Politics & Policy

The Moore Ascendency

The unbearable Michael M.

Watching the delegates boo Michael Moore the other night–so ubiquitous is he that Deep, Deep Red State conventioneers now instantly recognize him, like they would Jesus Christ Superstar–I recalled that there was a time, once, when Moore was an outsider, a firebrand, a scrappy, unkempt little (if large) guy battling The System armed with nothing but a cheapo camera, a $10 special-effects budget and a penchant for asking annoying questions. Today, he’s a trademarked, lawyered-up bona fide brand, a shill, a paid jester, a cult Hate Figure (like Ann Coulter), a token, an icon. The cap, the bulge, the beard, the baggy jeans, that T-shirt: It all comprises a self-constructed, market-researched Mike the Maverick who doesn’t exist anymore.

He’s a calculatingly out-there insider, a court Jew, the kind of man who’s invited to fashionable parties because he adds an exotic frisson to the otherwise white-bread proceedings. He’s a celeb, with a proper P. Diddy entourage and a predilection towards chronic, rude lateness. Having switched from Ralph Nader to John Kerry–smooth move, buddy–he’s made himself acceptable as a columnist–whose copy, I suspect, is heavily edited in-house for style, grammar, logic, etc., judging by what I’ve read of his undoctored writing–for USA Today, a paper keenly attuned to the sensibilities of Middle America in everything from its middlebrow book reviews to its bourgeois Money section to its determinedly inoffensive policy of printing editorials arguing against its own line. (I say all this, by the way, as a compliment). He shared top billing with the Democratic aristocracy at the Boston convention; but then ostentatiously slummed it, in a sort of Boston-Brahmin way, by taking his natural place of honor at the head of Sunday’s New York protest. Nevertheless, as The New York Observer noticed, “with about a dozen blocks to go, Mr. Moore’s people whisked him away into Maui Tacos on 5th Ave. A security guard blocked the entrance to the director’s hideout.” Yes, heaven forbid that the Earl of Flint be obliged to associate with the proles. For those who remember the Moore of Roger and Me, even of TV Nation, it’s amazing to hear that he now has “people” insulating him from mavericks with cheapo cameras, $10 special-effects budgets and a penchant for asking annoying questions. Indeed, “according to Mark Benoit, Moore’s spokesman, it took Moore and his group almost 45 minutes to get through security checkpoints [at Madison Square Garden] because of the throng of reporters and television cameras that followed him.” Zounds! He’s bigger than Jesus!

Whilst in Boston, Moore even put in an embarrassing appearance on The O’Reilly Factor–Cicero he was not, but publicity is publicity. He made the cover of Entertainment Weekly and Time–so he’s got that Midwestern dentists’ office demographic sewn up tight. Stupid White Men, a book of sorts seemingly culled from Google searches, has sold massively. Fahrenheit 9/11, a whimsical piece of fantasy cut with paranoia–I love how Unocal and Halliburton are the Bad Companies du jour, though I’m old enough to remember when it was Bechtel (1980s), then Starbucks (1999), and then Monsanto (2001)–broke records, as Michael persists in reminding us on his uncomfortably self-congratulatory website.

Today, if you’re a Leftist and you want to be respected within the liberal community, you need Moore’s imprimatur–though Al Franken’s will do for the more moderate, triangulatory, Upper West Side, I-only-buy-fair-trade-coffee, viable-within-the-system types. Should Michael plug your website on his own, you’re gold: Check out the “Link O’Week” section for his faves and raves.

The problem with the Moore Ascendancy is that all those filmmakers, Web “documentarians,” and freebie-newspaper hacks aping him seem blissfully unaware that he’s been co-opted by the Establishment. No longer is he the feisty, kick-against-the-pricks Common Man; this is a fellow who can blow off Disney. These days, he needs to worry about churning out more books (or at least his “researchers” do), residuals, points, distribution, rights, production companies, percentages, making speeches, capital-gains tax, and all the other stuff associated with grands fromages.

To that end, what are we to make of this August 28 Reuters news-story, as printed by the Toronto Sun? “Hoping to capitalize on the inevitable hype that will surround the DVD release of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in October, MGM has teamed with Miramax Films to re-release the director’s Oscar-winning Bowling For Columbine DVD packaged with his more obscure film The Big One.” The three-disk set, which comes with a “15-minute featurette called 39 Cities In 23 Days,” is dubbed the “Michael Moore DVD Collector’s Set.” The set is a “‘limited edition available only through the holiday season,’ said Blake Thomas, executive vp worldwide marketing at MGM Home Entertainment.” Further, “Moore publicly stated his desire to have Sony release the DVD of the politically controversial Fahrenheit 9/11 before the November presidential election.”

