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Travels With Mikey 

Wednesday, Apr 8 1998
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The Big One
A documentary directed and written by Michael Moore. Opens Friday, April 10, at the Lumiere in San Francisco and the California in Berkeley.

If nothing else, the current edition of Michael Moore's continuing self-love fest does have a great subject: the desperation hidden inside a "thriving" U.S. economy. While politicians and financial wizards point to unemployment on the wane and profits on the rise, Moore notes that the largest employer in the country is a temp agency: a mammoth one called Manpower Inc. In Moore's view, cost-cutting and downsizing have led to insecurity and scrambling in the work force and a tense, wired feeling in the street. Moore's message is as simple as an anthem, but it has an honest ring to it. Everyone I know who could be classified as an "employee," including every journalist, keeps looking for a backup job or an escape hatch -- both for the additional paycheck and protection from executive caprice. The virtue of a slapdash, picaresque documentary like The Big One -- which could have been called Travels With Mikey -- is that it invites audiences to sharpen their own perceptions rather than drift along with the mass media's 24-hour-a-day snow job.

But Moore is a snow-man, too: His populism translates into a lowest-common-denominator radicalism. Unlike high-toned left-wingers, he isn't afraid of McDonald's; unlike folkies, he isn't afraid of television. But his attention-getting ploys have as much lasting benefit as a Big Mac or a soundbite. He's a pop impresario peddling his own slovenly mystique. Moore packages himself into a new, casual stereotype: the Common Guy. And I do mean package. Although Roger & Me (1990), his first-person chronicle of life in the devastated GM factory town of Flint, Mich., won comparisons to Mark Twain, it was an impersonal kind of personal movie. You got to know Moore -- the "Me" of the title -- only as well as he pretended to let you know him. He came across as a Me-Generation-style leftist struggling to encompass We, the People as the quintessential Middle American homeboy. He did give us appealing (if calculated) details: He was the first in generations of Moores not to work at GM; his family thought he was weird ever since he crawled backward at the age of 2. But in general, he's purveyed the same jolly view of growing up Amurrican in the '50s and early '60s that you also get in the films of Oliver Stone (or in the rantings of right-wing radio) -- as if the Eisenhower-Kennedy eras were a time when everyone didn't worry and was happy, and as if only capitalist greed and obfuscation have prevented our return to that state of innocence.

The Big One is essentially a promo. It centers on Moore's 1996 tour to publicize his book Downsize This! Random Threats From an Unarmed American. It overflows with routines right out of the book, including an interview with a Steve Forbes campaign coordinator on the subject of whether Forbes is an alien. Moore's evidence is that Forbes never blinks. (Did Moore shoot the Forbes footage himself, before he started making the movie? Or was the footage shot, as the book suggests, by students at an Iowa State TV station? As usual with Moore, it's hard to pin down the chronology.) However amusing it may be, the Forbes bit illustrates the thinness of Moore's topical humor -- he says Forbes disappeared after the '96 primaries, but he's all over the newspapers right now.

Moore tells us that he decided to use his tour to explore the state of the nation, but his own media persona is so expansive that it covers the map like a blob. He's almost always center-screen, an endomorphic Everyman in work shirts and jeans and a variety of baseball caps. His defining moment comes when he unwraps his fillet-of-fish sandwich and mutters, "They put vegetables on my fish fillet. ... Fuck 'em." That's our Mikey, a real meat-and-potatoes (or fish-and-french fries) guy. When it comes to grandiose egomania, The Big One doesn't pursue Downsize This!'s program for starting "Mike's Militia," whose tenets can be summarized as Michael Moore, Live Like Him. But it does buck up his pose as a provocateur for the proletariat.

Moore specializes in a frayed seat-of-the-pants version of the 60 Minutes sneak attack. He and his crew arrive unannounced at a corporate headquarters and demand to see the CEO. They want to protest plant closures and the "corporate welfare" the government hands out to promote American business abroad. Instead, inevitably, Moore ends up haranguing some hapless spokesperson. Fans of Moore's television series TV Nation (by far his liveliest work) are familiar with his shtick of embellishing these occasions with props -- mock prizes and so forth. In The Big One, he presents one company with a giant check for 80 cents, to pay for its first Mexican worker's first hour of labor, and another company with a giant check for 65 cents, to pay for the last PayDay candy bar made in the confection's longtime home of Centralia, Ill. Moore turns himself into the human version of what is arguably his most popular creation, Crackers, the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken.

