John-Paul Flintoff: Moore to the point

John-Paul Flintoff

Moore to the point

Lunch with the documentary maker

Looking round Hakkasan, an underground restaurant near Tottenham Court Road, Michael Moore offers a description of the decor that develops seamlessly into a scathing assessment of British culture: “What is this place? It’s like something out of A Clockwork Orange. What passes for hip, these days, in London! You used to give us some wonderful, creative things. It started around Swift and Shakespeare and stopped at the Sex Pistols. What have you given us since then? The Teletubbies? I mean, come on! This is Great Britain. Not every country gets an adjective.”

The restaurant was chosen by his PR team, charged with helping to promote his new film, paperback and London stage show. He’s no more impressed by the menu. “It’s faux Chinese. They’ve taken basic things and tried to make them foo-foo. ‘Sweet and sour organic pork’. Who gives a fuck about it being organic? You’re eating pork, right, so that’s like eating ‘clean’ dirt.”

Moore is famous for straight talking, but this is not a promising start to our lunch. To ingratiate myself, I tell him straight away that I’ve just seen his new film, Bowling for Columbine – an inquiry into American gun culture – and consider it brilliant. I’m not the only viewer to feel this way. At Cannes, where it was the first documentary shown in 46 years, it received the longest standing ovation in the history of the festival.

Opening in the US, with the Washington sniper still at large, it broke box-office records. “I’m glad you like it. That means a lot to me,” he says politely.

In the film, Moore travels all over America, but looks closely at Colorado, where – after an early morning session at the local bowling alley – two students went on a murder spree at Columbine High School. That day, April 20 1999, was also the day the US conducted its largest bombing in Kosovo. Not far from Columbine, Moore interviews a representative of the arms manufacturer, McDonnell Douglas. Standing before a vast missile, this spokesman tells him he simply can’t fathom the violent conduct of American youth.

Moore’s ability to score political points can be subtle and refreshing in his work. At Hakkasan, it seems merely peevish. Our waiter recommends beef ribs and dim sum to start. When the ribs arrive, Moore helps himself, chews carefully, then says: “Just by taking that bite, I’m now prohibited from donating blood to the US Red Cross. Why did you feed cows to your cows?” In fact, he has eaten British beef before today, so I can’t be blamed for the loss to American first aid.

Moore wears a T-shirt, jeans and long whiskers. His hair, unrestrained by the customary baseball cap, sweeps forward in a great waving mass. In the dark restaurant, it’s hard to see his expression except when he plays with his plate – which he does a lot. This reflects light from below on to his face, an alarming effect that only increases my discomfort as he launches into a painful critique of contemporary journalism.

This has been provoked by my rather craven observation that few journalists inquire as bravely as Moore does. (One episode I have in mind is his visit to the home of a sinister figure who sleeps with a loaded Magnum under his pillow, momentarily holds a gun to his head and tells Moore: “The pen is mightier than the sword – but you always must keep a sword handy.”)

Perhaps too readily, Moore agrees that most journalists are deficient. In a booming voice, he urges me to look up old newspaper stories about Enron. Few, he assures me, were the least bit probing: “Journalists go to see companies. They say: ‘So tell me, how were your earnings this quarter? Any new products you want to talk about? You’re going to split your earnings? What a brilliant idea!’”

Others who fail to ask questions are the products of American schools, which teach “complacency and conformity”. Well, that’s what Moore says – but he’s blessed with sufficient numbers of independently minded Americans to constitute a large market for his work. His latest book, Stupid White Men, has already spent seven months on the New York Times bestseller list. “I’m more in the mainstream than you might believe,” he confides.

Moore was born in the mid-1950s in Flint, Michigan, to a working-class family of Irish-Americans. At school he launched several newspapers, each one swiftly closed down by the nuns who taught him. He didn’t go to university – and a good thing too, he says, because that’s where people learn inflexible habits of mind: “If you put yourself in cement, you can’t move.”

