Fahrenheit 9/11 House Parties

MoveOn.org is organizing house parties on Monday night to mark the release of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. It’s similar to their house party screenings of Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered, although Moore’s film won’t be screened at the party itself. I’ll be attending one of the “house parties” (actually in a coffeehouse) here in Decatur.

The “Fahrenheit” house parties will feature an online, interactive chat with Michael Moore, and MoveOn is encoraging groups to discuss plans to defeat George Bush in the 2004 election. I’m still intrigued by the way in which these house parties can frame an interpretation of a film, in both cases by translating viewing and discussing the film into a certain type of action (voter registration drives, campaigning for Kerry, both things I like), but I’m a little suspicious about how these house parties might actually inhibit a critical engagement with Moore’s film.

In my initial reading of this practice, I tended to read the “Uncovered” house parties realtively uncritically, perhaps in part because my appreciation of grassroots political movements and my opposition to George W. Bush prevented me from seeing how such an approach might actually limit the possibility of thinking critically about Uncovered itself as a film. As a result, I wasn’t very satisfied with that paper. Now, I’m as critical of Dubya (and the war in Iraq) as anyone, but I’m not sure how beneficial it will be to attend the film with an interpretation (translating information into action) in mind.

Perhaps this is my real problem with the house party concept. It seems that MoveOn is treating the documentary film (whether Moore’s or Greenwald’s) as mere information. As many great critical essays on documentary filmmaking suggest, documentaries are much more than mere information; they are narratives that organize “information” in highly specific, ideological ways. Again, I know that my politics roughly coincide with Moore’s, but I think that watching the film with a specific interpretation in mind (how can I use this information to convince people that Bush should not be re-elected?) seems like it might actually prevent genuine conversation about the film rather than provoking it.

Update 6/30: Here’s a New York Times article covering several of the New York house parties. It also mentions the release of a Disney documentary called America’s Heart and Soul, which purports to describe the American Dream through (very carefully selected) interviews with a diverse group of Americans. At some point, I’d be curious to see the film simply as a cultural artifact (it sounds a lot like the Frank Capra and John Ford WWII-era films), but for now, I’d rather enjoy this review in The Onion.

14 Comments »

  1. Amardeep Singh Said,

    June 23, 2004 @ 7:10 pm

    Politically, there is a danger that the aggressive criticisms in the film will actually turn people off. It could backfire on the dems., especially as it has been sucking a lot of attention away from Kerry! Not likely, but possible.

    In terms of whether this is an appropriate way to use a film: I think this is primarily a media/spin/propaganda event, with the film at the center as a secondary phenomenon. The fact that people are ‘misusing’ it shouldn’t be too shocking. This is a film that people will experience in a thoroughly politicized way: everyone already knows Moore’s arguments.

    I will be going to see F9/11 as a way of casting an anti-Bush vote rather than because I actually want to watch it or ‘experience’ it in the sense one aims to experience a work of art. I think others might be in the same boat?

  2. chuck Said,

    June 23, 2004 @ 9:06 pm

    I realized as I was writing this entry that it sounds a bit grumpy, which isn’t quite what I intended. I’ve already bought my F9/11 ticket and I’m looking forward to the house party. I’m excited about seeing the film, and my heart skipped a beat when I read that Steven Spielberg is predicting that the film may gross $100 million.

    I’m certainly not “shocked” by MoveOn’s publicity stunt (I would have participated in their “Day After Tomorrow” dialog, but had no interest in sitting through the film), and there’s no question that anyone who experiences this film will do so in a politcized way. Part of what’s happening in this entry is an attempt to rethink my initial assumptions about the house parties, especially given my recent interest in how ancillary materials, such as publicity and marketing, frame interpretation.

    I should also make clear that I don’t aim to reify the film as a “work of art.” I certainly want the film to be used politically by the Democrats, but perhaps what I’m looking for is a clearer discussion of the relationship between art and politics (I’m still struggling with this point).

