Judge Mike Pinsky tells nothing but non-lies about Michael Moore's muckracking TV series.
"My friends, it is time for a reality check."—Michael Moore, blog entry dated September 20, 2004.
There is a moment in The Awful Truth, Michael Moore's television follow-up to his Emmy-winning TV Nation, when Crackers the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken sneaks into Disney's Magic Kingdom (although how you sneak in dressed as a giant chicken is a mystery) and tries to ask Mickey Mouse, waving from a parade float, why Disney uses sweatshops to manufacture its overpriced T-shirts. Of course, Disney security swoops in on Crackers and hauls him off for an egg-cavity search. It is a moment of perfect satire, as cheerful little children run up to Crackers to get his autograph, thinking he is a happy corporate symbol for Disney, while clean-cut security flunkies try to control the situation.
And then it occurs to me that Crackers is over near the old "20,000 Leagues" queue, nowhere near the parade route. He could not have been waving at Mickey.
Does this small deceit mitigate the point that Disney sometimes employs unfair labor practices? Not really. Michael Moore is a satirist, and like any great satirist, he is willing to look just as foolish as his subjects. It is up to the audience to take the next step.
Moore is more a performer than a strict journalist. His milieu is the documentary form, but unlike the traditional documentary, he is as much a character in his camera's eye as any of his subjects. The documentary form pretends that its subjects do not perform, that they are caught in moments of pure being. But even as far back as the work of Robert Flaherty, we know this is rarely the case. Moore merely calls attention to the performance, using the same manipulation techniques (sentiment, diverting attention) as the corporate masters in an effort to undercut some of their rhetoric. But they still have the money and power, and that still tips the balance in their favor.
Still, Moore creates a populist persona: the schlep, the outsider who will cheerfully grab a beer from your fridge as he whispers in your ear the latest gossip about the boss flying to Antigua with a cheerleader who is not his wife.
This character is at the center of Moore's television series The Awful Truth, which aired for two seasons on cable's Bravo network. His conceit the first season is to create a fictional country/media service called "The People's Democratic Republic of Television," liberalism's answer to Limbaugh's one-man "Excellence in Broadcasting Network." Moore treats it as less a think tank than an act tank, staging his characteristic ambush games on lying corporations and government dimwits.
In the first season of The Awful Truth, Moore plays to a studio audience like a stand-up comedian. It does not work all that well. Moore always does better in the field, where his grandstanding is usually mitigated by the responses of his subjects, where his righteous anger and self-deprecating humor has a clearer context. In the studio, where he has total control of the argument, he is all bluster. This is why his films usually work much better than his books: on camera, his subjects have a chance to talk back—and incriminate themselves.
Moore does sometimes unfairly target low-level grunts at the companies he invades. Low-level workers like these are usually just trying to do their jobs without getting fired, and their indifference is a survival tactic is a world that has learned to value stupidity and compliance over innovation. But Moore rightfully hates willing ignorance, whether it comes from the left or the right. Any bureaucratic blind, corporate malfeasance, or government screw-up on either side of the aisle—Moore will show up to make fun of it. Although he does prefer to cast himself as a hero of the working class, as evidenced in a quiz-show segment in the first season of The Awful Truth where he pits New York's upper crust against everyday denizens of Pittsburgh with questions like "What is you zip code?" Ironically, this "working class" show was broadcast on Bravo, a network for upper middle class liberal arts majors who think PBS is too socialist and can point out on a map where the Sundance Film Festival is held.
But when Moore is on target, when his anger is focused and his subject is willing to walk into the trap, the segments in The Awful Truth can be brilliant. When trying to offer the chairman of über-polluter RENCO an award for his environmental crimes, Moore ends up with a restraining order against him. Of course, this encourages him to put up a velvet rope to mark the demarcation line and guest on the Conan O'Brien shouting up to Conan's office. In another, remarkably prescient segment from the second season (before the 2000 presidential election), Moore offers an episode-length mini-documentary in which he runs a ficus tree as a congressional candidate in an otherwise unopposed race. The ficus (named, of course, Ficus) wins a substantial number of votes, but the head of elections in that county (who is also chair of the unopposed candidate's party) refuses to count the votes. Sound familiar?
Other segments are too diffuse to have much impact. Moore tries to help turn Ted Turner's massive land holdings into an independent country. What has Turner done particularly wrong to deserve this? Other segments seem dated, even only a few years later, like a piece on Joe Camel.
In the show's second season, Moore jettisons the studio audience and turns The Awful Truth into a clone of TV Nation, shooting bridging segments in Times Square and employing correspondents to pick up half the stories. This works much better, as the segments have more sense of purpose. In the first season, too many filler segments were evidence that Moore was stretching himself too thin. In the second season, stories have a more investigative feel: Jay Martel interviews a man turned down for a job with the police because he tested too high on an IQ test; Karen Duffy teaches seniors kung fu so they can protect themselves from nursing home abuse.
Docurama offers the entire 24-episode run of The Awful Truth in one boxed set. The only significant extra is a set of four commentary tracks by Moore for some episodes in the second season. The tracks are a major disappointment: Moore has little to say other than describing the action on screen. I suspect that without the camera pointing at him, when he is not playing "Mike the working class guy," he is probably fairly shy, judging from his reticence to talk about himself here. He is also a fairly instinctive filmmaker, which gives him little to say in terms of technique. The result: these commentary tracks are pretty redundant.
But for the most part, The Awful Truth speaks for itself. Even with its flaws, it still offers powerful commentary on the hurdles our nation still has to overcome, and it does so with a sense of humor. These days, when any attempt to criticize public policy is considered borderline sedition, thanks to the concept of "homeland security" (and Moore even predicts this, in a second season segment where he hires cops to randomly frisk people on the street), we need all the satire we can get. Maybe some of those in power will eventually get a clue. But I doubt it.
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