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Michael Moore, the new diplomat

In Europe, the director has come to symbolize the American underdog.

March 30, 2003|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

Paris — When Michael Moore won best documentary for "Bowling for Columbine" at last week's Academy Awards, his antiwar comments -- "Shame on you, Mr. Bush!" -- were met with cheers and jeers. The orchestra cut him off. Steve Martin made a joke.

The mood was quite different at the Cesars, the French Oscars, a few weeks beforehand, as Moore lumbered up to accept the best foreign film award. He made the routine apology for his high-school French. Then he delivered a well-rehearsed, improvisational-style speech in English, pausing expertly for the translator. At a leisurely pace, he thanked our French allies for the cinema, for French fries and French kisses. For helping us in the War of Independence and saying no to the war we had not yet officially begun.

"One of the best definitions of an ally, of a friend," he said, "is that your friend is the one who can tell you when you're wrong. So thank you for showing us the way, for standing up for something very important."

Moore insisted that he represented "tens of millions" of Americans who praised the firm French antiwar stance, not a lone voice in a self-styled wilderness. In crooked bow tie and schlumpy tux, the filmmaker and bestselling author was the ultimate antihero, earnestly dragging his wife and producer Kathleen Glynn up on stage, laughing his "yuk, yuk, yuk" laugh -- and getting the night's most rousing and spontaneous standing ovation.

Europeans have always had an appetite for subversive American voices, and Moore's provocative, outspoken, sarcastic, muckraking style, which some also label glib and narcissistic -- is closely watched here. It would be overstating the case to say that he is more appreciated here than at home, but Europeans have come to rely on him as a singular voice for the American underdog since he made an international name for himself with his 1989 breakthrough documentary "Roger and Me." In this era of troubled U.S. diplomacy, you might even say that Moore has become perhaps America's chief cultural ambassador in this part of the world.

"Bowling for Columbine" was the first documentary in half a century to be admitted to the main competition at last May's Cannes Film Festival, where it won the special jury prize. Moore's bestselling book "Stupid White Men ... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation" is No. 1 and No. 2 on (in German and English, respectively) and is a bestseller in France, where its title is "Mike Contre-attaque!" or "Mike Counterattack!" It won Book of the Year from the British Book Awards this winter. Last fall in London, Moore's one-man show "Michael Moore -- Live!" was full for its five-week run at the Roundhouse theater.

A bookseller at the Waterstone's in the London neighborhood of Notting Hill, where "Stupid White Men" is No. 1, said, "It's still flying off the shelves -- too bad it hasn't been able to change anything politically." Moore's name comes up in conversation at Parisian dinner parties, and in French political debates, he's used as shorthand proof that the American left is alive and well, despite the image projected by Washington.

"Moore has amassed a sizable following on both sides of the Atlantic, not only as a satirical writer, but also as a comedian and mickey-taking documentary maker," said London's Independent on Sunday, in a review of "Stupid White Men," adding that "Michael Moore, the people's champion, has just turned into a brand." The paper headlined another review: "THE BESTSELLER THAT BUSH'S AMERICA TRIED TO BAN."

The startling success of "Stupid White Men," the article said, suggests "that the 'popularity' of George Bush is not nearly as universal as the manufactured consensus would suggest." It went on to praise American book-buyers "who are reinforcing that proudest of all American traditions: the right to freedom of speech, information and opinion."

Heard in many arenas

Nobody embodies the cliche of an American more prosaically than Moore, of the XXL frame, the baseball cap and sneakers; the sloppy, loud, in-your-face delivery. But if he is quintessentially American, Moore has often found support for his ideas outside the United States.

The BBC offered to produce his first television series, "TV Nation," a TV newsmagazine spoof that focused on big business' exploitation of the little people, after it was rejected by NBC (which later picked it up), as well as his 1998 documentary "The Big One," about his cross-country book tour for 1996's "Downsize This!" The U.K.'s Channel Four produced the first season of his follow-up to "TV Nation," "The Awful Truth," and its Canadian producing partner Salter Street Films funded "Bowling for Columbine."

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