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Michael Moore, the new diplomat?

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  • Kim Scipes
    [Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section] MOVIES Michael Moore, the new diplomat In Europe, the director has come to symbolize the American underdog. By
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 31 11:38 PM
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      [Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section]

      MOVIES


      Michael Moore, the new diplomat


      In Europe, the director has come to symbolize the American underdog.


      By Kristin Hohenadel
      Special to The Times

      March 30 2003

      Paris -- When Michael Moore won best documentary for "Bowling for
      Columbine" at last week's Academy Awards, his antiwar comments -- "Shame
      on you, Mr. Bush!" -- were met with cheers and jeers. The orchestra cut
      him off. Steve Martin made a joke.

      The mood was quite different at the Césars, the French Oscars, a few
      weeks beforehand, as Moore lumbered up to accept the best foreign film
      award. He made the routine apology for his high-school French. Then he
      delivered a well-rehearsed, improvisational-style speech in English,
      pausing expertly for the translator. At a leisurely pace, he thanked our
      French allies for the cinema, for French fries and French kisses. For
      helping us in the War of Independence and saying no to the war we had not
      yet officially begun.

      "One of the best definitions of an ally, of a friend," he said, "is that
      your friend is the one who can tell you when you're wrong. So thank you
      for showing us the way, for standing up for something very important."

      Moore insisted that he represented "tens of millions" of Americans who
      praised the firm French antiwar stance, not a lone voice in a self-styled
      wilderness. In crooked bow tie and schlumpy tux, the filmmaker and
      bestselling author was the ultimate antihero, earnestly dragging his wife
      and producer Kathleen Glynn up on stage, laughing his "yuk, yuk, yuk"
      laugh -- and getting the night's most rousing and spontaneous standing
      ovation.

      Europeans have always had an appetite for subversive American voices, and
      Moore's provocative, outspoken, sarcastic, muckraking style, which some
      also label glib and narcissistic -- is closely watched here. It would be
      overstating the case to say that he is more appreciated here than at
      home, but Europeans have come to rely on him as a singular voice for the
      American underdog since he made an international name for himself with
      his 1989 breakthrough documentary "Roger and Me." In this era of troubled
      U.S. diplomacy, you might even say that Moore has become perhaps
      America's chief cultural ambassador in this part of the world.

      "Bowling for Columbine" was the first documentary in half a century to be
      admitted to the main competition at last May's Cannes Film Festival,
      where it won the special jury prize. Moore's bestselling book "Stupid
      White Men ... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation" is No.
      1 and No. 2 on Amazon.de (in German and English, respectively) and is a
      bestseller in France, where its title is "Mike Contre-attaque!" or "Mike
      Counterattack!" It won Book of the Year from the British Book Awards this
      winter. Last fall in London, Moore's one-man show "Michael Moore --
      Live!" was full for its five-week run at the Roundhouse theater.

      A bookseller at the Waterstone's in the London neighborhood of Notting
      Hill, where "Stupid White Men" is No. 1, said, "It's still flying off the
      shelves -- too bad it hasn't been able to change anything politically."
      Moore's name comes up in conversation at Parisian dinner parties, and in
      French political debates, he's used as shorthand proof that the American
      left is alive and well, despite the image projected by Washington.

      "Moore has amassed a sizable following on both sides of the Atlantic, not
      only as a satirical writer, but also as a comedian and mickey-taking
      documentary maker," said London's Independent on Sunday, in a review of
      "Stupid White Men," adding that "Michael Moore, the people's champion,
      has just turned into a brand." The paper headlined another review: "THE
      BESTSELLER THAT BUSH'S AMERICA TRIED TO BAN."

      The startling success of "Stupid White Men," the article said, suggests
      "that the 'popularity' of George Bush is not nearly as universal as the
      manufactured consensus would suggest." It went on to praise American
      book-buyers "who are reinforcing that proudest of all American
      traditions: the right to freedom of speech, information and opinion."

      Heard in many arenas

      Nobody embodies the cliché of an American more prosaically than Moore, of
      the XXL frame, the baseball cap and sneakers; the sloppy, loud,
      in-your-face delivery. But if he is quintessentially American, Moore has
      often found support for his ideas outside the United States.

      The BBC offered to produce his first television series, "TV Nation," a TV
      newsmagazine spoof that focused on big business' exploitation of the
      little people, after it was rejected by NBC (which later picked it up),
      as well as his 1998 documentary "The Big One," about his cross-country
      book tour for 1996's "Downsize This!" The U.K.'s Channel Four produced
      the first season of his follow-up to "TV Nation," "The Awful Truth," and
      its Canadian producing partner Salter Street Films funded "Bowling for
      Columbine."

      Moore is not without his critics on both sides of the Atlantic. But like
      those Americans who sympathize with his work, Europeans tend to
      begrudgingly forgive his shortcomings for the simple reason that he is
      one of the few loud, clear voices of the American left. The French daily
      Liberation called him "the hero of the leftist fight in the United
      States," and "Bowling for Columbine" "an anti-American diatribe." The
      Independent on Sunday wrote in a review of the film: "Moore's Achilles
      heel is this awful self-aggrandizing streak, his flaunting of plain-guy
      compassion.... 'Bowling for Columbine' is a big confused hectoring
      righteous mess, but it'll make you laugh a lot and chill your marrow even
      more."

