Why Does Michael Moor’s Documentaries Appeal So Strongly?

3192 words (13 pages) Essay in Film Studies

18/05/20 Film Studies Reference this

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Roger & Me (1989) attracted positive reviews and a major distribution deal, but also a critical backlash against Michael Moore’s approach to documentary film-making. Why does Moore’s approach to film-making appeal so strongly to audiences? To what extent were those who condemned Roger & Me justified in their criticism?

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In evaluating Roger and Me (1989) it is clear to a large degree Michael Moore is the star of his film due to the fact he is an important character. In other words, Moore defies traditional documentarian conventions as he is actively involved onscreen with his subjects and largely subjective in asserting leftist ideologies. Having a prominent role in Roger and Me Moore’s childhood is highlighted in a fast paced montage revealing he hails from Flint, Michigan and is from working class stock. The significance of “me” derived from the title confirms Moore’s importance. In all his productions, Moore is famous for putting on a façade of “an astute analyst of class and capitalism” and Roger and Me is ultimately the first time we are introduced to ‘Michael Moore.’ (Kellner, 2011: 137). Roger and Me depicts Moore as a defender of the proletariat, and with his strong anti-capitalist agenda Moore is immensely relatable to the American viewer, for he is condemning the one percent whom disregard the lives workers for cheaper labour. It is easy to see the appeal of Roger and Me as Richard Bernstein reports in his article the film is a “kind of David and Goliath revenge story” and “plainly entertaining” to the viewer. (Bernstein, 1990). The genre of Roger and Me has been debated among scholars due to the fact Moore’s satire style arguably introduced a new form of documentary in society with popular documentarians, such as, Louis Theroux and Morgan Spurlock emulating his style in their productions. Roger and Me focused on humour, and lacks objectivity and the viewers are constantly encouraged to agree with Moore’s perspective. According to Kellner, Roger and Me is “a unique genre, often departing from standard documentary conventions.” (Kellner, 2011: 138). This quote explores the structure of Roger and Me and contests Moore challenged orthodox documentary conventions to a large extent. In sum, Moore has produced a documentary that was impossible to categorise due to the majority of nonfiction films concentrating on objectivity and conforming to the traditional ideologies of Grierson (1898-1972). Moore’s comedic approach, and accusations of exploitation has engrossed a wealth of academics either attacking his credibly or praising Moore for highlighting corruption American economy. But to what extent did Michael Moore deserve the backlash he received from his critics?

Roger and Me was surprisingly popular upon release and was received positively by critics at the start, however, a relationship between Michael Moore and controversy became intertwined when two influential critics, Pauline Kael and Harlon Jacobson pointed out discrepancies in Roger and Me. The disparaging critiques from Kael and Jacobson have incited a debate among influential theorists like James McEnteer, Stella Bruzzi and John Corner. A number of authors have employed differing perspectives and arguments on whether Moore should be considered a villain or a hero, therefore possibly making it difficult to a certain extent to agree with a one viewpoint. Roger and Me generated a profit of $7.7 million dollars globally and wasthe most successful documentary at the time just before they became popular with a mainstream audience, a phenomena culminating in the early 90s with documentaries, such as, The Thin Blue Line (1988) and Hoop Dreams (1994) become box office hits. (Bernstein, 2010). Despite the sensation of Roger and Me, Moore’s interview with Harlan Jacobson for Film Comment raised questions concerning the factuality of Roger and Me. (Jacobson, 1989).Jacobson goes on to discuss the fact Moore was not fully precise in delivering truthful facts which has caused some academics to criticise Moore’s position as a documentarian as he failed conform to dominant ideologies of documentaries displaying reality. Furthermore, Jacobson contests the sacking of General Motor workers was actually a lot less and happened in a larger time frame, whilst Roger and Me represented the loss of jobs over just a couple of years, not a decade. However, is this small misrepresentation overstated in comparison to the important points Moore has raised in Roger and Me? Similarly, film critic Pauline Kael’s scathing review in The New Yorker asserts Moore was manipulating his subjects and broke ethical violations in the process. (Kael, 1990). Both critics have contested against Moore’s assessments but to what extent are their critiques relevant? It could be debated that there are only negative connotations surrounding Moore due to his lack of commitment to traditional documentary norms: these salacious statements from Kael and Jacobson infiltrate to attack Moore, to the detriment of the many important points he has brought to attention with creating Roger and Me.

