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Thursday, July 22, 2004

I Had a Dream Which Was Not All a Dream 

Geoffrey O'Brien, general editor of the Library of America and author of The Phantom Empire, Hardboiled America, and (most recently) Sonata for Jukebox, has a terrific piece in the New York Review of Books that goes a long way toward explaining why the documentary footage in Fahrenheit 9/11 has the force of revelation for so many viewers:
The movie works by the primal curiosity that lured people into nickelodeons, the desire to see what comes next in the string of attractions; and unlike some of those nickelodeon operators, Moore makes good on the promise. The blankly stunned face of George W. Bush, already informed about the Trade Center attacks, as he continues to sit in a Florida elementary school classroom reading My Pet Goat with the kids—regardless of how you read it and regardless of Moore's intrusive voice-over—is what most viewers of Fahrenheit 9/11 will take away with them, and it isn't something you could have stayed home and watched on TV.

It is curious that many people will go to see this movie simply to get a closer look at the President. There is a gap between any chief executive and his public image, but the mysteriously absent presence of Bush the Second— the sense that he is being endlessly displayed yet fundamentally withheld from view—still seems singular, and in consequence Moore is able to get extraordinary mileage out of moments that are not in themselves shocking revelations: Bush flexing his mouth in what looks like a weird grin before announcing that the war had started, or fumbling the old "Fool me once, shame on you" line, or segueing from talk of terrorism to a demonstration of his golf swing, moments that will probably have more subtly destructive impact than all the mustering of information about Saudi investments or the greed of Halliburton.

We are invited to contemplate the evolution of George W. Bush's physiognomy over time—or rather the persistence of certain traits which become odder the longer one looks at them: the cracked, side-of-the-mouth smile, the withdrawn gaze, the equal capacity to express haplessness and guile. Eventually Bush becomes a kind of punctuation mark, his remarks seeming increasingly off-key or unfeeling when placed against scenes of gathering horror and grief. This might of course be taken as a belated tribute to the Russian director Lev Kuleshov's famous demonstration of how the expression of a filmed face appears to change depending on what other footage it is juxtaposed with. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine a more piercing quick sketch than the August 1992 interview in which Bush brags almost naively about the enviable "access to power" he enjoys, his father being the president: a moment topped only by the footage of Bush delivering his famous "I'm a war president" remark with a spasmodic detachment that has to be seen to be believed . . . .

Simply by making the recent past visible—by bringing these little pieces of reality into the movie theater—Moore unleashes a reservoir of feeling. It's almost like the symbolic breaking of a spell: we can begin to remember everything that we had almost started to forget.

Fahrenheit 9/11 serves as a necessary reminder that, to put it in the simplest terms, we need to see and hear more than the government and the various news channels allow us to see and hear. We need to play back the tapes to refresh our memory of what seems consigned to instant oblivion even as it unfolds. We need to see those images —of Americans and Iraqis alike wounded and dying, for example— that American television tends to withhold, as if the reality of the war could thereby be kept at bay. Michael Moore's version of what has been happening lately is only one possible narrative; but by its very existence it encourages a more active, more confrontational approach to the images that surround us, anything to break through the numbing effect of the endless flow of TV news broadcasts and official bulletins that has become something like the wallpaper of a distorted public reality, a stream of images that moves forward without ever looking back.
The movie has grossed $97 million in 29 days of release and will probably pass the $100 million mark late Friday or Saturday.

RELATED SIDEBAR: Molly Ivins dissects the brilliantly-coordinated Republican campaign to erase our collective memory of the last four years:
So here's the Republican reaction: "See, the CIA was wrong, so you people owe President Bush an apology." I'm sitting there, brilliantly riposting, "Huh?" Here's the chain of logic. The CIA was wrong, therefore those on the left who say President Bush lied to us are wrong because he wasn't lying, he just believed the CIA. And you people are being rude and hateful and ugly and just mean about President Bush, and we want an apology.

What I'm worried about here is the amnesia factor. Am I the only person around who distinctly remembers an entire 18 months ago? This is what happened: The CIA was wrong, but it wasn't wrong enough for the White House, which kept pushing the spies to be much wronger. The CIA's lack of sufficient wrongness was so troubling to the anxious Iraq hawks that they kept touting their own reliable sources, such as Ahmad Chalabi and his merry crew of fabulists. The neo-cons even set up their very own little intelligence shop in the Pentagon to push us into this folly in Iraq.

Which brings us to the second talking point last week. Iraq never happened. I swear to you, this war and its disastrous aftermath never happened is the new official line. Down the memory hole. Never happened. You dreamed the whole thing. Iraq is now like Ken Lay and Chalabi. They never heard of it. Only met it once. Besides, Iraq contributed to their opponents.

According to The New York Times, "several Republicans," presumably speaking for the Bush campaign, noted that American casualties in Iraq are down from last month. Actually, that is quite untrue. Forty-two Americans were killed in Iraq in June, presumed to be an unusually bloody month because it was leading up to the big handover of sovereignty. As of July 21, 43 more Americans have been killed in Iraq, with 10 days still to go in the month.

Total number of Americans killed so far is 901, but the new line is: What War? We turned it over to the Iraqis, see? Presto, it disappears, just like magic. It's their problem now. Doesn't have anything to do with us. Bush is out campaigning by calling himself "the peace president."

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