Of course, Moore is right to attack conglomerates selling subsidiaries to the highest bidder, or companies maximizing net earnings by sending jobs out of the United States. But his hit-and-run slapstick doesn't allow room for a clear account of the underlying issues. Despite a memorable black-comic vignette of laid-off workers tossing PayDay wrappers into a coffin, what happens in Centralia is hard to understand. In the updated Downsize This!, Moore explains, "The plant manager told me that the giant food conglomerate that owns PayDay had only bought the company so that it could make it look profitable and then sell it." Is that true? Or was the conglomerate just consolidating its candy interests? Forty-five minutes later, the conglomerate itself is sold to Hershey's; what's the moral there?

Moore's attacks were sharper, his stunts snappier on TV Nation -- perhaps because Moore has a video-fed imagination. In TV Nation he pushed baby boomers' buttons about achieving liberty and justice in a kind of social free-for-all. What actually unites Americans is our boob-tube frame of reference: Moore exploited everything from Steve Allen-like man-in-the-street interviews to mock polls at commercial breaks to put across the idea that TV Nation was the real Woodstock Nation. And TV Nation featured marvelous supporting players, including Janeane Garofalo and Rusty Cundieff (the black writer/director of Tales From the Hood and Fear of a Black Hat).

Unfortunately, Moore is the whole show in The Big One, and he gives you plenty of time to study his biases and limitations. You begin to wonder whether he doesn't enjoy browbeating middlemen (and middlewomen). He excoriates CEOs and embraces the laid-off, but he's downright demeaning to the upwardly mobile middle-class, including most of his "media escorts," local publicists who keep him on schedule in each city. (In a particularly unfunny joke, he identifies one of them as a stalker to a security guard.) He decides to go to Rockford, Ill., because Money magazine pegged it as the worst city in America (like Flint a few years back). The high point of his trip comes when he sings "The Times They Are a-Changin' " with Rockford native Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick. Didn't the demagogue in Elia Kazan's prescient, half-brilliant A Face in the Crowd strum a guitar and tell jokes, too? Moore spends too much of his time in Rockford poking fun at an audio, video, and book chain store named Media Play, largely because the woman in charge is a font of misinformation. (Actually, Media Play can be a useful store for a town to have -- I bought my copy of Downsize This! at a Media Play in an area of central Connecticut depressed by dwindling airplane and insurance companies.) In Roger & Me, Moore twitted Flint's crude native son, game-show host Bob Eubanks; in The Big One, he thinks it's witty to say that Rockford's celebrity equivalent is actress Susan St. James. But St. James is a charming comedienne, undeserving of the scorn earned by that bad joke Eubanks in Roger & Me.

Moore turns anyone or anything that rubs him the wrong way into loose-cannon fodder. In Downsize This! Moore transformed the byline of Joe Morgenstern, movie critic for the Wall Street Journal, into "Joe Morgensternly," and put it on top of a parody Journal article with the headline "Everyone Fired: Wall Street reacts favorably." The reason could be that Morgenstern aptly said of Moore's first fiction film, Canadian Bacon, "If this isn't the worst comedy ever made, it comes perilously close."

The best break Moore gets in The Big One comes when Nike CEO Phil Knight invites him into the executive suite, although Moore had branded him a "corporate crook" in Downsize This! When Moore asks Knight how he could make shoes in Indonesia, knowing that Indonesian soldiers committed near-genocide in East Timor, Knight replies, "How many people were killed in the Cultural Revolution?" Not a bad riposte; Moore doesn't target Nike competitors (like, say, Converse) that make their running shoes under the red flag. U.S. partnership with China is too complex an issue for Moore to handle with his typical baggy-pants comedy. And Knight states flat-out that American workers don't want to manufacture shoes. But rather than explore Knight's conviction, Moore comes up with one of his grandstand plays -- staging a demonstration in Flint to prove Knight wrong. Scores of unemployed show up to face local TV cameras and ask Knight for jobs. But are they enough to sustain a factory? Would they really be happy with such low-paying, painstaking work? Moore fails to convince Knight, and he may leave doubts in the audience, too.

The only minutes I enjoyed unequivocally came with the appearance of the legendary Chicago radio interviewer Studs Terkel. The true print and broadcast bard of the American worker, Terkel lifts the movie to a higher plane. During a show with Moore, he plays a song from a 60-year-old Flint sit-down strike, and gets his guest to talk about an uncle who participated in it. Terkel turns the caricature "Michael Moore" into a thoughtful human being. That's the opposite of what Moore does to his subjects -- and himself.

About The Author

Michael Sragow

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