what does Michael Moore have in common with Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern? The answer -- I mean the other answer, the one that doesn't include the words blubber or bigmouth -- is Judith Regan. The feisty celebritor's HarperCollins imprint, Regan Books, recently announced a six-figure deal with Moore for a January 1998 follow-up to the director-cum-author's bestselling "Downsize This!" Meanwhile, Moore is trying to arrange overseas financing for a third incarnation of his satirical newsmagazine, "TV Nation."
For most people on the left, Moore is welcome news. Some of us, however, have had enough.
Eight years ago we forgave Moore when he distorted facts in "Roger & Me," his documentary about General Motors and Flint, Mich. After all, it was in the service of a larger Truth, and as progressives (or liberals, as we called ourselves then) we wanted to support a distinctive populist voice. Most importantly, "Roger & Me" was a clever and very funny film.
Three years later came "Pets or Meat," a shoddy rehash of "Roger & Me." We let it slide because it was good just to have Moore back. When he followed up with "Canadian Bacon," we politely pretended that embarrassing flop was an irrelevant aberration. By 1994 we were kvelling over "TV Nation," which a typical critic hailed as "the best TV show in the past 30 years." Demonstrably not a fact, but in the service of a larger truth: that a wildly uneven left-wing TV show was better than no left-wing TV show at all.
"TV Nation" was canceled (twice), but Moore returned last year with a book, "Downsize This!" and, well, you know the pattern. It was mediocre at best, but progressives championed it and propelled it onto the bestseller lists.
Stop the bandwagon, I want to get off.
FIVE REASONS THE LEFT CAN DO WITHOUT MICHAEL MOORE
1. ROGER AND ME, ME, ME, ME, ME!
The first warning was when "Pets or Meat" turned out to be about what a great film "Roger & Me" was. Then came "TV Nation," with its frequent segments about what a great show "TV Nation" was.
Late last year, Moore wrote four "Media Matters" columns for the Nation, in which he showed clearly which media matter to him. The first installment mentioned "Downsize This!" in the opening paragraph, then discussed both "Roger & Me" and "Canadian Bacon." The second installment was all about "TV Nation." The third again mentioned "Downsize This!" in the first paragraph and discussed at length the promotional tour for that book. The final column oddly had nothing to do with the media -- except for the mention of "Downsize This!" in the first paragraph.
Currently, Moore is editing a new documentary about ... the promotional tour for "Downsize This!" "The first concert film of a book tour," he calls it, as if the world's been waiting for such a thing. The tentative title for Moore's new Regan Book? You guessed it: "TV Nation: Uncensored."
2. KARL WAS NOT THE FUNNIEST MARX BROTHER
Michael Moore is phenomenally good at one thing: getting people to make idiots of themselves on camera. That can be uproarious, but it's not inherently so. It can also be self-defeating if overused, as viewers catch on that maybe the suit on the other end of the microphone each week isn't really so dense, he just comes off that way because that's what Michael Moore does to people.
When Moore actually cracks jokes, as he does in "Downsize This!" it becomes clear that his knack for comedy is shockingly third-rate. In this book (published five years after 1991) Michael Moore slaps his thigh over such laff riots as Barney the dinosaur, John Tesh and "the guy responsible for the little silver tape you can't get off the CD box."
Hey Mike, for your next book: airline peanuts, and how hard they are to open. It'll kill.
3. BLACK HELICOPTERS OVER FLINT
Did you see "Canadian Bacon"? Me neither. But anyone who has will tell you this anti-war "comedy" deserved to fail as badly as it did. Moore does not buy that. He thinks the studio, PolyGram, intentionally buried the film. As he wrote in the Nation: "They tested the film in front of an all-white audience near, of all places, Simi Valley, California (site of the infamous Rodney King verdict and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library). Guess what? THE AUDIENCE HATED IT!"
That's right -- Reagan did it.
Why would PolyGram sink its own movie? Because it's "owned by Philips of the Netherlands, makers of weapons."
