In a New Yorker review, film critic Pauline Kael dismissed Michael Moore’s first film Roger and Me as “gonzo demagoguery” because of the way Moore distorted facts. Kael reminded us of a standard seemingly lost since then—that even though documentaries can advance a point of view, they shouldn’t twist the truth.
Kael’s voice is long gone, and Moore has proceeded to do lots more of what he introduced in Roger and Me. His popularity has unfortunately inspired a new generation of documentarians who play fast and loose with the facts and use cheap celluloid tricks to press their arguments on us. Two examples of this “Moore is better” filmmaking style are current now. The Corporation, an anti-capitalist Canadian film released last year will appear on DVD in early April, while Mondovino, chronicling what its director sees as the evils of American-led globalization through the lens of the wine industry, opens in New York this week.
The Corporation is far the shriller of the two films. It’s like watching a Moore flick without the goofy humor and self-deprecation—a long harangue devoid of real argument and desperately in need of volume control. The movie’s central theme: that the corporation (legally speaking, defined as a type of individual) increasingly displays the characteristics of a pathological person—lying or avoiding the truth, showing no remorse for actions taken, and so forth.
To support this contention, the film turns to such notable “experts” on corporations as Moore, America-basher Noam Chomsky, and Marxist historian Howard Zinn, allowing each to advance whatever notions he likes, without challenge. Chomsky tells us, for instance, that the profit motive drives corporations to do evil and that in their place we should have government-owned nonprofit corporations—an observation that hilariously ignores the almost universally disastrous record (ethically and commercially) of state-controlled companies.
But that’s only some of the silliness on display in The Corporation. Private corporations have been commercially successful, the film maintains, only because they use modern advertising techniques to brainwash us into buying their wares—making the average consumer seem like a mindless automaton. But one reason that most of us don’t have the kind of blind hatred of corporations that this film evinces is that we actually think for ourselves: while acknowledging the flaws that individual companies and our economic system as a whole sometimes display, we also see the manifold benefits they bring—benefits The Corporation completely ignores.
While The Corporation never stood a chance at being a serious film, given its very premise, Mondovino represents a missed opportunity. The film explores a fascinating subject: how contemporary tastes are changing the nature of winemaking, as traditional styles that produce subtle wines, reflecting local soil and weather conditions--or what the French call terroir--give way to modern methods that emphasize bigger, bolder-tasting, simpler wines that could be from anywhere.
But Mondovino’s filmmaker, Jonathan Nossiter, says he wasn’t interested in making a mere movie about wine; he wanted instead to examine larger issues of the globalization of tastes. Here’s where the movie goes wrong. Nossiter transforms the clash of terroir versus modern wines, something reasonable people can disagree about, into a simple black and white argument, with Moore-ish potshots along the way at the United States’s crass commercial culture and its homogenizing effects on the rest of the world.
Mondovino sets any reasonably skeptical person’s humbug detector off immediately because of the ham-handed way Nossiter proceeds. For instance, right after Robert Parker, the famous wine critic whose tastes many believe are determining how modern winemaking is evolving, describes how he feels he helped change the wine world from one dominated by elitists to something approaching American democracy, the camera pans swiftly to passing billboards of ads for fast-food chains.
Further, the director brings before the camera the Italian and French winemakers who have gone over to the modernist side and asks them whether their families collaborated with the Germans (in the case of the French) or the Fascists (in the case of the Italians) during World War II, as if this were relevant to the wine debate. Throughout the movie, the modernists appear as collaborators (with American tastes, now) and the traditionalists as members of the resistance.
When he interviews one of the modernists, Nossiter always starts the camera rolling as he approaches the vineyard in question, and shows himself being welcomed by secretaries, press representatives (indeed “press attaché” is one of the most common titles used in the film), or marketing functionaries. By contrast, he films the traditionalists toiling in their vineyards, as if they are all quaint, small-time men of the land—the salt of the earth. But some of the traditional winemakers are in fact major players--anything but defenseless little guys.
Anyone familiar with the modern winemaking world will recognize that Nossiter is guilty of serious distortions and omissions. He allows various people to assert on camera that American wine critics exchange good ratings for advertising, for example, but never once points out that Parker’s Wine Advocate doesn’t accept ads. To prove his contention that globalization is homogenizing winemaking, moreover, he ignores a key fact: that regions of the world that for decades (and centuries, in some cases) produced barely drinkable table wines—from the Campania in Italy to Jumilla and Priorato in Spain—are now making fabulous, and quite distinct, wines.
In the end, Nossiter’s good guys are their own worst enemies. Though the traditionalists often are refreshingly eccentric compared with the slicker modern winemakers, the more these old schoolers present their brief, the more false pieties they utter. By the end of the movie, even someone like me, who prefers their style of wine, wants to tell them to put the cork in.
In the anti-globalization camp’s version of the reductio ad absurdum, a Sardinian winemaker blathers on about the good old days when the wines weren’t even for sale but instead were produced and exchanged among friends. Christie’s wine director, the hoary Michael Broadbent, tells us about a Bordeaux winery that used to make a mediocre wine characteristic of Margaux, where the chateau is located, but now makes a more successful wine that doesn’t reflect its terroir. Maybe things were better off when the chateau made the mediocre Margaux, Broadbent reflects. One feels like asking, “Better off for whom?” Certainly not for the winemaker, who seems to be expected to sacrifice himself on the altar of traditionalism for the sake of Broadbent and Nossiter’s ideals.
Mondovino was a bit hit in France, filling theaters and prompting front-page newspaper coverage. Given its anti-Americanism and its focus on French winemaking celebrities dishing dirt at one another, that’s no surprise. But, as the movie neglects to tell us, the French themselves have never drunk much of the higher-end wine on which this film largely focuses, and these days the French are drinking less and less wine. The French, in other words, can’t support their own struggling wine makers, but they can be relied on to support a movie about how American tastes are destroying their industry.