October 9, 2004 3:00 am

Lights, camera, manifesto

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When Michael Moore was awarded the Golden Palm for Fahrenheit 9/11 at the Cannes Film Festival this year, Quentin Tarantino, who led the jury, whispered into Moore's ear: "I just want you to know it was not because of the politics that you won this award, you won it because we thought it was the best film that we saw."

Maybe. But it is unlikely that a polemical film promoting President Bush's foreign policy and ridiculing his liberal opponents would have stood much of a chance in Cannes. Moore plays to a political gallery, which includes much of Hollywood and most of Europe. Hoping to win an Oscar for best picture (not best documentary), Moore has said: "For me the real Oscar would be Bush's defeat on November 2." Politics certainly count with Moore's French fans, who have always loved Americans bashing America. In a sneering little article, published in France's Liberation, the author dismissed all British critics of Fahrenheit 9/11 as apologists for Tony Blair.

Even admirers of Moore's film acknowledge that it is propaganda. David Edelstein, writing in the online magazine Slate, calls it cheap, crude, even abusive, but in a good cause. Fahrenheit 9/11, he writes, "is not a documentary for the ages, it is an act of counter-propaganda that has a boorish, bullying force. It is, all in all, a legitimate abuse of power". Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, calls Moore "a master demagogue an age of demagoguery made", an "impresario of spectacle", a sloppy, unfair manipulator of factoids. Moore, he wished, could be so much better. And yet "Moore is the only Moore we have - alas. Moore is the anti-Bush, and damn if we didn't need one."

It is easy, of course, to applaud propaganda if one agrees with it. Most of Moore's critics, from Christopher Hitchens to Bill O'Reilly on the Fox News Channel, hated the film because of its politics, which the latter, in a fit of demagoguery all his own, compared with that of Joseph Goebbels. The question is whether it is possible to be moved by a work of art if one does not believe in the cause it promotes. Could Tarantino be right? Can propaganda, regardless of its aims, still produce great art?

In a conversation we had not long before his death last year, my uncle, the filmmaker John Schlesinger, cheerfully admitted to having a deep prejudice against Germans. Basically, he thought they were all Nazis at heart. Yet he was a defender of the films of Leni Riefenstahl.

There is no doubt that some of Riefenstahl's films were propaganda for the Nazi party. This was especially true of Triumph of the Will. She liked to call it a documentary, even though it was a totally staged performance. Hitler's descent from the clouds, the ranks of SS men shot from flattering low angles, the Fuhrer worshipped by his Aryan disciples, all this was carefully composed to celebrate the master race and its ghastly party. Nonetheless, even here my uncle was able to separate the message, which he abhorred, from the artistry of the filmmaker. For him, to put it crudely, art was art, no matter what it stood for.

If propaganda includes religion, it would be ludicrous to claim that art promoting a faith cannot be great. You don't have to believe a word of the New Testament to love Bach's Passions of St John or St Matthew. Anyone can see that Raphael's paintings of the Madonna and child have an astonishing beauty. Appreciation of Heian period Buddhist sculptures or Grunewald's Isenheim altarpiece is not a matter of belief. One can be deeply moved by these works of art without believing in any religion at all.

What is it, then, about religious art that can still touch an atheist? Spirituality can be a powerful force, but there is something else, something to do with the human spirit. A work of art that expresses something profound about what it feels like to be alive will outlive any beliefs or causes it might be promoting. Since to be alive, as a complex individual, includes having doubts, the absolute conviction of pure propaganda is unlikely to produce good art. What still appeals in a secular age about Renaissance religious art is less its devotion than its humanism, its delight in the human body, in our landscapes and cities, and in complicated human feelings.

There is, of course, much about religion that even non-believers can feel drawn to: the Christian concept of brotherly love, for example, or the Buddhist sense of calm detachment. Politics has a harder edge. It is about organising society, a more prosaic matter than love and redemption. And political propaganda differs from religion in that it often pretends to be based on reason, rather than mood or spirituality. In fact, political art can be quite as irrational as anything based on pure faith. Nazi propaganda, including some of Riefenstahl's work, or Maoist art, is much closer to the heat of religious devotion than political argument. Reason does not have to be cold, however. Simone Martini's 14th-century fresco in the town hall of Siena depicting good and just government is as moving as any religious painting I have ever seen. But then I find his vision of moderation and reason sympathetic. What about political art that promotes an idea that is less appealing?

The example of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) is interesting. He was a political activist and hero worshipper, and also a great artist. Delacroix called him "the father of modern painting". A fanatical believer in the French Revolution, David's beautiful paintings of such revolutionary martyrs as Lepeletier, and Marat, dying in his bath, are masterpieces, and not just because of David's extraordinary technical skill. Again, they tell us something about human life (and death) that moves us even if we have no great sympathy for the politics of these characters.

