Nobody was expecting what happened when Michael Moore gave his Oscar acceptance speech for Bowling for Columbine. Oh, we all knew Moore was going to say something controversial about the war, but none of us—and this apparently includes Moore himself—expected the famously left-wing, famous folk filling the auditorium that night would greet his remarks with loud, long, ugly booing. It was a dizzyingly speedy turnaround; Moore approached the podium to an adoring standing ovation, but after the filmmaker left just a few moments later, Oscar host Steve Martin got a hearty laugh from the crowd by remarking that Teamsters were now helping Moore into the trunk of his car . . . a joke that becomes even less amusing when you learn that Moore was apparently having an actual shouting match with a bunch of irate, pro-war Teamsters backstage.
In the days following, some pundits opined that the crowd at the Oscars was not booing what Moore had to say exactly (for really his remarks were only marginally more inflammatory than the text of Pedro Almodóvar's speech, and Almodóvar left the stage a hero); what the crowd was booing was the particularly abrasive, fumbly way that Moore said what he said. Moore has never been a smoothy, God knows, but he was clearly rattled by winning, and his timing was way off. There was something in his delivery that was unfortunately suggestive of a big, fat, drunken uncle making a bad wedding toast, and once you've got that vibe going, it's all over—you could recite a sonnet worthy of Shakespeare, and people would still talk for years about the night you made an ass of yourself. Even most of Moore's fans had to admit he'd botched the evening; when Moore was booed on TV screens around the globe for speaking out against the war and the current administration, it gave the (false) impression that the anti-war movement and Bush-bashing were now so deeply out of fashion on American soil that even Hollywood's pinko elite were now solidly behind Dubya's mad crusade. Despite the purity of his intentions, in that moment, Moore did inestimable harm to the anti-war cause as scores of fence-sitters probably looked at the misleading response Moore got and decided to hop off the fence and join the pro-war team with all the popular kids.
Of course, conservatives across the land have long hated and feared Moore for scoring telling points against them while often being scandalously funny in the bargain. But even for we flag-burning, dirty-footed hippie types, Moore can be an acquired taste; with his overbearing smugness, the rude way he jams his microphone into the faces of bewildered security guards and frightened grandmas alike, his tendency to twist the facts in order to build a stronger case . . . well, Moore's approach can be as heartless and artless as any morning shock jock's, even if his politics are usually infinitely more palatable. In his directing debut, Roger and Me (screening this week at Chapman University, and as good a place as any to become acquainted with the guy), Moore creates a riveting look at Flint, Michigan's collapse after General Motors closes their local auto-manufacturing plant. Unfortunately, the film becomes somewhat less effective after you learn that Moore littered it with so many half-truths and outright fabrications that the resulting picture can scarcely be called a documentary. You end up almost wishing that the smartly dressed turds who run GM were allowed a coda to explain their side of the story. There is a cliché that conservatives care for individuals without giving a damn for humanity in general, while liberals care a great deal for the common good while being blind to the suffering of those in the immediate vicinity; I can't say if William F. Buckley speaks kindly to waiters and doormen when he's not at home working up his latest evil screed, but Moore certainly does his utmost to live up to his end of the cliché.
And yet we need Moore—now more than ever. As our nation slides into a horrifying new McCarthyism in which those who dare to criticize our mouth-breathing commander in chief are widely vilified as unpatriotic (I certainly never imagined I'd be heartbroken to see people burning their copies of Dixie Chicks albums), in which the mainstream media has become such a puppet of the government that it can spend hours at a time on live coverage of any meager pro-war rally it can dig up while completely ignoring vast and very noisy anti-war demonstrations (as C-Span did this past weekend), in which even the usually fearless and brutally unsubtle creators of South Parkhave become so terrified of public response that they get through an entire episode about the war protests without ever once letting you know which side of the debate they're actually on . . . well, in such blighted days as these, maybe it's time for liberals to become just as obnoxious as conservatives if we're to have any hope of being heard and getting anything done. Look what being a nice, sensible, wimpy guy did for Michael Dukakis or Al Gore. Look at what being a prick has done for every president since Carter left office. It's certainly best to avoid being a pushy jerk where possible, but at least Moore is a pushy jerk on the side of the angels. Maybe if enough people like Moore keep hollering the right things for long enough, eventually the booing will die down.
Roger and Me screens at Chapman University, Argyros Forum 208, 1 University Dr., Orange, (714) 744-7694. Wed., 4 & 7 p.m. Free.