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The State of the Cinematic Documentary
Ash Ghadiali looks at Robert Greenwald's Walmart film and asks just what is Michael Moore's legacy for the art of the documentary.
By Ashish Ghadiali
It was autumn 2004 when, recognising the impact that the outstanding box-office performance of Michael Moore’s Farenheit 911 had had on distribution, the NFT looked back at what they dubbed ‘the year of the documentary’. Once Miramax had put their finger on the fact that the once dead donkey of factual film had emerged as a potentially lucrative market, other companies had been quick to follow.
We at Musical Bear were keen in our support. This was a year when reviewers got the chance to comment on films like Spellbound and Etre et Avoir, My Architect and the Fog of War, Control Room, The Corporation and lesser known but equally brilliant titles like The Boy Who Played on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. These were films which each offered diverse and original strategies for translating factual stories into cinematic form, films which took you into the cinema in order to open your mind to new possibilities in the world outside, films which challenged your conception of reality.
The guru status attained by Michael Moore would have been worthwhile if it had achieved nothing more than his 2003 Oscar acceptance speech (for Bowling For Columbine), which, spoken at the high water mark of the ‘intervention’ in Iraq, shattered the decorum of that ‘apolitical’ Hollywood night. Arguing for commitment to the documentary as an antidote to the Bush regime’s retreat into fiction, it left Nicole Kdman’s more traditional thespian clamour that ‘art is important’ sounding somewhat hollow.
On another level too the rise of Moore was crucially important. This was a time when digital video and home computer editing technologies were becoming increasingly sophisticated, and increasingly available. BBC Storyville’s editor, Nick Fraser, has suggested that during the early years of the 21st century, the digital documentary has become what the screenplay, the novel and poetry had been in earlier years – the first form of narrative expression for a new generation. The commercial success of Michael Moore’s lo-fi aesthetic stood out as a beacon to this generation – evidence that you didn’t need big backing and you didn’t need to compromise, that as long as you picked a story that really matters and pursue it to the end, it would be possible to find an audience.
I must admit though, that after watching Farenheit 911, I was left slightly nervous about what effect this film would have on the practice of documentary filmmaking, because what it also shows is that in the contemporary cinema market, it’s quite justified to bypass any consideration about using the camera as a way of questioning reality. You can just stick the questions in the script.
In Moore’s hands the camera becomes a tool of power that you use to illustrate your script, to reinforce what you think that you already know, and frequently, as in the Charlton Heston denouement of Bowling For Columbine, or in the scene where he lynches a congressman in Fahrenheit 911, you’ll find him eschewing the venerable technique of observing his subject until they reveal something of themselves – preferring instead to resort to tactics of personal humiliation. You can argue that in the hands of a man of the people like Michael Moore this tactic is a legitimate way of redressing the imbalance of power, of tarnishing an image sustained by billion-dollar systems of mass media.
But while it might provide a little moment of respite from the rage of disinheritance, while it might get your baying punters whooping in the aisle, it’s not fundamentally an alternative to the documentary tradition espoused by those US soldiers playing with their cameras in Abu Ghraib. It marks no radical break from the hermetic fictionalism projected from the studios, from Fox News and the White House (which is probably why Godard has referred disparagingly to Moore as ‘that Hollywood reporter’). Moore’s is just another kind of narcissism. And while he is undoubtedly using this technique to ask some vital and awkward questions of an arrogant new world order, you can argue, very simply, that the means are the ends.
Success is always good, but what kind of success? TV’s Wifeswap, for example, succeeded in marrying the observational techniques of documentary with a razor-sharp narrative format well known to Hollywood producers. The happy effect was to get factual content onto the primetime schedules, as well as to put some serious entertainment licker in the pockets of once impoverished documentarians. But it also dried broadcasters’ appetites for a less tightly formatted approach. It has put the emphasis on squeezing reality into formats, rather than finding the formats that make sense of the reality. Could Michael Moore’s expediency be doing comparable damage to the idea of observational veracity? Could his fevered approach obscure the documentary eye?
