🎵On the Seventh Day of Docu-cember, my true love gave to me🎵
7. Dudes a-yelling
This December, I thought it apt to make up my own mini-Advent calendar for every movie lover out there, this time built around something I love: The documentary. To make it interesting for you, I’ll set this filmographic list to a tune, and not just any tune, but perhaps the most famous holiday melody of them all. I have prepared twelve documentaries, all of which are more than worthy of watching. Starting today, a new part of this set will be released every other day, culminating with the final part releasing on Christmas Eve.
Day Seven: Dudes a-yelling
About two months ago, my roommate and I got into a pretty raucous argument. He, a stuck-up New Englander with no real college football programs surrounding him (if you count Boston College, get a grip), decided that Bowl games were stupid —specifically, that the Rose Bowl didn’t matter and all players should opt out. Due to my status of being a) alive and b) sentient, I immediately called him a dumbass for this take. This remark was the catalyst for a two-hour argument: different parties joined and left, positions warped and bent, examples were brought up and hyperbolized — all in service of an argument which, I’ll level with you, doesn’t matter.
The argument didn’t matter, yet I still remember it. I remembered it in the shower the morning after, thinking of good examples I could have used. I remembered it two weeks later, when he brought up another bad take on the NBA MVP (I did not press him, for we both would have lost more valuable time). I remember it now as I write this article. Every word that I said, that he said, that every expert witness we called in said. Arguments have a tendency to do that. They infest you, inflame you and ultimately devour you.
My favorite argumentative docs are those where the documentarian is so mad and so riled up that they’re forced to pick up the camera and follow the action themselves. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost in “Catfish” (2010), the filmography of Louis Theroux, Bryan Fogel’s quest to save Grigory Rodchenkov in “Icarus” (2017) and Morgan Spurlock raging against fast food in “Super Size Me” (2004) all fit this bill. But who made the bill? Who popularized this type of doc?
Let’s not kid ourselves. You all know exactly who I’m talking about: Michael Moore. The Flint-born leftist documentarian has made a name for himself tackling any issue in sight, often upsetting people in the process. No movie he’s made has upset more people than his 2002 masterpiece “Bowling for Columbine.”
“From my cold dead hands!” The echo of Charlton Heston’s repulsive pro-gun mantra first said at an NRA rally rings throughout the film. It calls out after both the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School and the 2000 tragedy in Buell Elementary School. This callous phrase sends Moore down a rabbit hole, desperate to discover what makes this great nation, the United States of America, so susceptible to gun violence.
That’s why argumentative documentaries are so effective. They plant themselves in your brain, refusing all attempts to uproot that intense idea from within you. That idea could be anything. It could be Frederick Wiseman’s hatred of American mental institutions explored in “Titicut Follies” (1967). It could be the mistreatment of captive sea animals depicted in “Blackfish” (2013). It could be “Inside Job” (2009) railing against the corruption that caused The Great Recession. There’s even the argumentative true crime doc, which in recent years has risen into the stratosphere due to streaming and podcasting — which is all I will say about true crime for now.
To answer this question, Moore stitches together a patchwork of ideas and themes in service of his ultimate narrative, looking through American history, culture, crime, gun ownership and so much more. I haven’t even touched on the comedy, the animation or Moore’s hilarious sidequest into Ontario. There’s a segment where Moore just walks into random people’s homes just to see if their doors are unlocked. This kind of patchwork technique isn’t only used in his film’s macro plan, but is also used to perfection on the micro level; his ability to splice ideas, specifically in the form of montage, is outlandish. Take, for example, his “What a Wonderful World” montage, stitching together America’s violent history of intervention throughout the 20th century culminating in the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Or maybe his “Happiness is a Warm Gun” montage, overlaying the Beatles hit over visuals of American gun violence. In a mere two minutes, Moore shows that the root of our need for guns comes not from any kind of violence around us, but from constant media pressure, while also showing the deadly price we pay to keep our perverse weapons.
That’s not to say Moore can only get things done through the way he edits clips together. To Moore, the microphone is mightier than the sword, commanding him to interview anyone and everyone to form a complete picture of the world in front of him: bystanders, gun owners, alleged alt-right terrorists, celebrities, politicians, victims and — in the most shocking moment of the film — Charlton Heston himself. Absolutely nothing can stop Moore, not running nor weaselly speeches, from accomplishing what he set out to do.
In case it’s not clear, Moore is not just a behind-the-camera filmmaker here. He’s a bonafide character and a force of nature. Conjured from the collective rage and pain of the people of the United States over the past century, built to inflict heavenly judgment upon those who oppose him. Put another way, he’s the political Lorax, but he speaks for more than just the trees.
Daily Arts Writer Rami Mahdi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.