  3. Rusty Said,

    June 23, 2004 @ 9:08 pm

    This sort of concept is why I hate watching movie commercials and reading movie reviews BEFORE I’ve seen the movie. When I go in a theater with a preconceived notion of what I’m supposed to think about a film, it often ruins it for me. And, in a similar vein, seeing the movie before I’ve read the book also ruins the book for me.

    Maybe it would be more productive to schedule one of these meetings about a month from now, when everyone has had a chance to form their own opinions and criticisms about the movie. Like Chuck suggested, that dialog might be more insightful.

    I mainly will see it for the footage Moore managed to obtain. It will be nothing if not interesting. Also, like you A.S., my ticket will serve as an anti-Bush vote as much as anything else.

  4. chuck Said,

    June 23, 2004 @ 9:24 pm

    Andrew O’Hehir’s Salon review articulates a little of what I’m talking about:

    In the extraordinarily polarized climate of the moment, many people will have made up their minds about “Fahrenheit 9/11″ before they see it. (And many more will make up their minds without seeing it at all.) The film has become a sort of proxy vote in the 2004 election; its question is binary, a matter of on or off, red or blue, Democrat or Republican. Relatively few people will notice what a deft blend of the comic, the tragic and the grotesque it is, or how much Moore and his team of collaborators have mastered their own peculiar medium.

    Of course the narrative Moore constructs in “Fahrenheit 9/11″ does have political consequences, and for better or worse the vast majority of those who see the film will be predisposed to agree with his interpretation of events. (We do not live in a time when pop culture is likely to change anybody’s mind.)

  5. Francois Lachance Said,

    June 24, 2004 @ 10:13 am

    Chuck,

    Bracketing the electoral politics aspect of the phenomenon, could a comparison be made to the reactions to Harry Potter films and books — certain content escapes the context of viewing or reading and floats at large in the discursive streams. Or another example The Matrix films.

    I think the question you seem to be struggling to articulate is not so much about reactions to any one particular cultural product or production as the question of whether critical and engage attitudes can co-exist. And if I sense the animus in the entry and in the comments, there is a desire for more people to combine engagement and criticality in encounter with cultural productions (both as purveyors of myth and challengers of mystification). Another example to consider is Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

  6. chuck Said,

    June 24, 2004 @ 11:02 am

    Francois, I think that summarizes it nicely, and I’d agree that almost all films are subject to this kind of framing (even by the mere fact of a film’s genre or movie posters in the lobby).

    I do think that criticality and engagement can co-exist, but perhaps I’m wondering whether F9/11 (the cultural phenomenon & the film together) can allow that. I think that one of the issues I’m trying to negotiate is a binary I’ve somewhat unintentionally revived between passive and active viewers, and the idea of a documentary that will inform us about the war seems to imply passivity on the part of the viewer. (“Here is what you need to know. Go out and campaign.”) Whereas other documentaries might arrange a narrative that demands that the viewer actively construct the meaning of the film (and therefore produce some version of criticality). As I type this, I think that what I may be doing is reviving some reconfigured version of political art as Brecht defined it. And, you’re right, this entry is not about a single film, but about a concept that I’m trying to articulate.

    Most of what is going on here is an attempt to play devil’s advocate with myself. I’m certainly excited about the film and looking forward to the house party. A secondary issue is my own knee-jerk antipathy to the popular.

  7. Francois Lachance Said,

    June 24, 2004 @ 11:26 am

    Test for knee-jerk antipathy to the popular:

    breakfast food

    What kind of breakfast food do you eat? Consider that congee is perhaps exotic to the bacon and eggs crowd but yet in a different geopolitical frame quite popular. I raised the example of breakfast food because it can help exemplify the conceptual categories of the popular, the mass produced and the commodified. And these distinctions might perhaps be applied to knee-jerks: popular knee-jerks, mass produced knee-jerks and commodified knee-jerks. I can wrap my head around popular and commidified gestures (knee-jerks and head nodding) but it is the category of mass produced that doesn’t travel well from the domain of products to that of performative reactions or gestures. It’s popular — lots of people are doing it. It’s commodified – lots of people are trying to sell what lots of people are doing. It’s mass-produced — people are doing it in environments where other people can see them doing it and where commercial interests may try to get part of the action…. a zone where market forces intersect with public space. Civil society, eh?