It is essential to evaluate Roger and Me in order to determine if Kael and Jacobson criticisms on Roger and Me are defensible. Needless to say, Mooreexhibits a satire tone during comedic attempts to find Smith to confront him on the layoffs of GM workers. The viewers are introduced to a range of visual techniques used to demonstrate the hardship in Flint, with emphasis on the gap between the poor and privileged. Evidently the most commanding scene in Roger and Me is a homeless man evicted on Christmas Eve, the moment complimenting Moore’s talent as he captures the stark reality of the poverty. Bourgeois characters are constructed as indifferent to the situation in Flint with a garden party using some of the unemployed as living statues, and experiencing a night in jail. It is these sardonic representations that bring humour to the film and arguably showcases the appeal of Moore’s style of film-making. There are many techniques deployed to help deliver Moore’s message, and are done so brilliantly. “Wouldn’t it be nice” can be ironically heard over shots of the most derelict areas, an oxymoron of a scene designed to fuel disgust in the viewer, not at all subtle but effective to a large extent. One may argue Moore has changed documentary conventions with Roger and Me affirming entertainment is an important aspect of modern documentaries in contemporary society. The comedy element, arguably, is the reason why Roger and Me appeals to a mainstream audience, however, Moore’s ridicule and possible questionable techniques was ultimately a main factor in a number of academics responding undesirably to Moore. John O’Conner affirms Moore “likes to make people squirm” which adds to the sarcasm and it is clear in assessing Roger and Me Moore is manipulative to a certain extent in his interviews. One may assume Kael is possibly right in her assertions but her pity for Miss America is invalid. (O’Connor, 2005:7)

Gary Crowdus and Carley Cohan critical assessment of Roger and Me negotiated both positive and deleterious elements of Moore’s documentary. Both focus the retaliations of Jacobson’s interview with Roger and Me gaining a tainted reputation because of the critic and thus Moore suffered as a result as his interview with Jacobson “was doubtless a key factor in the film’s omission from the list of 1989 Academy Award nominees.” (Cohan and Crowdus, 1990: 1). Crowdus and Corner agree with Kael on Moore exploiting his subjects in order to create entertainment for the viewer. Also, they note Roger and Me is a extraordinary documentary due to its success, and undermine Jacobson’s assertions as exaggerated, stressing both Kael and Jacobson are expecting old-fashioned norms that are irrelevant in modern society, and supporting Moore is honest in his approach. Nevertheless, both acknowledge Moore’s collectiveness and primary concern on entertainment sating “it’s not easy to turn the human tragedy of unemployment into a laff-fest, but Moore has come perilously close to doing just that.” (Cohan and Crowdus, 1990: 9). Documentary theoretician John Corner supports Cohan and Crowdus’ opinions on Moore’s intention of making Roger and Me a comedy, and consequently pinpoints on one of Moore’s subjects, a women trying to earn money through butchering rabbits. According to Corner, Moore purposely ridicules his subject by including outrageous footage of her skinning rabbits, thus Corner theorizes the drive of this construction commenting “the bonding with the viewer serves to objectify the woman as weird in a way which is also darkly comic.” (Corner, 1996: 162). Corner’s well observed statement articulates the viewer is positioned by Moore to identify with him in judging and mocking her due to the fact Moore’s opinion is reflected in his responses to her odd ways of earning money. From assessing the opinions above it is clear to a limited degree Moore abused his position for comedy value as “the filmmaker holds the camera and thus possess a power others don’t.” (Nichols, 2010: 58).

 

