How Do You Pay?

Bee Wilson

Because the man himself is so ungainly, it is easy to overlook Michael Moore’s voice. Where his body seems ungovernable and a source of embarrassment to him – he often can’t bear to watch himself on screen – his voice is confident, almost suave. There’s a moment in his least known movie, The Big One (1997), where he launches effortlessly into a gravelly imitation of Dylan singing ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ before reverting, with a chuckle, to his own spoken voice. In his films, his physical appearance – in flannel shirt and outsize jeans – represents Moore the underdog, the champion of regular working folk.

His voice, however, is that of a clever Catholic boy who comes, as he never tires of telling us, from Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors. (He actually grew up in the more affluent suburb of Davison, ‘a city known for its churches’, according to Roger Rapoport.) He was taught by the Sisters of Saint Joseph and was known at school for his singing voice and his ability to make the nuns giggle. One of the nuns remembers him as the ‘brightest student’ she’d encountered in her entire teaching career. It seems that he always felt himself to be cleverer than the people around him, and he has described the frustration of being told he could skip first grade, only to be held back by his well-meaning mother, who didn’t want her son to be the littlest in the class. At school, he made several attempts to set up underground newspapers, but he also won an essay competition with a work entitled ‘What the Flag Means to Me’. He could be difficult and rebellious; or he could be surprisingly conformist. He even contemplated the priesthood, studying at a seminary for a year before realising that he missed baseball too much. He didn’t make friends easily – even as a teenager, people found him egotistical. But when he felt he had a cause, he could be a good listener. In 1974, at the age of 20, around the time of the first wave of layoffs in the local car industry, he set up the Davison Hotline, a Catholic counselling service. The skills he developed would prove invaluable when he discovered his vocation in film fifteen years later.

The best bits in Moore’s films exploit the rhythms of good conversation. Despite his huge ego, he knows when to talk and when to shut up. In Bowling for Columbine (2002), his anti-gun film, he secures an interview with Charlton Heston, then the president of the National Rifle Association, at Heston’s house. To start with, Moore is deferential and Heston loftily in control. Moore tells Heston he is a member of the NRA and, like Heston himself, from Michigan; Heston twinkles benignly. ‘I assume you have guns in the house here,’ Moore says, humbly. ‘Indeed I do!’ Heston replies: ‘Bad guys take notice!’ Are the guns loaded? Yes they are – ‘the Second Amendment gives me a right’ – at which Moore is heard to murmur: ‘Oh I agree, I totally agree with that.’ We share Heston’s discombobulation when Moore subtly shifts the tone of the conversation, asking why America has more gun murders than many other countries. ‘We have more mixed ethnicity than some other countries,’ Heston replies and instantly regrets it. Moore has him trapped. Would he like to apologise to the people of Columbine? Heston stalks out, silent now. The voice of God has been outmanoeuvred by the voice of Everyman USA.

Moore’s wonderfully enticing voice explains a lot of his success. It explains (at least in part) how he gets strangers to say things they shouldn’t – from receptionists and bank tellers to game-show hosts and the Michigan militia. You can see that most people enjoy talking to him; they want to prolong the conversation even when it is not in their interests to do so. His speaking voice – so intelligent, so humorous – also explains why his political satire, which generally comes across as crass and simplistic on the page (Stupid White Men, Dude, Where’s My Country?), rises to a different level on the screen.

By the time he found his medium, with the film Roger and Me in 1989, he had spent more than a decade in various ventures in print journalism, all of which ended in failure. First, there was the Flint Voice, a local alternative rag which took on such subjects as police brutality and the looming presence of General Motors. In 1983, this morphed into the Michigan Voice, where Moore met his wife, Kathleen Glynn, who has produced all his films. Next came his disastrous editorship of Mother Jones, the muckraking San Francisco magazine, from which he was fired after five months (Moore says that there was a disagreement about how to cover the Sandinistas, but it seems that Moore had also alienated most of the staff and consistently failed to meet deadlines); and Moore’s Weekly, a kind of media watch funded in part by Ralph Nader. Each of his editorships had the same faults: a focus on a tediously small range of subjects, a tendency to preach to the converted, a lack of attention to detail, a brash tone, too much evidence of his ego. Print journalism wasn’t his métier.

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