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THE ART OF THE DOCUMENTARY

Truth, The Franchise

Michael Moore and Ken Burns: opposites, soul mates. Yet like their medium, that just tells part of the story.

August 05, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Reality, or its shadow, is everywhere these days. Where the documentary film was just a few decades ago a form practiced only by a few maverick, even avant-garde specialists, it is now -- if you count television, in all its myriad channels -- what accounts overwhelmingly for the bulk of filmmaking. "March of the Penguins," "Super Size Me," "Grizzly Man," "An Inconvenient Truth" have drawn crowds to theaters, while an uncountable army of citizen-directors, armed with affordable DV cameras and Final Cut or iMovie, are turning cameras on their dogs, their grandmothers, their hometowns, for their own understanding and pleasure.

Far and away the biggest names in nonfiction film are Michael Moore and Ken Burns. They win the big awards, they make money. In terms of their craft, they are possibly not the most influential filmmakers. Moore is an inimitable personality; few can afford to work on Burns' scale. The highly stylized works of Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line," "The Fog of War") have arguably had a greater influence on the look and feel of contemporary documentary. But Burns and Moore are the popular favorites.

On the face of it, their work has little in common, beyond its claims to being true. Moore: The noisy gadfly whose "Bowling for Columbine," a film about American violence and fear, and "Fahrenheit 9/11," a film about American fear and violence, broke box-office records for documentary film, now has "Sicko," about healthcare as class war, currently in theaters, and it's doing very well, thanks. Burns: The father of the public television historical blockbuster, his 14-hour "The War" (as in Second World), co-directed with Lynn Novick, arrives on PBS Sept. 23.

Moore is the on-screen star of his films, while Burns is a name on a title card (an above-the-title title card, and one that leaves out the name of his elsewhere-credited co-director). Burns lives to organize the past, Moore wants to change the future. Burns makes his work to further understanding; Moore wants to rouse the world to action.

Yet they share much. Both are populists -- they are romantic about the American people (yes!), and about America, and hopeful about its better self while not downplaying its worst. They like to give a voice to the sort of folks movies and TV tend to ignore -- the honest poor, the struggling middle class, the ordinary Joes and Janes who found themselves under extraordinary stress. Like all journalists, they are proxies for the public; they have the time, the access and the money to go places, ask questions, gather pictures, sift information on behalf of those who have not. (While the documentary boom owes much to their being relatively cheap to produce, that isn't true of the work of Moore or Burns.)

There is a sense of purpose in what they do.

But what links them most perhaps is their success, and its burdens: big names, big targets. The controversy they attract is proportionate to their fame, which gilds whatever they produce with an aura of event that a detractor might read as arrogance: This is it, I have spoken. In Moore's case, it's enhanced by his large on-screen presence and, in a circular way, by the very expectation of attack and counterattack. (Even to a sympathizer, Moore can be off-putting, the messenger you sometimes want to kill, regardless of the message.) Indeed there's a whole genre of films dedicated to proving him wrong: "Michael Moore Hates America," "Celsius 41.11," "Michael & Me," "Manufacturing Dissent," "Shooting Michael Moore," "Fahrenhype 9/11."

Building their brands

For his part, and because of his perceived importance, Burns was constrained to defend "The War" against claims that it slighted Latino veterans, whose contribution to the war effort is not specifically explored. While pointing out that the film was never designed to be authoritative -- and for all its length, it is just a slice of the Second World War, as lived by some of the residents of four American towns -- Burns nevertheless overturned his initial refusal and added 28 minutes of new interviews.

And yet the pique is understandable. Even if not intended, in light of Burns' high-profile, PBS insider status, the Shoah-length enormity of his projects and the definitive titles he gives them -- "The Civil War," "Baseball," "Jazz," "The War" -- there is a kind of inevitable case-closed aspect to his work. Exclusion would be like being kept out of the encyclopedia or having your species denied a place on the ark.

Named by Time magazine in 2005 as one of world's 100 most influential people, Moore is certainly the most successful documentary filmmaker ever. Nearly all his work proceeds from the same idea, that the country is being run for the rich at the expense of the poor.

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