It's easy to withstand the irrational vitriole of Public Enemy because they are sincere in their beliefs and because they make great music. Michael Moore is neither sincere, nor are his films great.
The film-maker who could help to bring down Bush has been larging it at Cannes. He has made millions asking awkward questions of corporate America. But there are a few awkward questions we'd like to ask him...
Michael and Me
by Andrew Anthony
Sunday May 23, 2004
It would be wrong to suggest that all of human life passes through the lobby of the Majestic hotel in Cannes. Better to say that beneath its exotic arrangement of palm trees, hanging rugs, Roman statues and permanently illuminated chandeliers goes all of human life with a movie to sell. And therefore followed, of course, by a few other forms of life. In this baroque setting, on any given day during festival fortnight, the movers, the shakers, the wheelers, the dealers, the chancers, the prancers, the stars and the starlets perform a complex social dance that, with its anxious overlapping non-conversations, might have been choreographed by Robert Altman. Never stopping for more than a moment, the parties embrace, scan the room for someone more powerful, more famous or more beautiful, promise to fix something up, and then move swiftly on. Later, these fleeting encounters will be described as meetings.
Not much stops the palm-squeezing and back-slapping. No one, for example, is too distracted when David Carradine, the star of the Seventies TV series Kung Fu, blows kisses from the top of the stairs, even though he is wearing a Mao jacket and sunglasses and a pair of pumps with 'Kill Bill' lettering to promote his role in Quentin Tarantino's film. Nor are there more than a few jerked necks when Harvey Weinstein, the dark prince of the deal, walks through brandishing a terrifying grin. But everything freezes as a large man with a fast-food gut and a laboured waddle, wispy beard and glasses, makes his way to the door.
Extended hands are left unshaken, air-kisses go unaired, the hubbub softens and two strikingly elegant women teeter on their kitten heels to get a better view, their faces a portrait of rapt admiration. Here comes Michael Moore, film-maker, author, political activist, global phenomenon.
Last week on the baking Côte d'Azur, there was no one hotter than the big fellow from Michigan. Among the stylish hordes of the Croisette, there was no greater attraction than this ursine fig ure in his ill-fitting suit. Everyone wanted a piece of him, and there is a lot of him to go around, but after months of requests, I had the only one-on-one interview. Michael and Me, we had a real meeting arranged.
Moore arrived in Cannes by his traditional mode of transport - on a wave of controversy. Disney had announced that it would not distribute his new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, in America, which left the film's producers, Miramax, a division of Disney, looking for a new partner. Moore accused Disney of censoring his film to protect the tax breaks its Disneyworld complex enjoys in Florida, the state controlled by Jeb Bush, brother of the President (Fahrenheit 9/11 details the cronyism and corruption of the Bush regime, as well as its failings in the 'war against terror').
Disney countered that Moore had known for more than a year that it would not handle the film and was only complaining now to publicise his film. Nevertheless, the director once again successfully positioned himself on the moral high ground in a battle against a multinational corporation. He finessed the same manoeuvre with Stupid White Men, his bestselling critique of American capitalism, by claiming that Harper Collins had tried to suppress the book, and that it only agreed to publish him following a protest by librarians.
Moore, the king-sized millionaire, walking testament to American consumption, is a master of making himself appear the little guy. He told reporters that before Disney, Mel Gibson's company, Icon, had also dropped the film, following a phone call from a man in Washington who told Icon that if they continued with the film Gibson would no longer be welcome at the White House. Icon denied the story, but how could they prove that the mysterious Washington caller did not exist?
The net effect of all these claims and counter-claims was that Fahrenheit 9/11 was the film that everyone on the Croisette wanted to see. But as not everyone had tickets, the old-fashioned capitalist marketing ploy of making demand outstrip supply ensured maximum frenzy and thus still greater demand. In Cannes, nobody wants to hear the word can't. Naturally, the bidding on buying the distribution rights just went up and up.
