Bowling for Entertainment: The New Documentaries
Michael Moore and Errol Morris
Monday, June 28 2004, 11:06 PM
The Best Documentary Oscars the last two years have gone to films (Bowling for Columbine and The Fog of War) which are at the least critical of mainstream political thinking and at most, explicitly leftist in those critiques. In the current context of a news media too willing to serve as stenographers for the powerful, should it matter that filmmakers like Michael Moore are accused of a cavalier attitude towards "facts?" What should we demand from our documentary filmmakers?
It must be emphasized from the start that Moore and others do not accept the characterization of their films as non-factual. Moore first ran into trouble in this area after Pauline Kael gaveRoger and Me a less-than-positive review (calling it "shallow and facetious"), accusing Moore of rearranging facts. Moore's response, which he describes in detail on his website, michaelmoore.com, was typical of his approach to his perceived enemies. First, he dismissed her criticism as being unconnected to the film itself (in Moore's narrative, Kael is pissed because he wouldn't send her a video copy of his film, and he later claims if he'd just been nice to her, she would have been behind his film a hundred percent, as if she was just waiting to be bought off.) Then, in the most useful section of his rant, he answers her on the issue of the contested facts. Finally, he argues that Kael, "an elderly lady penning her last reviews," was taken in by a General Motors publicity campaign. The result is standard Moore: he creates a caricature out of his opponent, makes his audience chuckle at the lameness of the cartoon figure, and shambles away in victory. As entertainment, it can't be beat, and there is no question the entertainment quotient gives Moore a larger audience than more dour leftists. What is unfortunate is that Moore's larger points about corporate power, which are the most important thing he has to offer, can get lost amongst the funny scenes.
The search for an easy laugh too often compromises Moore's populist stance. It's hard to doubt the sincerity of his commitment to the common folk when we see him fight for our rights, or when an unexpected victory brings a heartfelt combination of tears and smiles to his face. But when Moore makes average people the butt of his jokes, that populism is tainted. Throughout Roger and Me, Moore treats average Americans who don't agree with him as dunces. His reputed target is the head of General Motors, and a worthy target he is. And when Moore takes on a senile Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine, he rightly refuses to let Heston off the hook; Heston is a public figure and a leading spokesman for the gun industry, Alzheimer's or no. But the low-level flunkies who present the first public face of the corporation are undeserving of contempt ... they're just people with stupid jobs, trying to get through the day, which Moore, a great champion of the worker, should understand.
Admittedly, it's a difficult and perhaps unfair criticism to make of a documentary artist like Moore: if he doesn't make entertaining films, his audience will be small, and he'll end up preaching to the converted. Moore is a crucial fighter for the left, because he can reach a bigger audience than just the people who already agree with him. But one reason he is reaching that audience is because he opts for entertainment, which at times cheapens the documentary aspect of his work. Moore is very good at contesting the criticisms of specific factual matters in his films; he is articulate and funny simultaneously. But it's not as easy to contest the unease with which we confront scenes such as those in Bowling for Columbine, where real human beings are seen suffering on camera as Moore comforts them. Such scenes are extremely powerful, but they beg the question: why are we watching this kind of real human suffering, which seems to exploit the real human in order to make a powerful point?
The K-Mart sequence in Bowling for Columbine demonstrates the best and worst of Moore all on its own. On the one hand, he has genuine sympathy for the disabled victims of the Columbine shooting, the assault on K-Mart headquarters is inspired guerilla theater, and the sequence is an almost perfect combination of pathos, humor, and political statement. On the other hand, he treats the low-level functionaries like morons, and he can't ever seem to get outside of his holier-than-thou clothes. The end result, though, where K-Mart actually agrees to quit selling ammo, is remarkable ... even Moore himself seems honestly dazzled by the concrete result of this particular shenanigan.
It's not clear that the approach of Errol Morris in The Fog of War is an improvement. Morris's film, like Moore's work over the years, is valuable and important, but, again like Moore's work, the importance is at times overwhelmed by artistic concerns. To state the most obvious, as other critics including Charles Taylor of Salon have done, Morris has an unfortunate tendency in The Fog of War to zap visual information past us at an unreadable rate, which draws attention to the aesthetic statement, but deprives the audience of information we could use. Morris also seems enraptured by a contraption he's created, what he calls the Interrotron. Morris believes eye contact is crucial to human communication, and so he invents a device that allows a person being interviewed to look directly into the camera but still see a video image of the interviewer, who can be in another room entirely. This establishes eye contact between the interviewee and the audience, and thus, Morris believes, allows for a more real intimacy. But the eye contact is artificial; the person is still looking at a machine, the audience is still looking at a screen. And the relationship between interviewer and interviewee is changed; in effect, in order to increase the illusion of eye contact between subject and audience, Morris decreases the actual eye contact between him and his subject. He isolates himself from his interview subject in the name of aesthetics.
The Fog of War remains fascinating as a portrait of Robert McNamara, and Morris's mostly non-judgmental approach allows the audience to make up their own minds about the issues on the screen. McNamara is too good at his job, though ... he's a lot like Michael Moore in that respect. He charms, he dazzles, he allows tears to come to his eyes when it is most effective, he admits to one mistake while covering up a handful of others. It is a masterful performance that can be admired without being believed. It also points once again to a central problem of documentary film: McNamara's performance, and Morris's aesthetic decisions, too often overwhelm whatever concrete factual points are being made. As with Moore's movies, the "better" the movie on an aesthetic level, the less believable it becomes as a documentary. A film like Battle of Algiers, of course, works in the opposite direction, using aesthetics to emulate a documentary feel. The odd result is that the fictional film feels "real" and the "real" film feels fictional.
Is there a useful approach to documentary that might overcome some of these conundrums? I would point to Marcel Ophuls' classic, The Sorrow and the Pity, more than four hours of interviews with survivors of the Nazi occupation of France. As an interviewer, Ophuls doesn't hide behind an Interrotron; he is present throughout his film, asking the questions, pressing his subjects. And he is a kind of moral center for the film, because of the intelligence and humanity behind his interviewing techniques. He is not, however, the star of his own film, as is often the case in Michael Moore's work. Ophuls gives his subjects the opportunity to state their case. He doesn't allow them to coast through their memories, but neither does he cast explicit judgment on their words. He lets them hang themselves. There are no cartoon characters in The Sorrow and the Pity, no easy jokes at the expense of actual human beings. Ophuls trusts his audience to be able to sort through all of the information he offers. And when we meet truly courageous and honorable human beings in the film, their humanity is believable, and the power of their example is inspirational.
Ultimately, an artist like Ophuls seems to trust humanity, even in the face of catastrophe. He treats people decently, he respects the intelligence of his audience, and while he is as interested in aesthetics as his counterparts, he is more interested in truth. Artists like Moore and Morris, performing a crucial task, succeed on many important levels, but the trust that Ophuls exhibits is not always clear in their work, which leaves them open to criticism that deflects attention away from those crucial tasks.
Roger and Me is available on DVD from Warner Home Video. Bowling for Columbine is available from MGM Home Entertainment. The Fog of War - Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is available from Columbia Tristar. The Sorrow and the Pity is available from Image Entertainment.