BOOKS & THE CULTURE From Flint to Hollywood On the Road to Revolution with Michael Moores Comedy Militia BY KAREN OLSSON DOWNSIZE THIS! Random Threats of an Unarmed American. By Michael Moore. Crown Publishers, Inc. 278 pages. $21.00. 1 n 1989, Roger and Me, Michael Moore’s movie about the effect of GM layoffs on his hometown of Flint, Michigan, hit the theaters. Through footage of evictions, abandoned storefronts, prayer rallies and a woman selling rabbits for a living, Moore documented the post-industrial poverty in Flint. He set those scenes against shots of the city’s indifferent country clubbers, and his own failed attempts to meet with General Motors’ CEO Roger Smith. Throughout the film, Moore presented himself as the deadpan witness, his eyes wide as he asked security guards and desk attendants why he couldn’t just go to Smith’s office and talk to the CEO about what was happening in Flint; his pretended bewilderment underscored the barrier between working-class Flint and Smith’s corporate world. Whether it was a smug manager at Smith’s athletic club or the bizarre proceedings of a women’s Amway meeting back in Flint, Moore dramatized both the ridiculous and the disgusting by taking everything seriously, while the cameras rolled in the background. The movie did surprisingly well, becoming the highest-grossing nonfiction film ever, and as a result Moore grew somewhat famous in his role of comic social critic, the overweight gadfly who sticks it to the powers that be by sticking his camera where it doesn’t belong. A few years later he took his muckraking to prime-time with TV Nation, a show that poked fun at not only big companies but also militia groups, immigration policies, gated communities and the Sierra Blanca sewage dump. Though he ceded narration of some segments to re porters, Moore remained the main manwith-the-camera, and he made his point sometimes just by straightforward filmingfor example, a man selling white supremacist pamphlets and trinkets; in other segments he staged stunts, such as introducing a black Washington, D.C., man to city police officers in order to explain that the man, who had been arrested repeatedly, had not committed any crimes. TV Nation was often hilarious, though with a tighter production schedule than Roger and Me and without the movie’s unifying subject matter, the show sometimes seemed too cute, even unnervingly cute; certain stunts, like getting a Mariachi band to play at a hate rally, were absurd but not exactly funny. Like Roger and Me, TV Nation demonstrated the power of pointed humor, but it also showed the limits of humor: at times a joke, or a stunt, is a weak response, or just the wrong one. The show also demonstrated the drawing power of television. For it was the willingness of all sorts of people to go before the camera that enabled Moore to film militia leaders, or people who buy at a discount the life insurance policies of AIDS patients. Moore himself was not immune to the lure of the camera, which he frequently appeared in front ofposing for the audience as the defender of the good, or the self-proclaimed “Only White Man In America Who Thinks O.J. is Innocent.” The show became the arena for the battle of the two Michael Moores: the brilliant humorist and social critic versus the expanding, pulpitseeking ego. In his new book, Downsize This!, Moore directs both his comic and homiletic energies at a series of targets, from corporate criminals to Miami Cubans’ influence on American foreign policy. Big corporations that lay off thousands of workers are still at the top of Moore’s hit list: a company that damages thousands of its employees’ lives by reckless firing is not so different from a person who blows up a building, he sug gests. In response to corporations’ “economic terrorism,” Moore writes, “there is a rage building throughout the country and, if you’re like me, you’re scared shitless. Oklahoma City is the extreme extension of this rage.” But Moore glides from these sorts of grave warnings on one page, to tales of his wacky pranks on the next. In one chapter he sends the Buchanan presidential campaign a donation in the name of “Abortionists for Buchanan,” which the campaign accepts; in another, mentioning the need for economic aid to this country’s poorest areas, he requests assistance from Norway, Japan and Saudi Arabia; in a third chapter he tries to have California Representative Bob Doman committed to a mental institution. This is just the beginning. Moore uses his book to lay out his whole theory of O.J.’s innocence, reveal his secret love for Hillary Rodham Clinton, and kvetch about those little silver pieces of tape that make CDs hard to open. He encourages his readers to send their garbage to Orange County and loot Beverly Hills. He looks forward to the day when Jewish retirees in Miami Beach start bumping off all the expatriate Germans who live in Florida. The United States, he says, might be better off with a new name, like “Land o’ Sex.” Steve Forbes is probably an alien. Of course, everyone hates those little silver things and Steve Forbes may well be one of the pod people, but if you sit down and try to read all of Moore’s book in a sitting or two, the randomness of his threats gets a little tiring. And he has a tendency to raise a serious issue, like the weakness of labor unions, and then follow it with a jokey responsesay, a long description of how the two assistants who helped him with the book were thwarted in their attempts to join the seafarers’ union or the sanitation workers’ uniondefusing his argument rather than underlining it. It’s not that he ought to be more serious; he’s just funnier when he’s not quite so random. DECEMBER 20, 1996 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29
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