Moore Than You or Me

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

Michael Atkinson November 5, 2008

Filmmaker Michael Moore speaks during the 2004 Slacker Uprising 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 911 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 naïve 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.

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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