Anything... but the truth

Micheal Moore makes a documentary in style, but a closer look reveals that the popular documentary maker may have been spreading only half the truth.

Documentary films have become all the rage. Ten years ago, if you had looked at the box office, you couldn’t imagine a documentary up there. That has changed and documentaries have broken box office records and won numerous accolades like the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) and Academy Awards.


Out of the top five most successful documentaries of all time, Michael Moore has made three. All of his productions combined have made more than 170 million dollars at the box office, have won an Academy Award for best picture and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and transformed an overweight, angry American college drop-out-turned documentary film-maker, into a superstar.

Moore, a self-described liberal (which is strange, because Moore strongly criticized Bill Clinton in the ‘92 elections and doubted Al Gore in the 2000 elections) is obsessed with gun violence, big corporations, and criticism of the American Health System; one could even call this obsession, a “fanaticism”.

By definition, a documentary lets the subject speaks for itself. Things are not pointed out, they stand out themselves. Not in the case of Michael Moore. Through clever editing techniques in most of his movies, he brings out his own agenda. He dictates his views through a commentary track that often has little to do with the video being shown. And then there are the guerilla tactics. He chased Roger Smith (then Chairman of General Motors) through his first feature, Roger & Me like a rabid canine in pursuit. His malicious treatment of Dick Clark and Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine was preposterous and unlike that of a documentary film-maker. There were several instances of discrepancies through the course of Fahrenheit 9/11 which were caught by his critics and allies alike.

If one looks closely, and researches enough, they’ll find that amid fast edits and flashy animation, Michael Moore isn’t exactly telling us the truth. In some cases, it’s not even the whole truth; it’s anything but the truth, which is in contradiction to what documentaries should be.

Here’s a list of a few movies which put Moores work under the microscope.

Manufacturing Dissent (MD): Originally, intended as a tribute to Moores work, two Canadian film makers, Debbiemanufacturing_dissent.jpg Melnyk and Rick Caine, were shattered to discover Moore’s award-winning documentaries were riddled with inconsistencies and in some cases, fabrications. For instance, Melnyk and Caine discovered that although Moore stated he had not met Roger Smith during the course of Roger & Me, he quite clearly had. During a 1987 shareholder meeting at General Motors, Moore and Smith had a lengthy discussion with Smith which never made it into Roger & Me. This movie however, shows that exchange between Moore and Smith, clearly proving Moore wrong.

What’s refreshing about this movie is that it is not made by Moore’s critics, or even Americans for that matter. Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine are two Canadians who chased Moore down in the simple quest to get some answers. And as the subtitles of this movie implies, it has never been so hard to get Michael Moore in front of the camera.

mmha-poster.jpgMichael Moore Hates America (MMHA): Directed by Michael Wilson, this feature represents what documentaries are about: an objective and honest view on a subject. In this case, it’s about how much Michael Moore hates America. Wilson has a disarming quality about him, the way he questions people, whilst traveling across the country, chasing Moore. Along the way he meets people from all walks of life, who are also wondering why Michael Moore hates America and what his motivations are. Wilson also visits the bank from Bowling for Columbine, and asks them about their gun issuing policy; the results are surprising (and vastly) different from what was shown in Moores work. A good thing about this feature is that Wilson lets the people do the talking and doesn’t answer for them. There are no jerk edits or ominous voiceovers. Award-winning film-maker (even referred to as the godfather of American documentary films) Albert Maysles shares his own views on Moore’s style of documentary, “His way of working is completely detestable.” This movie is a powerful experience of a man who goes to great lengths to defend his country from a donut wielding, fanatical film-maker.

