Spending the summer settling in to the Midwest of the US, and ofcourse writing for Bloomington's Cultureweek. Here my 2nd installment:

The Framing of Michael Moore

The European media response to Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 was mixed. Although the prevailing opinion in the United States seems to be that anti-Americanism dominates the European public sphere, the movie (opening across Europe about one month after its US premiere) was hailed as a cinematographical achievement but a dissappointment otherwise. European audiences do not think Moore is telling them anything new, as they have had their fair share of televised casualties of war, mourning families, and criticisms of President George W. Bush. If anything, the European media have already established a sceptical and critical attitude towards the American President and his advisors. In Europe then, Michael Moore is applauded for his art, and greeted with some indifference for his message. In other words: journalists and movie critics frame Moore as a gifted artist and filmmaker - hence his Palme d'Or award at the recent Cannes film festival.

How Michael Moore is framed in his beloved home country is an interesting other matter. Perhaps Moore himself gives the answer to this question in his 2001 book Stupid White Men, where he writes: "hey, take this book out of the humour section, I ain't kidding around!" (p.83). Indeed: Michael Moore is predominantly framed in the American media as a comedian. Let me elaborate this point on the basis of the various ways in which US newspapers and broadcast organisations have commented on, and talked about his current film, Fahrenheit 9/11.

A quick search using the infamous Google news search engine reveals roughly three ways in which journalists and movie critics used to describe Fahrenheit 9/11. First writers seem to deploy a neutral term like 'film', 'movie', or 'documentary' (although this already narrows the perspective down to a specific genre with certain conventions and rules). Second, descriptions are based on an evaluation of (some of) the content in Moore's film, where a prefix like 'anti-Bush', 'anti-war' or 'Bush-bashing' is used. Third, journalists go as far as to use value-laden concepts to in fact describe the film, where they deliberately put documentary in quotation marks (as in: "documentary"), or invent new terms like 'docutragicomedy', which strategy seems to dominate the ways in which Fahrenheit 9/11 is described in first instance.

By looking at the evaluative terms that are used to describe the film's content, its cinematographic style, and its overall perceived value and impact the framing of Moore's work as trouble-causing comedy becomes clear. Two distinct categories emerge. The first category consists of words that seem to thematize Michael Moore's work in terms of its distinctly critical perspective. Here, Fahrenheit 9/11 becomes 'incendiary', 'controversial' (CNN), ('bad' or 'proper') 'propaganda' (LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Slate), or even 'patronising' and 'socialist' (this last phrase was used several times by Bill O'Reilly of Fox). A second category of evaluations however redirects our attention to the entertainment-value of Moore's film. This category is filled with references – that seems to outnumber those of the other category by a ratio of 2:1 - such as: 'entertaining' (Kansas City Star, Lawrence Journal-World), 'hotbutter critique' (AP), 'satirical' (CBS News), 'a standup routine' and 'humorous' (Chicago Sun-Times, Rolling Stone).

As for the framing of Michael Moore the person, what is he according to journalists and movie critics in America? Here, in fact only one specific set of terms emerge: Michael Moore is a 'comedian', a 'gungho cowboy', a 'standup comedian' and ultimately even a 'scruffy' or 'fat' comedian. Sure, some media professionals make an effort to include other terms in their descriptions when they describe Moore as a 'troublemaking journalist/comedian/moviemaker' (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), a 'demagogue' (New York Post), and as a 'propagandist standup comedian' (Time). In fact I only found one description that seems to be more or less value free: 'author-documentarian'.

Let me return to my original question and answer it: American news media consistently frame his work as funny or even hilarious and entertaining, while Michael Moore himself is framed as a comedian with, at best, journalistic aspirations. By casting the popular political criticism of Michael Moore as the sounds, words and images of a court jester, media in the United States in effect might succeed in disarming him. Why take the work of a comedian seriously? Indeed, this would mean spending resources - time and money - on thoroughly investigating the claims that he makes. As soon as people start laughing about his message the opportunity for a genuine discussion in the American public sphere is lost. There is another reason to wonder why US media seem to discredit Moore's work as 'popcorn politics' (Viscalia Times-Delta). Many of his arguments are in fact based on news reports by the same media that label him as a comedian. Moore is showing journalists what can be done if one does some homework rather than republishing the White House press releases. Moore, probably unintentionally, shows that journalists as the self-proclaimed watchdogs of society have been asleep on the job.

One can easily debunk all of this with the argument, that Moore himself so cleverly deploys humour as a device to tell his stories. I would like to argue, that his use of humour cannot be coined as comedy but rather as (political) satire - an intelligent way to reveal the absurdity and complexity of the American condition to larger audiences.

All of this beyond the question whether there is anything funny about mass lay-offs, small-town poverty and unemployment (Roger & Me), a nationwide gun culture of fear (Bowling for Columbine), or countless thousands of dead soldiers and civilians on all sides in a far away place (Fahrenheit 9/11). Maybe its just me, but I find nothing funny or hilarious about any of this.