The film, as it turned out, is Moore's strongest since Roger and Me, his debut documentary 15 years ago which examined the damage wrought by General Motors on his home town of Flint. Whereas the Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine was hit-and-miss, self-contradictory, and more than a little sanctimonious, Fahrenheit 9/11 seldom loses sight of its target - the Bush administration - or its sense of humour.
It is also, with a couple of exceptions, a triumph of editing. Indeed, Moore is arguably the most ideological and emotive editor since Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet propagandist who developed a kind of didactic montage. Juxtaposing heroes and villains, he cuts between political comedy and tragic reality with intoxicating glee. There is no information that is vitally new, nor are there any images that are more shocking than those from Abu Ghraib prison, but such is the cumulative force of the film, with its kinetic humour and insistent sentiment, that it is hard to come away from it without concluding a) that George W Bush is not fit to be president of a golf club let alone the world's most powerful nation and b) the war in Iraq was woefully misconceived. In the year of an election that could well prove close, it's the kind of film that could make a historic difference.
In the past, Moore has been accused of twisting chronology and events to suit his agenda. While neither Bowling for Columbine nor Roger and Me can be accused of major factual errors, both trade on a series of misleading implications. For example, in Bowling for Columbine the audience is led to believe that the two teenage killers at Columbine high school may have been inured to violence by the proximity of a local weapons factory. Yet it later emerged that the factory produced nothing more lethal than rockets to launch TV satellites. The film critic Richard Schickel labelled Moore 'the very definition of the unreliable narrator'.
If there is a question mark over the trustworthiness of Moore's work, few can doubt its power, still less its influence. Bowling for Columbine was by far the biggest-grossing documentary in history. Stupid White Men , an easy-read satire, was the bestselling non-fiction book in the US in 2002, with 4 million copies in print worldwide, and 600,000 of those in the UK. At one point the book, and its follow-up, Dude, Where's My Country?, stood at numbers one and two in the German bestseller list. The sales of his films and books have made him known across the planet, as well as very rich, but the image he has sold of himself - fat, bumbling, nerdy, but indefatigable - has made him something else: an international man of the people.
As the limousine carrying Moore to his Cannes press conference pulls out of the Majestic, bound for the Palais less than 200 yards up the road, an Argentinian TV crew rushes out into the road to interview the director. The automatic tinted windows slide down and a few brief words are exchanged before a security guard steps in. The man with the microphone tries to give Moore an Argentinian flag but the security guard won't allow him. 'Put that down,' he warns, as if it were a semi-automatic weapon. The window goes up and the car moves off.
More than Moore's wealth, the question of security is perhaps the issue that most threatens his down-to-earth ordinary Joe persona. In Bowling for Columbine, he posits the theory that America's gun violence problem stems from a culture of fear created by a racist media. Last year, during a residency at the Roundhouse in London, he suggested that if the passengers on 11 September had been black, they would have fought back against the hijackers, and that spoilt whites were too used to having other people look after them.
But during the same series of dates in London, he complained about the lack of security so vehemently that the Roundhouse staff threatened to boycott the show. I got a taste of the air of paranoia surrounding Moore when, because I was without a suitable pass, a friendly PR snuck me into the main press conference alongside his entourage. Suddenly, one of his assistants turned to me and demanded to know who I was. The PR explained that I was with her.
'And who are you with?' asked the assistant.
'You,' replied the perplexed PR. 'I'm working with you.'
'I've never seen you before in my life,' announced the assistant and a security guard duly intervened to bar both of us. It was only when the PR persuaded the assistant that in fact they had been working together all day that the guard relented. On stage, Moore was asked why it was that he was flanked by three security men, who stood with their feet apart, hands clasped at their crotches, in an intimidating military stance. The director did as he always does when asked this question, and claimed that they were his fitness trainer, pilates teacher and masseur, then turned the idea that he needed protection into an elaborate joke. 'I'm not afraid of anything,' he mugged. 'Should I be?' The room broke into laughter.
