Michael Moore exposed
By JIM SLOTEK, SUN MEDIA
As the old saying goes, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
So when avowedly liberal husband-and-wife Toronto documentarians Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk recently unveiled Manufacturing Dissent -- their Michael Moore-ish expose about alleged heavy handedness and ethical lapses of Michael Moore -- they found themselves with a whole bunch of new friends they didn't ask for.
"The Fox News people were all over us," Caine says of the furor surrounding their premiere at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Tex. "There were four or five shows at any given time, including Sean Hannity and all those people, wanting the first cable exclusives.
"But we didn't want Fox to own the story, so we only did the one thing with Fox at all, once we had done all the rest." (Although it's not as if Fox has a monopoly on right-wingers. They were also interviewed by MSNBC's rabid Canada-hater Tucker Carlson).
The other stipulation was that interviews had to be live, a logical precaution given what they'd learned about manipulation from the master polemicist Moore. So it was that they turned up on Fox, where Caine hijacked the line of questioning, invoking Iraq and saying that he was less concerned that Michael Moore was a bad man than that people should stop telling lies to further their agendas, whether they were Moore or "a major news organization."
Ouch. So ended that interview.
Back home in their East End Toronto home, awaiting this weekend's Canadian premiere of Manufacturing Dissent at the Hot Docs festival, Melnyk and Caine maintained their party line -- that they'd actually set out to make a positive movie about the guy who brought theatricality to the documentary biz and, not incidentally, grossed hundreds of millions of dollars doing same.
Knowing them intimately, I had to call them on this (full disclosure: I've known Debbie since we were Ryerson journalism students together back in the Triassic period, and Rick and I have been collaborating on the script for his first feature, about gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs). They've made movies like Junket Whore, about Hollywood pseudo-critics whose existence revolves around providing ecstatic blurbs for movies, The Frank Truth (in which they investigated gossipy Frank-type accusations against the editor of Frank Magazine) and Citizen Black, a trenchant and mocking documentary that presaged the current woes of Conrad Black.
After all that, they expect me to believe that, if Michael Moore had turned out to be clean, they were about to make nice for the first time in their careers?
Caine laughs, and Melnyk seems a little affronted.
"It wouldn't have been as negative," she says. "It really would have been a more celebratory film. It always depends on what we find. I mean, with the Conrad Black thing, I certainly never expected to come out of it thinking, 'This guy is kind of funny and charming.' I thought he'd be this uptight curmudgeon, dismissive of everyone. And I was shocked by that."
(In fact, despite the disrespectfulness of the film, Black carried on a flirty e-mail relationship with Melnyk for a while, that only came to an end when Caine was quoted in the papers calling the mogul a "charlatan." Black, in fact, sent a very civil e-mail announcing the end of their discourse.)
"On the other hand, I actually thought Michael Moore would be a nice guy," Melnyk says.
In fact, Caine says, as they were wrapping up Citizen Black, "we kind of said, 'I've got an idea, why don't we do a film about someone we dig?' But does that mean we go into this and say, 'F---in' A! We're gonna do this brilliant hagiography on Michael Moore!'?"
What they discovered is that Moore's time is as micro-managed, and he has as many layers of handlers, as any corporate CEO he's ambushed. At every public appearance, when they announce themselves, he enthuses, "I love Canadians!" and suggests they talk to one of his reps and set up an interview (which never happens, although they do at one point score 11 minutes with him on his way out a door).
It should be noted that Michael Moore has good reason to love Canadians. Aside from the fact that the Bush diatribe Fahrenheit 9/11 was rescued by Canadian-owned Lion's Gate, and Bowling For Columbine was financed by Halifax-based Salter St. Productions and Alliance Atlantis, there are estimates that as much as a quarter of the total North American box office for Moore's films may come from Canadians.
Evasiveness is not a crime in and of itself, but it obviously primed Caine and Melnyk to be receptive to the criticisms of Moore's films -- and "gotcha" revelations -- that have been levelled by conservative bloggers almost from the minute Roger & Me was released. In fact, very little in Manufacturing Dissent is new. The most publicized revelation in the movie -- that Moore actually did film an interview with GM CEO Roger Smith but left it on the cutting room floor to further the film's premise -- was reported in Premiere magazine in 1990. (Caine and Melnyk interview a Roger & Me film editor who confirms that it happened). Why a revelation like that would be ignored for 17 years in the first place is another matter.
Other accusations they investigated and confirmed include:
* That Moore's mike was never "cut off" at a GM shareholder's meeting (he filmed the sad scene of him at the mike separately and edited it in).
* That he approached union officials and local activists before making Roger & Me to get them behind a movie about the populist movement to save Flint, Mich. Then decided to make the movie about himself, making the activists "disappear" in the movie and crippling the movement.
* That he set up and misrepresented a Bowling For Columbine scene where he's given a rifle for opening a bank account as part of a supposed "promotion."
* That he misrepresented details about his "sit down" with a clearly befuddled Alzheimer's-stricken Charlton Heston in Bowling For Columbine.
But more than a rattling-off of sins of commission and omission, Manufacturing Dissent also entertains expert testimony from supporters (like Janeane Garofalo) and foes, including acclaimed documentarians Albert Maysles and Errol Morris.
The difficulty they had getting self-proclaimed "lefties" to comment on Moore seemed particularly dispiriting to the couple.
"We do agree with virtually every issue he brings up," Melnyk says. "We think there should be gun control laws in the States, progressive labour laws. We're pro gay rights.
"But we don't agree with how he cheats in his films to get at the greater message, that it's okay to tell small lies to put a better message out to the world. Then the right wing can say, 'Look he lied about this, and that, so how can you believe his message?' "
The American-born Caine, an Ohio Democrat, goes so far as to say Michael Moore has harmed progressive politics. "There's been unintended consequences to everything he's done. He crushed a movement in Flint in the wake of Roger & Me. By backing Nader in 2000, he actually put Bush in office. He so badly wanted Bush to lose in 2004, he makes this entertaining diatribe, Fahrenheit 9/11, against the President that f---ing Republicans rallied against all over America to support their boy."
Caine and Melnyk saw the demonstrations first-hand as they followed Moore's vote-rallying Slacker Uprising Tour in '04. And he says that Moore is part of the polarization problem afflicting U.S. politics. "It's a starkly ideological view they have of the world. 'I'm right, and if you don't agree with me, by definition, you're wrong.'
"As far as I'm concerned, if you're American and you're a right-winger, read one g----- issue of Harper's magazine. If you're a leftie and you only read The Nation and Mother Jones, read the f---ing National Review just one time. If we pretend we're interested in dialogue and debate, and we all want the same thing -- a better society -- then we should all be talking, instead of stuffing cotton deeper and deeper into our ears."
Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.