FahrenHYPE 9/11 (FH 9/11): Writer Dick Morris’ answer to Moores magnum opus about the War against Terror clearly attacks Moore outright. Again, much like Manufacturing Dissent, this documentaryfahrenhype_911.jpg answers nearly all of the accusations put up against the Bush administration. Why didn’t the President react about the second plane hitting the World Trade Center? Well, what kind of reaction would you want? Asks this movie, “Would you rather have him jump out of his chair, rip off his shirt and command his troops to war?” What you see in the film are democrats, republicans, politicians and media personalities asking reasonable and common sense questions relating to Moores work. Of course this movie is a stark contrast to its original namesake, for one: you don’t have a commentary track over it. What you see are just the subjects talking for themselves, by themselves. A completely objective view on the work of Michael Moore.

Of course Moore has rebutted all of these movies on his website, and Moore has staunch supporters throughout of Hollywood and even in the echelons of power. But even that doesn’t help the fact that his latest release, Sicko was a box office disappointment (earning about 35 million dollars, after having the second highest opening for a documentary) compared to his earlier release Fahrenheit 9/11, which made nearly a 130 million dollars at the box office. He is currently working on Captain Mike Across America, a collection of footage leading up to the 2004 U.S. Presidential Elections.

In the end, this isn’t about who is right and who is wrong or even about truth and deceit. It is about freedom: the freedom given to Moore to question his government, to his critics to question his movies, and to the people who look for answers.

Living in a world bred by deception, censorship and suppression, it is no wonder we find such documentaries interesting. It’s like gazing through the glass, darkly… to a distant land that we may be headed towards or an idealistic future that will never come for us.

Let’s hope it’s the former and not the latter.

(This article was originally published in the 27th January, 2008, edition of DAWN Images)

Some Kind of Monster

“It’s a monster movie for the YouTube generation” said director Matt Reeves about Hollywood’s latest high-profile release, Cloverfield. Marketed in an unconventional manner, here is a look at the story behind Cloverfield and more.

cloverfield_theatrical_poster.jpgIt seems that the more we get to know about Cloverfield, the less we know. The movie, once titled “The Untitled J. J. Abrams Project”, had a trailer which although was ambiguous, started a wildfire of speculation, hype and paranoia since it aired before the Transformers movie.

And what was the trailer about? A group of friends gathered to say goodbye to one of their own. We see the party getting started, through the eyes of a digital camera. Soon, the friend arrives and it is time for the toast and it is then that they hear the rumble. The lights go out. Someone screams. They panic and towards the roof where they see an enormous ball of fire on the horizon, near the Statue of Liberty. Hysteria erupts as the same digital camera, the eyes and ears of the audience, runs down onto the street, only to have its path blocked by the head of the Statue of Liberty which crash-lands through the streets. Here the trailer ends ominously with the numbers “01-18-08coming up on the screen.

In the following weeks and months, there was a deluge of speculation. Was it a monster movie? Was it a new take on Godzilla or King Kong? Was it a Voltron re-make? Did it have anything to do with the writings of H. P. Lovecraft and his stories about Cthulhu? It was then that the true marketing of the movie began, as websites started popping up, which although seemed to be completely unrelated to the movie at first, but careful investigation revealed that it was indeed the Cloverfield viral marketing machine at work. In truth however, the marketing of this movie began with the trailer. In an unprecedented move, the Motion Picture Association of America approved a trailer without any titles but only the release date of the movie. Last weekend, that date had arrived and cinemagoers finally saw what the hype and hysteria was all about.

J. J. Abrams is best known to his fans as the creator of diverse TV shows, such as Felicity, Alias and LOST. At the heart of his creations are character-driven stories: strong characters facing even stronger obstacles. He’s also known for establishing a modern-day mythos to each of his creations, where each and every single character plays a pivotal role in the story. It was such attention to detail and dedication to character, that attracted the attention of Tom Cruise. Abrams made his feature film directorial debut with Mission Impossible 3, and although it was a lukewarm box office hit, it is here that Cloverfield was born.

director-matt-reeves-and-producer-jj-abrams.jpgOn his Japan tour of promoting MI3, Abrams went toy-shopping with his son. He was astounded to discover a plethora of toys depicting Godzilla-like monsters, he told the audience at 2007 Comic-Con, “I’ve always wanted to do a monster movie. I thought, we need our own (American) monster, and not King Kong, King Kong’s adorable. I wanted something that was just insane and intense.”