Moore knows how to field difficult questions before a crowd. When one reporter told him that she had spoken to Icon and they knew nothing of the supposed caller from Washington, Moore told her to speak to his agent - 'He knows all about it.' She told him she had spoken to his agent, that he had professed ignorance of the matter, and had told her that she should speak to Moore. The director simply referred her back to his agent.
After the conference, Moore went to the official screening of his film, which is in competition for the main jury prize. The end of the film brought a standing ovation that, observers estimated, lasted somewhere between 12 and 15 minutes, a Cannes record, and possibly unmatched since Stalin's audiences used to continue clapping for mortal fear of being the first person to stop.
The applause here, though, was genuine. For the Americans who made up a large section of the audience, this was their first opportunity to stand up straight after the shaming horrors of Abu Ghraib, and for the French, well, there is nothing the French love more than an American criticising America. The following evening on French TV, I watched Moore thank the French peo ple for being 'friends who can tell you the truth to your face'. He might have returned the favour and told the French about their government's appalling role in Rwanda a decade before - but there are limits to truth-telling, even among friends.
The charge that Moore, who turned 50 last month, has only ever established a partial relationship with the truth is one that stretches way back into his career. Although he has lived in the rarefied neighbourhood of Manhattan's Upper West Side for the past 14 years, Moore very rarely lets an interview go by without referring to himself as 'working-class'. In fact, he grew up in a middle-class suburb of Flint, in a two-car family. His father was an auto- plant worker who played golf, retired in his fifties, and was well-off enough to send his three children to college.
Moore dropped out of university and, after stints as a hippie DJ, and a period running a crisis centre for teenagers, he set-up an alternative newspaper, the Flint Voice. He edited it with such verve, exposing corrupt officials and racist businesses, that in 1986 the San Francisco-based magazine Mother Jones asked him to become its editor. But just a few months after taking up the position, he was fired. According to the owner of the magazine, the staff said that he was impossible to work with. As far as Moore was concerned, he lost his job because he was set against a piece that was critical of the Sandinistas' record on human rights.
Either way, he won $58,000 damages in a suit for wrongful dismissal, sold his house and put all the money into making Roger and Me . The documentary was a notable critical, if not spectacular commercial, success. Thereafter Moore moved to New York and television, making zany political series such as TV Nation and The Awful Truth, which were full of Moore's trademark stunts designed to mock greed and ignorance and humbug.
Behind the scenes, however, a different picture was forming. Moore's employers were confronted with ever more regal demands. He insisted that Channel 4 house him at the Ritz when he worked in England on The Awful Truth, a fact he now portrays as the revenge of the working class against corporate might. Meanwhile employees grumbled. 'He's a jerk and a hypocrite and didn't treat us right and he was false in all of his dealings,' said one former worker. His former manager, Douglas Urbanski, has said that Moore 'was the most difficult man I've ever met... he's money-obsessed'.
To such complaints, Moore has a stock Nietzschean-cum-Obi-Wan Kenobi answer, which is that whatever attacks his critics launch at him, only make him stronger. 'The readership only expands, the viewership for the movies only expands, and they just look ridiculous.'
And, statistically, he's right. Currently, there is no more powerful anti-war protester in America, and therefore arguably the world, than Moore. In this country, the Mirror named him 'the greatest living American'. Recently, when he called Bush a 'deserter' it caused a scandal in the States, but it also put Bush's dubious record as a National Guardsman during the Vietnam war at the top of the agenda for the first time. He plays sell-out stadiums wherever he travels, and while he has become something of a bogeyman to the American right, and an embarrassment to a small section of the liberal left, he is to many millions the world over the underdogs' most heroic spokesperson. It's a reputation that was cemented by his celebrated Oscar speech at last year's awards ceremony, in which he lambasted Bush and told the assembled actors that they lived in 'fictitious times'.
