Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Gospel According to Michael Moore

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 4, 2007

You know, researching this sermon, I found out that a lot of people don’t like Michael Moore. That really didn’t come as a surprise to me. Or that there is a website called “Michael Moore Lies”. Or another one called “Michael Moore Hates America”. Or that there are dozens of other sites in the same vein as well. Or that there’s a best-selling book called Michael Moore Is A Big Fat Stupid White Man.
Do you know that if you do a Google search and type in “I hate Michael Moore”, you get 4,410 responses. (The only ones higher than that I found were “I hate George W. Bush” which got 10,500 hits, and “I hate Hillary Clinton” which got a whopping 17,900!) For instance, if you put in “I hate Bill Clinton”, a somewhat divisive figure himself, you get only 3,170. On the other hand, “I hate Jimmy Carter” (who could hate Jimmy Cater?) comes up with 290. Even “I hate Mother Theresa” gets 132.
But, if truth be told, if you type “I love Michael Moore” into Google, it comes up with 4,930 hits! 4410 hate him; 4930 love him. So, Michael Moore is more loved than hated, I guess. Barely. Certainly, he’s a polarizing figure; people seem pretty much split down the middle about how they feel about him.
As are all of us, I would guess. If I were to ask you all to line up (which I won’t), one side of the church or the other about how we feel about Michael Moore, I bet we’d be pretty much split down the middle, too, in spite of all the other things we agree about around here.
Now, I don’t exactly love Michael Moore myself. I don’t really know him, so I can’t say that I “love” him. Sometimes, actually, he kind of aggravates me. In some of his movies, sometimes, I think there’s just too much of him. He kind of gets in the way (which given his rather large girth, isn’t that hard to do.) So, I wouldn’t say that I love him.
But I am a great fan of his work. I have great respect for his talent. I’ve seen all of his documentary films; I even own copies of them. I’ve pre-ordered a copy of his latest, Sicko, which comes out on November 6 (and we’ll be showing it here at church as part of our “Free Market of Ideas” on November 15. I have great respect for what he tries to do, and for his talent as a filmmaker. I also think he’s really funny sometimes (and as you may know by now, I have a rather wide-ranging sense of humor; funny people get a preferential option, as far as I’m concerned). Who can watch that scene from Fahrenheit 9/11 when he’s interviewing those Congressmen about enlisting their children to go and fight in Iraq, and not laugh?
And, more importantly perhaps, I respect Michael Moore because his work sometimes touches a very deep emotional chord within me. Right after that same scene above, he then talks about the debt of gratitude we owe the men and women in our Armed Forces—those who come from the poorest parts of town, and go to the worst schools, but who do their duty when called upon, and don’t complain, and serve bravely so the rest of us don’t have to. Watching that scene never fails to choke me up. Michael Moore is a very funny man; but he’s not just a funnyman—and that’s why I think his work is worthy of consideration by all of us, as a religious community, this morning.

In his work, Michael Moore asks important questions about what it means to be alive at this particular point in human history. He asks important questions about our politics and our society; even more importantly, he asks us important questions about the state of our soul, both as individuals and as a nation.

Here’s a little more about his life:

Moore was born on April 23, 1954 (ah, 1954, a very good year to be born, some of us think) in Flint, Michigan, to Frank Moore, an automotive assembly-line worker at General Motors, and his wife Veronica, who was a secretary.

