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Friday, June 25, 2004
Farenheit 92 - the temprature where an audience melts
This is long.
I spent the summer of 2000 working at the Plaid Pantry at the corner of SW 45th and Multnomah. I was still in college and seasonal jobs were in short supply. Despite being located in an upper-middle class neighborhood, the store provided a front row seat to a never-ending cavalcade of freaks and junkies. On one hot July night, I dealt with two crackheads dressed in fur coats. They were looking to make a pipe out of "baby roses"- tiny flowers that come packaged in clear plastic containers. When I told them that a cigar tube would work as a reasonable substitute, they cackled like witches and stared at me like I had just wet my pants. Another regular customer strolled in every night at midnight for a case of Foster's, always shirtless, proudly displaying an enormous Alien Queen tattoo that covered his entire torso.
Perhaps my favorite regular was a rail-thin man named "Ray." Ray was a born again Christian deeply in love with the Left Behind book series. He would occasionally wander in and give me Bible verses scribbled on notebook paper. One night, as a trio of preadolescents raided the candy aisle, he began talking about a pipeline that various powers-that-be were trying to finance in Afghanistan. Ray had been reading up on the subject and was convinced that this project would lead to a devastating attack on US soil followed by full-scale Armageddon. I've forgotten most of the details but Prince William was also involved. "He's the Anti-Christ, doncha' know," Ray told me. "He's going to take over the world by 2006."
You can probably see where this is going.
Four years later, Prince William has yet to sprout horns but that doesn't change the fact that Ray was batting 2 for 4 that night. When I watched the Twin Towers collapse on the morning of September 11th, I couldn't help but think back to this strange man's convenience store prophecies.
Last night, as I watched Michael Moore ramble about the partially completed Unocal pipeline and the project's connections to the Bush administration, I again thought of Ray. While Moore gets his news from the Washington Post instead of a Christian sci-fi paperbacks, I can't help but compare the two. How thick is the line separating Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and this random Portlander's conspiracy theories?
Since Moore set his sights on the gun industry in Bowling for Columbine, he's been a whipping boy for everyone from Bill O'Reily to Matt Lauer. The chief criticism of his work is that it's all pure propaganda, rife with factual distortions and out-context video clips. As I've said elsewhere, given the lies the White House has spoon-feeding the public since 2000, so what? What's a few "factual oversights" and a little bit of "bad intelligence" among friends?
On a whim, I bought a ticket of the midnight showing of F 9/11 after the last showing of Coffee and Cigarettes. The theater was jam-packed with 20-somethings and middle-aged Boomers. Everyone was acting like kids hyped-up for a late-night showing of the next Spiderman movie instead of a poker-faced documentary about the evils of the Bush administration.
During ads for the army and Coca-Cola, many cheerfully fired barbs back at the screen. Then, during the preview for Before Sunset, the theater manager nervously tip-toed in and told us that the theater's air conditioning was broken. She warned us that the room could get extremely uncomfortable and offered refunds. I didn't see anyone budge. After all, for most of us, this was *the* movie event of the year.
Everyone quieted down as footage of GW on vacation rolled across the screen. Suddenly, a 40-ish man seated in front of me shouted back at a shot of the president zooming around his Texas ranch in a golf cart. "FUCK YOU," he roared with his hands cupped over his mouth like a jeering fan at a football game. "ASSHOLE! ASSHOLE!" Instead of telling him to shut up, a few people nearby giggled and joined in. For a brief moment, the film had become a "Five Minutes of Hate"- a liberal-themed twist on that chapter in Orwell's 1984.
As the temperature in the theater rose, so did the tone of the movie. F 9/11 lacks the cheeky, gadfly humor of Moore's other work. It's Dead Serious with only a few brief moments of comic relief. After Moore drudges through the business ties between the Bush family and various Saudi royals, he rolls into a few quick jabs at Halliburton, the Patriot Act and, yes, the pipeline. The film's final 45-minutes focuses on the War on Iraq and its impact on a patriotic family living in Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan.
At this point, the temperature in the theater had become unbearable. People were taking off their shoes and fanning their faces with them. My bag of Snickers Poppers melted into a giant gooey glob. The woman seated next to me began pouring buckets of sweat and leaned her head on her husband's shoulder. It must have been at least in 90 in there.
What had started as a party had become a grim slog for this Friday morning crowd at the Fox Cinemas. This was an audience that was obviously big into politics and nothing that Moore had to offer was worth this misery. Patriot Act goons poking their noses into a club of small-fry activists? *Yawn* Army recruiters trolling poor urban areas for new recruits? They've been doing that since Vietnam. A brief segment of US soldiers ridiculing Iraqi prisoners? Been there, done that.
If F 9/11 had hit the screens a year ago, it would have been the incendiary film this crowd was clearly hoping for. Instead, they were treated to a plate of lukewarm, MSNBC leftovers. Moore has nothing to say that hasn't already been said and, in the wake of the recent scandals surrounding Abu Ghraib and Bush's military record, it's too gentle and altogether toothless. F 9/11 is a firecracker with a nuclear bomb warning on the side.
Part of the problem is that much of F 9/11 was put together almost a year ago. Film isn't the proper forum for something like this. Much of what appears here has been common knowledge for months and, primarily because the material is so dated, Moore treats each bit of information like it's top secret and being revealed for the first time ever. His movie is too little too late.
Nevertheless, if everyone south of the Bible Belt saw this movie in the same numbers they did for The Passion of the Christ, John Kerry could start comparing paint samples for the Lincoln bedroom. Unfortunately, the people that *should* see F 9/11 are the sort that will never go near it. A crowd of Midwesterners living on a Fox News drip feed might find the movie life changing but for a crowd sweat-soaked activists it was snooze fest chock full of stale news.
**SPOILER** The film's last scene follows a mother from Flint as she walks along Capitol Hill, mourning the death of her son, a Marine that died in Afghanistan. She gets into a brief altercation with a skeptical woman before starring angrily, with tears in her eyes, at a green barrier in front of the White House. It's a powerful (and, yes, incredibly manipulative) moment that is no doubt bringing tears to the eyes of many people across the country as I type this. F 9/11 ends with a clip of George Bush in front of a podium.
"There's an old Tennessee saying. Fool me once...shame on...you. Uhhh, fool me twice....ummm, we won't get fooled again."
The clip practically shouts, "VOTE FOR JOHN F. KERRY!" I may have trampled all over Moore's movie but don't be mistaken, there's no love lost between me and this administration. If Bush is re-elected in November, the next four years will make the 1960s look like the 1990s.
There, I've made my prophesy. I just hope I'm much worse at this than Ray.
Queue Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World."