Michael Moore's work and image examined in U-M Press book, 'Michael Moore: Filmmaker, Newsmaker, Cultural Icon'
Note: this story has been updated with more information on the controversy over "Roger and Me."
Years ago, I interviewed an Ann Arbor man who’d known controversial filmmaker (and Michigan native) Michael Moore while growing up, and the interviewee said of Moore, “He’s a gadfly, but he’s our gadfly.”
Because many locals feel the same way, a new book published by University of Michigan Press — “Michael Moore: Filmmaker, Newsmaker, Cultural Icon,” edited by Matthew H. Bernstein — may spark some interest.
The book is part of the publisher’s Class : Culture series; and because Bernstein, a film professor at Emory University, published a scholarly article in 1994 about “Roger and Me” (1989), he was approached by series editors Amy Schrager Lang and Bill Mullen about compiling a book of academic essays about Moore’s image/celebrity; his film work; and his place in the broader media landscape.
“I’d planned to do small book on Moore anyway,” said Bernstein. “ I’d wanted to explore the question: why has (Moore) been able to come along and re-make documentary film as a genre, and suddenly make documentaries a theatrical phenomenon? Because we forget, but people weren’t generally watching documentaries in movie theaters before ‘Roger and Me.’”
Bernstein counted himself among Moore’s fans after seeing Moore’s first film, “Roger and Me” — about Moore’s attempts to confront GM’s then-CEO Roger Smith about the auto company’s economically devastating plant closings in Flint (Moore’s hometown). But later, when Bernstein became aware of accusations that Moore had the chance to meet with Smith, Bernstein felt he had to take the movie off the pedestal that he’d put it on.
“The whole premise of the film is that that didn’t happen,” said Bernstein. “So when you find out it happened, it undermines the whole film. I agreed with (Moore) that the chronology (of events depicted in the film) doesn’t matter, but meeting with Smith involves a whole other magnitude of dishonesty about what that film is.”
(Although Bernstein has accepted the often-repeated accusation that Moore did get the chance to interview Smith beyond the brief confrontation that happens at the end of the movie, Moore has vehemently denied that this ever happened.)
Still, Bernstein has admired Moore’s sense of humor and sheer nerve from the start.
“When I saw ‘Roger and Me,’ I was just so stunned that this guy was willing to make an idiot of himself,” said Bernstein. “That he’d walk into these corporate offices, not knowing anybody, and get turned away, and not be able to achieve his goals. But that’s part of the point he’s trying to make, too, of course. And you have to really admire that about him.”
This behavior also, in Bernstein’s estimation, sparks a sense of nostalgia among some filmgoers.
“(Moore) says things and does things that people think of, but won’t ever do,” said Bernstein. “And this pre-dates the George W. Bush era. ‘Roger and Me’ was very much, when it came out 20 years ago, about the Reagan Presidency and America’s pro-corporate culture. Not a lot of people were talking about that at the time.”
Indeed, Bernstein believes that Moore has an uncanny knack for focusing on issues before their time. “Sicko,” for instance, while it came after the Clintons’ failed attempt at health care reform in the ‘90s, nonetheless helped put the hot-button issue back on the map.
Yet Moore’s most recent theatrical release, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” in Bernstein’s estimation, fell short.
“What I worry about with ‘Capitalism’ is that he’s repeating himself,” said Bernstein. “Not just because he’s using clips from ‘Roger and Me,’ though that’s very telling, but because there’s always this issue with him: he’s really good at targeting individuals, but with ‘Capitalism,’ he’s taking on a whole system, but using the same kind of methods. He’s extremely funny, and that’s another reason we like him. And he has a clear vision. But when he places crime scene tape around the stock exchange, he says in voice-over, ‘I’m getting tired of doing this.’ And I thought, ‘I’m a little tired of you doing that, too. Do something else now.’ It was one of these impossible ironic gestures that is totally pointless. But he’s wedded to that. And in a way, the recent midterm elections may be a good thing for him, in that his voice might be needed again.”
Arguably, of course, a high point of Moore’s career came in 2003, when the filmmaker won an Academy Award for “Bowling for Columbine”. (Typically, he followed this with an acceptance speech that critiqued Bush and the Iraq War, thereby drawing both boos and a few cheers.)
“(‘Columbine’) was relatively open-minded, and it was definitely a movie of its moment,” said Bernstein. “It conveyed the horror of that time — when we were all trying to wrap our heads around the idea of children killing children — and it captured that very well. But at the same time, it also had this great sense of humor, too. Moore has a great eye for the absurd. And he was the one person brave enough to say, ‘This is crazy.’”
Plus, there’s no arguing that filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) have been heavily influenced by Moore, as has the entire documentary genre. And while Moore is now a wealthy, powerful, and famous figure, he still presents himself as an Everyman “shlub in a baseball cap” — a regular guy who’s bewildered by our government’s policies, and questions why America isn’t living up to its ideals.
“One of the things about Michael Moore is that he doesn’t really offer solutions,” said Bernstein. “He’s great at telling us what’s wrong with America, though. And he’s right, much of the time.”