Whoa, easy, tiger. “MGM”? “Miramax”? “Oscar”((tm))? “The Michael Moore DVD Collector’s Set”? “Executive Vice President, Worldwide Marketing”? Giving orders to Sony? Heavens to Betsy, as our secretary of war might say, that ain’t the fringe. Is there any corporation Michael Moore won’t get into bed with? Any marketing ploy he won’t endorse? What next? A Michael Moore-approved, strictly limited Franklin Mint collectible?

By doing so magnificently well for himself (I mean, of course, for the Cause), Moore has restricted his ability of maneuver. His future options are as follows.

First, he can try to outdo Fahrenheit by upping the conspiracy theorizing, one risk, however, being that there’s a very fine line between nuttiness and outright insanity, and another, that there’s more competition around owing to his success having attracted younger, edgier rivals. Expect a glut of Moore wannabes to flood the market and tamp Fahrenheit’s shock value. Remember when there were just one or two Bush-bashing books and we thought them frightfully clever? And now there’s so many appearing each week even Publishers Weekly isn’t bothering to review them? Same phenom.

But there’s always the nuclear option: To keep producing the Moore blitzkrieg rolling on, he may even take the dread step of turning rightwards, as did 60s Leftist Paul Johnson, or tack towards the center, like Christopher Hitchens. I wouldn’t be surprised if Moore’s next flick attacks President John Kerry, though he must be careful to avoid alienating his core middle-to-upper-income white professional, Apple-loving hippie, and college-activist fan base.

Secondly, he can cruise along and produce more of the same. The danger here is that people, even his fans–who, as they age, may outgrow the Moore addiction anyway–will start noticing that, well, it’s more of the same and steer clear. (A corollary: He may try to produce more of the same, but fail to live up to expectations. This is known as the M. Night Shyamalan Downward Trajectory Strategy, and it’s not a situation you ever want to be in.)

Unlike Shyamalan, Moore, unfortunately, is already running on fumes. His newest project is printing–thanks to his agent, the uber-pukka Mort Janklow–a collection of letters written to him by soldiers based in Iraq. It’s a nice idea, and will earn out his advance, but it’s not a challenging one, for such “collections” never are: some hapless editor at Simon & Schuster will be obliged to bash a bunch of emailed letters into shape while Moore signs off on it. It will cost $21–nice work if you can get it. Another book, also miraculously scheduled to be out just in time for Christmas, is The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader. T-riffic. A DVD-release tie-in book deal–just another instance of the bourgeoisization of Michael Moore.

Thirdly, he may elect to leave off filmmaking and bookwriting, and concentrate instead on developing and expanding the Michael Moore “brand” by buying an interest in a media outlet, selling mugs, opening a Rainforest Café-type restaurant (“The Fahrenheit Grill”–not bad, eh?) pushing Moore-obilia, or flogging his website (on that note, Mike, from me to you, please do something about that blog of yours: it’s dreadful). Another TV show may be on the cards–HBO would make a nice home, though I don’t how his followers would feel about his shilling for Time Warner. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind, though.

And fourthly, he may suffer the awful fate of Michael Foot, leader in the early 80s of the British Labour party. He had written incendiary Leftist tracts in the 1930s–he was responsible for the bestselling, hugely influential Guilty Men–but later sold out by hacking for the press baron Lord Beaverbrook, and went on to become a figure of fun by the 70s: a doddering, shambolic relic peddling obsolete ideas, increasingly cut off from political reality but fondly patted on the head and gently ignored by the new guard. As the kind of well-educated politico once common but now extinct, Foot’s saving grace was that he could count on Swift, Byron, Hazlitt, and Disraeli to bail him out and let his prose soar. Moore’s literary technique, on the other hand, consists of using series of exclamation marks (“Bush lied!!!”) and WRITING IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

But, Alex, I can hear you say, cool your boots. Michael hasn’t really gone corporate, he’s being like oh-so-ironic and totally po-mo when he consented to do Entertainment Weekly, signed movie deals, and hired some flunky to sort the M&Ms into his favorite colors. Good point, though a sense of irony is not one of Moore’s strengths. Is it a cunning Commie plot to sell capitalism the rope with which it will hang itself? Ought America’s business supremos continue to nurse the viper so close to their teats?

Dunno, though it’s evident that by shacking up with the plutocrats, Moore’s compromised himself and prostituted his talents. Personally, I suspect Michael M. has several good years left in him, but, like all fads and MC Hammer, he too shall pass. Something newer and better will one day come along.


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