Friday, July 02, 2004

Documentaries and the Leftist Resurgence

With the unexpected box-office success of Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, cultural pundits have been compelled to reexamine that old chestnut, the feature-length documentary. Not since Disney's tricked-up nature films of the 1950s has there been such interest in the form. Perhaps we could think of this as a natural outgrowth of Americans' fascination with "reality TV" -- especially given that the realities being chronicled exist almost entirely in the filmmakers' own minds.

The feature-length documentary has become the foremost cultural vehicle for propagating left-wing ideology. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a major example of this new agitprop, though not an especially extreme one. Other recent documentaries go much further, and include a hagiographic portrait of Castro stooge Hugo Chavez, Errol Morris's Oscar-winning celebration of Robert McNamara (who taught us how to lose a Cold War on military and economic fronts, and who is therefore a hero on the contemporary left), and Moore's own Bowling For Columbine.

Left-wing e-zine Salon helpfully offers a list of more socialist-boilerplate documentaries -- all, no doubt, coming soon to a university near you. Control Room suggests that Al-Jazeera's coverage of the Iraq war was more "objective" than anything in the American media, while Super Size Me claims in all seriousness that fast-food cheese is a chemically addictive substance, like cocaine or heroin. The Yes Men, which documents a group of anti-corporate activists who pull pranks at business meetings, may not receive a theatrical release because of legal issues -- apparently, even corporate swine have a right to privacy, and you have to get their consent before filming them at private functions and the like. Then there's The Corporation, another documentary out to convince you that making money is a bad thing. Co-director Jennifer Abbott tells Salon that although this film may be anti-business, it's not anti-businessmen: "So many corporate insiders have seen the film and really loved the film. Not all, but those that have this thing inside them where they know something is wrong." (Luckily, very few documentaries make money. Perhaps it would taint them.)

There's really only one documentary in release that pulls against the leftward drift. Critics are touting Louis Schwartzberg's America's Heart and Soul as "the anti-Fahrenheit 9/11" -- by which they could mean that this film isn't always out to deceive or manipulate its audience. Yet even with support from marginal conservative groups like Move America Forward, Schwarzberg seem an unlikely right-wing hero. His film isn't even political in any known sense of the word. Instead, it's a random gathering of what folks in the biz like to call "human-interest stories" -- those boring, sticky-sweet segments on the six-o'clock news that always make viewers reach for the remote.

Michael Moore is naturally apoplectic that even one film in the documentary marketplace might wish to "Show a Brighter Side of America." So because Disney dropped Fahrenheit and picked up this sweet nothing of a film in its stead, Moore has stated that "Dumbo is now in charge of the company's strategic decisions." Although Walt Disney Pictures is allegedly distributing the PG-rated America's Heart and Soul, don't expect a wide theatrical release. This one's going straight to the Wal-Mart DVD counter, where it will probably make a mint.

Go ahead, drink the Kool-Aid ...

The Bush-Cheney campaign is still trying to get fundamentalist Christian churches into partisan politics without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. Check out the GOP's latest desperate effort to blend church and state.

Tristram Shandy Syndrome: Capsule Theater Reviews

Here are several shows I've been planning to write up, but haven't managed to get to until now:

Ragtime, the 1998 musical by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, is playing at Charlottesville's Heritage Repertory Theater through July 3. Performances are almost entirely sold out; I'm informed that a few seats are still available for the July 3 matinee. This show features the largest cast and crew (42 actors, plus a 17-piece pit orchestra) on the HRT stage to date, and though it jettisons the subtlety and complexity of E.L. Doctorow's novel, it's nonetheless a gripping piece of theater. One major problem with HRT's production: The orchestra played much too loud, which left most of the audience reading lips. To compensate, the sound designer overmiked most of the principal actors. Dialogue and lyrics were frequently unintelligible in the din, and my ears are still ringing.

Also, Don Baker's musical Stonewall Country, to my knowledge the nation's only pro-Confederate outdoor drama, is finishing its twenty-year run with a special "Gala Performance" on July 3. It draws sellout crowds almost every night, but Theater at Lime Kiln -- located in Lexington, Virginia -- is "retiring" the play because, in the words of artistic director John Healey, "I felt Stonewall Country was becoming an attraction rather than a show." (This is a bad thing?) Since locals and tourists enjoy Stonewall, I suspect popular pressure will force its return, if not in 2005 then in 2006. As for the play itself, it's much too heavy on exposition -- the two narrators have more lines than anyone else -- and General Jackson, played this year by Chris Van Cleave, comes off as a cipher. Playwright Baker attempts an even-handed, irreverent look at American history, but the result smacks of neo-Confederate apologism. Worse, the all-important issue of slavery is finessed but never quite confronted, and the show's treatment of African-American characters is buffoonish and demeaning. Songs by Robin and Linda Williams are memorable, but perhaps too light-hearted, given the show's tragic subject matter. A well-staged Battle of Antietam in Act II provides a much-needed element of spectacle (as well as a reminder that people die in wartime), with flashpots exploding all over the amphitheater. Ultimately, the best thing I can say for Stonewall Country is that it's crowd-pleasing entertainment, and occasionally as bizarre as its central character.

