Guest Writings
30/06/04 Fahrenheit 911, art and politics by Satya Sagar

“The reason why I believe I've had this very fortunate success… is because I actually put the entertainment and the art before the politics,” insists Mr Moore. “It's very hard for someone on the professional left to put anything ahead of the politics, and that's why they lose out.” US documentary maker Michael Moore talking to the BBC about Fahrenheit 911.

As much as I know that Michael Moore's heart is in the right place I cannot but squirm at his choice of terms to describe his latest work Fahrenheit 911.

Has Moore in his documentary really put 'entertainment and art before his politics'? And what does that really mean? Why is someone like Moore who seems to sleep, eat and breathe politics so coy about describing Fahrenheit 911 as a 'political' film? Are entertainment, art and politics three distinct separate entities? What is all this about the 'professional left' (I did not realize it was a profession) losing out because it always puts its politics ahead of everything else?

And finally, of course, is it really necessary to ask all these questions- why not just sit back and enjoy the much deserved bashing of Bush Jr. that Fahrenheit 911 seems to be well and truly doing? (Well, I cannot because I am still waiting to get a pirated edition of the film here in Thailand!)

I think finding answers to all these questions are important simply because of the way all entertainment and art are so closely intertwined with politics in our world today. Political power in our age flows not just from any old barrel of the gun but one camouflaged by an entire cabaret of mass communicators — media hacks, musicians, movie artists and other assorted makers of modern myths.

Therefore at the risk of being dubbed precisely the kind of left-wing pedant that Moore looks down upon I am willing to stick my neck out (together with my tongue too) to take a closer look at 'entertainment', 'art', 'politics' as well as the left's alleged inability to bend or blend with the trend.

Firstly a few words about Fahrenheit 911. Going by its contents and the strong passions it is arousing in the US, Moore's documentary is nothing if not a deeply 'political' piece of work. The fact that it is very viewable, witty and technically well done only adds to the impact of its message, which is surely all about politics in the United States (and its depredations abroad). As Moore himself has said in several interviews his film aims at 'regime change' in the US. (And all power to him in this mission)

So why is Moore telling us that it is the entertainment part somehow that is more important to him than the politics of the film? I understand he is trying to play to as wide a gallery as possible but is it really necessary to sacrifice all depth for mere breadth?

Surely he knows that prioritizing entertainment before politics is not necessarily a virtue on its own — for something can be profoundly entertaining while being totally wrong with its politics. (Terminator II for example, or for that matter Bush Jr too) In fact much of the modern entertainment industry is precisely about keeping its audiences amused, tickled, titillated and completely clueless about the realities of the world we live in.

The way Moore frames the issue — about whether the entertainment should come first or the politics — it sounds too much like the horse and cart question. I would argue that there is no need for a cart in all this, the horse — representing both politics and art rolled in one — is enough to straddle the subject and also make it run.

Sure, I can follow what Moore is really trying to say and that is the way sections of the left often express themselves, they are too pedantic, dull and boring to be understood by the very people they want to reach out to. Moore has a very valid and important point to make here for those who take life a mite too seriously (they will never get out of it alive). What he describes as the left always putting 'politics' before 'entertainment' is often really activists trying to explain the abstract 'big picture' without the tangible 'little men/women' anywhere in sight. All HUMANITY and no Human Beings.

But is it all that easy and possible to always talk, write or wittily portray something like the horrors of the US invasion of Iraq, the potential threat to life on Earth from global warming or the decimation of sub-Saharan Africa by poverty, conflict and disease? Or for that matter colorfully describe the devastation of low-income families by unemployment or the desperation of the elderly facing cutbacks in healthcare? Anyone who has been close witness to the predations of mindless war or endless want is not going to be able to speak about it for a long time, let alone articulate their thoughts in artful terms. To expect people deeply involved with the problems of the world to always sport a smile and drop that scowl can be a bit unrealistic.

Having said that I would support Moore's point that good politics should be exciting too. After all it is the love of life, the passion and enthusiasm of many activists that inspires others to join their movement. Again, lots of activists reaching out to mass audiences do take that extra effort to lighten up complex concepts, drop their jargon and explain things in simple English. In other words, good communicators from the left often focus on the 'fun' part of the 'fundamentals' of whatever they are trying to convey.

Yet again, it is unfortunately true that some on the left frequently come across as all too cold and cerebral for ordinary mortals to understand or empathize with (just as some on the right sing as badly as Ashcroft). There is indeed an urgent need for the left to put folks with specific names, faces and addresses back into their political equations. We need more physics and chemistry out there when it comes to mass movements of the left and less mathematics. For, accurate and useful as they may be, there has never been anything endearing about any calculator anywhere. (chchak, chchak, chchak, PING ! does not a melody make!)

But having emphasized the need to communicate effectively I would caution that in no way should this need supercede the necessity of always sticking to the facts or making as precise an analysis as possible in any given situation. For otherwise one ends up with a message that reaches large numbers of people but whose quality is so low that it should probably never have got out in the first place. If creative expression makes good politics palatable, then it is accurate content that makes it easily digestible (No simple recipes, I tell you, the truth is not always tasty).

As someone working in the field of mass communication I can easily remember the numerous temptations that members of my profession go through to sex up the facts, spice up a story with some song and dance or drown out those annoying details that come in the way of smooth delivery. By the time these guys finish tailoring their tale, it is as smart and slick as an Enron executive and equally incredible.

 
I am not sure if Moore does any of the above in his documentary (am still waiting for that damn DVD!) but putting 'entertainment above politics' is sometimes code for taking liberties with the truth ('if it makes the bad guys look bad go ahead and do it'). While it may be true that God made Bush Jr. for all of us to take potshots at — simplifying the truth is unfortunately a game everyone can play and the guys with better resources and broadcast power will always win out in the long run (though I admit November is not all that far away).

Fahrenheit 911 is really another example of how a lot of so-called 'cultural activity' these days is actually politics by proxy just as what is commonly called 'politics' has more cultural content embedded in it than is usually understood. It is in this terrain of culture transformed into politics that Moore's documentary is clashing head on with mainstream cultural products and their political messages — wielding their own choice weapon against them.

While no movie, however well done, can substitute for actual movements of people fighting for change, as Fahrenheit 911 shows it can certainly set the political Bush on fire. With some more public effort the goose may yet be cooked (Don't forget the curry spice ! Yummmmm!).

Now Dude, where's my pirated DVD ?

Satya Sagar is a writer, video maker and journalist based in Thailand. He can be reached at sagarnama@yahoo.com

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