Abrams got in touch with director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard, both alumni of LOST, Felicity and Alias. They quickly got the essence of the movie down on paper and approached Paramount Studios, who although loved the script, assigned a budget of only 25 million dollars and agreed to launch it only during January, a potential box office dumping ground for movies that are considered risky.

Undaunted, Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot Productions began to cast actors for the film. They were given no script or indication of story, and the audition process was highly secretive and casting complete unknowns merely added to Cloverfield phenomenon of secrecy. Special Effects Supervisor, Phil Tippett was approached because of his ability to work with a minimal budget and yet create effects that are intensely real. Filming started in February2007, in and around Coney Island, New York and a soundstage in Downey, California.

With a minimal budget and an unknown cast, it would seem that things were set against Cloverfield from the start. But that is not the case; movies like Open Water and the infamous Blair Witch Project have proven that even things at their completely minimalistic level evoke the strongest reactions from the audience and the box office. But is that merely a reaction from audiences or is there more to that effect? “Cloverfield very much speaks to the fear and anxieties of our time, how we live our lives. Constantly documenting things and putting them up on YouTube, sending people videos through e-mail — we felt it was very applicable to the way people feel now,” says Director Matt Reeves in an interview to an internet website. This is why the entire movie is shot with a handheld digital camera. He went on to describe the presentation, “We wanted this to be as if someone found a Handicam, took out the tape and put it in the player to watch it. What you’re watching is a home movie that then turns into something else.”

director-matt-reeves.jpgHence the look of the movie, a Cinéma vérité style, made famous in documentaries but used extensively in movies such as The Blair Witch Project and TV shows like The Office. Even the story aspect has a very natural, it-could-happen-to-you, element. Writer Drew Goddard heavily drew inspiration from real life, “The thing that was most helpful, the stuff that I watched that really informed the aesthetic, was a lot of YouTube videos. Then I looked at footage of terrifying events. I just wanted to see what happened when people were in the middle of these terrifying events and how they were filmed. There was this one clip in particular that I found absolutely terrifying where some troops were in a tent in Iraq and their camp was being mortar shelled. As the bombs were falling, they took the camera and put it on the ground. The shot itself was absolutely horrifying.”

And with that we come to the movie itself. First and foremost, it is indeed a monster movie. A monster of the new age, Cloverfield primarily explores the human psyche’s reaction to fear and terror. The latter of course is more important as this movie indirectly deals with terrorism. Often while watching the movie, one can compare the monster to the terrorists of 9/11 crashing into the World Trade Center. As the story progresses, each scene is a stark resemblance of news footage from ground zero during that ill-fated September day. Abrams and co. basically give modern day terrorism a face, that of a vicious inhumane, inhuman-like, monster.

Secondly, even while being a monster movie, the focus and the main propagating factor in the story is the action. It can be best described as a claustrophobic intensity (thanks to the hand-held cameras) surrounded by a background that is continuously crumbling. The cinematography is such that we don’t get to see anything in its entirety, everything is rushed and views are blocked or incomplete.


Finally, the cast are fresh, energetic and sharp. Michael Stahl-David recently discussed the characters in an MTV interview, “(My character) is someone who’s not a big risk-taker or somebody who’s very spontaneous,” Stahl-David revealed. “And then there’s Hud, the man behind the camera (played by T.J. Miller), Then there’s Lizzy Caplan (as Marlena), who randomly gets stuck with us and she’s not in our close circle of friends — she’s the outsider in our midst. Then there’s Jessica Lucas (as Lily), who is the caretaker of my brother Jason (Mike Vogel), who is wild and reckless.”Cloverfield is a new kind of monster movie. Whereas Godzilla and King Kong both ravaged and destroyed cities, Cloverfield is all about terror. Believe the hype. Something is alive. Something has found us.

(This article was originally published on the January 27th edition of DAWN, Images.)