The national tour of The Producers: The New Mel Brooks Musical (yes, that's its full name) is playing at the Kennedy Center through August 22, in the large and opulent Opera House. Somehow the venue seems appropriate for this show, which plays like a slightly mildewed museum relic. I'm inclined to fault Susan Stroman's direction in part: It's flashy and well-choreographed, but it tends to keep the humor in a glass case, where we can look but never quite touch. The book has its problems, too: Pacing can be erratic, especially in the second act, and as Terry Teachout has noted, Brooks's heavy reliance on ethnic humor, theatrical in-jokes and wink-nudge Gay innuendo feels dated. What was cutting-edge humor in 1968 isn't anymore. Still, the show gets by on audience goodwill, a great Tin Pan Alley score, and one of the loveliest, lushest pit orchestras ever to grace a touring production. As slimy Broadway producer Max Bialystock, musical-theater veteran Louis Stadlen gives a manic performance, blending elements from Zero Mostel, Groucho Marx and Jimmy Durante -- but that doesn't change the fact that physically he's too small for the part.

Last year, Charlottesville's Sideshow Opera Company offered a well-sung if somewhat tasteless production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (reviewed here), complete with a celebrity cameo from Lauren Ambrose of HBO's Six Feet Under. Although this year's Sideshow offering, Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw, possessed no star power to speak of, it was a major improvement in every other respect. Vocal performances were uniformly excellent, though mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson, soprano Camille Zamora, and tenor Jason Ferrante managed to distinguish themselves. As the uncanny boy Miles, Patterson essayed her "breeches role" with panache, while Zamora kept the drama at an appropriately hysterical pitch as The Governess. Ferrante, a newcomer to Charlottesville, delivered a spot-on Peter Pears impersonation (at least vocally) in the sinister role of Quint. The three-person chamber ensemble more than did justice to Britten's score: Though the music strikes me as uneven, some of it (the Act I finale, the second scene of Act II) ranks with his best work. Director Margaret Bell, who nearly ruined last year's Orfeo by setting it in an insane asylum, presented this material more straightforwardly, to everyone's relief. Once again, Sideshow has proven that good opera can be staged on a miniscule budget. I eagerly await next year's production.

Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches finished its run at LiveArts last weekend. Early performances were disastrous, with technical problems and a missing male lead. But by the end of the run, the company had cast a new "Prior Walter," who played the role as if he'd been doing it for years, and everything else fell into place. Millennium is not a great play, or even a good one; an uncommonly intelligent friend claimed that Kushner "seems to rush to the catharsis," and I suspect that's actually one of his lesser faults as a dramatist. But all the same, praise and thanks are due to actor David Holton for jumping into LiveArts' troubled production at the last minute. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Holton saved this show: An audience of college-town leftists gave him (and the rest of the cast) a standing ovation every night.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

HB 751: A bad bill is now a bad law

It's July 1, fellow Virginians. Do you know where your right to private contract went?

HB 751, which not only prohibits, but also retroactively voids any "civil union, partnership agreement or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage," is now in effect. Living wills, visitation rights, same-sex adoptions, homeowners' agreements, powers of attorney, and other legal documents are now in jeopardy. The commonwealth's message to Gay and Lesbian citizens couldn't be clearer: "Get on yer bike."

In related news, I hear that minor seismic activity has been detected around Thomas Jefferson's grave.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Here's what happens ...

... when you let heterosexuals teach in public schools.

Fahrenheit 9/11

By now, gentle reader, you've probably heard all about Michael Moore's latest filmic screed, Fahrenheit 9/11. You know that it's unfair, poorly reasoned, deceptive, demagogic, and incoherent.

Yadda, yadda, yadda. All these terms and more could apply to Moore's last film, Bowling for Columbine, and yet Bowling is one of the most shrewdly crafted, effective pieces of propaganda I've seen. So put the politics aside for a moment, if you can. How does Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 hold up as a film?

