Fahrenheit 9/11

gen-x-review-fahrenheit_nine_eleven.jpgPolitics are a funny form of entertainment, especially when real, human lives hang in the balance.

Take Fahrenheit 9/11. Is Michael Moore’s newest film a powerful polemic masquerading as a raucous mockumentary or a dark comedy taking potshots at the blunders of the Bush administration? Is it social commentary, satire or just entertainment?

One thing everyone agrees about – including Moore – is that Fahrenheit 9/11 is not a documentary. Moore is not unbiased, and he doesn’t pretend to present a fair and balanced view of the Bush administration. Cutting himself free from the documentary form must have been liberating for Moore, but it also puts Fahrenheit 9/11 in the same league as other ideologically driven entertainment devices.

Unfashionably idealistic and calculatingly cynical, the film entices us to laugh at the Bush administration while simultaneously depicting its members as sinister, Machiavellian bullies. To take the film seriously is to laugh at what amounts to a sort of treason against the America people.

If we take Moore’s assertions as fact we have to ask, are these issues something we should be joking about?

It’s a strange contemporary truism that news only slips by the American people if it’s pretending to be entertainment. We only care about crime if it’s ripped off by Law and Order or comes to us through COPS. The Daily Show has better ratings than the Daily News with Dan Rather and corporate greed only gets on our radar screen when it’s packaged as the newest reality TV show.

America wants to be amused and it will accept political commentary only if it is clever and entertaining and buried at the bottom of its favorite television show, like the crap prizes kids dig out of cereal boxes that bribe them to eat their Lucky Stars. We’ll accept the fortified vitamins and minerals only if we get our cheap thrilling plastic toy and sugarcoated, marshmallows stars, clovers, blue diamonds…

Fahrenheit 9/11 is this sort of film. We’ll accept the horrible truths it offers – that George Bush stole the presidency, took away our freedoms, is in bed with the Saudis and corrupt big business, sold us a war under false pretext and is a monkey in a business suit – only if it is coupled with traditional hokey Moore stunts, like combining campy magic, ironic narrative and pictures of the administration acting foolishly.

It’s not that Moore isn’t amusing or that Bush doesn’t supply him with a fair amount of material, but I think it’s odd that these important issues have to be sold as trite entertainment.

Moore himself seems ambivalent about his role as the prince clown of the left, and injects Fahrenheit 9/11 with more gruesome images and hard-hitting news than he’s done in past films. This will be the first time many will have seen images of dead Iraqi children or amputee American soldiers, and the effects of combining this footage with typical Moore goofs is… oddly successful – sometimes.

These scenes remind us that Moore isn’t fooling around, that human lives are at stake, but the solemnity of these moments is broken when he returns to light-hearted (or occasionally mean-spirited) shots at Bush and company. The suddenness with which he turns from the casualties of war to the gaffs Bush has made throughout the last four years feel like cynical, almost ironic commentary on the American short attention span.

How can we reconcile an interview with a young serviceman just back from Iraq, where he says, “You cannot kill something without killing a part of yourself” with Moore’s grandstanding after he hires a ice cream truck to circle Washington, D.C., to read the Patriot’s Act through a loud speaker? How seriously can we take Moore’s very serious allegations when the camera shows him lumbering around the state house like Godzilla, looking for a congressman’s son or daughter to sign up for armed service?]

The movie’s gags undermine its integrity by trying to seduce us to accept the film as entertainment and not a call to action. They allow us to leave the theater feeling smugly satisfied, and not ready to overthrow the corrupt Bush regime, and also ensure that it’s a commercially success in a way that a Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn vehicle wouldn’t be.

One thing you can say for Moore is that he isn’t afraid to give his subjects time to breath so long as they say what he believes. But his fast cuts are grating. It may be that the Bush people are as bad as he says, and he’s required to do these jagged cuts to touch bases with all their misdeeds, but this makes the film feel disjointed and unfocussed at times: More a collection of scenes than an actual movie.

Some important issues are buried or blurred in the mad rush to explore as many Bush controversies as possible. Moore depicts Iraq under Saddam Hussein as a sort of idyllic wonderland, showing kids flying kites and couples skipping through the streets as though Baghdad was one big Dick Van Dyke musical. Forget the torture camps, Gestapo squads and state-sponsored genocide: Hussein’s Baghdad was like San Francisco during the summer of love.

