15 May 2006

Discipline

Timothy Burke says exactly what I think about Michael Moore.
I think he’s got a good comic touch, which helps distinguish him from the schoolmarm left (though I’m fascinated with how he doesn’t get attacked by the schoolmarms for some of what he does—his montage on the "Coalition of the Willing" in Fahrenheit uses loaded racial and ethnic imagery, for example). If he was content to be a humorist, he wouldn’t annoy me so much. But he’s not content, and habitually insists on sticking in every cheap shot, misleading claim, exaggeration, simplification, and agit-prop sleight-of-hand that he can get away with while pursuing very serious, accurate, important and substantial political arguments. Even when I substantially agree with much of what he has to say, as I do about the Iraq War and the Bush Administration, he still manages to irritate me.
This is a failure of discipline.

Consider Roger & Me. The point of the film is the devestating effects of GM layoffs on the Michigan economy, and the Moore's suggestion that the leadership of GM make decisions with callous disregard for these consequences. It's a good subject for a film.

So what is the "pets or meat" lady doing in the movie?

The answer is obvious. She's an irresistable piece of footage. She's the thing everyone remembers best, the thing people talk about on their way out of the theater. She's sad, funny, and astonishing, and I can just see Moore thinking to himself, "This is amazing. I have to put this in my movie."

But.

She does not contribute to the point. And whether your movie is a documentary or screwball comedy or a thriller, you must maintain a disciplined focus on where you are going, what you are doing. If something doesn't make your point in a documentary or make you laugh in a comedy or move the plot in a thriller, then you must cut it for the sake of the health of the film. Prose writers understand this, and so one of the great adages of writing is "murder your darlings," because the greatest threats to the structure of your work are the bits you love too much.

And this is even more true in film than in prose, because film is a very unforgiving medium. The ideal running time for a feature film is 100 minutes, which if you think about it is very little time. Break down your favourite film sometime, and you'll see that it probably has less than a dozen real scenes, plus a few little bits of glue holding it together—and the better the film, the less of that mortar you'll find between the bricks of the major scenes. In that short time, you must control the pace every single minute. If you kill the pace—if events drag and you lose interest, or if things get rushed and you cannot follow what's happening, or if the focus goes to the wrong place and you're so intersted in what's happening to offscreen characters that you're frustrated by what the film is showing you now—then you poison, or even kill, the whole movie. Conversely, mastery of pace will sustain a film that might otherwise disintegrate. Think of the fast pace of Lola Rennt, the languid pace of Apocalypse Now, or anything Hitchcock ever did.

So, discipline. Two contemporary favourites are cases in point.

P. T. Anderson's Magnolia is a perfect example. It's brimming over with terrific performances by the actors ... which is the problem, because P. T. Anderson just loves actors too much. He cannot bear to cut a single golden moment. The actors love it, of course, but the film as a whole suffers, becoming a jumbled slog through great performances. No discipline.

Compare that to Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, which is a mix of visual and emotional tones that works because the rhythm is right. Go rent the DVD, watch the movie, and then look at the deleted scenes. Even if you've seen the film before you'll thank me because there's a little bit of dialogue that would have gone right before the tub scene which is one of the funniest, wittiest things you'll ever see. It must have killed Soderbergh to take it out of the film. But he did it, because it would have completely screwed up the pace, as will be obvious once you've seen it. Discipline.

And Michael Moore does not have it. God bless him, he has so much going for him. He has a terrific eye for the telling detail—think of the ash and papers drifting through the air at the beginning of Farenheit 9/11, which I'm not too proud to admit made me cry. He has a true talent in talking to Americans and getting them to tell their stories—think of the patient, compassionate manner he had with the Columbine families in Bowling for Columbine, the antithesis of our tabloid television reportage, which again I'm not too proud to admit made me cry. He knows how to milk the humour and irony in a situation—think of him with the rifle in the bank, again in Columbine. He knows how to use his fame—notice how in his later films, he's encountering senators and corporate PR flacks and security guards, saying, "hi, I'm Michael Moore," and they respond tightly, already wary, "I know who you are."

But he just can not resist the cheap shot. The "pets or meat" lady in Roger & Me. Harassing Dick Clark in Bowling for Columbine. Interviewing Britney Spears and rearranging the sequence of events in Farenheit 9/11. It corrodes his whole project.

That said, Farenheit was tragically flawed but still much more disciplined than his earlier films. I think he saw the stakes as higher. I hope that the trend continues, and he becomes the truly great filmmaker he has the capacity to be.

