Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thanks For Calling, Guys

Bill Maher, Michael Moore, Ben Stein sent packing by Academy Awards

When the Best Documentary Film Oscar is handed out at the 2009 Academy Awards, the producers of Expelled, Religulous and Slacker Uprising will not be accepting the award.

The omission of Ben Stein, Bill Maher and Michael Moore off the 15-film roll call of Oscar nominees, probably represents one of two things: either the less-than-spectacular stature of each of these films, or a rejection of a growing scourge in the genre of documentary film: the documentary style often referred to as Michael Moore-ism.

Films made in the Michael Mooreist style tend to be sensational and ultimately self-promoting; long on rhetoric and short on actual facts. The editing is usually cartoonish, relying on inter-cut clips of cartoon shows or amusing archive footage, often inserted into the film on a random cue -- what Richard Dawkins describes as a "lord privy seal" in his less-than-sparkling criticism of the film.

(Interestingly, Bill Maher's pro-atheist Expelled contained a great many such "lord privy seals" -- something that Dawkins declined to criticize. Commentators on Dawkins blog even went to great lengths to defend Maher's indulgences, which really only reinforces the known hypocrisy of many Dawkinites.)

Sometimes, the questions asked by such films are, in and of themselves, quite valid: Expelled, for example, calls into question the level of academic freedom at many institutions of higher learning, and Religulous questions many of the excesses of the religious faithful. Bowling for Columbine raised important questions about American gun culture, and about the effect organizations such as the NRA have on American society.

In the end, however, each film is ultimately self-promoting. Ben Stein clearly intends to elevate to heroic status among the community of religious believers -- or at least amongst those who believe in Intelligent Design theory. Bill Maher clearly wants to ascend to Dawkins-like status in terms of being a religion fighter. Slacker Uprising turned out to be nothing more than shameless self-promotion on Michael Moore's part, offering little more than a showcase of Moore speaking to large anti-Bush rallies and hobnobbing with like-minded celebrity buddies during the 2004 election.

Rarely has anyone gone to the lengths Moore has gone to in order to promote himself as a hero of the American left -- or, some would say, the global left, as the distinction between the two so often proves to be rather slim.

Films made in the Michael Mooreist style often feature one highly unethical feature: that of the late-film ambush, where an unsuspecting subject is lured into a compromising interview with a surprise interviewer.

Bill Maher lied to many subjects of Religulous in order to get them to appear, and later shamelessly admitted it. Richard Dawkins accused Ben Stein of lying in order to get him to appear in Expelled (but remained oddly silent when Maher admitted to lying in order to lure many of Religulous' subjects into interviews).

In each case, however, it could be argued that lying was the only way to draw these individuals into the richly-deserved limelight of ridicule. Few have parlayed outright arrogance into star status as effectively as Dawkins. And, quite frankly, anybody who has the audacity to claim to be the second coming of Jesus Christ deserves to be forced to defend that assertion in the public eye.

At base level, Moore's ambush of Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine seems to fit the same bill. Yet, as it turned out, Heston was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease during the time of the interview. While Heston certainly deserved to be called to account for his callous response to several shooting incidents, what eventually emerged was a failure of human compassion: the badgering of a man at the beginning of a slow, agonizing process of dying.

Perhaps moreso than Farenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine provided the model for the explosion of Michael Mooreist films in the succeeding years. That it won an Oscar and provided its maker with a nearly unprecedented stage from which to pronounce his political views only encouraged the proliferation of such films.

Which makes it perhaps fitting that the pale imitations of this film -- including Moore's own pale imitation -- will likely continue to be snubbed by the Academy.

But one way or the other, so long as self-promoting unethical hacks continue to look at documentary film as a venue through which they can lionize themselves, the Michael Mooreist style isn't going away.

At least now the Academy is set to stop pretending it represents any form of excellence -- technical or otherwise.

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