Moore Than You or Me

Slacker Uprising offers nothing new, but it will be worth something if it affects November’s election

Michael Atkinson

Filmmaker Michael Moore speaks during the 2004 <i>Slacker Uprising</i> tour.

Whatever you say about filmmaker Michael Moore, we should consider ourselves blessed to have such a professional agent provocateur running amuck in our national media circus, raising the heartland’s consciousness and making the fat cats furious. We should as well take satisfaction that the corporate system – however pervasive, powerful and profit-mandated – is helpless to stop him. 

The marrow of Moore's schtick has always been the dialectic between appalling corporate facts about American inequity, and the witty, hypocrisy-skewering stunts he contrives around them.

No matter Moore’s persona – however much he chafes and self-promotes – he is one of the few uncompromised progressive voices in the American mainstream, and he’s easily the most visible. 

Yet Moore is loathed – not merely by conservatives – but also by Democrats and liberals of all stripes, who apparently cannot abide Moore’s affected working-class-Michigan profile and his shameless knack for self-aggrandizing and demagoguery. But it’s clear to me that Moore’s public showmanship and character are media tools, and the tasks he applies them to are always righteous and necessary.

This puts critics and educated liberals in a bind, because Moore’s films are not for us. They’re pedagogic acts, aiming low, and are less important in and of themselves than the public awareness and influence they might produce, in the millions of voters and consumers who don’t read In These Times, watch Keith Olbermann or read the new anti-Bush hardcovers. 

If we’re delighted by documentaries like Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 or Sicko, it’s only because we are the converted, watching our rage being sung to the heavens and hoping a Florida swing voter is listening with us. Other viewers, blue-collar voters in Colorado, Florida and Ohio, say, might learn something.

Of all of his films and TV shows, Moore’s new Slacker Uprising – available free as a download online – might be the camel’s-back-breaking straw for many Moore-wary viewers. 

Little more than a filmed record of Moore’s 2004 get-out-the-vote national tour, the film hops from state to state, college arena to college arena, as Moore rallies students to vote against President Bush in more than 60 cities. 

The marrow of Moore’s schtick has always been the dialectic between appalling corporate facts about American inequity, and the witty, hypocrisy-skewering stunts he contrives around them.

But there’s almost none of that in Slacker Uprising.

The 90-odd-minute feature is made up almost entirely of Moore taking the stage in front of one screaming, full-throated student audience after another, and then bellowing simplistic aphorisms at them. Occasionally guest stars appear – musicians Eddie Vedder, R.E.M. and Steve Earle, and actor Viggo Mortenson – to no great purpose.

The movie tries to make a thrilling narrative out of Moore’s tour, but a few censorship squabbles aside, there’s no news in it. A montage of uproarious, idiotic Bush supporters leavens the repetition a bit, as does a climactic, heart-sinking recap of the poll-slip suffered by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the home stretch running up to Election Day 2004

But Slacker Uprising is empty as protest satire goes, and it lends a cudgel to those who think Moore does what he does for the sheer sake of ego and power.

Time and time again we’re presented with the spectacle of Moore’s shambling form being hailed by thousands of roaring college kids as if he were a messiah figure – an idea that has no relation to reality (rallying college kids like to scream and shake their fists and see famous people). 

But here, distilled and edited down into a parade of glory moments, the routine comes off as vaguely distasteful, even suspicious. Couple that with the swooping rock-concert camera pans over the crowd, and relentlessly anthemic music, and what you’ve got is a strained attempt to get us mindlessly riled and on Moore’s bandwagon without the benefit of having been told anything new – or even having heard a good wisecrack.

Still, however egomaniacal Moore may be, his tour helped get a record 21 million young voters out in 2004. And the decision to offer the film for free in the fall of 2008 is clearly spurred by a desire to affect the turnout of this cycle. 

In both situations, it’s hard to imagine that Slacker Uprising will influence the judgment of any but the most naive and most easily impressed 19-year-old. 

Of course, we all hope it might – or hope anything might – and so it’s difficult to accuse Moore of exploitation when the perfect end product of his labors would be a fair economy and the end to a cretinous foreign policy.

We know Moore’s campaign failed in 04, a bedevilment Moore attributes in a final title card to the fact that, although Kerry won the young vote by a landslide, their parents voted for Bush.”

What can be done? 

Slacker Uprising has its inspiring moments. It’s hard to resist Moore’s calculated but authentic salutes to veterans and serving military, finding them in his massive audiences and then insisting everyone else stand and applaud in gratitude. 

Still, how can the movie significantly contribute to a Democrat win this November, when the presumably exhausting tour itself did little to alter the outcome of Kerry vs. Bush?

We all do what we can, but let’s face it: Love his baseball cap and folksy manner or not, Moore still does more than you or me, and a pitcher without his best stuff is still playing the game.

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Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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