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A weekly column by Abel G. Peña, best known for his Star Wars work.
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THE PHILODOXER for 02/25/2007
Michael Wilson Vs. Michael Moore
If you're trying to do a documentary, keeping yourself honest is, I think, impossible--but within certain boundaries is possible. I mean, you have to quote people out of context. People aren't in this room with me, people didn't see me walk out of the kitchen, you're gonna do some editing.... You're automatically lying. -- Penn Jillette, Michael Moore Hates America
Michael Moore Hates America is a documentary that takes a page from Michael Moore's own movie Roger & Me, in which the filmmaker tries to track down an allegedly unethical millionaire and conduct an interview with him. Except this time, the heroic documentarian that's calling out a millionaire is Michael Wilson, and this time the allegedly unethical millionaire in question is none other than Michael Moore.
Moore went on to an avalanche of success after Roger & Me, rocketing to celebrity and wealth with the controversial films he's best known for: Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. However, the very quality that made these "documentaries" popular -- namely their one-sided nature and Da Vinci Code-flavored conspiratorial revelations -- quickly came to be questioned, and with good reason.
Most intelligent persons can agree that the most flattering thing that can be said about Moore's manipulative method of documentation is that he fights fire with fire. The perverse philosophy that two wrongs actually do make a right is understandably popular in the modern, perhaps timeless, social climate of irresponsibility. Its popularity, however, especially among the powerless, does not make it any less thoughtless, vengeful, shortsighted, and ultimately destructive to the human enterprise for truth.
In Michael Moore Hates America, Wilson goes to great lengths to hunt down Moore for a 45-minute interview to discuss the disparity in their views of America. And Moore goes to great lengths to avoid him, resorting to personal attacks, pleas of ignorance, and outright dishonesty. In the meantime, Wilson methodically questions "facts" from Moore's movies and interviews many of the people who have appeared in them, willingly and otherwise. And, time and again, their accounts of events don't match Moore's edited versions.
Wilson also doesn't shy away from pointing out his own character flaws and the temptations of the documentarian to manipulate and manufacture the truth. To this end, an extensive interview with Penn and Teller's erudite Penn Jillette serves as the highly effective conscience of the film. One of Jillette's most memorable lines is the warning to Wilson, "If you cut this footage so that I'm more negative about Michael Moore than I really am, or that I make points I didn't really make, I'll hunt you down and f*cking kill you." As Wilson is still alive, we can assume he did a fair job.
Wilson's documentary is hindered by the same deficiency that hangs like a cloud over all films of the genre: real life tends to be ordinary. Consequently, the movie ends anticlimactically, but only the naïve would expect Moore to actually grant Wilson his all-too reasonable request for an interview (though there is, in fact, one frosty showdown between the two Michaels). Wilson, young as he is, would've entered Moore's house of smoke and mirrors and waxed the floor with him. But this failure is brilliantly built into the very fabric of the movie's chief argument. And that argument is this: if Moore can insinuate in Roger & Me that multimillionaire and GM CEO Roger Smith's refusal to grant him an interview is proof of the man's guilt, then, by emulating Smith, Moore implicates himself by his own standards as guilty of the accusation of unethical behavior.
As one of Moore's own self-espoused fans tells Wilson in the film, "I like Michael Moore; I like what he stands for. However, I will give you this: he should've answered your question. And, in all honesty, he should also give you the interview, I feel." Moore's no-show, if not the greatest condemnation of Moore as a person, is at the very least a condemnation of Moore's pandering and immoral documentation methods. Ultimately, Wilson wins the day in the name of truth, and shows promise as an intelligent, ethical filmmaker.
Until next time, folks.
- Abel G. Peña
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