Sadly, not very well. Anyone who tells you Moore won this year's Palme d'Or for his filmmaking and not his politics will probably lie about other things, too. Cinematically speaking, there's no there there.

Moore does come up with a few nice touches: He never shows the 9/11 attacks themselves, choosing to keep the screen completely dark as we hear the planes hit. The film's well-layered mix of drones and screams, combined with the crunch of metal on metal, gives an impressionistic sense of these attacks. In a crowded theater, this moment packs quite a punch -- even as it renders the attacks strangely unreal. The absence of image during the film's sole depiction of global terrorism allows Moore to dismiss its reality throughout the remainder of the film, with relatively few objections from the audience as such. Plus, it allows Moore to blame the attacks on America in general, and the Bush administration in particular -- something I suspect he couldn't get away with if he showed the actual planes flying into the Twin Towers.

I don't think Moore eliminated images of the WTC attacks to spare the sensibilities of his audience; after all, he showed them briefly in Columbine, to close a montage sequence that blamed American militarism for everything wrong in the world. Since he's going to show us far more graphic horrors later in Fahrenheit, he really doesn't need skeptics in his audience to think it's a simple case of tit for tat.

When Moore's film gets to Iraq, his seeming restraint flies out the window. The film shows charred human remains, bloodied bodies, torture and abuse, all of which are perpetrated (Moore claims) by the US military. These images are every bit as gory and grotesque as the fictional flailings of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, and like Gibson, Moore seems to take pride in rubbing our noses in them. Unfortunately, far from proving Moore's thesis that the US and its military are brutal, evil, capitalist oppressors, these severed limbs and blackened corpses merely remind us that people die horribly in warfare -- something I suspect most of us already knew. No matter: Moore wants desperately to epater le bourgeoisie with lots of shocking violence. Moore protests that his film received an R rating; he's lucky he didn't get an NC-17 for this stuff.

Unfortunately, as disgusting as his images are, Moore can't shock his audience with them. It's not that the images aren't potentially horrific; it's that Moore's context is so heavy-handed that they lose all force. A simple comparison with Columbine illustrates what went wrong. The earlier film insinuated -- albeit strongly -- that Americans are inherently violent, capitalist, and evil, and that our nation as a whole suffers from intense paranoid delusions. Fahrenheit essentially presents the same thesis, without the indirection. But propaganda works best when it's indirect; outright lies can only persuade when they're sneaky. The reason Columbine fooled as many people as it did, was that Moore kept his voiceover narration tonally neutral, using images and editing to make his points. Fahrenheit reverses the equation: Moore's smug, ever-present voiceover is heavily biased, because the images and phenomena he selects don't suggest his editorial agenda on their own.

Moore doesn't select his footage well, though to be fair he may have felt he didn't need to. He seems to believe he's found the correct interpretation of every important geopolitical phenomenon for the past three and a half years -- and if that's true, then any unfiltered news-related image should serve to confirm his thesis. It doesn't, though: The more Moore tells us about his images, the more they seem to contradict his agenda. The most obvious example occurs as he focuses on Bush's reaction to the WTC attacks. Bush is visiting an elementary classroom when he hears this news, yet remains with the class for another seven minutes. He even reads from a children's book, the now-famous My Pet Goat. As the minutes tick away (and remember, there are only seven of them), Moore describes what Bush might be thinking. He postulates -- without any evidence whatsoever -- that Bush might regret his family's energy-related business dealings, now that the terrible consequences of global capitalism have come home to the American people. That's one way to look at it, I suppose. But the expression I saw looked more awkward than penitent: If I were to guess what Bush was thinking during those seven minutes, I'd say he was trying to find a way out of that classroom without disappointing those kids or scaring the hell out of them. Or perhaps the man was stunned, even a bit scared: I know that when I first heard about the 9/11 attacks, it took me longer than seven minutes to figure out what happened.

Moore has never been more exploitative of his human subjects than in Fahrenheit. Much of the film's third act focuses on Lila Lipscomb, a jobs counselor in Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan. When we first see her, she's a patriot who displays her American flag every morning and supports our troops. Moore's distaste for Lipscomb's patriotism But when her son dies in Iraq, Lipscomb's politics take a sudden Left turn; Moore takes her to the White House (or at least to Lafayette Park), where she hobnobs with peace protesters and all but curses the president for killing her son. "I didn't know," she pleads -- and what she "didn't know," we're led to conclude, is that America is a colonialist villain, that the Bush administration cares nothing of individual soldiers, that the war in Iraq was instigated by a cabal of wealthy plutocrats. (Moore barely skirts the Zionist conspiracy theories so popular on his beloved Far Left, but his opening footage of Paul Wolfowitz indicates he might not necessarily be above using a little anti-Semitism to make a point.)

