When Moore is a lot less

Posted: May 31, 2004 12:00 AM

Michael Moore is the perfect antiwar action man for our time. He's the post-modern Norman Mailer, playing to image rather than word. Norman Mailer wrote a good novel a long time ago. Moore is a celebrity propagandist puffed up by a culture of sycophants long on emotion and short on intellect.

Norman Mailer, established by his war novel ("The Naked and the Dead"), chronicled the '60s in slick magazines of literary pretension. The screenplay has replaced the novel as the default mode of "literary" protest, so Michael Moore makes documentaries and the media claque anoints him as Leni Riefenstahl with a scruffy beard. But his seriousness, if you can call it that, is accomplished with buffoonery. He titillates with hypocrisy, distortion and manufactured controversy.

"Moore, the king-sized millionaire, walking testament to American consumption, is a master of making himself appear the little guy," writes Andrew Anthony in the London Observer. He portrays himself as the voice of the working class, but that's fraudulent, too. He grew up in a middle-class suburb of Flint, Mich., in a two-car family and his father could afford to send three children to college.

Michael told reporters on the way to Cannes that Disney, trying to kill his film, had dropped distribution of his film "Fahrenheit 9/11" because Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida had threatened to "endanger" millions of dollars worth of tax breaks for its amusement park at Orlando.

It turned out that Disney had never agreed to distribute the film and had told him so a year earlier. Michael said Mel Gibson's company, Icon Productions, dropped distribution because Mel got a call from the White House from "someone" who told him that if Icon distributed Michael's film he would never get another invitation from the president. Neither Michael nor Mel nor anyone else could identify the mystery caller.

Michael makes up stories. When he doesn't make up the stories he rearranges them, manipulating chronology to make his points. His "factoids" - Norman Mailer's term for things that seem to be facts but actually aren't true - were amply exposed in his movie "Bowling for Columbine," which Dave Kopel of National Review calls a "mockumentary,"

Like Norman Mailer, he's quick to play the race card. It was Mailer who said America went to war in Iraq to cure the malaise of the white American male who, angered that black men had taken over football, basketball, and boxing, had maintained dominance only of the military officers corps: "So Bush knew that a big victory in an easy war would work for the good white American male."

Michael suggested that if the passengers aboard the Sept. 11 flights had been black they would have fought back against the hijackers, but "spoilt whites" were too accustomed to having other people look after them that they quickly gave up. Michael relishes being a "a spoilt white man" himself. He constantly complains about his own physical insecurity and the lack of protection around him. He describes his three bodyguards as a "fitness trainer, pilates teacher and masseur." (See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil?)

At 36, Norman Mailer wrote: "I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time." At 50, Michael might say the same thing, only clumsily.

But both of these "spoilt white men" mistake their flash of fleeting celebrity for lasting influence. Both are afflicted with verbal thuggishness, playing the pudgy pugilist in a ring with no opponent. They shadow box before a ringside of adoring spectators, punch-drunk palookas in love with form, cauliflower though the form may be.

Michael was a lock for a prize in Cannes. He's the darling of the Hollywood - Cannes claque, the anti-American axis captured so deliciously in "Hollywood Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon, The Case Against Celebrity" by Andrew Breitbart and Mark Ebner.

"The cycle of hypocrisy among the entertainment elite simply cannot hold up to public scrutiny," they write. "The Hollywood wings of the vast loony conspiracy have feathered their nests with capitalist spoils. They live more opulently than royalty; yet put a microphone in front of their faces and they channel the spirit of Che Guevara."

Hollywood airheads have often been political, but form and face were once used mainly to raise money for fashionable causes. Marilyn Monroe knew better than to talk politics with John F. Kennedy. She knew which talents a president would admire.

The likes of Barbra Streisand and Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn and Michael Moore see themselves as thinkers. Intoxicated with celebrity status, they confuse their talent for fantasy with real-life significance. The prizes they win say more about the prize-givers than about the fantasizers they celebrate. Moore's the pity.

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