      On press night of "Michael Moore -- Live!" last November in slightly
      out-of-the-way Camden, the sympathetic audience -- which included actor
      Alan Rickman snorting it up a few rows back -- laughed, cheered and
      generally went along for the ride as Moore did his shtick: a whole skit
      about the things you can't bring on a post-Sept. 11 plane; real-time
      calls to fast-food joints in the Middle East to gather intelligence on
      Osama bin Laden. A call to the FBI switchboard, in which an operator had
      never heard of the Office of Homeland Security. He ate Doritos while
      sitting in a scruffy easy chair, with blown-up photos of a young W,
      Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Tony Blair hanging behind him.

      In a rather blatant exercise in what London's Observer called "national
      self-deprecation," he held an intelligence quiz in which he drafted two
      hapless audience members to the stage -- an American and a Brit -- and
      led them through a rigged series of faux-game show questions. At the end,
      he answered questions -- showing off his comic timing and gift for
      politically incorrect political correctness.

      The Observer found his "tirades against the bombing of Afghanistan or the
      deaths of half a million Iraqi children from US bombs ... viscerally
      inspiring." But the review was critical of Moore's disparagement of the
      passengers of Sept. 11's hijacked planes for their white, middle-class
      complacency, and the parents of the Columbine students for not breaking
      through the police tape. His analysis "looks like a thoughtless
      over-simplification from the armchair of hindsight," the review said.

      The Times of London went one step further: "The average American is not
      stupid; Michael Moore is."

      Stupid or not, he definitely entertained the sellout crowds. "Michael
      Moore -- Live!" was a surprise success, says David Johnson, the show's
      British producer and the man responsible for bringing "Puppetry of the
      Penis" to the U.S. He hopes to use the box-office numbers to persuade
      reluctant New York theater owners to stage a version of the show, updated
      to address current events, on Broadway sometime this year.

      A self-deprecating critic

      Part of Moore's popularity abroad, cynics might point out, is that he
      flatters the wisdom and civility of other nations while confirming their
      worst suspicions about America. At the Cannes press conference for
      "Bowling for Columbine," a Canadian journalist respectfully objected to
      Moore's contention that all Canadians didn't lock their doors (in one
      scene in the film, he'd tested his theory by barging into several
      strangers' homes unannounced). But Moore deflected the comment, insisting
      that something in the Canadian "cultural DNA" made it a less fearful and
      violent country than its neighbor.

      During the festival, Moore made foreign friends all around with his
      effusive thanks, his self-deprecating humor -- the press conference also
      felt like stand-up, with a forcefully charismatic Moore hardly in need of
      the microphone to amplify his booming voice.

      After "Bowling for Columbine's" world premiere at Cannes, a reviewer for
      London's Guardian newspaper wrote that "both performances I've been to
      have ended with fervent applause and a great deal of earnest Europeans
      streaming back out into the foyer, their determination re-doubled and
      re-tripled never to agree with the American practice of spraying the
      nearest McDonald's with bullets before turning the gun on oneself."

      Moore struck the Guardian's writer as "a lone figure in the American
      media mainstream, challenging gun culture -- a heresy in which the rest
      of Hollywood's pampered progressives have no interest. For most of them,
      there are no votes, and no ticket sales, in saying that guns aren't sexy.
      It's a pleasure to a hear a dissenting voice."

      Part of Moore's appeal abroad may lie in the fact that he seems, unlike
      America's political leaders, to listen to foreign nations, to take them
      seriously. On his Web site, MichaelMoore.com, he has taken the highly
      unpopular step of defending the French.

      In "A Letter from Michael Moore to George W. Bush on the Eve of War,"
      dated March 17, 2003, he writes: "We love France. Yes, they have pulled
      some royal screw-ups.... But have you forgotten we wouldn't even have
      this country known as America if it weren't for the French? That it was
      their help in the Revolutionary War that won it for us?" Quit complaining
      about the French, he urges, "and thank them for getting it right for
      once."

      Moore also satisfies a voracious and profound European curiosity about
      the inner workings of the world's "hyperpower," and part of Europe's
      fascination with Moore undoubtedly stems from his ability to exploit the
      tantalizing notion that what's bad for America will one day be just as
      bad for the rest of the world.

      For example: "There is nothing sadder than seeing leaders of other
      countries trying to mimic the leaders of our country," he writes in the
      foreword to the U.K. edition of "Stupid White Men." "America decides to
      bomb some country -- and your head of state joins right in .... We decide
      to eliminate the safety net for our poor, and your legislative bodies
      can't wait to start cutting numerous social services that have been in
      place for decades.... To see you in your countries start to beat up on
      those who are less fortunate, to make life more difficult for them, I'm
      convinced that this will be the unraveling of your soul."

      Don't trade cheaper running shoes for school shootings and fewer civil
      liberties, he warns our friends around the globe. "Maybe there is still
      hope for you," he continues. "It may be too late for us, I dunno."


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