In another Nation column, Moore accused Borders of canceling his signings after he supported a Borders employee named Miriam Fried who had tried to unionize her store. Well, maybe. But wasn't his "NOTE TO BORDERS EXECUTIVES" a little excessive? "If, after this column is published, you retaliate by removing my book from your shelves, or hiding it in the 'humor' section or underreporting its sales to the New York Times list, I will come at you with everything I've got."
Relax. I'm sure no one would ever classify "Downsize This!" as humor.
4. FRIEND OF THE WORKING MAN
It was Miriam Fried who said, "The ultimate measure of a company's social responsibility is the way it treats its employees." It was a "TV Nation" producer who said, "If you had ... a reunion of people for whom working for Michael was the least pleasant professional experience of their lives, it might be necessary to rent a large stadium."
From articles in New York magazine and the New York Observer, and from my own conversations with Moore's former employees, I have learned that Moore's office is not, as he insists in his book, "a nonstop rock-'n'-roll party for the proletariat."
"TV Nation" writers say he tried to dissuade them from joining the Writer's Guild (though he spends a chapter of his book on his efforts to unionize his researchers). Once they did join, writers relied on the Guild repeatedly to secure them payments, credits and residuals Moore was trying to screw them out of.
On another Moore project, one senior staffer regularly responded to Moore's abuse by presenting the boss with a big box of doughnuts. He assured co-workers he was not trying to placate Moore. Rather, he figured Mike's intemperate scarfing would hasten the fat man's death.
Moore's response is that his critics resent the success of an uneducated man from Flint because "they went to Yale, they went to Harvard." In fact, no one on "TV Nation" attended an Ivy League school, but Moore is probably going for a larger truth.
5. POP GOES THE POPULIST
Read an interview with Moore and sooner or later you get to the part where he says, "I'm the same person I was before 'Roger & Me.' I still only own three pairs of blue jeans and one Detroit Tigers cap." It is vital to Moore's sense of self (not to mention his career) that he remain a Guy from Flint.
He hasn't been that guy for quite some time. Even when he says "I never made more than $15,000 a year" before "Roger & Me," he's not counting the $58,000 settlement he got from Mother Jones after they fired him. (The magazine says Moore was incompetent. Moore says the publishers conspired against him. You make the call.)
The thing is, no one would even think to begrudge him his success if he wasn't such a snob about being "working class."
Like when he says, "Average working stiffs were willing to ... pay seven bucks to see my movie. So if they're going to give me their money what am I going to with it? Get a big boat? I don't think so." Instead he got a $1.27 million apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You didn't think he still lived in Flint, did you?
Again, no one would care, except that Moore insists on telling interviewers that it's OK because his neighborhood is "a lot like Flint. It's poor, noisy." Granted, it's noisy (though I suspect it's quieter up in Moore's 17th-floor pad, even out on the 755-square-foot terrace), but poor? Within four blocks of his front door, Moore can buy a $3.40 cappuccino, $375 shoes or $400 sunglasses. Fortunately, the local all-you-can-eat "barbecue pig out" is only $15.95.
Moore's address does put him in a good school district, but that doesn't matter. He sends his daughter to private school.
What's really sad is that Moore is dependent on being Joe Baseball Cap largely because he is bereft of any ideas beyond that. As Might magazine pointed out, the crux of Moore's political agenda is, in his own words: "We need to let the working class know that we don't think we're better than them." If Newt Gingrich said anything so patronizing, the Left would never stop ridiculing him. And how do "we" let "them" know we're on their side? "To effect change we have to get off our high horse and start living in the real world," Moore says. "I want you watching 'Friends' every single week. I want you listening to country music." If only my mother had known watching TV was an act of revolution. She'd never have made me turn-off-the-damn-set-and-do-your-homework-already. Besides, if the popularity of "Friends" really means that show represents where ordinary Americans are at, what does that say about shows that don't get high ratings, like, oh, "TV Nation"?
Occasionally, Moore tries to elaborate on this theme and slips up. "Rap music and country music, these are the voices ... of people who are disenfranchised," he told one college audience. "I know the music sucks, but don't you want to put yourself through some pain to see what people are feeling?" Not that we're better than them or anything.