Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fahrenheit 9/11

            Michael Moore's 2004 film, Fahrenheit 9/11 was one of the most influential documentaries of all-time (also the highest-grossing documentary). It was a political movie intended to influence the presidential election of that year between George W. Bush and John Kerry. The film was part of a huge scandal involving its release. Disney didn't want Miramax to release it, most likely because of its highly controversial content. It ended up being a huge financial success, unusual for a nonfiction film.

      Therefore, because of its undeniable importance, it is crucial to analyze the contents of this film. Is it truly a documentary or are there fictional aspects? What is true and what is false? Fahrenheit 9/11 was heavily debated in the media over these issues. Moore harshly criticized the sitting president and his administration, so obviously many were upset. Christopher Hitchens wrote a famous attack on the film, criticizing its truthfulness. Moore put up a detailed list of sources for the claims made in his movie on his website. According to the Internet Movie Database, Moore also used fact checkers from the New Yorker to make sure that there were no factual errors.

         This film uses many traditional aspects of documentaries. There are many interviews and video clips, often coming from TV news stations. There is also the narrator, which is Michael Moore himself. Fahrenheit 9/11 would be a great example for auteur theory as Moore produced, wrote and directed it. In many ways, he is also the main character of the film.

          The film's purpose is to present Moore's point of view. His narration is there to connect the dots between the facts presented by others and weave them into an overall narrative. He often uses sarcasm or false ignorance such as when he says that “something called the Fox News Channel” called Florida for Bush in the 2000 election.

        He also injects his own perspective when interviewing, something that could possibly call into question the documentary nature of the film. Moore often wonders aloud about what people were thinking or saying in private meetings. He specifically hypothesizes about what Bush could have said to Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia.

       He also makes some comments that are slightly misleading. Moore discusses the 2000 Senate election in Missouri where Mel Carnahan (who had recently died) defeated future Attorney General John Ashcroft. This is somewhat of a misrepresentation. Missouri voters knew that the governor was going to appoint Carnahan's widow to the empty seat if he won.

       However, many documentaries have narrators that give some sort of perspective, that doesn't necessarily mean that aspects of the film are fictional. Moore further makes the film about himself when he spends a few minutes discussing the effect of the war on his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Many in the town are poor and have no better option than to join the military.

       Moore is basically a character in his own movie. There are a few scenes that are entirely created by him. One of these is where he learns that none of the congressman have read the PATRIOT Act and he decides to go around in an ice cream truck and read the entire bill over a loudspeaker. This event clearly wouldn't have happened if he wasn't making a movie. Is this really that far from what fiction filmmakers do when creating a scene?

      Another similarly created scene occurs when Moore and a member of the military go around asking members of Congress to enlist their children to go fight in Iraq. This is another scene staged for effect, but it does capture the genuine reactions of congressmen. However, this portion is somewhat absurd. No one can be forced to enlist in the military by their parents, even if they are members of Congress.

     These scenes are “real” in the sense that they really happened. However, they were specifically created for the movie, as opposed to many of the other clips. If someone is filmed running down the street for a fictional film, they may have actually done it, but no one would consider this a documentary scene.

        Where does one draw the line between fiction and fact? How much interference is allowed by documentary filmmakers? This question has been around since the beginning of the artform when some criticized Robert Flaherty for recreating scenes in his 1922 documentary, Nanook of the North. Flaherty told his Eskimo stars to hunt as their ancestors would have, not necessarily how they themselves would do it. When Errol Morris made Fog of War, his interviews with Robert McNamara obviously wouldn't have happened otherwise, but no one claims that this film is not a documentary.

        There is also a scene where the Secret Service questions Moore because he is filming across the street from the Saudi embassy. Again, the scene was created for the movie, but captures the genuine, unplanned reaction of someone.

          In addition, there is a scene that shows the faces of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld placed on the bodies of characters from an old western. Then several clips are shown of Bush saying that they needed to “smoke 'em[The terrorists] out” followed by a clip from the western with the exact same phrase. This is obviously a fictional aspect, but no one would rightly confuse this for a real scene. Its purpose is mainly to make the audience laugh, while making a point at the same time. It would be difficult to be too critical of this scene, especially since it is so short.

       There are many other techniques that Moore uses that go beyond the usual conception of the documentary. An important example of this is music. Many pop songs are sprinkled throughout the film , often used for ironic effect. For instance, the song “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M. is used over clips of Bush meeting with Saudi royals. “Vacation” by the Go-Go's plays over clips of Bush relaxing on vacation. Obviously these songs weren't actually playing when the events happened. The cheery attitudes of these songs strongly contrasts with the serious nature of the topics presented in the movie.

       Other music is often used to make sure the audience understands the message being communicated. For instance, Moore decided to put goofy, hick-sounding music over the clips of Gore being declared the winner in Florida in 2000. There is also strong emotional music playing when the audience sees the members of the Congressional Black Caucus attempt in vain to get their objections heard without the signature of a senator. The music makes the message clear: these congressman are courageously standing up for the rights of the disenfranchised and these rights will tragically be denied. The score is not too far removed from what might be found in a typical fiction film.

       Some might criticize Moore for his selective choosing of clips. Many clips make President Bush out to be stupid. Obviously Moore went out of his way to choose such footage, such as one where Bush is chuckling like an idiot. However, it is hard to fault Moore or claim that this damages the status of this film as a truthful documentary. After all, Bush really did say those things and act that way. Its not as if there is a shortage of embarrassing videos of the former president. Moore didn't really take any of the clips out of context or edit them in a overly insulting way.

        Fahrenheit 9/11 clearly has some bias in it. However, this does not make it fictional. After all, is it really possible to release any piece of media without bias, especially one as politically charged as this? There is more to the story than what is presented in this documentary. But Moore wanted to bring attention to facts and viewpoints that the mainstream media was not covering. Most media outlets were simply a cheerleader for the war, and had just as much bias as Fahrenheit 9/11.Furthermore, most documentaries have at least a few aspects that could be considered fictional.

       All documentaries are carefully edited and sometimes preplanned, and they often have manipulative music or narration. The filmmakers still have to choose what to put in and what to exclude. For instance, Moore chose include several shots of Bush and his administration getting make-up put on before filming to portray them as fake and arrogant. Most likely all politicians do this and it doesn't directly relate to the overall narrative , but Moore chose to include it anyway.

           The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction film are not necessarily clear-cut. For instance, the Nazi film Triumph of the Will uses real footage and speeches from Hitler. However, it gives many false impressions about Nazi Germany, including leaving out any mention of anti-semitism.

        Also blurring the lines are recent “animated documentary” films such as Chicago 10 or Waltz with Bashir that animate reenactments of real events. Furthermore, some fictional movies include real segments. Natural Born Killers and Bamboozled are films that include actual media clips at the end to drive home their points.

        George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck used footage of Joe McCarthy as himself. The Ralph Bakshi animated film Wizards used stock footage of actual battles that were then rotoscoped. Many fiction films use the stylistic conventions of documentaries. This has been recently common in the horror genre; examples include Quarantine and Cloverfield. Comedies known as “mockumentaries” have been popular such as This Is Spinal Tap and Best In Show.

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