New York Film Festival: Dispatch 3

Michael Moore, Where to Invade Next, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 110 minutes.

AT THE HALFWAY POINT of the Fifty-Third New York Film Festival, I find myself nostalgic for the fifty-second, which showcased Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, a puckish disquisition that opens with this stinging pensée: “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality.” I often think of that aphorism when sitting through a weakly argued and poorly structured documentary, traits that have unfortunately come to define most of the nonfiction movies that secure theatrical release. JLG’s words serve as an especially apt indictment of the corpus of Michael Moore, the man largely responsible for some of the worst trends in contemporary documentaries, all on bumptious display in his latest performance of huckster outrage, Where to Invade Next, which screened for a largely adoring press hours before its official US premiere at Alice Tully Hall.

The blustery project finds the bulky, unkempt director traveling to various European countries and Tunisia to extol a specific national policy—regarding employee vacation time, prison sentencing, drug treatment, school lunches, among others—that he would like to take back to the US, whose own practices are barbaric in comparison. The ostensible revelations—that Western Europe guarantees its workers several weeks of paid time off, for example—will already be familiar even to those viewers whose primary source of world news is their Facebook feed, not to mention those who’ve seen Moore’s Sicko (2007) and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009); the populist harangues against, respectively, the American health care industry and unfettered free enterprise in those earlier films are frequently recycled in Where to Invade Next.

Moore’s typically vapid voice-over observations—“Have you ever noticed that Italians look like they’ve just had sex?” he marvels before visiting the Lardini and Ducati factories—further highlight the paucity of ideas and his glib approach to grave subjects. As justification for his superficial scrutiny of international affairs, the director declares early in the film of the countries he visits, “My mission is to pick the flowers, not the weeds”—a dead-end strategy that results in little more than oversimplifications and unchallenged half-truths (never more so than during a sequence concerning the rights of homosexuals in Tunisia). Moore’s films are fueled by and stoke an impotent fury—and act as a reminder that there are few moviegoing experiences as excruciating as listening to the smug laughter and cheers of self-righteous spectators.

In contrast to Moore’s shallow fact-finding, another nonfiction entry, James Solomon’s The Witness—which makes its world premiere as part of the NYFF’s “Spotlight on Documentary” section—is distinguished, at least initially, by its commitment to patiently sifting through conflicting accounts, no matter how painful for the film’s chief interlocutor. Centering on William Genovese, who was sixteen when his sister, Kitty, was murdered in 1964 in Queens, reportedly while several onlookers did nothing, The Witness skillfully weaves together archival footage with the determined, seemingly unflappable brother’s conversations with those with any connection, whether in life or death, to his beloved sibling. But here too there is a rush to arrive at soothing conclusions, the ending frustratingly belying the uncomfortable, knotty truths—and myths—that still cling to the Kitty Genovese case half a century later.

The 53rd New York Film Festival runs through October 11.

Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next, which screened at the festival October 2 and 3, will open in theaters in December. James Solomon’s The Witness screens October 6 and 7.