Propaganda



NEW COMIC PROPAGANDA

More recently, the American Michael Moore (b. 1954) gained both notoriety and acclaim for his "documentary" films, which are unabashedly tendentious—and funny. Although comedy is not usually associated with propaganda, muckraker Moore uses irreverent satire and wry humor in Roger & Me (1989), Bowling for Columbine (2002), and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). Most documentaries have taken liberties with veracity but also hold up objectivity as a goal. Moore, however—using a first-person, polemical, and postmodernist style—often overtly restructures chronology, intercuts events unrelated to a scene's focus, and adds music and narration to make a political point—or get a laugh. He has even admitted that Roger & Me is not a documentary at all.

Roger & Me is an exposé of corporate greed at the highest levels of General Motors (GM), especially as it relates to the economic devastation of the director's hometown of Flint, Michigan. Moore personifies the villain in the elusive figure of Roger Smith, GM's CEO, and takes on the hero's role for himself—appearing onscreen and proffering a voice-over narration throughout the film. Other villains appear as Moore finds that tracking down his prey is increasingly difficult. Miss Michigan, Deputy Sheriff Fred Ross, GM public relations man Tom Kay, Anita Bryant, Pat Boone, the television celebrity Bob Eubanks, corporate (and United Auto Workers [UAW]) flunkies, and rich ladies at a golf club all make insensitive, if not cruel, comments about the auto plant closings, but Moore's editing and voice-over add a more polemical dimension. As the camera tracks past rows of abandoned homes and businesses, the Beach Boys' song "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is played. When UAW union leaders and unemployed workers (including a woman forced to sell rabbits "for pets or meat") are lampooned as well, Moore's progressive point may be lost.

Bowling for Columbine , winner of the Academy Award ® for Best Documentary of 2002, offers a forceful antigun message, focusing on the Columbine high school shootings and other gun death tragedies in the United States. At times, however, Moore is overly aggressive in his pursuit of celebrities. For example, one scene involves Moore's hounding of Dick Clark, who—Moore claims—is culpable in a little girl's death because of the celebrity's financial ties to a fast food chain. Moore's "logic" runs like this: Clark's restaurant pays minimum wage salaries, forcing a young mother to take a second job and leave her son with relatives; the lonely boy finds a handgun in his uncle's home and accidentally uses the weapon to kill a playmate. Moore ambushes Clark as he enters a van and peppers the music impresario with questions about his restaurant's pay scale, trying to directly link low wages with gun violence.

At the end of Bowling for Columbine , Moore goes even further in making questionable connections. Actor Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), grants the filmmaker an interview. The discussion soon moves to the subject of gun violence and the NRA's legislative agenda. Moore poses a seemingly innocent question: "Why does Canada have a lower rate of gun deaths than the United States?" to which Heston opines that racial tensions cause more murders in America. The filmmaker first attempts to turn this comment into a rabidly racist remark and then ambushes the doddering star as he walks away from the camera. Moore adds a voice-over plea for "Mr. Heston" to come back and continue the interview and, further, to apologize for the Columbine shootings. Finally, the director shamelessly lays a photo of a dead child in the star's driveway, as if Heston were somehow personally responsible. Such sanctimony is not uncommon in propaganda films; however, in the past, journalistic objectivity prevented many documentarians from attempting to arouse emotions so blatantly. In the twenty-first century, the pastiche-like "personal" postmodernist documentary knows no such restraint.

Fahrenheit 9/11 was the highest-grossing documentary film of all time and also won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2004. Although it is apparently riddled with factual inaccuracies, suggests that events occurred in a different chronological order than they actually did, and takes cheap shots at celebrities and government officials, its satirical passion and rage against the administration of George W. Bush (b. 1946) found an audience willing to suspend logic and its customary demand for truth. Even when the scenes are factually accurate—perhaps a vestigial concept in a postmodernist documentary—Moore still uses ad hominem attacks and chicanery to skewer the regime. For example, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is seen wetting his comb with saliva and slicking back his hair before a TV interview. This unhygienic practice certainly makes him look foolish, but does it say anything substantive about the Iraq War? Furthermore, does Wolfowitz's minor attempt at TV stage management compare with Moore's major manipulation of TV news footage?

Many in sympathy with Moore's antiwar agenda argued he did not have to resort to falsification to critique the president and his post-9/11 policies: the public record and the administration's own words, they said, provided enough fodder to support Moore's points. There is biting humor and irony in showing Bush play golf while the United States prepares for war, but President Bill Clinton also played golf while the nation was at war in Bosnia. Likewise, while Bush's look of stupefaction when informed that the Twin Towers had been attacked on September 11, 2001, suggests he was incompetent, it is an ambiguous image. Although Bush continues to read a book, My Pet Goat , to schoolchildren for seven minutes after he is told the news, the president may have been trying to maintain an air of calm while his staff investigated. But Moore goes for the easy explanation.

Indeed, Moore is rarely interested in subtlety. He takes great pains to prove that: (1) the US presidential election of 2000 was rigged; (2) Bush was in cahoots with the royal house of Saud and even Osama bin Laden—"facts" that have been challenged by the findings of the nonpartisan September 11 commission; (3) the president was a Vietnam-era deserter; and (4) the Iraq War was instigated to please the administration's wealthy backers. Whether Moore proves these allegations beyond a reasonable doubt is not the point; his chief concern was to create a dramatic and engaging film that marshals images and sounds (often his own voice-over commentary) to show that Bush is an incompetent, dishonest war-monger—and to affect Bush's reelection campaign in 2004. Moore wanted the film to "become a part of the national conversation" in the months before the 2004 election, and it did. It was not, however, sufficiently influential in the election-year debate to sway the results, even though the film contains powerful scenes of emotional blackmail, including a grieving mother who lost her soldier son in Iraq weeping in front of the White House, horrific scenes of Iraq war amputees in the Walter Reed Medical Center juxtaposed with the president addressing a fundraiser full of fat-cat contributors, and dead Iraqi youngsters positioned next to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's assurances about "the humanity that goes into our conduct of the war."

While Moore's films may be among the most freely manipulative of documentaries, ultimately, to an extent, all films (whether documentary or fictional) are propagandistic in that they are products of a particular culture at a particular moment in its history. Thus, films cannot help but reflect (and influence) that culture. In short, movies are social acts in that they contribute to depicting a certain vision of society and say something—consciously or unconsciously—about the culture that produces them, which is very close to the definition of propaganda.

SEE ALSO Documentary ; Ideology ; World War II

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Frank P. Tomasulo



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