Ever since I watched my first Michael Moore documentary--2002's Bowling For Columbine--I have had an uneasy fascination with the documentarian. On the one hand, I agree wholeheartedly with many of his philosophical and political positions. But on the other, I am often queasily uncomfortable with his bluntly confrontational style--not least because that style can easily make "victims" out of some rather unsympathetic individuals.
Moore has a piercing intelligence that often expresses itself in intimidating ways, but he is not really what you would call an intellectual, still less an academic. Despite achieving both artistic awards and commercial success unprecedented in his field, there is still something distinctly downmarket about him. He is not only unpolished on camera, he often borders on unkempt. Even accepting an Oscar, clad in a tuxedo, there is the unmistakable air of bumbling underachiever clinging to him somehow. He is responsible for some of the most influential documentaries, books, articles, speeches of our times and yet still somehow looks like the guy you'd see at the diner down the street, dressed in a sweatsuit, sporting a baseball cap and nursing a coffee for an hour or so while poring over the newspaper.
I guess it's no surprise that such a contradictory man would inspire conflicting reactions. There are ways in which that spunky everyman underdog persona has worked for Moore and ways in which it makes him an easy target for those who wish to discredit him. Given that it can weaken the points he sets out to make, I've always been curious why he wouldn't polish himself up a little--if only to keep the focus on the strength of his arguments. I know it's shallow and superficial, but I've also always wondered how this dude who often looks like he's wearing a baseball cap to cover up the fact that he forgot to cut (or even brush) his hair ended up being one of the most active--and omnivorous1--crusaders of our time.
After reading Moore's Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life, a collection of short memoir pieces, I feel I have a significantly better understanding of not only who Moore is, but how he got to be that way. He has always made clear his middle-class Michigan roots, but the stories he shares in this book brought his upbringing alive for me in an entirely different way.
The stories are written in a conversational and humorously self-aware tone and give us glimpses into the events that helped to shape Michael Moore from a young age. Even at his Catholic elementary school Moore says, "I had my own ideas about what the school should be doing and how it should be run." At nine, he starts a school newspaper, which his father prints for him at work, but which is promptly confiscated by the Mother Superior.
We see Moore at eleven or twelve as he bumps into Senator Robert Kennedy in an elevator in the Capitol Building ("As I had been properly schooled in all things political and Catholic, I instantly recognized this man."). We see Moore in his freshman year of high school in a seminary, planning to become an "Action Hero Priest" like the radical Catholic priests, the Berringer brothers who protest the Vietnam War by destroying draft records. We see him struggle with the Church's authority and with his own faith--not in God, but in the Church itself. We see him stand up--again and again--for himself and for others, sometimes for noble reasons and in noble ways, sometimes in ways less so. (See: the pot-fueled, boat-towing, trial-run escape to Canada with his friends who were anticipating being (but had not yet been) drafted.)
He was a kid with a big head2 and a sensitive soul3 who grew up in a rock-solid family, but came of age in a tumultuous time. In other words, like most of us, Michael Moore's natural-born personality was shaped by the environment of his childhood and early teens. But, unlike some of us, Michael Moore never stopped being just who he's always been.
Masked Mom's One-Word Review: Revealing.
1. There seems to be no issue he won't sink his teeth into.
2. "I'll admit that I had an unusually large-sized head, though this was not uncommon for a baby born in the Midwest. The craniums in our part of the country were designed to leave a little extra room for the brain to grow should we ever have a chance to learn anything outside of our rigid and insular lives. Perhaps one day we might get exposed to something we didn't quite understand, like a foreign language, or a salad."
3. "For some reason, I never found my way to the path called 'normal,' and it was a good thing that science and business had not yet conspired to invent ways to sedate and desensitize a little soul like mine. It's one of the few times I thank God for growing up in the ignorant and innocent fifties and sixties. It would still be a few years before the pharmaceutical community would figure out how to dope up a toddler like me..."
I Failed My Students
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