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The Moore you know 

Michael Moore’s name is synonymous with the documentary genre, but there are haters who wish he’d just go away.

For every action in Michael Moore's career as a left-wing polemicist, provocateur and rabble-rouser, there's been an inevitable and equal reaction. Moore's films---Capitalism: A Love Story, out Friday (see page 21 for review), is his latest---inflame passions and debate on both sides of left and right divide.

One could credit Moore for the explosion of the documentary form. From when 1989's Roger & Me burst onto the mainstream cinema landscape to 2004's Fahrenheit 9/11 opening number one at the summer box office, Moore has become a legitimate movie star---his name alone is enough to draw a crowd. However, with the rise of the doc event movie, Moore's also beget a genre he probably prefers didn't exist: the anti-Michael Moore doc, works responding to and critically re-examining his films and methods.

On DVD at local video stores are three films representative of that anti-Moore niche: Manufacturing Dissent, Fahrenhype 9/11 and Michael Moore Hates America. All three are deeply critical of Moore and are eye-opening in what they find, but they are also purveyors of the similar tactics and methods Moore uses to varying degrees of self-awareness.

Manufacturing Dissent follows a similar structure to Moore's Roger & Me, with Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine tailing Moore on his 2004 Slacker Uprising tour of American colleges, demanding an interview that never materializes. In between stops, the filmmakers look closely at Moore's career and the people he has engaged with---not all are particularly happy with his success. The section on Moore's long love-hate relationship with Ralph Nader makes Moore out to be an egomaniacal opportunist drawn to Nader because he can so easily overshadow him in the media.

The film discredits itself for the most part, however, by relying on the same tactics that critics of Moore point to frequently: context-free footage, unattributed newspaper articles and quotes and unfair footage of Moore supporters and critics at his rallies that skews toward the hysterical, error-prone and inarticulate. As Canadians, filmmakers Melnyk and Caine have no stake in the debate and don't rustle up the tension and urgency that Fahrenhype, Michael Moore Hates America and even Moore's films themselves contain.

Alan Peterson's Fahrenhype 9/11 is at once restrained and pressing in its argument that Moore totally underestimates the threat of terrorism to America, has assigned "enemy" status to the wrong target (George W. Bush) and fills his films with implications, rather than facts. Remember Moore's damning statement that Saudi nationals hightailed it out of the country immediately after the 9/11 attacks? As the 9/11 Commission Report states, they were thoroughly checked by the FBI and did not take off until after airspace opened up again on the 13th of September, not before. With former NYC mayor Ed Koch to former Clinton advisor Dick Morris stressing the constant terrorist threats to America and painting a starkly different portrait of that country than Moore, the film is a reminder that all documentaries are fabrications of some sort.

In Michael Moore Hates America, Michael Wilson sets out, a la Roger & Me, to talk to Moore, and ends up with a film that is as much about documentaries as it is about Moore. With his antagonizing title, Wilson is wary of what he thinks people's negative reactions to his project will be, so he avoids as best he can revealing the title of his film. He then regrets misleading people, but doesn't exactly stop, editing all those underhanded manipulations into the film. The result is a searing commentary on the inherent untrustworthiness of the non-fiction form, and a meditation on the fact that films are just as much about what's left out as much as what remains in the final cut.

Is this the kind of spirited debate that Moore set out to inspire when he began making movies in the late 1980s? His objectors bring up important points when discussing his work, hitting upon relevant issues about American politics and film. What's that oft-repeated film cliche? The best way to critique a movie is to go out and make another movie.

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