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Hot property becomes hot potato

“Fahrenheit 9/11” reveals the many sides of Michael Moore: polemicist, satirist, humanist.

SPENDING TIME WITH MICHAEL MOORE last week in Cannes was akin to hanging with a Beatle. This enormous mound of a man would trundle along the Croisette, barely aware of the ever-growing pack of acolytes trailing behind, as though awaiting a morsel of wisdom.

Moore’s cult status will surely be mightily reinforced now that the Cannes jury headed by Quentin Tarantino has bestowed the Palme d’Or on his film, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Political antagonists, not to mention critics, doubtless will attack the selection as a further expression of anti-Americanism. This ignores the fact that the jury was heavily weighted with Americans. It also ignores another relevant issue: Namely, that Moore’s film is an immensely moving, superbly executed work of filmmaking.

All manner of nuance will be read into the jury’s bold selection. Never within memory has such a high-profile, award-winning film lacked a U.S. distributor. Indeed, Moore’s emergence as a folk hero spotlights yet again the corporate clunkiness of Disney in rejecting the film. Last week, the Disney hierarchs also seemed to be freezing the process whereby ownership would be transferred to Harvey and Bob Weinstein, thus further delaying efforts to achieve a release. Now that “Fahrenheit 9/11” is becoming arguably the season’s hottest item, Michael Eisner and his cohorts will be asked again why they dumped what will surely be a very profitable film — and why they did so in a manner designed to maximize Michael Moore’s exalted profile as the artist-as-victim.

WATCHING HIS MOVIE, AND TALKING at length with Moore last week, it became clear to me that there are in fact two Michael Moores. One is a relentless take-no-victims documentarian who bulls his way through tense encounters and doesn’t let facts stand in the way of a good polemic. The other is a clumsy but warm-spirited humanist who is appalled by the human condition, yet can capture glints of humor in any situation, however nasty.

It is this contradiction that confounds some critics. They cannot deal with both the satirist and the polemicist. They argue that “Fahrenheit 9/11” is not a cohesive, well-argued documentary and does not present enough “new” information. I think they miss the point. Michael Moore, I would argue, is more of a performance artist than a documentarian. His goal is not simply to persuade but to mesmerize his audience.

Hence his movie superbly satirizes President Bush and his key aides, depicting them in hilarious flights of egomania. On the other hand, he devotes many minutes to the saga of an intensely patriotic, flag-waving woman from his hometown of Flint, Mich., whose attitudes are dashed by the loss of her son in Iraq. The grief of this simple woman who always hated anti-war protestors provides a deeply touching coda.

LAUGHS AND POIGNANT MOMENTS, all in one film? At times these moments collide clumsily, but then that too is a reflection of the two sides of Michael Moore. The most public display of these two discordant voices occurred at the 2003 Academy Awards when Moore accepted the Oscar for “Bowling for Columbine.” “Even as I walked toward the stage, those two voices within my head were both yelling at me,” he said last week. “One was saying, ‘Be a good boy and accept the award calmly and congratulate all the other nominees.’ But the other voice was saying, ‘A billion people are watching and you have an obligation to sound off about the state of the world.’ Well as you know, the noisy voice won. It was a close battle.”

Moore was widely criticized for his Oscar rant, though it was never quite clear where the chorus of “boos” was coming from — I was sitting pretty close to the front and everyone around me was applauding. Some will also be put off by the changing moods and rhythms of “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Nonetheless, there’s every indication that this film will gain a vast audience around the world and that this bulky, angry, witty mound of a man known as Michael Moore could even swing some influence in the elections.

Despite Disney’s klutzy convulsions, his voice will be heard. All of his voices.

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