David Cogswell | August 23, 2016 12:30 PM ET
Film as Travelogue: Michael Moore’s ‘Where to Invade Next’
Over the weekend a friend brought over the Michael Moore movie “Where to Invade Next” and I watched it with a group of friends. One of the people present launched into a diatribe criticizing the movie and arguing vehemently against its implications about America. We stopped the movie to discuss and argue so many times that it appeared at some points that we would never reach the end.
I can easily understand why anyone would find Michael Moore offensive. He has made a career out of being irritating, so much so that those who dislike him are put into the contradictory position of knowing that whatever irritation you express toward him only helps to build his brand.
Michael Moore relishes being irritating. It appears to be intoxicating to him. I suspect that even Michael Moore’s best friends find him irritating. And I’m sure that fact gives him great satisfaction. That’s his schtick, and it has made him millions and earned him many awards, including an Oscar.
Many people would never let themselves be caught dead watching a Michael Moore movie. He arouses so much anger that every time he releases a movie, there is a tsunami of negative articles, many by people who have not seen the movies, and refuse to see them because they despise Moore so much they are sure the movie will be terrible if Moore made it. They know for sure it is going to be an unpleasant experience for them.
So for those who have not seen “Where to Invade Next,” let me explain briefly that it is a tongue-in-cheek “documentary” in which Moore travels to (“invades”) a number of different countries, and finds social practices he likes that he thinks would be nice to bring back to America.
“I will invade countries whose names I can mostly pronounce,” explains Moore, “take the things we need from them, and bring it all back home …”
For example, he goes to Italy and talks to an Italian couple about the fact that Italians get seven weeks of vacation time plus 12 days in national holidays, plus 15 days off for marriage, and months off for childbirth and more. Lots and lots of time off mandated by the government. And the Italians Moore interviews think this is the most natural and obvious thing in the world. They can’t understand why anyone would find it peculiar.
It was a fascinating study of cultural contrasts. Moore explains that he knows that Italy has many problems, but “I am picking the flowers not the weeds,” he says.
He goes to France and visits a public school that provides four-course gourmet meals for the students at lunch. The French see lunch time as an educational experience and a chance for children to learn about healthy eating, good cuisine and civilized table manners.
He visits Slovenia and talks to students about how their higher education is free, and lets them explain why in Slovenia everyone can attend college free, even foreigners.
One of my friends became quite upset and started arguing against the assertions made in the film. He was offended by Moore’s implicit and sometimes explicit criticisms of America’s social policies.
Italy has a lot of unemployment, my friend said. Maybe they do have a lot of vacation time, but that’s only part of the picture. He resented what Moore was saying in the film, which he took to be that the U.S. is lagging behind the rest of the developed world in vacation time, affordable health care and a number of other areas.
I, on the other hand, enjoyed the movie but I watched it from a whole different vantage point. I didn’t pick apart the arguments. To me, it was a travelogue.
It can’t be denied that the filmmaker has a political agenda and that the film was a vehicle for presenting his political arguments. But for me, above and beyond the political arguments, it was an opportunity to travel via the camera to a number of different countries, to see the sights and to be able to talk to the locals about their ways of life.
Seen as a travelogue, “Where to Invade Next” was a good trip. It presented a kind of travel that is very much like the way I like to travel, to be able to get behind the surface of a place, get to know the locals and learn from them personally about how they live and how it is different from the way we live.
Tour operators have discovered that as travelers become more experienced and sophisticated they become less preoccupied with monuments and tourist sites and more interested in the people at the destinations they visit.
This people-focused travel has become so popular that tour operators are falling over themselves to convince their customers that what they offer is a more authentic experience of a destination than what their competitors offer, with more intimate experiences with locals.
Separate from any political beliefs, I enjoyed the on-screen conversations with the people from different countries. The people were charming and attractive and I enjoyed getting to know them through the film medium. It was refreshing and educational to glimpse the world through different cultural perspectives.
That to me was the value of the film and what I enjoyed the most about watching it.
Ironically, as Moore traveled Europe and North Africa looking at the social policies in those countries, he discovered that many of the ideas for the policies he examined had originated in America, though they have developed differently in Europe.
As someone for whom travel has always been one of the greatest adventures in life, I often find myself most intrigued by the travel aspect of films, by the on-location shots in beautiful places and the stories of people who live in different worlds from the one I know.
Travel by cinema will never replace actual physical travel for me, but it is often a nice adjunct to travel. I traveled a great deal by cinema before I had much opportunity to travel in the real world. Cinema has often shown me the beauty and romance of places and planted in me a desire to travel there. Some of those travel aspirations I have been fortunate enough to fulfill later.
For me, the travel aspect of a film is often the most enduring memory that is left by the experience of seeing the film. Often I will forget the plot of a movie but will still carry within me the vivid memories of place evoked by the film. That is increasingly true for me because travel today is no longer just about sightseeing. It is about meeting people and learning about their culture.
I can’t say why this has become such a popular trend in travel. But I think it’s a good thing. I think many people now intuitively feel that as electronic technology implodes our world and brings us face-to-face with people who live thousands of miles from us, a peaceful future depends on us learning to understand people from other countries better, even though we are often very different from each other.
To that purpose, nothing is as good as travel, not even cinema. Movies give us the means to travel great distances in our imaginations. And they can greatly expand and augment our experiences of travel. But nothing is as good as the real thing.
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