FANS AND CRITICS OF 'FAHRENHEIT 9/11' STILL GOING STRONG
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
SAN PEDRO, Calif., Sept 12, 2004 -- My weekend began in a little waterfront cafe where two strangers nearly came to blows. There had been angry letters of protest in the newspapers and one lone protester on the day of the event. The subject of all this display was the showing of Michael Moore's controversial, prize-winning documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" at a local theater on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2004.
There hasn't been this much arguing over a movie since the opening of Starwars Episode II, Attack of the Clones, and that one, to the best of my knowledge, never led to a dockside brawl.
We last visited this subject in the spring, when Michael Moore and the Disney corporation uncooperatively cooperated in a grand publicity stunt, culminating in Moore winning the top prize at the Canne film festival and then triumphantly opening his film all across the United States. Until now, I had not seen it, but I did follow some of the raucous and occasionally venomous debate on radio, internet discussion sites and even in the legitimate press.
In a presidential race that appears as of this moment to be too close to call, the continuing vitality of Moore's effort and its possible effect on the November election are worthy of consideration. To get a feel for what Moore actually accomplished, it's useful to introduce the Website known as the Internet Movie Data Base, or in internet-speak, IMDB.com.
The IMDB site provides all kinds of information about movies. Want to know the full cast of Cleopatra right down to the assistant directors? It's there for the knowing by doing a "title" search for Cleopatra and clicking on "combined details."
What should interest us here is the continuing effect of "Fahrenheit 9/11" on the American electorate. For a start, we can use its box office record as a clue. To do this, we need merely to check the subheading of "box office & business" on its IMDB page.
It's a remarkable result for a documentary of any kind. "Fahrenheit 9/11" opened in a few American theaters beginning June 22, 2004 and expanded widely within a few days. By June 27, after less than a week in wide release, it had already made $24 million gross income. A week later, the gross had climbed to $61 million, and after a month was in excess of $100 million.
Since late July, Moore's film has continued to be shown. That mass rush of viewers in the first few weeks has abated, but people are still going. At the peak in mid-July, the film was being shown on 2004 screens. By the weekend of Sept. 5 (the last for which IMDB data are currently available), there were still 245 screens in play.
The latest weekly data, which include ticket sales from August 29 through Sept. 5, show slightly more than half a million dollars in ticket sales, with a Sept. 5 weekend box office of $358,748. The film continues to be seen. Michael Moore's Website claims that 20 million people have watched it already.
Box-office success does not imply either artistic worth or the lack thereof, nor does it say anything about veracity or the lack thereof. "Fahrenheit 9/11" probably has inspired more critical analysis than any other documentary film in the history of the medium, simply because it has such potential for affecting the 2004 elections.
For a brief selection of critical comments easily available on the internet, consider the following two authors: Christopher Hitchens' compelling critique "Unfairenheit 911, the Lies of Michael Moore," written for slate.com, makes a masterful effort at undercutting the logic and arguments (such as they are) in the film. The less known but equally schooled (and clearly more conservative) Dave Kopel's "Fifty-nine Deceits in Fahrenheit 911" is also available online.
Balanced against these attacks are the literally dozens of laudatory reviews authored by film critics and political scholars alike (for a collection of reviews, see the IMDB section "external reviews"). For example, here is the final paragraph from Roger
Ebert's review in the Chicago Sun-Times:
"Fahrenheit 9/11" is a compelling, persuasive film, at odds with the White House effort to present Bush as a strong leader. He comes across as a shallow, inarticulate man, simplistic in speech and inauthentic in manner.
The event on that warm Saturday morning in San Pedro was advertised as a forum on homeland security with free screenings of "Fahrenheit 9/11." That's right, free, no charge, gratis.
It turns out that this was not even the first time this stunt has been tried. It has also been done in North Carolina and Wisconsin. On this particular day, the refurbished Warner Grand Theater drew approximately 1,500 people over the course of the day's three screenings.
To put this number in perspective, a film group of which I am a member showed three classic science-fiction films the previous week and drew 64 people. In earlier screenings of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Princess Bride we drew between 200 and 300 patrons. The number also represents more than 5 percent of the city's population.
In short, "Fahrenheit 9/11" packed the place.
As someone who has read numerous critical attacks and equally numerous laudatory reviews, I was, more than anything, curious. Would the film turn out to be emotionally affecting but logically weak, as the reviews suggest?
To some extent, yes. Moore shows Baghdad prior to the American invasion as something of a tranquil, happy place with children playing and families sitting down to sumptuous meals. This picture certainly does violence to the claims previously made by many on the left, that economic sanctions were killing Iraqi children by the thousands. Yet here we have a happy city that seems only to suffer later on when it is left in ruins by American military power.
Logicians like Christopher Hitchens would say (actually, he did say) that Moore can't have it both ways. In this sense, Hitchens is correct. Hitchens finds the film full of logical inconsistencies. He accuses Moore of taking positions in the film that flatly contradict Moore's earlier public positions.
Kopel (kopel.org) takes a more lawyerly approach, accusing Moore of a multitude of sins. The most telling in his overly long rant is the argument that Moore is disingenuous in the film, covering up his anti-Israel bias by, among other things, cutting important parts from remarks made by President Bush in a clip that was shot on a golf course.
My experience in watching the film for my first time is that, in this universe of political polemic and propaganda, Moore can have it both ways. He can shade the facts a bit here and there, he can edit illogically and he can connect lots of dots that probably shouldn't be connected.
The reason he can do this and come across as the hero of the anti-Bush movement is twofold. First, it is after all a propaganda war which has long been lacking a propagandist on the liberal side, and second, it is the cinematic medium he is working in.
The first point is evident, if not exactly pure from the ethical standpoint. Moore has used artistic license that sometimes skirts the edge. One example much belabored by Kopel involves excerpts from a Bush speech made at a charity dinner. Bush offers a little self-deprecating humor: "Near the end of the movie, Bush speaks to a tuxedoed audience. He says, "I call you the haves and the have-mores. Some call you the elite; I call you my base." Kopel explains that this was in the context of a dinner at which candidate Al Gore did similarly self-deprecatory jokes as both helped to raise money for Catholic charities.
In the cinematic context it doesn't matter all that much. Moore is trying to make the point that Bush administration policies benefit the rich. This clip makes the point for him.
What bothers Kopel and other critics is the context. The jaunty-taunty tone clashes irritatingly with the terribly serious context in which the clip has been inserted, making Bush seem somewhat asinine.
In film editing, context provides meaning where meaning may not have existed, a principle made famous by Serge Eisenstein in his discussions about montage. Moore has simply adopted this ancient technique to try to show Bush as foolish and simple.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" for all its logical flaws does live up to its critics' praise, in that it effectively calls into question the character, motives, credibility and capability of the current administration.
It does so at times by using questionable methods, but as was demonstrated on this Saturday in San Pedro, the movie continues to bring in an audience in this electoral season and may very well affect the outcome of November's election.