It was appropriate that Michael Moore end his three month book tour at the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor, landing in his home state on December 1st--a day that celebrates another Michigan native, Rosa Parks. Moore drew a comparison Thursday night between the Occupy movement and Parks' occupation of a particular bus seat that has since become a landmark gesture of the Civil Rights era. Reporting that 59% of the American population were now behind the values of the movement, Moore tried to convey the significance of the movement to the portion of the audience who lived through that era of civil disobedience: "Old people! Work with me here! 11 weeks after the Civil Rights era, were there 59% of the American people behind it? How about 11 years after...?" Moore was certainly fired up, as he wiped his forehead clean with his UM cap, griped a bit about the malfunctioning fan they set out for him, and continued a rant that ran the gamut from the death of the independent bookstore (the original Borders now an empty shell across the street) to his progressive frustration with the Obama administration.
I'm not sure I would have ventured out to see Michael Moore in a public speaking engagement like this in the past decade or so, but having experienced first hand the Occupy movement sites in Chicago and Philadelphia over the past few months, I was curious to re-assess Moore's role as a public figure. Moore was definitely riding high on the wave of the Occupy movement, and although I applauded much of his enthusiasm for the momentum of Occupy in the last few months, I tend to get a little nervous around mass displays of political fervor, especially in an arena where the bi-partisan nature of the rhetoric is so pronounced. With that said, I care a great deal for the films of Michael Moore, and even give his efforts as an activist artist credit for paving the way for the 99%. Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) in particular, though seemingly marking a downward slope in Moore's career at the time I saw it, with it's exasperated conclusion and weak box office impact ($231,964 opening weekend, compared to Farenhiet 9/11's $23,920,637), was on the money, so to speak, with the way in which it framed the financial crisis. Certainly more successful in it's immediacy than Oliver Stone's W (2008), Moore's Capitalism now carries a different weight than it did upon it's release (and the same might be said for W), punctuated by Moore's suggestion Thursday night that young activists might want to download ten copies illegally and deliver them door-to-door to those who might have missed it. As the outdoorsy nature of the Occupy movement is now being challenged by the onset of winter, it is clear that what Moore was trying to expound on in Capitalism is more in the open, though the enormity of it all is still hard to wrap your mind around, at times.
Having grown up in the rural outreaches between small cities with dying manufacturing industries, about an hour south of Rockford, Illinois (the Flint, MI of Illinois), I share many of Moore's anti-war, anti-corporate views, and have always felt connected to Moore's causes. Simultaneously, as a film studies and speech communications guy, I have developed an increasingly critical view of his tactics, whether they be in his public speaking engagements or as a film maker. Frankly, I prefer him much, much more as a film maker than I do as a public speaker. I'll refrain from dicussing much about Moore as a "short story" writer. This tour was in support of his new book "Here Comes Trouble," a collection of stories based on his life as a boy and young adult, which were entertaining enough as read by Moore, but nothing I would have any interest in reading for pleasure, though for hardcore fans they may offer up some insight into Moore as an artist and activist. The stories he did treat us to at the end of the night were entertaining enough, but, as is suggested by the book's hokey title, they all seemed to be oddly infused with a winking sense of the public "troublemaker" Moore would become as an adult, which made the stories seem like kind of a cheat on a literary level.
Some of the most interesting aspects of Moore's presentation Thursday night came from the audience, a mix of aging hippies and young activists, primarily white, given to their own brand of half-volume call-and-response. Although there were microphones set up in the isles for people to come down and ask questions, that portion of the evening never happened; as Moore explained correctly, "It's Ann Arbor! There's no such thing as Q&A in Ann Arbor! It'll just be a series of 30 speeches!" In one of his most faux-hesitant theatrical moments, Moore explained Obama's ties to Goldman-Sacks, a point he had already begun to make in Capitalism, and then posed the idea that the corporate wealth that is truly pulling the strings of government may not give a shit what the Republicans do this election, as he leaned into the mic and asked: "What if they already have their man?" A hush came over the crowd. Then, an unimpressed response rose from the middle of the Michigan: "That was worth ten bucks!" Chuckling at the perfectly timed jab, Moore casually sauntered down-center, pulling a $10 bill out of his pants, fully refunding the happy heckler who quickly made his way to the edge of the stage.
The bravado of Moore's public persona has always existed in a space that just breaches the boundary of his rather fragile, mundane personality. I think that part of this tour was operating in service of making that point, as he even took a moment to reveal some things "we didn't know" about him, like how he has to sleep at a diagonal (not interesting in and of itself, but curious in what it reveals about where Moore is at in this point of his career). As with the recent appearances of a fellow documentarian (and fan of Moore's) Werner Herzog, the negotiation of identity that happens in these public forums is, in part, becoming a case of the snake eating it's own tail (or tale, even). But, all in all, I find Moore's message consistent, and his attempts to remind us of our history, both recent and past, crucial. His reference to the Women's Suffrage movement and the Civil Rights era were concise and essential to the rhetoric of where the country is at right now. Above all, Moore made it clear that he was standing on stage at the Michigan to remind us, as subverted and mired as he finds the term itself, that we "live in a liberal country." In Moore's world view, the influence of the Tea-Party-Fox-News-saturated contingent is an optical illusion, pointing out that if the opposite were the case, then the "O'Reilly Factor" would currently be opening every broadcast with a "Zippa-dee-do-da"...as opposed to the nightly display of grumbly distrust and paranoia. Moore followed this observation by laying out his own "10 Point Proposal" for consideration by those who associate themselves with the 99% (copied here from his blog):
Curiously, there were no questions or comments on Thursday night about the next Michael Moore film, but it would seem the momentum toward that would be building, now that the book tour is over. Perhaps I can take time on "Ecstatic" to get a bit deeper into reviewing and assessing Moore's work when that happens, as my perception of his films has traveled an interesting trajectory over the years, as has his aesthetic. At their worst, Moore's films bite off a bit more than they can chew politically, leaving me wishing that Moore had more of a talent for showing, especially in the moments where his mopey voice-overs become overbearing in their attempt to tell the story. At the same time, I don't think Moore's films get their due aesthetically, creating true insight in their most thoughtful moments of juxtaposition. At their best, Moore's films are some of the most effective works of art operating as tools for social change since the late 80's, paving the way for the last two decades of the documentary film revolution, as Moore's call to action merged with the increasing proliferation of digital film making technology. When I reflect on the "Rise of the Doc," I'm always reminded of Coppola's comments in Hearts of Darkness about the "little fat girl" in Ohio having the means to make a movie as his "great hope." Well, here we are.
|Michael Moore at the Michigan Theatre - 12/1/2011|
|Capitalism: A Love Story|
|Moore reading from "Here Comes Trouble" at the Michigan Theatre|
|Michael Moore at the Michigan Theatre|
10 Things We Want
|Michael Moore among the Wall Street Occupiers|
|Sadie Benning's If Every Girl Had a Diary|