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Jackass, The Documentary

Dishonesty. Tendentiousness. Blubber. Michael Moore's "Bowling For Columbine" is even worse than what we've come to expect from him.

10:20 AM, Oct 31, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
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CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, journalists are human too. We are not merely hecklers in the human comedy, the suckerfish of tragedy. We have thoughts and feelings. We experience pain and insecurity. We suffer disappointment and sorrow. Sometimes, we just need to be held.

Of all these human emotions, the most acutely-felt is often regret. For though we make it look effortless--often because we don't exert any effort--it can be a tough racket: being forced to capture in a few-thousand word snapshot all the nuances of people's lives, being frustrated when you don't quite nail them. Take me, for instance. Four years ago, I wrote a piece on documentary-filmmaker Michael Moore. Entitled "One-Trick Phony," it was what is known in the trade as a "kneecap job." Even by my own often uncharitable standards, it was a nasty piece of work.

Taking on the self-styled populist avenger, the bra-strap-snapper of corporate America, I went after Moore with a pick-axe. I said his career had been "one, long tiresome impression of a harlequin Reuther brother whistling the song of the working man," while all he really did was ambush mid-level proles in company lobbies. I called him a "Ritz-Carlton revolutionary" and a "high-cholesterol Cassandra" who dressed like "an unemployed lumberjack." After displaying initial comic genius with his General Motors-bashing "Roger & Me"--his critically acclaimed, if factually-compromised first film--Moore had, I suggested, become "a preachy bore . . . whose work has become so sanctimoniously unamusing it could make Cesar Chavez pull for management." Then I quit playing Mr. Nice Guy.

While most Moore critics stop at ridiculing him, since he is, both figuratively and literally, a fat target, I talked to his co-workers, acquaintances, and former employees, nearly all of whom made my editorial pronouncements look like a good-natured game of Slapjack. They called him "paranoid," "mercurial," "demanding," and a "fork-tongued manipulator." Though Moore's entire shtick is predicated on fighting the jackboot of corporate oppression, they detailed everything from his temper tantrums to his threatening to fire an assistant who sent a yellow cab instead of a limo to fetch him at the airport. They compared working conditions under Moore to "a sweatshop," "indentured servitude," and "a concentration camp." One of his former producers said it was like "working for Idi Amin--without the laughs." Another staffer simply said, "My parents want him dead."

But that was then, and now, it is four years later. With the mellowing brought on by age, I realize that we are all God's children, doing the best we can, struggling to get by. And so today, outside the heat of battle, in the cool light of day, as I watch Moore's latest documentary, "Bowling For Columbine," I can't help but be haunted by one mammoth regret: that my piece wasn't nearly mean enough.

For some time now, cultural observers have noticed that being a sparkling left-wing satirist is not a vocation in danger of overpopulation. Now that Mort Sahl is dead (or is he still alive?), you might count Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower, which is hard to do if you've actually read them. The Nation's Katha Pollitt is a sparkling self-parodist, though not much of a satirist. So the field has pretty much been abandoned to Michael Moore, and more's the pity, since it is hard to imagine the likes of Twain or Swift comparing themselves to Mother Teresa (as Moore has done), while still expecting to be taken seriously as funnymen.

Not that the marketplace has passed a similar judgment. Moore's latest book, "Stupid White Men" (which isn't, as the title suggests, an autobiography), has become a New York Times number one best-seller. A collection of union-hall-pamphleteer conspiracies stitched together in the mouth-breathing verbiage of someone who's quite proud of their GED, the book is useful in that it collects all Moore's crackpot theories in one place. The media tells us lies. . . . the election was stolen. . . . George W. Bush is an alcoholic. . . . we need Jimmy Carter. . . . on and on it goes.

As for the yuks quotient, a typical line is "I think it was Thomas Aquinas who once observed, 'There's nothing like your own shit to make you realize how much you stink.'" Clever stuff. In a sidebar chart (it's the kind of book with sidebar charts) Moore offers "Mike's Fantasy List of Women Presidents" which includes Hillary Clinton ("only if I could get invited for sleepovers") and President Oprah ( "the fireside chats with Dr. Phil would save us all.") Yuck.