Saturday, July 03, 2004

Disney: Craven, or simply venal?

When Disney ordered Miramax not to distribute Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, there were two versions of the reasons for the decision. Michael Moore's version is that Disney did it because it was afraid of angering Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is in a position to grant tax concessions that the company is eagerly seeking. Disney's version was that they simply did not want to be associated with a partisan political film that could potentially alienate republican-leaning families that buy its products and visit its theme parks.

Few in the media commented on how tendentious Disney's reason is, even if you accept their version as accurate. For "Fahrenheit 9/11" was to be distributed by Miramax, an independent film company that was acquired by Disney in 1993. At the time there was enormous concern about Disney acquiring a studio known for pathbreaking independent cinema, but Disney assured the public that it had no intention of interfering with Miramax or toning down Miramax's films to placate the religious right.

And they were true to their word. The right fumed as Miramax made the blasphemous "Priest", the teensexploitation flick "Kids", the ultra-violent "Pulp Fiction", "Kill Bill", and dozens of other un-Disneyish films. Meanwhile Disney's subsidiary "Hollywood Records" released the far from family friendly "Insane Clown Posse" and other hardcore rap artists.

Disney wasn't concerned that any of this might be offensive to the deeply held beliefs of their customers. Explicit sex and violence? A-OK. Not a problem. No, what really put Disney into a fit of conniptions was the dread spectre of politics.

Needless to say, a corporation that censors Michael Moore but is happy to rake in the cash from an ultra-violence afficionado like Quentin Tarantino has no credibility whatsoever. But beyond this basic hypocrisy, now lies an even bigger one.

Because when I heard Disney's reasons, the first thing I thought was, well, now the bar has been set. If Disney claims that it doesn't want to be involved in distributing political films, well it better just keep to that pledge, if they're not to look like complete hypocrites. But I never imagined how quickly they'd be shown as blatantly hypocritical as this.

"America's Heart and Soul" is, by all reports, a patriotic, stirring, syrapy paen of love to the essentially wonderfullness of America in the style that Americans lap up so much. Yet it isn't a "political" film, Disney assures us. Yet Disney arranged a special screening for the "Move America Forward" foundation, a conservative thinktank that just happen to be behind an attempt to pressure cinemas into dropping "Fahrenheit 9/11" from their rosters.

Howard Kaloogian, Move America Forward foundation's chairmain, assures us that "America's Heart and Soul" is apolitical. Nonetheless he points out that you "come out with a very different feeling about America than when you leave Moore's film."

It sounds like the perfect deal for Disney. Disney can maintain a facade of innocence over suggestions that there's any political overtones in "America's Heart and Soul's" unabashed flag waving boosterism. No significance can be read in the fact that its breezy optimism and inspirational pablums just happen to come at a time when more and more Americans are questioning the direction their country is headed.

Fortunately, Disney's cravenness is hitting it in the one place that hurts it -- the bottom line. By peddling a little political influence, Disney has managed to give away what's well on the way to becoming the most profitable documentary of all time. And the publicity over Disney's little act of corporate censorship (ably aided along by a veteran media manipulator like Michael Moore, of course), and the attempted boycott by "Move America Forward", have only hyped up the documentary even further.

The irony is delicious. Not only are these people craven, but they are incompetently craven. Like some cartoon supervillain, Michael Moore only feeds off the heat they throw at him. And now it's too late to reverse course and deny him the publicity he thrives on. He's already on his 300 foot tall rampage, leaving the attack machine behind to wonder "what have we created?"