FILMMAKER MICHAEL MOORE has always worn his left-wing, populist politics on his sleeve. But despite a couple of decades tackling controversial subjects like racism, corporate abuse of power and class, the crusading journalist flew under the general publicâe(TM)s radar until 2002, when his documentary Bowling for Columbine became a break-out hit. Since earning cheers and jeers for his Academy Awards speech addressing the war in Iraq âe" âeoeWe like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious presidentâe¦âe âe" he has been a controversial subject in his own right.
For some reason (much blame lies with mainstream media) we tend to see working-class politics as uncool and certainly not slick âe" not Oscar material, not box-office material, both of which Michael Moore has become. And Mayworks festival of working people and the arts notwithstanding, it can be hard to shake preconceptions that working-class life is not conducive either to creativity or to successful revolt. For these reasons, itâe(TM)s fascinating to see such an energetic, audacious artist-activist move from fringe to mainstream success, despite being famous for his rumpled appearance and the direct, disarming, average-Joe way he confronts everyone from Charlton Heston to Phil Knight.
It is clearly this that fascinates Toronto author Emily Schultz as well. A fiction writer, former editor of Broken Pencil and current editor of This Magazine, Schultz grew up near Mooreâe(TM)s home state of Michigan. Throughout her chronological tour of Mooreâe(TM)s life, she attempts to tease out the contradictions of a man who has become famous without ditching the blue collar.
I enjoyed Schultzâe(TM) scene-setting history of working-class Michigan. After that, she explores different phases of Mooreâe(TM)s life: when he ran for the high school board in order to fire his principal; his time as publisher of community newspaper The Flint Voice; a brief, conflictual tenure as editor of Mother Jones magazine; Mooreâe(TM)s entry into television (TV Nation); the famous documentaries. Schultz relies on interviews with disgruntled or grudgingly admiring former associates, along with careful study of newspaper archives and readings and viewings of her subjectâe(TM)s work. (This is apparently an unauthorized biography: there are no interviews with Moore and none with family members.)
I was interested to learn that Moore has been working for several years now on a doc called Sicko, a look at the Big Pharma-dominated U.S. healthcare system that should be out soon, and that heâe(TM)s working on a follow-up to Fahrenheit 9/11 that he intends to release in 2008, election year in the United States. Despite a bigger budget, it seems that Moore is still working in the agit-prop vein of his earlier work, making films with explicitly political objectives.
Although we have a common interest in Mooreâe(TM)s working-class origins, Schultz and I differ on how to address them. I donâe(TM)t actually find the potential conflict between working-class upbringing, political engagement and financial or popular success to be a worthy hook. Schultz seeks to provide an unbiased exploration of this perceived tension and so takes a man-behind-the-mask approach to her biography that she pairs with a sensational writing style: âeoeThis would be Mooreâe(TM)s boldest move,âe for example, or âeoeFahrenheit 9/11 became not a movie but a phenomenon.âe At one point she asserts, âeoeThe question we need to ask is why watching fiction happen in a non-fictional setting frightens us. When we understand this, we will understand Michael Moore as a cultural phenomenon.âe
Indeed, while I enjoyed, in a salacious way, reading about conflicts with colleagues and speculation on Mooreâe(TM)s motivations and changing fortunes, at the end of the book I was still waiting for a comprehensive, profound examination of Michael Moore as a phenomenon.
To justify her exposÃ© approach, Schultz needed to demonstrate better why we should be suspicious of Mooreâe(TM)s intentions, or why his rise to fame constitutes a contradiction worth examining. Michael Moore: A Biography would have been much improved by spending more time on Mooreâe(TM)s work itself, and on its context. A deeper look at working-class art and politics, for example, comparing Mooreâe(TM)s work with other examples of blue-collar art (fellow filmmaker Mike Leigh, say), or even questioning why it has taken so long for a working-class persona (whether no longer reflective of Mooreâe(TM)s life or not) to achieve popular success in largely working-class America all would have been worthwhile.
Then again, as an admittedly entertaining look at Michael Moore, this book might be just a first foray for Schultz. I hope that she will take up this subject again, this time applying her Moore-expertise to a deeper examination of the issues.âe"Carlyn Zwarenstein
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