LETTER FROM MEMPHIS 

LETTER FROM MEMPHIS

AN OPEN LETTER TO MICHAEL MOORE Dear Mr. Moore:

I know you have used this approach a time or two in the past when communicating with prominent public figures -- and with not-so-prominent Americans like myself who are on your e-mail list -- so I hope you won't mind being on the receiving end, just this once. I've got a favor to ask.

Let me start by pointing out how we two have something in common. Long ago, back in the 1970s, you were the founding publisher of an alternative weekly newspaper in your hometown of Flint, Michigan. A little bit more recently (in 1989), I founded an alternative weekly in Memphis, Tennessee. I believe your paper went bust, but you seem to have done alright for yourself, all the same. Our paper, The Memphis Flyer, is fifteen years old now, so I've done okay, too. We've both been blessed.

Like tens of thousands of other Americans, I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 this past weekend. It was some kind of event, let me tell you. I myself saw the film smack dab in the middle of "red" America, deep in the heart of Texas, in a matinee at a packed mall theatre in suburban San Antonio. The place was packed to the rafters, and when we left the 4:10 screening, the line waiting for the next one stretched out the door into the parking lot.

I left the mall emotionally drained, yes, but also relieved that, finally, someone (you) had produced a cogent negative statement on the war writ large enough to get everyone's attention. No, your powerful piece of docu-drama won't quite drown out the bombastic misrepresentations of truth that intellectual thugs like Limbaugh and Hannity present as "fact" on a daily basis. But F9/11 will at least draw attention to the fundamental obscenity behind the war in Iraq, in ways that even the most myopic American "patriot" might understand.

Most important of all -- and I think this was your intent -- the film will resonate mightily, I expect, with its true heroes, the mostly ordinary folks paying the highest price for Bush's Folly: the troops called upon to fight the feckless war that has resulted from what former Reagan Secretary of the Navy James Webb recently called "the greatest American foreign-policy blunder of modern times."

I especially enjoyed your skewering of the mainstream media, clearly the Bush Administration's partner in crime, and, as an alternative-weekly publisher, found myself wishing that you'd done more to hammer that point home. Indeed, I left the theatre thinking how Dan Rather and Wolf Blitzer need to be flown off to The Hague in handcuffs right alongside Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. And I was particularly struck by your almost elegaic three-minute treatment of the actual 9/11 NYC event itself early on in the film. Bravo! What a marvelous tribute to your cinematic skills, something that often gets lost in the shuffle these days, now that you're almost more popular than Jesus, as John Lennon might say. You're not just a dude with a camera.

But as often has been the case with your films, you're once again a little heavy-handed in F9/11. I was somewhat surprised that you were not as visually absent from the film as some of the preliminary reviewers had suggested you were. And yet again, I find myself from time to time irritated by your in-your-face approach to "interviewing" sometimes hostile and/or but sometimes innocent subjects. There's just a little too much Geraldo Rivera about all that for my taste.

Moreover, your "ambush interview" technique doesn't always do justice to your (our) cause. Take this example from F9/11. After going into how the legislators who voted to "bring it on" (war) in Iraq do not themselves have any of their own children fighting in it, you charge up Capitol Hill armed with enlistment forms, a sympathetic Marine, and, of course, your cameras. Among the first congressmen you encounter -- and the one you choose to zoom in on -- is Representative John Tanner, a Tennessee congressman whose district is just up the road here from Memphis. Taken completely off guard, Mr. Tanner hems and haws, says nothing very sensible, and shuffles off awkwardly.

The insinuation is clear; Tanner is "one of them": legislators who support the Iraq war without making their children available to fight in it. Pity you didn't do a little more homework before running this clip, though. John Tanner, a Democrat, has been anything but a devout supporter of the current administration. Just consider what he had to say about the Bushies, as quoted in the pages of our newspaper back in 2002, in the aftermath of the Republican mid-term election landslide: "Those people ought to be arrested and tried for fraudulence," said Tanner. "They took our minds off what was important, the economy, and sold us a bill of goods about Iraq. The idea, trying to convince us that a two-bit tinhorn dictator with 20 million starving people was a threat like Adolf Hitler! They don't have any weapons to bother us with! The whole thing was an election fraud. Nothing but!"

Sounds like an ally to me, not an enemy. Maybe you owe Congressman Tanner a note of apology for using him to make your point. It's a good point, to be sure, but a little bit like attacking Iraq to punish Al Qaeda, isn't it? (Since Congress is not in session, here's Representative Tanner's home office address: PO Box 629, Union City, TN 38281. Or you can just call him directly at 731-885-7070.)

But this isn't the favor I mentioned I wanted to ask. Or at least not the only one.

No, this may sound a little weird, and more than a little presumptuous, but I want you to pull out one particular film clip from Fahrenheit 9/11.

