Michael Moore, the new diplomat?
- [Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section]
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
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
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
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
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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