Michael Moore Hates America (2004) is a documentary on Michael Moore directed by Michael Wilson. Wilson emulates Moore’s narrative style in Roger and Me as he tries to hunt down Moore to interview him. Through his efforts to discredit Moore as exploitative, Wilson interviews a variety of conservative and liberal figures. Psychologist David Hardy asserts to the camera that Moore embodies symptoms of a narcissistic personality disorder stating “Michael Moore seems to parallel some of them.” Furthermore, Albert Maylas examines Moore’s comedic style commenting as “as long as it’s entertaining its fine” exemplifying the notion Moore is predominately concerned with entertaining the masses, and generating a profit. Willison sets out to persuade us the belief Moore is nothing but a manipulative liar, and to a certain extent Michael Moore Hates America exhibits some good points. For example, one of Wilson’s interview subjects is Peter Damon who lost of his arms in the Iraq war. In Moore’s most successful documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 an image of Damon is shown of him suffering in hospital, inviting the viewer to feel empathy for him. In comparison, Wilson’s production displays Damon is evidently alive and well with his family, and accuses Moore of exploiting him in Fahrenheit 9/11 as Damon goes on to express he did not want anyone to pity him. Despite Wilson proving to have some valid arguments Michael Moore Hates America is not reliable to large extent due to Wilson’s perspective being a weakness in his assertions, although it is important to note the fact Moore refused to give him an interview. Ultimately Michael Moore is represented as being a disrespectful reprobate whom deserves the backlash from his critics: persuading the American population that Michael Moore is a figure to be despised in the media.

Whilst Roger and Me proved to a success story, Moore’s later production Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) exceeded previous expectations and raked in “$23.9 million on 868 screens and is still the highest grossing documentary of all-time with $119 million domestic.” (Fuster, 2018). Fahrenheit 9/11 attracted criticism correspondingly to Roger and Me. As seen in Michael Moore Hates America, there is evidence to support Moore has unfairly edited his subjects, and of course it is those examples that suggest Kael and Jacobson arguments are justified. Stella Bruzzi, an influential author whose insights into the development of documentaries has outlined her point of view on Moore’s productions. Bruzzi signals out the weaknesses in Fahrenheit 9/11 underlining the subjectivity of the film, however, she points out Moore’s technique has been honed to a certain degree and agrees with the notion Moore used his subjects for his own gain in Roger and Me, although Bruzzi admits Moore has reached a conclusion that is “historically and politically valid” in Fahrenheit 9/11. (Bruzzi, 2011: 194). Furthermore, Bruzzi compares Fahrenheit 9/11 to Roger and Me and notes Moore’s approach has changed positively due to the fact Bruzzi disparaged Moore’s first production. The tone of Bruzzi’s analysis demonstrates Moore perhaps deserved the backlash firstly but it is evident he has achieved a more important feat in his accomplishments, and has limited his personal role in with Bruzzi highlighting “unlike his previous films, Fahrenheit 9/11 does not center on Moore’s own persona” (Bruzzi, 2011: 96)

Modern society has seen a shift away from traditional documentaries which arguably can no longer be defined in a media saturated world, with the term ‘post documentary’ refusing to conform to traditional expectations of documentary. The fast development of technology in a digital era as allowed the audience to access different documentary forms of YouTube, Netflix and other multiple platforms accessible in contemporary times. Keith Beattie asserts his view on modern documentaries stating “evokes a post-Grierson documentary devoid of the authoritarian, expository positions which underpin the truth claims.” (Beattie, 2008: 151). Therefore, Michael Moore reflects the evolution of ‘post-modern’ documentaries as he predominately become popular for his humours appeal and angry documentaries sparking an interest in the viewer, and in doing so has influenced a new type of genre containing sardonic humour which other film-makers have emulated. One example is Louis Theroux, the British version of Michael Moore whom appears on screen with his subjects and presents himself as extremely polite and reserved in comparison to Moore’s directness. Equally, Theroux has been accused of using manipulative tendencies from critics. Michael Moore ultimately represents change in society with contemporary documentaries increasing in popularity and traditional conventions abandoned with the rise of documentary films and docudramas. Miles Orvell has argued in favour of Moore stating both Kael and Jacobson “asked the wrong question of the film.” (Orvell, 2010: 133). Kael and Jacobson has unnoticed what Orvell considers an important aspect of Roger and Me which was the exposure of how money is considered more worthy to Roger Smith than his workers, thus reflecting a problem in American society.