6 comments:

TheWayOfTheGun said...

Michael Moore is our Rush Limbaugh.

I claim that the pets-or-meat sequence does belong in Roger and Me because the film has two other purposes: give the viewer a sense of what Flint, Michigan is like, and earn money.

The former can be seen all over Roger and Me. Moore isn't just showing us some random city. He is standing up and saying "This is my home. I want you to know it." Even while showing us the ills that have befallen Flint, Moore is proud of his hometown. The move has a feel that only a native son could have brought.

The keen observer will point out that a film with too many points has no point at all. To be really effective, Roger and Me needs to pick a single message and hammer on it. Fair enough. Disorganization and lack of focus have always been the great follies of the left.

Aaron said...

I didn't see Roger & Me, but I did see the follow-up, Pets or Meat. I guess definitionally the "pets or meat lady" belonged in the sequel, which nonetheless wasn't particularly compelling cinema.

aimai said...

You know, I don't agree. I mean, I agree with your point that a great film maker, like a great writer, leaves out more than he or she keeps in and sometimes must leave out things she/he likes. That is not only for the sake of tight exposition but because cutting and rapid movement between sequences leaves some space for the reader/viewer to insert their own ideas and images--leaving some things unaddressed enables the reader/viewer to draw their own emotional conclusions ( I once saw this put this way by a director: If the actress cries on the screen, the audience doesn't have to. So if you want to evoke the emotion, you leave it out and force the viewer to go the extra mile).

But that being said I love michael moore, and I loved the "pets or meat" lady in Roger and Me. It think its easy to forget, years after the fact, just how startling roger and me was and how strange and emotionally engaging (and enraging) it was to just have a moment to really *see* that part of america, flint, and let the horror unfold at its own pace. The pets or meat lady was not only great and hard to throw out footage, her down to earth unwillingness to distinguish between those two identies for the bunnies (pets or meat) made stark the reality of people's lives at that point. she didn't have time for the luxury of a luxury trade in cuteness. She needed money. It made an important point in the movie, and made it in a memorable way.

for thewayofthegun "disoraganization and lack of focus have always been the great folly of the left?" I thought that the entire right wing critique of "the left" consisted of the continued assertion that everyone from an environmentalist to a socialist to an anarchist was really a crypto-stalinist and hence *highly* organized and focused (albeit on wreaking evil.) Disorganization and lack of focus are simply disorganization and lack of focus, or perhaps a willingness to entertain many novel ideas simultaneously. Something that all individuals and all political parties might well benefit from. Most of us, at any rate, would identify it with liberty.

aimai

brave captain of industry said...

pets or meat was a key scene and the movie would have been diminished had it been cut.

the scene sets up perfectly the kind of people around flint and the condition they are in.

even today, "pets or meat" says it all.

Lindsay Beyerstein said...

Michael Moore's problem isn't a lack of discipline, it's a failure to present a coherent argument. He's a good storyteller and a good comedian/performace artist, but he's not accustomed to persuading people.

The best thing about F9/11 was the editing. The combination of music, archival images, and original footage was very powerful. If there was a flaw it was that the movie was an onslaught of relevant information without a good argument to back it up.

The central message was that Bush tricked us into the wrong war because he fucked up 9/11. Every single frame reinforces that core idea somehow. For better or worse, the end product is more like a music video than a traditional documentary. It's compelling if you already agree with Moore and know enough to fill in the details about the Saudis, the Taliban pipeline, etc.

Moore's got the general gist. I'd call F9/11 expressionistic. Less sympathetic viewers might call it propaganda. Either way, it's an accomplished piece of filmmaking.

Bowling For Columbine was just plain incoherent. It wasn't that he was throwing in extraneous elements, it was that there was no central theme to clutter up. Moore couldn't decide whether the message was that guns were bad, or that Canadian healthcare solved gun violence, or that Charleton Heston was bad, or that K-Mart was bad for selling ammo, or what. That movie was downright disjointed.

Ray said...

I was extremely moved by Bowling for Columbine. To me, it was a heart felt exploration of a remarkably senseless tragedy. I took the senselessness as the point of the movie, and I appreciated the deft and respectful way he dealt with the human cost. An extremely important film that gets to the heart of what it means to be a parent and member of a larger community when confronted by horror and failure.

F/911 was a brave piece of film making. Like any piece of art, it communicated the soul of the maker. I found it to be a mirror to confront my values (and the values I wish for my country). I did not like what I saw, but was ultimately grateful for the glimpse.

Am I better person for having seen those films? I would like to hope so.