David adored Napoleon and became his well-paid court painter. The pictures of Napoleon's coronation, or Napoleon on his prancing white horse, are pure examples of leader worship, which is not only unfashionable these days, but loathsome to the liberal mind. And yet these, too, are very good paintings. Whether these alone could have established David's lasting reputation is doubtful. They are perhaps too fawning for that, lacking the pathos of his picture of Marat.

But if David's paintings of Napoleon are still quite fine, I have yet to come across a great portrait of Stalin or Hitler or Mao. The fact that pictures of the great 20th century dictators are invariably models of offensive kitsch suggests that murderous politics does not produce good art. But even that might be contested. Communism has caused the violent deaths of millions, but it also inspired Sergei Eisenstein's agitprop movies, and the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Bertolt Brecht. It is possible that pure communism, like the revolutionary ideals that fired David's imagination, is like religion: a utopian vision that is not inherently evil, and thus capable of producing great beauty.

Fascism and National Socialism have inspired fewer examples of first-rate art. Some powerful architecture, especially in Italy, is about all that can still be admired about fascist aesthetics. It is hard to think of any good Nazi films or fascist novels. Celine is often mentioned as a great writer with dreadful politics, but his best work is not blighted by the anti-semitism of his political pamphlets. He kept propaganda separate from his literary work.

Riefenstahl is possibly an exception to the low quality of fascist art, but not, I think, in Triumph of the Will, despite all its virtuosity. Indeed, it illustrates that virtuosity alone is not enough. But Olympia, her film of the 1936 Olympic Games, is surely a masterpiece. The likely reason is that her interest was less in military uniforms than in the human body. She celebrated physical beauty, not only of blonde German types, but also, for example, of the black American athlete, Jesse Owens. It has been argued, famously by Susan Sontag, that this cult of beauty was in itself a fascist trait. Perhaps it was, but Riefenstahl created something that outlasted the Nazi aesthetic, something more universal, and indeed humane.

So content is not entirely irrelevant in our assessment of artistic propaganda. There is a difference between a utopian ideal of universal freedom and equality and an exclusive vision of racial purity, which Riefenstahl in effect undermined. What Communism and Nazism have in common, however, is a leadership cult, which owes quite a bit to Napoleon. The fact that none of the official portraits of Nazi or Communist leaders are anything like as good as David's pictures of Napoleon might simply be because Napoleon had better taste, or, more likely, because David had a bit more artistic freedom. Good communist art exists, but good Stalinist or Maoist art does not. When artists have to follow rigid formulas, with no room for individual expression, especially when promoting men and not ideals, they become hacks.

One of the most brilliant documentary films ever made is The Last Bolshevik, by Chris Marker. Its subject is the Russian film director, Aleksandr Medvedkin (1900-1989). Marker was a great admirer of this communist artist, who began his career in the 1930s as a propagandist for the revolution. He travelled around the Soviet Union on a special agitprop film train, which was meant to take socialist realist cinema straight to the people. He had the makings of a perfect hack. What prevented this was his talent, and his mischievous spirit, which was spiked with humour. Although a believer, Medvedkin could not help himself; the human spirit kept bursting through, even in his wartime newsreels. Medvedkin's jokes were like Riefenstahl's celebration of a black athlete in Olympia. They subverted the intended message. And this was intolerable to Stalin, who had him purged. In other words, what is lasting in these works of art is not the propaganda, but something that was smuggled in, as it were, in spite of it: propaganda transformed into something better by an individual spirit.

This may be the point some critics have tried to make about Michael Moore. Geoffrey O'Brien, for example, wrote in The New York Review of Books that the specifics of its arguments are the least persuasive aspect of Fahrenheit 9/11. But then, he continues, "making a case, well reasoned or otherwise, is not really what the movie, or Moore as a filmmaker, is about". Moore's talent lies in his assembly of strange characters and images. His greatest gift, O'Brien says, may be as a casting director. What stays with the viewer is not the political cause, but Moore's humorous eye for the eccentric.

It is a persuasive argument. But there is something else about Moore, which shows a human heart ticking inside the shameless demagogue. He has little feeling for foreigners, to be sure. His cynical selection of cheerful images of Baghdad before the fall of Saddam Hussein makes it clear that Moore does not care about Iraq. His use of cheap stereotypes to ridicule every country that supported US policy also reveals an unattractive provincialism. But then Moore is nothing if not insular.

This is where his French fans get him wrong. Moore is not bashing America. His heart beats loudest at home. Like a true American patriot, he rages at the disappointments of the American dream. His real subject, explored in previous films, is the industrial underclass of his native Flint, Michigan - often out of work, and used as cannon fodder in overseas adventures. These appear to be the only people he really understands or cares about. So forget about the rights and wrongs of US foreign policy. If Moore's film is to survive as art, and not just as propaganda, it is because he has used his cinematic skill to express his feelings about working class Americans, which may not be much, but it is human, and that might just be enough to scrape through.

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