He grew up in the town of Davison, just outside of Flint. As a young man, he became an Eagle Scout. He also won the local sharpshooting tournament sponsored by the National Rifle Association, and became a lifetime member of the NRA (kind of ironic in light of some of his later work). Moore was brought up Roman Catholic (he’s still a practicing Catholic) and attended St. John's Elementary School, served as an altar boy, and even entered the Diocesan seminary at age 14, but stayed only a year, before transferring to Davison High School, where he was active in both drama and debate, and was also on the high school football team. He graduated from Davison High in 1972, and that same year, was elected to the local school board (at the age of 18) on a platform based on firing the high school's principal and vice principal. By the end of Moore’s term on the school board, both had resigned.
The next year, Michael entered the University of Michigan at Flint (where he wrote for the student newspaper), but dropped out of college after only a year. He went to at the local General Motors plant, but lasted only one day. At the age of 22, he founded the alternative weekly magazine The Flint Voice, which soon changed its name to The Michigan Voice, which Moore edited for the next ten years. In 1986, Moore moved to San Francisco became the editor of a leading liberal political magazine, Mother Jones. But Moore, with his decidedly blue collar, Detroit, earthy ways did not get along in the more elite, rarified, latte-sipping atmosphere of San Francisco, and after a short while, he left Mother Jones amidst a contentious lawsuit. Instead, he went to work for the well-known muckraker and crusader, Ralph Nader.
In the late 80s, Moore discovered filmmaking. After returning from California, he settled again in Flint, and witnessed firsthand the devastation wrought by the closing of the original General Motors plant there. GM announced the closings—and the loss of over 30,000 jobs-- at a time it was making record profits, and Moore became obsessed with the idea of bringing GM CEO Roger Smith to Flint, to show him the social dislocation his policies had caused. He decided to make a movie about it. For more than a year, Moore trailed Smith around, trying to talk to him and ask him about the situation in Flint. Meanwhile, in the filmRoger and Me, he continued to tell the sad story of his hometown:
Flint's crime rate skyrocketed, with shootouts and murders becoming all too common. Crime was so prevalent that when the ABC News program Nightline tried to do a live story on the plant closings, someone stole the network's van (along with the cables), abruptly stopping the broadcast. Living in Flint became so desperate that Money magazine named the town as the worst place to live in America. The residents of Flint reacted with outrage and staged a rally where issues of the magazine were burned.
At the film's climax, Moore intersperces footage of Smith delivering his annual Christmas message—full of references to generosity and the spirit of the season—along with footage of a young black woman and her children back in Flint being evicted from their home on Christmas Eve. Finally, Moore gets his chance to confront Smith, and asks him to come back with him to Flint. Smith flatly refuses, and is hustled away by security guards. Dejected by his failure to bring Smith to Flint, Moore concludes Roger and Me with the words: "as we neared the end of the 20th century, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. It was truly the dawn of a new era."
And the dawn of a new career for Michael Moore. Roger and Me was an instant success, widely considered one of the great “sleepers” in the history of American movies. It came out of nowhere to become the highest grossing documentary film of all time—and would not be upstaged from that position until the release of Moore’s own Bowling for Columbine six years later. Roger and Me also made Michael Moore a whole lot of money.
Moore poured a lot of this money into making more films. His next documentary, The Big One, released in 1998, followed Moore on a speaking tour around the United States, promoting his book, Downsize This. Through the 47 towns and cities he visited, Moore discovered and described various failings in the American economic system, and the general atmosphere of fear and anxiety among the country’s working people. He especially focused on the workers at a Payday (candy bars) factory in Centralia, Illinois, lauded as model workers one month, given pink slips the next, they were for Moore typical of the injustice inherent in the American economic system. This is justice? Moore asks: do a good job, make lots of money for your company, get fired? The Big One picked up where Roger & Me left off…
In 2002, Moore released one of his most successful (and controversial) films, Bowling for Columbine, an exploration of the culture of guns and violence in America. The film analyzed the possible causes of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in April of 1999, and the background and environment in which the shootings took place. Why is it, Moore asked, that America has such a high rate of gun-related violence compared with almost all other industrialized countries? Part of the problem is the availabilty of weapons, Moore agrees. (In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, he visits a bank which promises new customers a free hunting rifle if they open an account. The camera follows Moore as he walks into the bank, establishes an account, and walks out carrying a brand new Weatherby hunting rifle, all within just a few minutes “Isn’t it kind of dangerous to be handing out guns inside a bank?” he asks.)
But more than availability, Moore believes that the epidemic of mayhem and violence is more engendered by the “climate of fear” to which the media in our society has given rise. He illustrates this with news clips showing the prominence given to violence and crime in news reports, as well as with a cartoon version of the “History of the United States”, exploring the many violent episodes from our past. A society based on fear and consumption, Moore is afraid, will simply engender more Columbines.
In spite of the controversy it sparked, Bowling for Columbine was an overwhelming commericial and artistic success. It cost about $ 4 million to make; its total worldwide gross finally amounted to about $ 58 million. It won Moore the 2002 Oscar for best documentary—where he delivered the impassioned (some might say incoherent) acceptance speech bashing the Bush administration. “When even the Pope and the Dixie Chicks have turned against you, Mr. President,” Moore shouted as he was being hustled offstage, “your days in office are numbered!”
Bringing down the Bush administration seemed the overriding purpose of Moore’s most controversial film, Fahrenheit 9/11.
The movie begins by taking us from the disputed presidential election of 2000, to the attacks of September 11th. President Bush is then shown sitting in a Florida classroom reading the book My Pet Goat to a classroom of students for seven full minutes, in spite being told that America was under attack.
Fahrenheit 9/11 then discusses the causes and aftermath of the September 11 attacks, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Moore discusses the complex relationships between the U.S. Government, the Bush Family, the Bin Laden family, the Saudi Arabian government and the Taliban, spanning over three decades. He alleges that the United States Government evacuated up to 24 members of the Bin Laden family shortly after the attacks on a secret flight, at the same time all other domestic and international civilian air traffic within the United States was grounded.
Moore then moves on to examine George W. Bush's Air National Guard service record (or lack thereof), and various financial dealings of the Bush family and their allies within the Saudi government and the Bin Laden family. Because of these connections, Moore suggestions, the administration did not always work in the best interests of the American people in the aftermath of 9/11.

