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American Folk: Michael Moore, Billy Bragg and resistance in a different America

By Felicity Cull - posted Thursday, 19 August 2004

In 2002, Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine became the highest-grossing documentary, earning $21.6 million in its domestic run. Bowling for Columbine made Michael Moore a household name. When he was awarded an Oscar, he stood in an ill-fitting suit and turned the usual schmaltzy acceptance speech into a platform for agitation and activism. Michael Moore was booed by the Oscar crowd for his political speech. However, the disruption to the usual award show swank was clearly forgiven by the hecklers, and obviously impressed the American film-going audience. His new documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 has beaten the record set by his anti-gun culture documentary Bowling for Columbine. Grossing $21.8 million in its first weekend of release, Fahrenheit 9/11 played to packed theatres across America.

On the Saturday after it was released in Australia, I sat in a packed cinema, squashed into rows of filled seats. We have all seen those planes crash into those towers so many times that it is no longer jolting. Moore does not rehash the footage of the carnage of September 11; instead we see a black screen. In the darkness of that movie theatre, the whole audience realises the implications of what we can hear.

Fahrenheit 9/11 does not show us what we have already seen, it shows us what has been hidden. The footage is shocking. An Iraqi boy, dead in his Father’s arms, limp, his body expelling its waste. We see American soldiers, eerily blood thirsty and upsettingly confused in Iraq. The audience cries with a Mother in mourning for a son lost to a war with no purpose but to make people money. It’s not that we don’t see images like these on our evening news. Michael Moore makes us see and name their faces. Michael Moore is often accused of twisting the facts; but these images and their implications are undeniable.


So is Michael Moore’s intended message – vote Bush out for the good of all. We see an America that is not the America of "The haves and the have mores" as Bush quips in the documentary, but America’s working classes. Michael Moore’s documentary symbolises a patriotism that has little to do with privilege and much to do with activism. Moore is a patriot of an America of an alternative, progressive tradition. He is a patriot because he resists the government, rather than being a patriot because he follows a neo-conservative President. This is patriotism of a different kind to that we now associate with America.

Michael Moore, in his confronting, funny and intense documentary becomes a part of this folk tradition, the tradition of singers like Woody Guthrie. Guthrie sang ballads which painted a picture of America which featured migrants, unemployables and Dust Bowl Farmers. Woody Guthrie captured an America of a particular time. Michael Moore is maintaining this project, not through music but via his documentaries. Fahrenheit 9/11 captures on film an America that Guthrie showed us through song. Bush has reenergized the tradition of patriotism as resistance, and the documentary stands as testament.

Bush’s conservative rule has woken up a sleeping proletariat, much like Margaret Thatcher did in Britain in the 1980s. Al Jourgensen from the band Ministry states: "The one thing Bush does best is piss people off." Bush, like Thatcher, has proven himself as an agitator of difference. English artist Billy Bragg, who was arguably the Michael Moore of the 1980s was politicized at the time of Thatchers’ conservative rule in Britain. He began to be active with his voice and guitar when Thatcher began her reign.

During the 1980s, Billy Bragg spoke for a class of people and their struggle. Thatcher was the enemy against which Bragg fought. When Thatcher quit government, Billy Bragg’s activism – and indeed the Left - lost its clear enemy. When Bush came to power, it seems the world regained a foe. Now Billy Bragg and Michael Moore are united in resistance. Michael Moore discovered an opponent for a fight and so did Billy Bragg. While the artist laments the current state of the world, Bush has breathed life back into Bragg’s activism. Now The Left have a clear Right to agitate against.

Michael Moore is extracting an emotional response from the viewers of his film. It is this emotional response beyond aggression, hatred and xenophobia which has been missing from our popular culture. It is again a good career move to be active, at least within documentaries. This time, the activism is being fought through film rather than music. As is suggested jokingly by Chris Clark, perhaps they can get "noted proletariat curmudgeon Billy Bragg to compose the soundtrack".

The startling success of Moore’s documentaries is apparent. But it remains to be seen if his films will effect the imminent American election. Can Michael Moore succeed where Red Wedge did not? Can Michael Moore turn America from a place the world enjoys hating to this different America of which he is a patriot? This is the America of Woody Guthrie and a folk tradition. It is possible. But in this election year, the proof will be in the ballots.

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About the Author

Felicity Cull is a PhD candidate at Murdoch University's School of Media, Culture and Communication, and a member of The Popular Culture Collective.

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