It’s this sort of intellectual dishonesty that the left has been missing for all these years, but Moore isn’t afraid to paint his world in black and white. If this means revising the world a little here or there or playing loose with the facts, so be it.

Occasionally moving – as when Moore interviews the mother of a fallen soldier – and sometimes shocking, Fahrenheit 9/11 is more entertaining than illuminating. This may sound like a strange indictment against a film, but it’s a funny movie that tries to skirt the edges between journalism, social commentary and entertainment.

It would be much more fun if it wasn’t so scary and didn’t seem so important. And it would be more important if it tried to be more honest.



gen-x-review-troy-movie-poster.jpgWho would have thought a film adaptation of a Disneyland ride (Pirates of the Caribbean) would prove to be more epic than a movie based on Homer’s Iliad?

Misleadingly called Troy – perhaps because producers thought Americans would get caught up with the difficult pronunciation of “Iliad” – the new Brad Pitt vehicle is the type of film designed to get slacker college students in trouble.

I can see the summary on the essay portion of their first test already:

“The Iliad is the story of Achilles (Brad Pitt), who looks dreamy in leather pants and the Trojan prince Hector (Eric Bana) from Melbourne, Australia. Agamemnon leads the Greeks and the Trojan’s king is Peter O’Toole, who used to play James Bond, I think. But anyways, it’s the illicit love affair between Paris (Orlando Bloom without that cheesy mustache he used to have) and Helen (Dian Kruger, who isn’t all that IMHO) that really pisses everyone off, so I guess the mortal of the story is that love is more powerful than war or something…”

Classics college professors should be on the lookout for references to Achilles’ super heterosexuality since a lot of time is spent showing Pitt in the buff surrounded by multiple female partners. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my copy of Barron’s Cliff Notes for Homer’s Iliad clearly describes Achilles as a fag.
I understand it might be as difficult for Americans to understand the concept that queers can be macho warriors as it is for them to say “Iliad,” but this sort of revisionism rubs me the wrong way.

The film uses the Iliad, random bits of mythology and the beginning of Virgil’s Aenid as scaffolding to attach this rather ordinary action film to. Less faithful in spirit than the recent remakes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Othello, Troy is really the story of Hollywood’s incessant need to plunder the most sacred texts to come up with even a hint of novelty.

I don’t mean to suggest that Homer is a better storyteller than Hollywood, but I guess I’m just not comfortable handing classic works of literature over to the same folks who write commercials for deodorant and have produced such works of art as Joe Dirt and Scotland, PA.

Pitt, who does indeed look dreamy in leather pants, hits all the right notes at the wrong time. He shines in scenes where his performance doesn’t much matter and flops where his acting could make a difference; Bana is strangely ineffective and seems incapable of making Hector come alive, but make no mistakes: If Peter O’Toole couldn’t save the film, Pitt, Bana and Bloom had no chance at all.

Although it’s amusing to hear Pitt fake a British accent to play an ancient Greek hero, it’s the nuances that give the movie away, like the fact that the filmmakers forgot to include the pantheon of gods who appear in Homer’s work. An argument could be made that director Wolfgang Petersen wanted to emphasize the story’s realism, but franchises like the Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars series prove that supernatural forces do not necessarily make a film feel contrived.

The gods may have made the film more epic and almost certainly would have offered us a little respite from the dull human interactions. The Greek heroes seem flat and dull, little more than repackaged action figures. The army battles are among the least inspired in recent years with legions of computer-generated and most anonymous figures fighting with yawn-inspiring regularity, and the dramatic affectations ring hollow.

How seriously can we take the central relationships – perhaps best illustrated between Achilles and his gay lover Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund) – when the filmmaker seems uninterested in developing his characters in an honest way?

Motivation, people! Why does Paris sacrifice Troy to his love for Helen? What’s the meaning of Achilles’ warrior code and how should we contrast this with Hector’s bourgeois values? More importantly, why is this story important? Homer seems trite and trashy when rendered without magic, grace or truth.

I wouldn’t recommend Troy over Barron’s Cliff’s Notes to young slackers wanting to find an easy way out reading the Iliad, and folks who actually love Homer will be very disappointed in this adaptation. It’s not so much a betrayal of the epic as a crass, thoughtless, commercial mess in its own right.

The barbarians are at the gate! What’s next, a cinematic recreation of the crucifixion using MTV special effects? Hollywood must be stopped!

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