Friday, February 10, 2012

HUMILIATION AS ENTERTAINMENT: Why I won't watch the films of Michael Moore

Public humiliation was once a form of punishment. Today it's a form of entertainment.
I received an email today with a link to some of Jay Leno's favorite "Jay-Walking" moments. In these sequences, Leno goes out into the street and asks random folks to answer simple questions, usually about American history or culture. He then airs the silliest answers to those questions. He points to an American flag and asks a young woman how many stars are on it. "I don't know," she says. "It's moving too fast." HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. He asks a different young woman what the "D.C." in "Washington, D.C." stands for. Her answer: "Da capital?" HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Like most of America, I laugh at these folks and their ignorance. Then I feel, well, ashamed of myself.

Private humiliation has become public entertainment. We strip people of their dignity and then air the result to the masses. Below is a column I published in the local paper in 2004, when Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 came out. I agree with Moore's politics; I hate his movies. They represent a sad trend in American culture. It's a trend that's only gotten worse since 2004. (Judge Judy and Dr. Phil, anyone?)


 




Filmmaker Michael Moore has become famous for subjecting people to public shame.




WHY I WON’T WATCH FAHRENHEIT 9/11
by Ed Weathers
(Originally published in The Roanoke Times in 2004.)
 
I rented Michael Moore’s movie Bowling for Columbine recently. After 15 minutes, I shut it off. Michael Moore’s movies make me squirm—but not for the reasons he intends. I squirm because I belong to that shrinking minority of Americans who don’t like to see people embarrassed in public.
      Michael Moore embarrasses people in public, and I don’t like it. I’m not talking about public figures like Charleton Heston or George Bush or Roger Smith (the General Motors executive Moore eviscerates in Roger and Me). I have no problem with Moore pointing out the stupid, venal, or dangerous policies of actor-shills, presidents and corporate executives. No, I have a problem when Moore embarrasses ordinary citizens—a GM security guard, a bank clerk—in order to wring a little laugh from the audience or make a point that can be just as well made in another way. In the first fifteen minutes of Bowling for Columbine, for example, Moore goes into a bank that offers a free gun to anyone who opens a new account. He opens an account, asks for a gun, and gets it. Granted, this is a telling statement about how easy it is to get a gun in this country—from a bank, no less. But along the way, Moore also seems to be politely mocking the sweet teller who opens the account for him and the perfectly nice bank manager who hands him the gun. After he’s handed the gun, Moore then ambush-interviews the bank manager, peppering him with well-rehearsed questions about the socio-political correlativism of guns and banks. The manager, clearly not prepared to answer such complex questions on the spur of the moment, hems, haws and stumbles. We laugh at him. But which of us could answer such questions cogently without some time to think about them? Moore is trying to make a statement about guns in this country, but I came away from this segment angry, not about stupid American gun laws, but about rude American film directors. I felt sorry for the bank manager. That’s when I turned the movie off.
      Public humiliation has become the most popular sport in America. Virtually every hit “reality” show on television is really a “humiliation” show. People get fired by Donald Trump, thrown off the island on “Survivor,” rejected by The Bachelor, and reduced to screaming fools on “Fear Factor.” We watch and laugh, or gloat, as if we were better than them. And then there’s the hugely successful “American Idol.” Don’t tell me that the viewing public watches “American Idol” to discover talented singers. No, you and I both know that we watch in order to laugh derisively at the poor fools who think they can sing, or dream they can dance, but who in fact have no talent whatsoever—unless you count their willingness to make fools of themselves in public. Okay, I’m pretty sure most of the talentless know they are talentless and just want their two minutes on national tv, but that doesn’t change the fact that Americans watch in order to laugh at them. 

"Queen for a Day": An early example of humiliation-as-entertainment.
      Public humiliation on television goes back almost to the medium’s origins. I still remember a show from the 1950s called “Queen for a Day,” on which women stood before the audience and told the pathetic tales of their lives—drunk husbands, children with polio, accidents in the kitchen—in order to earn the audience’s sympathy. The wife with the most pitiful tale won a refrigerator. I hated that show. It embarrassed me. In more recent years, we’ve had the “I Slept With My Boyfriend’s Dog” school of Jerry Springer television, which simply took the public airing of besmirched underwear to new depths.
      The question now is this: Are Americans still capable of embarrassment? More importantly, are we capable of being embarrassed for someone else? Do we feel sympathy any longer for someone who has been or is being publicly humiliated?
       I of course haven’t seen Michael Moore’s newest film, Fahrenheit 9/11, which just won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. I understand from the reviews that the movie blasts the Bush administration for its ties to the Saudis and its failures before and after 9/11. That’s fine with me. A politician’s policies are fair game. Besides, no one can embarrass George Bush more than George Bush embarrasses himself every time he tries to speak off the cuff. (If I need to establish my anti-Bush bona fides here, let me say that I just sent the Kerry campaign a check for 2% of my annual income. If you haven’t done the same, you’ll have no right to complain if Bush wins and gets to appoint Scalia clones as the next three Supreme Court justices, thereby embarrassing the whole country for the next 30 years.)

Paul Wolfowitz doing what seems to count for entertainment in the U.S. today.
      Anyway, I’m sure I’ll agree with the politics of Moore’s new film. But not necessarily with the tactics. There’s one scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 that all the reviewers have mentioned as one of the “best” and “funniest” in the movie—“vintage” Michael Moore. It’s a scene in which Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary and chief architect of the Iraq War, is preparing for an interview. Wolfowitz, unaware that his actions will later be seen by millions, sticks a comb into his mouth, wets it with spit, and then runs it through his hair. Apparently we are expected to laugh with gleeful superiority at this picture of the Bush administration’s biggest brain behaving grossly. But I wouldn’t laugh. I would simply be embarrassed for the poor man. After all, who among us doesn’t pick his nose when he thinks no one is watching? Who doesn’t bite his finger nails and spit them secretly into the corner of the motel room when he’s alone? Who doesn’t have some disgusting habit which, if revealed to our friends, would make us want to crawl away and die? I hate Wolfowitz’s unilateralism, his imperialist arrogance, and his conduct of Middle East foreign policy. Only Michael Moore could make me call Paul Wolfowitz “poor man.”
       I don’t plan to see Fahrenheit 9/11. All the “news” in it is old news to anyone who reads and is interested in politics. Mostly, though, I don’t care to see people publicly humiliated. I would think by now that we Americans would have learned what a callous indifference to the humiliation of others can lead to. If you’ve forgotten, just take another look at the photos from Abu Ghraib.

One of a series of Abu Ghraib paintings by Fernando Botera.






1 comment:

  1. Tks very much for your post.

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