    Breakfast food coopted by commerical interests.
    Breakfast food resacralized by daily ritual.
    Someday you just want to fast.

  8. Anjali Said,

    June 24, 2004 @ 1:05 pm

    I guess I don’t see how moveon type actions (framing the movie with a “how can i use this information”) would prevent genuine critical discussions of the film. I think it’s extremely important to have critical dialogue about the film, and perhaps these house parties will provide a space to do so (obviously there may be some hostility to any criticism of the documentary by die-hards who don’t want to hear criticism at a hosue party, but there’s still space for criticism).

    It’s up to groups of people and individuals to critically look at the documentary. The only thing that’s different in this case, is that instead of having viewers watch a documentary about something tragic and then go home to be depressed or disempowered to do something about it, moveon’s capturing people as they see the film and turning thinking into action.

    I really DO hope that people will be as critical of the film as they otherwise would without houseparties. And at the same time, I’m planning to distribute flyers for the houseparties, outside of the theater when I go see the movie this weekend.

    Great point though, it’s reminding me to be critical of the film too as I see it.

  9. Rusty Said,

    June 24, 2004 @ 2:04 pm

    If you want a critical dialog (or a fistfight), maybe try sitting 50 liberals and 50 conservatives in a room, pair everyone up with a buddy of the opposite political persuasion, and say “Have at it” after a screening of the film.

  10. chuck Said,

    June 24, 2004 @ 2:36 pm

    Anjali and Rusty, my ambivalence about the F9/11 publicity steamroller may be that it sets up what I peceive to be a limited range of responses. In a sense, I’m actually wanting to leave room for the film to “better than” an anti-Bush propaganda piece, so maybe the word “critical” should be nuanced a little. I want the film to be more complicated than simply an indictment of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq (although I want it to be that, too). And, again, I am very excited about both the film and the house parties.

    With that in mind, my critical dialogue might not be possible with someone on the right (or someone who supported the war), but would instead involve the left or liberals in a process of complicating their reading of the film (and at the same time, complicating the principles involved in their opposition to the war).

    Jenny has a great post that helps to articulate what I’m talking about. I do think the issues that F9/11 tackles are incredibly complicated, and I want to believe (1) that Moore’s film will acknowledge those complications and (2) that audiences will be able to see through the publicity and see how those complications are acted out (or not) in the film.

    That being said (in response to Jenny’s entry), I think Hitchens is guilty himself of creating a false black-and-white image of the left, many of whom supported the removal of Milosevic from power and wanted the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan even before 9/11.

  11. chuck Said,

    June 24, 2004 @ 2:44 pm

    By the way, these comments have been very helpful in allowing me to better articulate my mixed feelings here. I think that my original entry somewhat mistates the point I wanted to make (or at least stumbles over it).

    Oh, and Francois, on my summer budget, I usually just eat a bannana, some toast, and drink a cup of coffee, all of which are “popular” to some degree. I think my knee-jerk response might be better described as growing out of certain kinds of popularizations. I don’t have any interest in Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, for example, but not because I dislike sci-fi or fantasy films. It has something to do with the way and the degree to which tehy have been popularized.

  12. AshleyShea Said,

    June 26, 2004 @ 2:04 am

    I saw the film tonight. It brought up a lot of questions for me beyond getting Bush out of office. I’m hoping these house parties will address more than getting Bush out…I think there is more to be done. Bush is at the center of attention, but there’s a lot more corruption to be dealt with, and hard for me to fathom how to handle it all. Meeting with a group of like-minded people may help in organizing people to DO more to “clean up” the U.S.

  13. chuck Said,

    June 26, 2004 @ 2:15 am

    I saw the film tonight, too. I’ll have a review up soon and a clarification regarding this entry. I’m not sure that this film specifically motivated me to oppose Bush (I’ve been doing that all along), but I’ll be happy if the film does have that effect.

  14. Carole Early Said,

    July 2, 2004 @ 2:39 pm

    I have always been anti Bush & Co. My hope is that this film will make undecided voters decide to be for Kerry.

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