My feeling of reserve was, at the time, stifled by the arguments of people I respect – the real humanists of today –people like John Berger and John Pilger, who had no time for the semantic dithering of left-wing intellectuals and ‘so-called opinon-makers’. Moore’s one-sidedness, they argued, could not be compared with the propaganda systems of global capital it opposed. It was one man’s perspective, they argued, a perspective of resistance expressed with tenacity and passion.
It should be acknowledged that, with Farenheit 911, Michael Moore has succeeded where a more nuanced approach would certainly have failed. His dissent found its place within the mass media system, and has as such made one of the greatest contributions to the cause of making resistance to US foreign policy a popular mass movement.
It’s also become recently apparent to me just how much skill there is to Michael Moore, the consummate storyteller, because in Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price, a film by Robert Greenwald, the deal that Berger’s ‘perspective for the future’ failed to detect is truly done. Here the bastard child of Moore is delivered.
The strategy is similar: find your giant, destroy. Greenwald and his team travel across the USA, from north to south and east to west. They take in a loveable cockney London, and travel to the mecca of Walmart’s low-cost production in China. The list they compile is an exhaustive account of corporate misdemeanour and labour exploitation.
This is a film I was really keen to see. Walmart is one of those forces of global capital that really needs to be challenged. Its aggressive business practices make increasing encroachments on public life. Its retail monopolies squeeze local enterprise, consumer choice. It wields its muscle to pressurise workers’ earnings. It’s already won America and its UK subsidiary, Asda, is threatening the same to us.
The problem is that Greenwald’s world, perversely, seems impossible to believe. It’s as though this extensive travel has served no purpose greater than to reinforce his stereotypes. You expect Dick van Dyke to be lurking round the corner of his Queen’s Road Market, Newham. The ludicrous Banzai-style voice-over treatment of his trip to China leads you to imagine that any moment the Walmart factory workers will erupt in Kung Foo Fighting. Greenwald can point towards the clichés you’ve already heard – that corporate retail giants like Walmart are destroying the American dream, that they encourage low-waged employers to be part-dependent on welfare, that they exploit workers in Asia. You could learn all this with just five minutes on Google.
Greenwald wants you to sit through an hour and a half with him (it doesn’t feel like any less than three), during which time he singularly fails to go beyond the political clichés, fails either to enlighten or entertain, fails most seriously of all to express the humanity of his contributors.
Strong research brings us into the homes of individuals affected in a myriad-number of ways by Walmart exploitation, but what happens when we get there, is that story-lines are rendered two-dimensional by interview techniques that fail to look beneath the surface of the complaints, that take the bigger picture for granted, that are ineptly and insensitively shot.
This is pastiche of Michael Moore, and nothing else.
Where the rough camera work of Farenheit 911 is a sign of Moore’s freedom – the stylistic clothing of an independent maverick forcing his way towards the corridors of power – in Greenwald’s hands, where we are quite often looking at conservative static shots of living room interviews, it is a sign of just sloppiness, a way of robbing dignity from the interviewee who we’re otherwise supposed to sympathise with, a wobble that suggests the cameraman, so uninterested in what’s happening in front of him, has been sidetracked by an itch under his armpit.
Montage, in Michael Moore’s hands, is a vehicle for iconoclastic wit – a tool for shattering the decorum of presidential appearances, a call to look closely, to find behind the much-rehearsed veneer a detail of absurdity. Greenwald’s montage is a rough approximation – a monotonous piling of static shots of supermarket fronts – a reminder, as if you needed it, that however many times you see a Walmart sign, it will still be a Walmart sign.
The editing technique in general, an eccentric array of post-production pyrotechnics, points towards the vacuity of the film. Aware that little effort has been made to locate the real human drama, the visual energy of this story during the filming, there’s a clear straining towards simulated camera movements generated in the edit suite, heavy-handed freeze frames that amount to a crass attempt to tell you this is poignant.
Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price is such a disastrous act of political intervention that people leaving the screening room were heard admitting that they felt sorry for the corporate giant by the end of it. On the other hand, it would seem that Walmart’s directors have escaped lightly, as there’s no evidence of the filmmakers attempting to impose the tedium of their company on the people that they criticise or their cohorts. That privilege is reserved for the viewer. And while the need for political awareness of our consumer society is as urgent now as ever, you won’t need this film to see you on your way.