The Big Ones

Michael Moore and Spider-Man fight evil in two new summer blockbusters

Spider-Man and Michael Moore: fellow do-gooders or mortal enemies? Questions of box office competition aside, a posting on film geek Harry Knowles's popular Ain't It Cool News website suggests that at least one movie fan thinks the latter. In response to Knowles's supportive review of Fahrenheit 9/11, a true believer with the screen name "spidey2k" warned Knowles to "kepp [sic] your fat ass political views out of an 'Entertainment' site. . . . I didn't realize that this website was taking [to] promoting 'political' propaganda. Shame on you Harry."

Spidey2k's meager yelp of digital protest is unlikely to affect the process already under way that Fahrenheit 9/11 has helped ignite. For decades, cultural pundits have bemoaned the transformation of politics into entertainment. But now that Fahrenheit 9/11 has broken documentary records, taking in $23.9 million on its opening weekend, the world of entertainment is invading the realm of politics. It's given hope to some that movie marketing, online fan networks, and grassroots organizing might just converge into a Bush-seeking missile. It could also be the first stirring of a new category of high-concept Hollywood product: the activist blockbuster.

The Fahrenheit 9/11 poster
Dog Eat Dog Films
Moore understands correctly that if popular, leftist positions are going to enter the medium of mass entertainment, proponents will have to speak in the writ-large language of the blockbuster: good vs. evil, Jesus vs. Satan, Spidey vs. Doc Ock, America vs. Dubya. "Even though the kind of films Moore makes are a far cry from Spider-Man 2," The Hollywood Reporter wrote last week in an article entitled "Top 10 Things Moore Did Right With Fahrenheit," "it's clear that he understands how important it is for a movie, especially a comic-book story driven movie, to have a colorful villain." Unfortunately, our death-dealing leader answered Moore's casting call all too well.
Tangled webs: Spider-Man 2's straphanging superhero
photo; Columbia Pictures
Tangled webs: Spider-Man 2's straphanging superhero

As pro-wrestling promoters and talk-show hosts have long known, it's not just the creation of the villain that's important. It's how the medium uses the hero-villain dynamic to help discussion about the film spill over into the rest of the world: Internet chat rooms, op-ed pages, barroom arguments. Divisiveness spreads chatter: Which is better, Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2? Is Fahrenheit a documentary or is it propaganda?

But Fahrenheit has also turned this old formula on its head. For blockbusters like SM2, which set an opening-day record of $40.5 million in ticket sales, the outside buzz helps sell the movie. But for Moore, the movie is secondary to the discussion it fosters—in this case, instigating chatter means resituating the popular political discourse a few notches to the left. Just like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Moore has hitched a moral mission onto the engines of entertainment media.

Last Monday, some Americans got a taste of the new morality-based marketing. In New York, around 80 people crammed into a Centre Street loft. All had received the same e-mail. After a few business-card exchanges, they clustered around three iMacs, straining to hear the live webcast that reverberated from the tiny speakers. The boyishly voiced twentysomething online host gushed over the event's success: Similar get-togethers were happening simultaneously across the country. "If we were all in one place right now," he streamed, "we wouldn't fit in a football stadium!" The crowd was there to get psyched about the revolutionary changes they'd be able to achieve in the very near future. Outwardly, they clapped optimistically; privately, they pondered their options.

A Secret Service officer confronts Moore outside the Saudi embassy, as seen in Fahrenheit 9/11.
Dog Eat Dog Films
No, this wasn't the world's last dotcom launch, tucked away like a hidden dinosaur canyon in some uncharted region of darkest Soho—for unlike the venture-capitalized vaporware medicine shows of the late '90s, this event had a legitimate reason to exist. It was one of the reported 4,600 "house parties" thrown in conjunction with a live webcast interview with Michael Moore, organized by MoveOn's political action committee to capitalize on the crowds still seething with Bush-hatred after Fahrenheit 9/11's top-slot opening weekend. The dot-org estimates that its Turn Up the Heat "town meeting" drew more than 55,000 party people. The goal of the evening was to rally volunteers for a July 11 phone-bank house-party event to register swing-state voters, and to brainstorm other ways to organize against Bush.

If MoveOn and Moore had hoped that the party might lure some folks who wouldn't normally attend a political event, then judging by some of the Soho crowd, the strategy worked. "I've never been to something like this," Phil, a media producer from Park Slope, confessed. "I'm usually around a lot of Republicans—lawyers and Wall Street types—so I thought this would be a great opportunity to get together with people and talk shit about Bush."

And talk shit they did. Before the webcast, a MoveOn member named Al ("I just get the e-mails; I'm not part of the hierarchy") led the group in an impromptu discussion of Fahrenheit 9/11. A vocal political-news junkie, Al moderated questions while quoting Republican-damning facts from a litany of leftist exposé writers—Alexander Cockburn, Paul Krugman, Amy Goodman—and, like a living blog, throwing out names of liberal websites along the way. "The Republicans are pros at the media, doing this sort of thing," Al said. "They know how to make people think the government's all good." Others quickly joined in to debate how to protest the Republican National Convention, suggest the need to register voters in Harlem, and kvetch about Ralph Nader.

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