon Dynamite culture.

Berandor: Don't drink and type.

Berandor said...

Alright, a basic question: Given that most people don't care about a deeper look at movies that takes into account both film and literature theory, should a film critic simply write about his own reactions to a movie à la "The movie is awesome"?

As seemingly every three months, I am just having this discussion, and even though I know how I answered, maybe you answer differently?

Or maybe that subject is so hashed out you don't want to write one more sentence about it. I know that's how I feel.

Berandor said...

In other words: What is a good movie and how do you recognize one?

brandon curtis said...

Anybody see that shit Ebert did where he wrote a review based on eight minutes of a movie and admitted he walked out. Who the fuck can get away with that kind of shit besides him?

Anonymous said...

No - can you tell us more about that?

brandon curtis said...

It's on Ebert's website, it's one of Friday's recent reviews, the movie is called Tru Loved. Based on his review it sounded like the movie would have been unendurable after a certain point (like eight minutes maybe) but it's his job. And a great one and he doesn't care anymore.

He does some ass covering in his blog, but its not good enough for me.