He would tell interviewers afterwards that he had not planned the speech, assuming that he would not win, but elsewhere he has said that he warned his fellow competitors that he was going to make an anti-war statement. That's the problem with Moore: you can't be certain of the veracity of what he says. Is he the radical who has claimed to give a third of his income to worthy causes or a ruthless self-aggrandising hypocrite, or both?
Now, with my exclusive one-to-one interview, I was, I hoped, about to see the real Michael Moore. But a small cloud had appeared in the brilliant blue Mediterranean sky. The publicity company dealing with Moore in Cannes had resigned, as a fractious working relationship had become intolerable, with the director and Weinstein apparently reducing one of the publicists to tears. The new publicists, drawn and anxious-looking, were at pains to let me know that the interview would still go ahead. They just couldn't be sure what time it would be. And, oh, one other thing, it had been cut to 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes! That was barely enough time to ask a question, let alone hear it answered.
I waited in the lobby of the Majestic, and was finally allotted a time. The hour came and passed. There was no sign of Moore. Was he pulling a Naomi, the no-show interview technique perfected by supermodel Naomi Campbell? He once told an interviewer that he didn't like interviews because he had 'no control over what you're going to write'. One form of control, of course, is not to arrive.
The publicist told me that Moore's lunch meeting had run over but that she was sure everything would be OK. It was clear from her stricken expression that she had no idea where Moore was. She went away and what seemed like a week later returned with a definite slot and disappointing news. Owing to Moore's other engagements, the interviews now had to be compressed, and I would be sharing my limited time with one journalist from Australia and another from Japan.
Inside a well-manned salon, Moore was sporting a baseball cap with the legend 'Made in Canada', a blue hooded tracksuit top, khaki shorts and sandals. Crouched over a circular conference table, he looked like a lumpen tourist at a Vegas blackjack game, uncertain, ill at ease.
'You cool with them being here?' he asked me conspiratorially, though quite brazenly, in front of the Australian and Japanese journalists.
When I told him that it wasn't what was advertised on the brochure, he said: 'Yeah, I don't know what to do here. They've got me so jammed. No offence to you, the Japanese,' he gestured to the Japanese woman, 'but you both deserve your own time,' now gesturing to the Australian woman and myself. Either he doesn't sell too well in Japan or there was a hint of racism in that distinction, but Moore was too caught up in his own drama to notice. 'This is bullshit, you know. Don't they understand the difference between the Observer and a Portuguese magazine, no offence to the Portuguese, but don't they know? I'm just asking, man.'
From being the architect of this farrago, Moore turned himself into the victim, betrayed by the nameless, omnipotent 'they'. He continued in the same vein, currying my favour with his appreciation of the Observer until, to her great credit, the Japanese woman asked if we could begin the interview. At which point Moore burst out laughing, to his credit at himself.
My strategy, given the rushed circumstances, was to dispense with formal inquiries, let the other two ask about the film and general matters, and restrict myself to awkward questions. I wondered if he has any regrets about supporting Ralph Nader, the independent candidate in the previous American presidential election. Most observers think that the votes Nader took from Al Gore were vital in gaining Bush's disputed victory.
'None whatsoever,' he says without hesitation, although he's called on Nader not to stand this time round. What's the difference?
'Wrong year. Even the Green party in the US have said they're not going to campaign in the swing states... I've been very disappointed and very saddened by Ralph, who's a great American who's done many great things. But in his later years he has become, you know, somewhat bitter and vindictive. And I don't want to speak ill of him because he's done so much good, but he has not a single... except I think I heard maybe Patti Smith is supporting him.' His silent ellipses could mean nothing but 'celebrity endorsement'.
I ask him why his old friend and longtime collaborator Ben Hamper, a former Flint auto-worker whom he helped become a writer, told the New Yorker magazine, in among a number of otherwise flattering comments, that Moore 'didn't treat people well'.