Moore's camera focuses relentlessly on Mother Lipscomb, always using her to make a political point -- which, as far as I can tell, is that patriots are suckers who "just don't know" how bad America is. To reinforce the point, Moore claims, without evidence, that Bush is basically sending underprivileged post-adolescents to Iraq to die, while leaving the children of the wealthy to reap the benefits of their labor. Yet the facts in Moore's documentary show otherwise: US policy in Iraq has generally been devoted to minimizing American casualties. That's why, after several weeks of combat and over a year of occupation, we've had fewer than a thousand military deaths. If your son or daughter is one of the unlucky few, this low casualty rate is small comfort. For poor Lipscomb, it's an outrage; for Moore, it's an opportunity. As the grieving mother shakes her fist at the White House, no longer a patriotic sucker but a good leftist like Moore himself, Moore's voiceover states that since members of the US military volunteer to protect their country, the least our government can do is "not to put them in harm's way." It's good to know that Moore doesn't exactly disapprove of our military per se; he just doesn't want us to use it. After all, it's not as though America is actually worth defending.

Or maybe Moore does disapprove of the US military. Earlier in the film, Moore states that our soldiers are "otherwise good" kids whom Bush has sent to Iraq. Now, when someone says that a person is "otherwise good," what he really means is that the person isn't good. Under different circumstances, perhaps, this fellow could be good, but as things are, he's bad. Moore backs the "otherwise good" idea with a relatively well-constructed montage of fresh-faced soldiers talking about "doing their job." Moore intercuts these interviews with footage of torture, and images of bloodied, charred and disfigured human remains. In a truly odd about-face, Moore dedicates Fahrenheit to all the soldiers killed and wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq -- but if our soldiers are as bad as he presents them, why dedicate anything to them at all? Then again, this film is pretty bad, too. Perhaps Moore considers it fitting tribute.

Although Fahrenheit seems far more anti-American than Columbine, it may be far less so. Granted, both films claim that America is fundamentally evil. But in Fahrenheit, Moore localizes this problem within the Bush administration, and suggests that our president doesn't accurately represent our country. Thus America's evils at home and abroad might be somehow atoned for, if we only band together and throw Bush out of office. Columbine offers no such easy out, of course, blaming the liberal Clinton for high-school shootings (and assigning Bush fils a sort of ex post facto responsibility as well). Yet Fahrenheit also suggests that this same Bush administration, with its combination of capitalism and militarism, is in fact the real America, the military-industrial complex personified. Moore has claimed in the past that nothing short of a socialist takeover could change this sorry state of affairs. I daresay if his most recent movie has a point at all, that's it -- but oh, how I wish Moore could have made it better. Alas, hubris appears to have finally claimed the fat man, and stolen whatever cinematic technique he had.

Was it only two years ago that Columbine bamboozled me with its inexorable montage? Ever since I saw that film, I've come to expect well-crafted propaganda from the Bloated One. Yet compared to his previous work, the slapdash hackwork of Fahrenheit 9/11 is a thorough disappointment. Blecch.

Monday, June 28, 2004


Not only have foreign terrorists and Ba'athist remnants failed to delay the transfer of power in Iraq, they've actually made it happen two days ahead of schedule! The idea of national elections by next year seems not only possible, but likely.

So the Iraqi people have their country back, and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 just lost another major talking point. Once again, Bush has outfoxed his critics. But any way you choose to look at it, this transfer of power is good news.

Of course, this isn't stopping the American Left (or what's left of the Left) from giving the event a negative spin. Some left-liberals, including major media outlets have emphasized security concerns and terrorism, the better to claim Iraq is just another quagmire a la Vietnam. Meanwhile, old-guard Marxists are trying to interpret this handover as an out-and-out fake; they know from historical example that imperialists don't just hand over conquered territory without a fight. Both left-liberal and leftist strategies try to claim that what just happened in the newly sovereign Iraq didn't actually happen. Two plus two must equal five, or three, or nothing at all -- anything, anything but four.

The Left is now faced with a choice. Either it has been wrong all this time about "American neo-imperialism," or history simply isn't real. At this point, unfortunately, the Left seems to be opting for the latter approach, which I suspect will only hasten its descent into irrelevance. A mea culpa and a quick about-face would serve its goals much better.

Like the cynics say, when the facts don't fit your theories, it's time to change the facts.

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