Why Michael Moore Still Matters

“Art is more important than politics,” Michael Moore told an audience at Lincoln Center during an extended director’s Q&A for the New York Film Festival. “If we put the politics first… and the art suffers as a result… then we have failed as political people.” This was an interesting series of statement coming from a filmmaker who has been dismissed by critics and fans alike as a pundit or an op-ed writer rather than a serious documentarian. But clearly, as the 90-minute talk revealed, Moore sees himself as an artist with a singular vision. His singular vision makes him both a massive success — dozens upon dozens of people of all ages tried to get selfies with him as he left the theater — and a figure hated by much of Fox News’ America. It’s no surprise he has a chip on his shoulder, a slight martyr complex, and an uncanny ability to garner sympathy and support from his fans.

If you care about art and activism, it’s hard not to be fascinated by Moore. His abiding passion is evident in his films, and his latest, Where to Invade Next, is no exception; crowd reaction at the NYFF suggests that there will be a very big response to his look at other nations’ best societal practices. Moore is damn effective at getting his audience to feel things, whether we’re laughing, enraged, or choked up. Perhaps many of his viewers — particularly those who take our own kind of comfort in nuance — feel manipulated by the stir-them-up quality of his films, which in turn makes us eager to go out and put our visceral reaction in a more sober context.

To us, Moore has less than kind words. On Saturday he spent some time making fun of his critics for saying that the issues are “far more complicated” than he makes them out to be. “Everybody’s smarter than the average bear,” he joked.  Moore was insistent that his documentaries are accurate, noting that he provides a list of facts and stats on his website, and even hires ex-New Yorker fact-checkers and asks them to rip his films apart during production. But truthful isn’t the same thing as objective, he pointed out, dismissing other documentaries that pretend to be neutral: “The edit room is the cathedral of subjectivity.”

Anyway, his films are not for the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he told a clearly adoring crowd on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He’s thinking of the “hardscrabble” folks back in his home state of Michigan, who have few leisure opportunities besides seeing films (no Lincoln Center for them) and want to be entertained and feel big and momentous things while they’re in the seats.

Moore’s concern with craft and quality — and his love for his home state — was obvious in his discussion of his pet project at home, the Traverse City Film Festival, which centers around reviving old movie theaters as a way of revitalizing downtowns . Moore had plenty to say about the experience of watching films at the cinema. He fulminated about the way that stadium seating isolates moviegoers, muffling laughter and preventing the communal experience from being as communal as it should be, noting that the festival’s own theater bans those who use cellphones during screenings for life. He also wants the Directors Guild to have a “stamp” recognizing theaters with the best audiovisual experience so moviegoers can make an informed choice.

He cares about movies, but hasn’t made one for a while. It’s been six years since his last film, Capitalism: A Love Story, and Moore has been laying low, foregoing the previous circuit of Bill Maher and MSNBC that made him a “poster boy for Fox News.” His dad passed way, and he broke up with his wife, worked on the film festival project, and wrote a book of stories and essays, Here Comes Trouble. While the writing is “shaggy and overfilled… It persuades you to take Mr. Moore seriously, and it belongs on a shelf with memoirs by, and books about, nonconformists like Mother Jones, Abbie Hoffman, Phil Ochs, Rachel Carson, Harvey Pekar and even Thomas Paine,” wrote Dwight Garner in the New York Times. “Mr. Moore — disheveled, cranky, attention seeking, too eager to pick a fight — is easy to satirize. But he could nearly get away with branding his camera with the words once scrawled on Woody Guthrie’s guitar: This machine kills fascists.”

In the interval since Moore’s biggest films, the newly ascendant progressive blogosphere and Twittersphere have competed with his work as rage stokers, and that younger generation hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with Moore either. In that new media universe, he disappointed feminists with his defense of Julian Assange in the face of rape charges. No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the filmmaker, but sitting at a screening Where to Invade Next, I could feel my critical impulses being worn down by Moore’s directorial exuberance.

And during the post-film press conference and the director’s talk that weekend, his thoughts  sounded right at home in the intersectional feminist, anti-racist new media universe, even if his words are sometimes blunter and less jargon-y than ours. For instance, he’s furious about the prison-industrial complex and its racial implications. He is tired of the political candidates paying mere lip service to Black Lives Matter. And he has been getting angry about Hollywood’s race and gender disparity, talking about “gender apartheid” in industries and realms (Hollywood, Congress) where women only make up a tiny percentage of power players. “What are the great films that you and I are missing because their great voices can’t be heard?” he asked. “I want to go to that movie. I want to hear that voice. I’m being denied that voice by a system that’s set out to give the reins to white men.”

The most exciting thing about Where To Invade Next is that it addresses a common issue with progressive politics, its lack of constructive counterproposals. A politics of the imagination has often been missing from protests: the idea that rather than just ragging on the current system, we’re thinking of new and surprising ways to make it better. The message of the film –particularly in a stunning final segment where Moore talks about changes, from the Berlin Wall to gay marriage, that happened rapidly and because of popular will — is that we have more power and opportunity than we think. It’s enough to get you out into the streets.

As maddening and compelling a figure as Moore cuts, the sentiment of his films echoes onward. Fahrenheit 9/11 may have fanned conspiratorial flames, but if we look at the absolute “mess” in the Middle East now, it’s hard not to see the anger that blistered through that film as justified. Sicko prefigured the fight for and around Obamacare. Most resonant of all, years later, is his early masterpiece Bowling for Columbine, which interrogates America’s addiction to gun violence. Moore himself sadly noted on Sunday that one could watch that film tonight and find it every bit as relevant as it was then.

When Where to Invade Next hits theaters, the media will be quick to deem Moore polarizing. But in a world where fairly middle-of-the road political figures like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are deemed polarizing solely because of their race and gender, Moore’s voice provides a (hacky or genuine, depending on your perspective) challenge to our complacency. It’s good to have him back.