'Right,' says Moore, rising to the charge, 'and then he sent me a letter saying that he said that while he was drunk. He has a horrible alcohol problem and I don't really want to talk about it,' he says, going straight on to talk about it, 'because I feel bad because he's a friend. He sent me this painful, painful letter. He hasn't been able to write a book in over 12 years. He's literally had this writer's block that has not been helped by the prescription drugs and the alcohol problem. I care deeply about him. And it's hard for someone like that because here we were putting out this paper in Flint and I've gone on and written my books, made my films, I have this life and, you know, he's struggling. My wife and I have tried to help him [but] at some point in this situation you've got to stop being the enabler and he's got to get it together himself.'
He then tells me how well he pays his employees the best independent film rates around, and even calls in a young assistant and asks him to tell me how much he earns. 'Eight hundred dollars a week?,' he says gingerly. 'What else?' asks Moore. 'You pay for my cell phone.' 'So,' says Moore, 'roughly a thousand a week.' Sounds like roughly $800 to me, but who's quibbling?
The point is, he insists, he's not fallen out with any employees since 1994. I ask if he worked out how to be a better employer.
'I just think I'm a better person,' he says, his head bowed in theatrically solemn contemplation, 'because I'm always struggling to be a better person. I'm a highly flawed individual, as we all are, and because I was raised by Jesuits, I'm constantly, "What is it about me and what I can do to be better?"'
It is doubtless to this mission that he refers in Stupid White Men, when he writes: 'If you're white, and you really want to help change things, why not start with yourself?'
With this thought in mind, I ask him why he decided to send his daughter to a private school in Manhattan.
'Oh,' he says brightly, 'I went to private school. Just a genetic decision. My wife and I, we both went to Catholic schools, we're not public-school [which in the US means state school] people.
So it's not important.
'No, I think it's important and the first five years she went to public school, then we moved to New York and we went to see the local public school and we walked through a metal detector and we said, "We're not putting our child through a metal detector." We'll continue our fight to see to it that our society is such that you don't have to have a metal detector at the entrance to schools. But our daughter is not the one to be sacrificed to make things better. And so she went to a school two blocks away. She just went to the nearest other school.'
He makes it sound as if the other school was just a random choice, but private schools on the Upper West Side are all restrictively expensive, and mostly white, just as the state schools are disproportionately black.
'Is that a bad thing?' he asks rhetorically of his decision, 'I don't know. Every parent wants to do what's best for their child. Whatever I can afford, I'm going to get my kid the best education I can get.'
I suggest that, while that may be a natural instinct, it's hard to see why it's any different from the Republican philosophy of each man for himself and his family.
'I'm not a liberal. When you come from the working class and you do well enough whereby you can provide a little bit better for your family, get a decent roof over their head and send them to a good school, that's considered a good thing. If,' he emphasises, 'you're from the working class. What's bad about it is if you get to do that and then shut the door behind you so nobody else can do that.'
Of course, it's nobody's business but Moore's where he sends his child, except he makes it his business to detail the hereditary privilege of his subjects and tends to make his political arguments personal. In Fahrenheit 9/11 one of his stunts is to attempt to get Congressmen to sign their children up for the war in Iraq.
I ask him finally - the interview has now stretched either side of another with Italian TV - which other documentary film-makers he admires. He names Errol Morris, and a few others, but does not mention Nick Broomfield, whose signature style of putting himself in the frame Moore has to some extent borrowed. I ask how he rates Broomfield.
He pauses. 'I consider him a friend.'
I wait for his answer, as he tucks into a bowl of pickles.
'Do you think he wants to be on camera?' he puts the question back to me. 'Do you think he looks like he's enjoying it?'
What I think, after my short time in his company, is that Moore is a man you would not want as an opponent, but also one you'd think twice about calling a friend. Though a talented film-maker and a clever showman, a populist who knows how to play the maverick, he is too often both big-headed and small- minded. In his desire to be seen as the decent man telling truth to power, he is too ready to blame those less powerful than himself for his shortcomings. He was justly revered in the Palais, but out on the street no one had a kind word to say about him. At Cannes, Moore may have been the star but he was not, it seems, the man of the people.