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The arguments above have identified different opinions in supporting and opposing Kael and Jacobson’s criticisms to see if their claims are justified or excessive. In assessing the controversy it is evident Michael Moore is a pivotal figure in the development of modern documentaries as he was one of the first film-makers to include a comedy style which won over the public. In evaluation, a More did not deserve the hostile response he received, however, it is possible to both agree and disagree with Kael and Jacobson. In addition, as Macdonald affirms “the genius of roger and me is that it understands the image-manipulating machinery of corporate public relations.” (Macdonald, 2006: 300). The significance of Roger and Me to the American Viewer is easy to see. It is not difficult to imagine an everyman who works hard; who wants to earn an honest wage; who, perhaps is being abused by the corrupted industries in America react to Roger and Me without feeling anger at the myth of the American Dream. However, it is also clear Moore exhibited exploitative techniques for comedy and it could be debated Michael Moore deserved his controversy, with Kael, Corner and Jacobson calling him out for abusing his power as a documentary-filmmaker. Although Kael highlights some good points in her argument with John Corner agreeing with her notion on Moore’s exploitation of his subjects, however, Jacobson’s comments are not relevant in a postmodern society as documentaries do not have to adhere to Griersons beliefs (1898-1972). Michael Moore may not be to everybody’s taste but it is difficult to disregard his talent In Roger and Me at exposing Roger Smith, and condemning him for being personally responsible for the unemployment in Flint. For it is rare for the corrupted to receive repercussions for their actions, and it is a joy to watch the exposure of Roger Smith in Roger and Me.

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REFERENCE PAGE

  • Beattie, K. (2008). Documentary display. London: Wallflower Press.
  • Bernstein, M. 2010. Michael Moore: Filmmaker, Newsmaker, Cultural Icon. The University of Michigan Press.
  • Bernstein, R. (1990). Roger and Me’: Documentary? Satire? Or Both? Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1990/02/01/movies/roger-and-me-documentary-satire-or-both.html (Accessed: 1 August 2019)
  • Bruzzi, S. (2011). New documentary. London: Routledge
  • Corner, J. (1996). The art of record. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Cohan, C. and Crowdus, G. (1990). Reflections on Roger & Me, Michael Moore, and his critics. Cineaste, 17(4).
  • Cousins, M. and Macdonald, K. (2006). Imagining reality. Faber & Faber
  • Fuster, J. (2018). How ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ Stacks Up on Michael Moore’s Box Office Record. Available at: https://www.thewrap.com/fahrenheit-11-9-stacks-michael-moores-box-office-record/ (Accessed: 2 Aug, 2019)
  • Jacobson, H. (1989). Michael and Me. Film Comment, 25 (6)
  • Kael, P. (1990). Melodrama/Cartoon/Mess. New Yorker.
  • Douglas Kellner. 2011. Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-Cheney Era. Wiley-Blackwell
  • Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to documentary. Indiana University Press
  • John E. O’Connor. “Michael Moore: Cinematic Historian or Propagandist?: Introduction: Historians on Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 35, no. 2 (2005): 7-7. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed August 20, 2019)

FILMOGRAPHY

  • Roger and Me. (1988) (Documentary) Directed by M. Moore.
  • Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) (Documentary) Directed by M. Moore
  • Michael Moore hates America (Documentary) Directed by M. Wilson

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Beattie, K. (2008). Documentary display. London: Wallflower Press.
  • Bernstein, M. 2010. Michael Moore: Filmmaker, Newsmaker, Cultural Icon. The University of Michigan Press.
  • Bernstein, R. (1990). Roger and Me’: Documentary? Satire? Or Both? Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1990/02/01/movies/roger-and-me-documentary-satire-or-both.html (Accessed: 1 August 2019)
  • Bruzzi, S. (2011). New documentary. London: Routledge
  • Corner, J. (1996). The art of record. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Cohan, C. and Crowdus, G. (1990). Reflections on Roger & Me, Michael Moore, and his critics. Cineaste, 17(4).
  • Cousins, M. and Macdonald, K. (2006). Imagining reality. Faber & Faber
  • Fuster, J. (2018). How ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ Stacks Up on Michael Moore’s Box Office Record. Available at: https://www.thewrap.com/fahrenheit-11-9-stacks-michael-moores-box-office-record/ (Accessed: 2 Aug, 2019)
  • Jacobson, H. (1989). Michael and Me. Film Comment, 25 (6)
  • Kael, P. (1990). Melodrama/Cartoon/Mess. New Yorker.
  • Douglas Kellner. 2011. Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-Cheney Era. Wiley-Blackwell
  • Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to documentary. Indiana University Press
  • John E. O’Connor. “Michael Moore: Cinematic Historian or Propagandist?: Introduction: Historians on Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 35, no. 2 (2005): 7-7. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed August 20, 2019).

 

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