He also maintains that within America a climate of fear was being fostered, in order to keep dissent in check. He explores the USA PATRIOT Act, which vastly expanded government powers. Finally, the documentary turns to the subject of the Iraq war, showing President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech on board the USS Abraham Lincoln, alternating with media reports of increased casualties and growing instability. The film then shifts its focus to Moore's hometown Flint (Flint makes an appearance in all of Moore’s films, actually). In the economically hard-hit town, Flint's low-income neighborhoods were the prime target of military recruiters. Moore finally focuses on the family of Airman Michael Pederson of Flint, killed in Iraq on April 2, 2003. Anguished and tearful, his mother, Lila, beginning to question the purpose of the war and the meaning of her son’s sacrifice. If we send our troops into combat on the basis of lies, Moore concludes, then will they ever trust us again? Will the world ever trust us again—or will our nation be disgraced in the eyes of all humankind?
Michael Moore doesn’t claim to be “objective” in his work. “Journalists need to drop the ‘objectivity’ gambit,” he told an interviewer. “You have to make sure your facts are true. But once you know they’re truth, you have to make up your mind what you’re going to do with them. Which side you’re going to stand on.”
Michael Moore may not be “objective”. But nor were the Hebrew prophets objective when they looked out at their own unjust societies, and issued their words of warning.
Neither was Gandhi “objective” when he inspired India to arise from colonialism. Nor was Dr. King “objective” when he named racial segregation in America as the evil it was.
Prophecy is not about the past. That’s soothsaying. That is not prophecy in its deepest sense.
Prophecy is about casting a cold eye on the world as it is, right now: and naming how that world differs from our vision of truth and justice. Prophets always point fingers; they always name names. And prophecy is never objective. But in every era, those prophetic men and women arise, to pull the rest of us, kicking and screaming perhaps, into the future, a little closer to our vision of the world that can be. I believe that Michael Moore, love him or hate him, is one such prophetic figure for our time.

That he does it with such skill—and such humor—and such a trenchant gift for irony—is part of his special grace, it seems to me.
The vision of Matthew 25 I close to the heart of his work, Moore himself has said. That’s the New Testament verse where the Lord himself separates the saved from the unsaved—those blest in time from those damned.On what basis does he decide? “As you did it to these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.” As you gave clothes to the naked, and food to the hungry, and voice to the voiceless, and stood up in defense of the downtrodden and marginalized and despised, you have done God’s work of love and justice, and so will be saved.
So when Michael Moore approaches the Pearly Gates, one can well imagine the scene (as Moore himself, perhaps, might film it): “You weren’t perfect,” the Lord might say. “You were no saint, certainly. You thought an awful lot of yourself. That Oscar speech was terrible! But you made them laugh. You made them think. And even, on occasion, you made them do something about it. Come on in!”
May we all be there, too, to witness the scene. Or at least, to watch the movie version afterwards!

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