Sunday, July 15, 2007

SOCIAL REALIST. I've said previously that I prefer artful documentaries like Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control to overtly propagandistic ones like An Inconvenient Truth. Some of my commenters in that instance made the sound point that there's a place for films that are in essence propaganda for under-acknowledged truths; my only answer to that was and is that whatever the social utility of such films may be, they don't serve the purpose of art. The preservation of the icecaps may take precedence over the preservation of aesthetic standards, but I like to think we can have both.

I think what Michael Moore does is sui generis and has aspects of both documentary forms. Clearly it's propaganda: Moore lets his opinions and prescriptions hang out. And he's not above pulling the gimp string to lead you to his conclusions. But he makes movies, not animated slide-shows. He talks causes, but he shows effects -- human effects that engage viewers on a level beyond the political.

Roger & Me, for example, is a great ground-level portrait of capitalism gone feral and the resulting disintegration of a community. The vignettes of depraved money-men and deprived citizens, and the gulf between them, comprised more than a object lesson; it was a story to break your heart. To say Moore's Flint, Michigan is a filmmaker's creation -- as much as was Capra's Bedford Falls and Pottersville -- is not to deny the reality of what happened there, but to acknowledge the success of Moore's art.

Up till SiCKO, I thought that Moore had been regressing a bit artistically. There's a lot to like in Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911, but the issues in each case are so large that the human consequences tend to get ground up by them. Even as I was moved by the anguish of Lila Lipscomb, and enraged by the obliviousness of Charlton Heston, I resented the use of them as ways of bringing it all back home, so to speak, at the climax of those films. It seemed to me as if American gun culture and the Iraq invasion needed so much explanation -- and they got compelling explanations in both cases -- that the people who suffered from them got short shrift. It was as if the scope of Moore's agenda interfered with his stories.

The American health care mess is another huge subject, and SiCKO takes the time to tell us what's wrong with it. But Moore has found an ingenious way to tell his story -- which turns out to be only coincidentally about health care.

There are the expected hard cases and historical background. We learn about people killed or doomed to poverty by our system, and the perverse financial incentives responsible. (And boy, just when you thought there wasn't anything more to hate about Nixon...)

But there aren't a lot of "gotcha" ambush moments. Instead, halfway through the film Moore seems to abandon the litany of despair to go to other countries where we meet people who are well-served by their systems, because their governments acknowledge that health care is a human right. And hearing their stories, and especially observing their lives outside the hospitals and clinics, we come to realize that health care is only part of the difference. What's remarkable (and sometimes infuriating) about these subjects' attitudes is that they take their superior care for granted. They expect more from their governments than we do -- and, the film implies, that's why they have it and we don't.

Even hostile reviewers seem to pick up on this. The claim by National Review's Rich Lowry that Moore is "the Riefenstahl of socialism" is hysterical but telling. Lowry is acknowledging the power of SiCKO's real story -- the story of a civilized world that, in some important ways, has left America behind, not by dint of socialism but by a different understanding of what the old Labourite Tony Benn calls by its right name: democracy.

SiCKO strikes me an inspired bit of Social Realism -- not my favorite genre (being an old-fashioned American, I prefer "me" stories to "we" stories) but at its best (Clifford Odets and Diego Rivera) it's got the force of true art. As to Moore's policy prescriptions, I leave it to him to defend them -- he clearly doesn't need anyone's help. But he did make a very good movie.

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