I channel a writer, and

by francine Hardaway on July 1, 2004

I channel a writer, and I don’t always know what he’s going to say. This week he seems to be the late Meyer H. Abrams, a literary critic and scholar out of the sixties. (I suffer from too much training; I got my Ph.D in the study of literature, and I was a film critic for several years in my gay mad youth.)

Abrams is really baffled by the reactions to Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911.” These reactions, have ranged from “this is the greatest film ever made” to “I wouldn’t give that anti-Semite propagandist a dime of my money; he is denigrating a great president.”

Although Abrams no longer has access to the Internet, last time I checked, we still had a first amendment to the US Constitution, which guaranteed free speech. Last time I checked, the purpose of propaganda was not to make people laugh. And last time I checked, film was an art form, as was satire.

But who cares what I think? Let’s talk a bit more to Abrams, who has some experience thinking about the larger questions. According to my recollection of Abrams’ seminal work “The Mirror and the Lamp”, art has two main purposes. One view of art is that it’s a reflection of reality; it’s a mirror. Art tells us who we are. However, it obviously doesn’t reflect ALL reality; rather, it frames reality. It takes a piece of what’s out there, selects it, and puts a frame around it to emphasize certain views. Like a window. Like a painting. We don’t really expect “Drawbridge at Arles” to show us the photographic representation of the bridge; we know it’s a work of Impressionism. It’s Van Gogh’s IMPRESSION of the drawbridge. And we rarely accuse the painter of having the wrong impression.

Another view is that art is a lamp that illuminates reality; it shines a brighter light on things we might not notice, perhaps exaggerating or distorting shapes and colors, but making them visible. The musical “West Side Story” shines a light on race relations between whites and Hispanics, and contains the Leonard Bernstein song, “Everything’s Free in America,” but we don’t accuse Bernstein of racism because he wrote the song. It’s an IMPRESSION of Puerto Ricans in New York.

Clearly, “Fahrenheit 911” does both: the film shines a bright light on certain aspects of George Bush’s presidency and the war on Iraq. It also frames some lives, such as those of wounded soldiers and those of Lila Lipscomb.

But it is Michael Moore’s impression. And he has a right to form an impression, express it, and put it out there for public consumption, just as artists have always done.Even the Bible is the impression of its writers.

So that’s what Abrams thinks about art. Let’s drill down to the particular form of art that Moore practices. That art form is called satire, and it’s as old as the Classics. In satire, an audience with a shared value system is invited to laugh at an exaggeration. and thus to examine one of those values. “The Rape of the Lock” satirized its society’s concern with social trivia; “Gulliver’s Travels” satirized the society of its time. Throughout history, satirists have been admired for their ability to see beyond the limitations of their own time and place. Satire can be a valuable contribution to a society. “Saturday Night Live” is satire.

People watch “Saturday Night Live” all the time, even when they disagree with who it happens to satirize at any given moment. And they don’t try to censor it, or remove the participants’ right to self-expression, to their art.

Moore does not call himself a documentarian; that’s what his critics call him. He calls himself a satirist. He knows what he’s doing, but maybe we don’t know what we’re watching.

Abrams has gone on to better topics. So the end of this is written by me. I take full responsibility for the following opinion:

Chill out when you see “Fahrenheit 911,” no matter what you believe. It’s not supposed to be “accurate” (whatever that means, since it’s largely composed of news footage), it’s supposed to be funny. Pretend it is “Saturday Night Live” or “The Simpsons.” And yes, Michael Moore can be an asshole. But he’s not even coming into your living room.

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