Monday, November 7, 2011

Michael Moore

Michael Moore was born in Flint, Michigan on April 23, 1954. He started in print journalism and was briefly the editor of Mother Jones magazine. His debut film, Roger & Me, became the highest-grossing American documentary of all time. Moore had a short-lived political series called TV Nation and his film Bowling for Columbine, won an Academy Award. Moore lives in Traverse City, Michigan.

Roger & Me
Writer, director, actor, political activist. Born in Flint, Michigan. Moore burst onto the American cultural scene in the 1980s, a chubby, extroverted rabble-rouser who hitched his political message to the medium of satirical comedy in a crusade to rouse the national conscience against corporate injustice. A genuine subversive, he made his impact with his debut film, Roger & Me (1989), a satirical documentary feature that chronicled his attempts to interview the CEO of General Motors, Roger Smith. Moore wrote, directed and starred in the film, which became the highest-grossing American documentary of all time.

Critical opinion was high but divided. The Washington Post described Roger & Me as a "hilariously cranky bit of propaganda" and critics such as Roger Ebert gave it rave reviews, but others, including the doyenne of the New Yorker, Pauline Kael, attacked Moore for re-arranging the narrative events of the movie. He responded in an interview in Film Comment that "the movie is essentially what has happened to this town [Flint] during the 1980s. I wasn't filming in 1982 ... so everything that happened happened. As far as I'm concerned, a period of seven or eight years ... is pretty immediate and pretty devastating.... I think it's a document about a town that died in the 1980s." The critical controversy notwithstanding, the film was voted Best Documentary by the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics, as well as Best Film at the Toronto, Vancouver, and Chicago Film Festivals. It was included on several critics' "best of the decade" lists, but conspicuously failed even to be nominated for an Academy Award. Roger & Me was creatively financed by Moore and his friends through bingo games and other fund raising efforts, but also through an out of court settlement Moore made with Mother Jones magazine over his dismissal from the publication after a short tenure as editor in 1986-87.

Moore came to Mother Jones after a successful career as an alternative journalist in his hometown of Flint, Michigan (though he is actually from the suburb of Davison). Moore's comedy and politics emerged from his roots in a working-class community that enjoyed a boom from manufacturing automobiles at a dozen General Motors factories until the company abandoned the town, as chronicled in Roger & Me. Moore had been a staunch opponent of GM and local Flint politics since founding the Flint Voice at the age of 22. He partially funded the newspaper through the weekly showing of alternative movies, and promoted it through work on the local public radio station where he hosted a show called "Radio Free Flint." He also wrote essays for National Public Radio. A rabble rouser from early on, Moore was elected to his local school board at age 18 and successfully fought to have its meetings open to the public.

Michael Moore's Voice
Moore followed up Roger & Me with a sequel, Pets or Meat: A Return to Flint (1992) a short film shown on PBS. The second film repeated the narrated style of the first and seemed more of a continuation than a sequel. In it, Moore caught up on the lives of people from the first film, including "the Rabbit Lady," who sold rabbits as pets or meat. The film was also an update on Moore himself, containing snippets from his appearances on television talk shows such as Donahue. He made an unlikely movie "star"—he is heavyset with a goofy grin, a fondness for baseball caps, and a preference untucked shirts—yet there is no doubt that the "star" of all of Moore's films is Michael Moore.

His next project was a narrative film, Canadian Bacon (1994), starring John Candy, Rhea Perlman, Kevin Pollack, Alan Alda, and Rip Torn. Alda plays a liberal U.S. president who decides to invade Canada in order to boost his popularity in the polls. A cross between Dr. Strangelove (there's a similar Doomsday device) and Wag the Dog (the invasion of a foreign country for shabby domestic reasons), the film never received wide release, nor were the reviews particularly enthusiastic.

