Sunday, May 23, 2004

Moore to Eisner: Palme This!

Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The announcement, made by jury president Quentin Tarantino, met with enthusiastic cheers from the audience in the Grand Théâtre Lumière, where Mr. Moore’s film had received what many thought was the longest standing ovation ever at Cannes when it was screened here last Monday. “What have you done?” Mr. Moore asked Mr. Tarantino as he accepted the prize, looking both overwhelmed and amused. “You just did this to mess with me, didn’t you?”


The meaning of Mr. Moore’s Palme, however, extends far beyond the cozy, glamorous world of Cannes. “Last time I was on an awards stage in Hollywood, all hell broke loose,” Mr. Moore said in his acceptance speech, referring to his antiwar remarks at the Oscars last year. His new film, which does not yet have an American distributor, has already begun to stir passions in the United States, as the election approaches and the debate over the conduct of the war in Iraq grows more intense.

With his characteristic blend of humor and outrage – and with greater filmmaking discipline and depth of feeling than he has shown in his previous work – Mr. Moore attacks Mr. Bush’s response to Sept. 11, his decision to invade Iraq, and nearly everything else the president has done.

“I did not set out to make a political film,” Mr. Moore said at a news conference after the ceremony. “I want people to leave thinking that was a good way to spend two hours. The art of this, the cinema, comes before the politics.”

He also said that Mr. Tarantino had assured him that the political message of “Fahrenheit 9/11” did not influence the jury’s decision. “On this jury we have different politics,” he quoted Mr. Tarantino as saying. It is also a film financed by Miramax, which distributes Mr. Tarantino’s movies.

Mr. Moore noted that four of the nine jurors were American: Mr. Tarantino, Kathleen Turner, the director Jerry Schatzberg, and the Haitian-born novelist Edwidge Danticat. “I fully expect the Fox News Channel and other right-wing media to portray this as an award from the French,” Mr. Moore said. Only one juror, the actress Emanuelle Béart, is a French citizen.

“If you want to add Tilda,” he said referring to the British actress Tilda Swinton, “then you could say that more than half came from the coalition of the willing.” (The rest of the panel was made up of Benoit Poelvoode, a Belgian actor; Peter von Bagh, a Finnish critic; and the Hong Kong director Tsui Hark.) [New York Times]

I wonder if Disney is re-thinking their decision not to distribute the film. After all, if there’s one thing that appeals to Disney more than anything above all, it’s the chance to make a pile of money, politics be damned. But according to Frank Rich, this is no ordinary Michael Moore rabble-rousing piece of left-wing populist propaganda (to use some of the more charitable terms for his previous work from various dismissive bow-tied pundits).

“Fahrenheit 9/11” will arrive soon enough at your local cineplex — there’s lots of money to be made — so discount much of the squabbling en route. Disney hasn’t succeeded in censoring Mr. Moore so much as in enhancing his stature as a master provocateur and self-promoter. And the White House, which likewise hasn’t a prayer of stopping this film, may yet fan the p.r. flames. “It’s so outrageously false, it’s not even worth comment,” was last week’s blustery opening salvo by Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director. New York’s Daily News reported that Republican officials might even try to use the Federal Election Commission to shut the film down. That would be the best thing to happen to Michael Moore since Charlton Heston granted him an interview.

Whatever you think of Mr. Moore, there’s no question he’s detonating dynamite here. From a variety of sources — foreign journalists and broadcasters (like Britain’s Channel Four), freelancers and sympathetic American TV workers who slipped him illicit video — he supplies war-time pictures that have been largely shielded from our view. Instead of recycling images of the planes hitting the World Trade Center on 9/11 once again, Mr. Moore can revel in extended new close-ups of the president continuing to read “My Pet Goat” to elementary school students in Florida for nearly seven long minutes after learning of the attack. Just when Abu Ghraib and the savage beheading of Nicholas Berg make us think we’ve seen it all, here is yet another major escalation in the nation-jolting images that have become the battleground for the war about the war.

“Fahrenheit 9/11” is not the movie Moore watchers, fans or foes, were expecting. (If it were, the foes would find it easier to ignore.) When he first announced this project last year after his boorish Oscar-night diatribe against Mr. Bush, he described it as an exposé of the connections between the Bush and bin Laden dynasties. But that story has been so strenuously told elsewhere — most notably in Craig Unger’s best seller, “House of Bush, House of Saud” — that it’s no longer news. Mr. Moore settles for a brisk recap in the first of his film’s two hours. And, predictably, he stirs it into an over-the-top, at times tendentious replay of a Bush hater’s greatest hits: Katherine Harris, the Supreme Court, Harken Energy, AWOL in Alabama, the Carlyle Group, Halliburton, the lazy Crawford vacation of August 2001, the Patriot Act. But then the movie veers off in another direction entirely. Mr. Moore takes the same hairpin turn the country has over the past 14 months and crash-lands into the gripping story that is unfolding in real time right now.

Wasn’t it just weeks ago that we were debating whether we should see the coffins of the American dead and whether Ted Koppel should read their names on “Nightline”? In “Fahrenheit 9/11,” we see the actual dying, of American troops and Iraqi civilians alike, with all the ripped flesh and spilled guts that the violence of war entails. (If Steven Spielberg can simulate World War II carnage in “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s hard to argue that Mr. Moore should shy away from the reality in a present-day war.) We also see some of the 4,000-plus American casualties: those troops hidden away in clinics at Walter Reed and at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital in Fort Campbell, Ky., where they try to cope with nerve damage and multiple severed limbs. They are not silent. They talk about their pain and their morphine, and they talk about betrayal. “I was a Republican for quite a few years,” one soldier says with an almost innocent air of bafflement, “and for some reason they conduct business in a very dishonest way.”

It is far too much to hope that a piece of artwork can stop a war – Picasso’s Guernica did not end Fascism – but then art does not succeed by being blatant, even if the tone of the work expresses outrage in Technicolor. It gets under the skin and works on the subconscious so that when our senses are yet again offended, we are willing to react and end the atrocity. But like some vaccinations they wear off. Michael Moore may have provided a booster shot to our collective immune system to fight off the same mindset that trapped us in Viet Nam forty years ago. And maybe he caught it just in time.