He was 35 when he made his first feature-length film, Roger and Me, an indictment of General Motors. “To make it, I sold everything. My wife thought it was crazy, but she let me because she’s an artist herself.” (Kathleen Glynn has produced all her husband’s film and TV work. They have a daughter, aged 21.) The film was a huge commercial success. “I made it for $160,000 and sold it to Warner Brothers for $3m. Why did they buy it? Because they’re in the business of making movies that people want to see.” Moore plainly respects Warner: “They didn’t change anything. And they were willing to stand up to the motor company.”

In his films, and even occasionally over lunch, Moore can seem sweetly innocent. With a pair of victims of the shootings at Columbine, one of them confined to a wheelchair, he travels to the headquarters of K-Mart. The plan, devised by one of the young men, is to persuade K-Mart to cease selling the 17-cent, 9mm bullets that were used at Columbine.

Fobbed off initially by some public relations person, they return the following day with hordes of local media representatives – to receive the surprisingly gratifying news that K-Mart will cease to sell ammunition for all hand guns. “Wow. That blows my mind,” says Moore, still plainly overwhelmed.

Moore blames gun culture on ordinary Americans’ excessive fear of each other – itself a consequence of over-the-top crime reporting. Across the border in Canada, he has found, citizens trust each other: filming in Toronto, he goes from house to house opening front doors that are routinely left unlocked. (“Thank you for not shooting me,” he says to one surprised householder.)

Having drunk only half his Coke, he orders another, and some “corn soup”. Encouraged by his doctor, Moore – a large man – has recently lost 10lb. “But I have cut nothing out,” he says. “The reason diets don’t work is that you deny yourself and go mad with the craving. ‘I’m never going to eat French fries again’ – that’s bullshit. In the last month or two, I have decided to eat only half of what is on the plate.” Today, exceptionally, that’s not necessary. Moore picks up the tiny dish before him and at last I understand why he’s been playing with it.

“Right away, I looked at this plate,” he says with a smile, “and I thought, ‘Oh, good, I can eat the lot.’” (Note to Hakkasan: try fitting that into your marketing.)

Like Swift – and another of his heroes, Chaplin – Moore uses humour to express ideas that are profoundly angry. “Humour is one of the most effective lessons to raise people’s consciousness. There is a great quote from Twain: ‘Against an assault of laughter, nothing can stand.’ Once the entire country gets laughing at Nixon – or Blair – it’s over.” Or George W. Bush, a politician he deplores and constantly ridicules.

Or Charlton Heston, whose tireless lobbying for the gun lobby long ago eclipsed his film work. Shortly after the Columbine massacre, Heston pitched up in town – expressly against the wishes of the local community – to promote the National Rifle Association. He does the same, later, after a six-year-old boy shoots dead a classmate in Moore’s native town, Flint; and this provides a powerful preliminary to one of the most impressive parts of the film.

Moore had tried for years to get Heston into his films – adding another credit to the list that includes El Cid, Planet of the Apes and The Ten Commandments. One day, on the way towards Los Angeles airport, somebody on Moore’s crew suggested buying a map showing the homes of the famous and looking up Heston’s address. Moore wasn’t particularly keen.

“I wanted to go to the airport,” he confesses. “But everybody else wanted to do it. So we drive to the place on the map. I was sure it wasn’t the place. I didn’t even bother to clean the windshield for the camera. But I go to the gate and say, ‘Mr Heston?’ and out comes this voice, ‘Yeees . . . ?’ It’s the voice of Moses!”

Amazingly, Heston let him in. But to reveal why he abandons the interview – and how Moore responds – would spoil the film. Anyway, we’ve run out of time. Moore’s PR returns to take him away. Looking down at the table, he conducts a swift audit: “Let’s see, how has Mike done?”

The plate is clean, but both his Cokes remain half-full. Eccentric? Wasteful? “Hey, whatever gets you there, man,” he says, then heads back through the dark to his foo-foo hotel.

© The Financial Times

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