The one I have in mind comes towards the end of the movie, sandwiched among four or five in rapid succession, if memory serves me correctly. It's more than a little grainy, but it shows President Bush at the podium of what appears to be a fundraiser, decked out in white dinner-jacket. The camera catches his opening remarks: "This is an impressive crowd of the haves and have mores," he says. "Some people call you the elite, I call you my base." The crowd roars with delight.

The message the viewer is expected to take from this clip and its neighbors is clear: George W. Bush panders to the rich. Not a novel or particularly difficult-to-prove premise, to be sure, but that's obviously the message. Those nasty selfish Republicans are indeed the Bush "base."

But surely you know where this particular clip came from. Surely, as a former newspaper dude yourself, you have fact-checkers. Surely you know as much about the circumstances of this particular film clip as my friend here in Memphis, Steve Denegri.

Actually, Steve's a new friend, not an old one. He's my friend because he kept me from making a complete fool of myself in print, writing about your movie. Let me explain.

You see, our weekly paper has a daily website, where on Saturday I posted an early version of a Fahrenheit 9/11 review I had written immediately after seeing the film. In that review, I wrote specifically about this clip, speaking about how powerfully it described the venality of the current administration, even suggesting that John Kerry use it in his own campaign. The "haves/have-mores" image, I suggested, was among the most powerful in the whole movie.

Fortunately for me, Steve Denegri saw my on-line review within an hour of its posting, and informed ignorant me of where exactly "President" Bush made this "haves/have mores" speech. "I watched this speech take place live as carried by the Fox News Channel on October 19, 2000, just a few weeks before the presidential election," Steve told me via e-mail, "and there was a speaker that preceeded George W. Bush that evening: Al Gore. And among those in the crowd roaring with glee was Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Steve went on to explain: "You see, both Bush and Gore were invited to speak at this fundraiser, one which put no money in either party's pocket. That event was the 55th annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, which that year raised $1.6 million, thanks to the appearances of then-candidates Bush and Gore. The Al Smith dinner has the very noble cause of health care at New York Catholic hospitals as its key fundraising theme, not the political agenda of an elite crowd of Bush supporters. Money raised that evening went toward care for the elderly, AIDS victims, unborn children, and unwed teenage mothers."

Boy, did I ever feel stupid. You see, Michael, that remark came from what was basically a roast. It was made in self-deprecating jest. And George W. Bush wasn't even President when he made it!

You can actually still find the full video on the Web (there's a nice print summary of the event at http://cny.org/archive/ld/ld102600.htm). Right after Governor Bush talks about his "base," he goes on to poke fun at someone else on dais alongside him: conservative critic William F. Buckley, Jr. "We have a lot in common," smiles the Republican presidential candidate, gesturing at Buckley. "Bill wrote a book at Yale; I read one. He started the Conservative Party: I started a few parties myself."

Thanks to Steve Denegri's eagle eye, I was able to pull that draft review offline before it hit the actual newspaper. Don't worry; I've still been able to use a lot of the same lines, in this letter to you, even. But since you probably don't read The Memphis Flyer either on the web or in print, I thought I should call your attention to this gaffe directly.

Maybe this was just an honest mistake. If that's the case, you probably owe George W. Bush an apology for taking his remarks in that "haves/have-mores" clip completely out of context. I know, I know: the idea of admitting a mistake to this guy who's made more mistakes than any of us can count -- and admitted nary a one -- sort of sticks in your craw, doesn't it? But fair is fair, don't you think?

One way or the other, that clip needs to go from the movie. God knows, the crackpots on the right slam us every day on the basis of things we anti-war types haven't even done, let alone done wrong. Let's not give the suckers any free ammunition, ok? As it is, the presence of this particular clip in Fahrenheit 9/11 makes it the Mother of All Cheap Shots. It needs to go. Now.

And it's not like the film will suffer by its removal. The dozens of other Bush clips you feature (by the way, is the President eligible to win a Best Actor award for his role in F9/11?) restate the obvious, in powerful terms: this man is simply not up to the job of being President of the United States. Whether it's his goofy "now watch this drive..." line uttered after speaking resolutely about terrorism, or landing his jet on that aircraft carrier with the "Mission Accomplished" banner, or staring off into space, yes, for those remarkable seven minutes in that Florida classroom on the morning of September 11th, 2001, the clips you select for our re-viewing pleasure leave movie-goers convinced not only of the error of his ways, but in total bewilderment at how this second-rate buffoon ever got elected (sorry, selected) to be President of the United States. Good job.

But get rid of the "haves/have-mores" clip. Yes, as a filmmaker, you're entitled to take a little artistic license in the making of your point. But when taking that license shoots loose and fast with the truth, aren't you doing your own cause and mine a complete disservice?

All the best, K.N.

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