Television and Books
Moore's next move was to take the basic Roger & Me idea—good guy Mike harasses evil corporate America—to television. His political comedy show, TV Nation, was a summer replacement on NBC in 1994. The show featured weekly, off-the-wall polls like 16% of Perot voters believe that "if dolphins are really that smart they could get out of those nets," and showcased memorable events such as a day of picnicking with "Doctor Death" Jack Kevorkian. The first episode featured the "CEO Challenge" in which he asked executives to perform menial tasks, such as getting the head of IBM to format a disk. While not all the stories had a political bent, TV Nation was an eclectic mix of news magazine, sketch comedy, and David Letterman-style comedy of the banal. Only on TV Nation would you see a guy in a Detroit Tigers baseball cap attempting to end the conflict in Bosnia by getting leaders from the warring factions to share a pizza together.

NBC passed on TV Nation, but Fox picked it up for eight episodes in the summer of 1995. It was more of the same, including a segment featuring Moore performing maneuvers with the Michigan Militia. He also introduced Crackers, the corporate crime-fighting chicken, alongside featured guests such as Merrill Markoe (David Letterman's former chief writer), actress and stand-up comedian Janeane Garofalo, former MTV VJ Karen Duffy, and filmmaker Rusty Cundieff, who wrote and directed a comedy movie, Fear of a Black Hat. Moore chronicled his experiences with the show in a book, Adventures in TV Nation (1998), written with wife Kathleen Glynn.

The book was not his first. He had published Downsize This: Random Threats from an Unarmed American, an unlikely best seller, in 1994. The book began with two photos: one of the bombed out Federal building in Oklahoma City, the other of a pile of rubble which used to be an auto factory in Flint. The point of that piece, and the book, is to expose, through satire, irony, and poke-in-the-eye comedy, corporate America's war on working-class families. With chapters such as "Would Pat Buchanan take a check from Satan?" "Why doesn't GM sell crack?" and "Why are Union Leaders so f#!&ing stupid?" the book is part stand-up comedy in printed form, part political manifesto, and part Spy magazine-like pranks. The author embarked on an unconventional book promotion tour, refusing to sign books at certain chain stores and seeking out independent booksellers. After a few stops, he was joined by a film crew, which led to the making of his movie The Big One (1997). The film features stunts familiar to Moore's fans, including the presentation of Downsizer of the Year awards to company bigwigs. It opened in selected cities as benefits for local charities, unions, and leftist political groups. Moore would answer questions, promote local causes, tell some jokes, and then inspire the audience to political action. Despite excellent reviews, The Big One failed to achieve commercial success; an angry film about corporate America seemed out of synch when the Dow was at an all-time record high.

Provocative Documentaries
As the twentieth century ended, Moore was still pitching his political message to a larger audience, attempting a weekly talk show and developing Better Days (1998), a sitcom about a town where everybody is unemployed. In conjunction with Britain's Channel 4, he negotiated another incarnation of TV Nation, which launched in early 1999 under the title The Awful Truth. It kicked off with a scathing attack on health insurance companies in the United States and a somewhat crude and gauche sideswipe at Kenneth Starr morality in the form of a sketch delivered like a scene from Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Moore looked set to remain a viable force in popular culture in the twenty-first century. Virtually the country's lone left-wing satirist, he pops up regularly on talk shows such as Politically Incorrect. Popular culture has never seen a figure quite like Michael Moore: a comedian who one minute offers a critical analysis of legislation, and in the next a suggestion that Queen's "We Will Rock You" become the new national anthem.

In 2003, Moore's Bowling for Columbine, which took a dark-comic look at gun culture in the United Sates, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The director's acceptance speech included a very Moore-like statement against the war with Iraq. "We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you!" The film was also awarded the Special 55th Anniversary Prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. In late 2002, the director launched a one-man stage show, Michael Moore—Live, in London and New York. In 2004, The Walt Disney Company banned Miramax from distributing Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which critiques the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and the war on terror. The film won the coveted Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and, when it eventually hit theaters in June, became the first documentary to win the weekend box office.

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