And now we come to loss, and the magical ability of the movies to stand as a bulwark against the fearful dissipations of death and time. In a multitude of ways, film has joined the more established arts in promising eternal life and recovery of what had seemed gone, and it is in that spirit that Michael Moore, apparently the world’s oldest college junior, has sought to reclaim the seemingly moribund spirit of America in Where to Invade Next, by embarking on the most interesting junior year abroad ever, while, in Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle rocks a faith that the only thing that makes sense is to speak of long dead Miles Davis in the present tense.
Underneath Moore’s very funny Where to Invade Next lurks a serious determination to explode the obscene, ultimately un-American mantra that we are obligated to spread democracy through military conquest. It begins with Moore’s grandiose fantasy that the Chiefs of Staff have fallen at his feet to beg for direction, and Moore’s reassurance that he can recapture our former glory by becoming a very different kind of invader. He proceeds as if he has succeeded in getting the military to chill for a moment and let him take over the business of being an invading conqueror. Although his comic take on international relations only glancingly permits reference to our economic motives for burning down other countries and killing their children, he is not copping out, but rather he is hell bent on a therapeutic process of showering us with memories of what made us great, instead of rubbing our noses in what we have become. In fact, during his press conference he said that he’s trying for a subversive approach. If you wonder if that can work, you are not likely to be alone, but you will still be hard pressed to resist the infectiousness of Moore’s good nature.
Moore carries forth his playfully reconfigured military metaphor, standing at the prow of a boat with a big American flag blowing in the wind, as, suited up and waddling in his familiar grunge wear, his face beaming with good will, he descends upon Italy, France, Slovenia, Germany, Portugal, Norway, Finland, Tunisia, and Iceland. In each country, he claims, for the United States, their projects that honor the kind of human dignity espoused by our Constitution. Among the objects Moore covets are labor practices in Italy, school lunches in France, prisons in Norway, and women’s rights in Iceland. At each stop, he juxtaposes with his foreign discoveries sometimes brutal film clips of American life that reveal just how lacking we are in the areas in which the “conquered” countries excel. Often Moore’s “hosts/captives,” amused, tell him they got their inspiration from us.
In Italy, Moore interviews a young Italian couple who would do very nicely for a tourist bureau poster. Relaxed, effortlessly sensual, and open, they speak matter-of-factly about her five guaranteed months of paid maternity leave and his amazingly generous eight weeks union-guaranteed annual leave. They unquestioningly yearn to go to the United States, but their faces freeze when Moore informs them that there is no guaranteed paid maternal leave here and that a mere three weeks paid annual vacation is only for the very few and select. Later, the owners of an Italian factory breezily endorse all the labor perks. They’d prefer to work with happy people. It’s only natural. Certo. And so it goes. School lunches in France, in the provinces as well as in sophisticated Paris, are four-course gourmet affairs served to the children at their tables. The children pity us when Moore shows them pictures of what American school children eat. Prisons in Norway are true rehabilitation centers. Yes, they know what happens in American prisons today, but didn’t we inaugurate the proscription of cruel and unusual punishment? Women will save the world, the Icelandic women tell Moore. Didn’t American women begin this process long ago? There’s lots more, but you should see it for yourself.
I don’t doubt Moore’s sincerity. But that is no guarantee of validity. I am painfully aware that women will not save America. If we can claim with pride Elizabeth Warren, Jane Goodall, and all the American women who fight daily for health care, women’s rights, the environment, and children’s education, and struggle to feed their kids and love them; we must also admit the existence of the hateful, ignorant, and delusional Sarah Palin, Phyllis Schlafly, and Carly Fiorina. And Italian laborers are not uniformly happy. Only a week after I saw Where to Invade Next two Italian expats from Rome told me it was impossible to find employment there. We are already following Italy’s example: some of our work force is blessed, some is suffering mightily. No, Moore isn’t lying; he’s hoping to light candles rather than curse the dark. And he does bring the illumination. When his big finish called upon an American classic film I will not name to remind us that our ideals have not left home for good, I wanted to click my heels for joy.
Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead is also exhilarating. Electrifying from the first, more because of its sound than its images, which makes sense in this case for obvious reasons, the film opens with Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor), a hustling free lance reporter, regurgitating into a tape recorder a standard introduction to what could have been the opening of some undistinguished Miles Davis bio-pic. Brill’s rote prose is interrupted by the hoarse, whispery voice of Davis himself (Don Cheadle). That’s not the way to do it, says Davis. What would you say? asks Brill. In response, Davis puts trumpet to lips and blows a few stanzas. This shift from the failures of cliched verbal language to the full throttle expressiveness of Davis’ music, for which no words are necessary, introduces the rhetoric of this film.
Cheadle has made it so that Davis would have wanted to star in it, by dispensing with linear time—editing incidents that echo each other from all parts of Davis’ life for resemblance not chronology—and thus dispensing with the simplistic bio-pic cause and effect structure. Davis is not the outcome of mommy, daddy, the kind of inciting incident assumed by all dumbed down psychologizing in movies, or even the racist impact on a black, American musical genius. Instead his identity grows from the music that continually shaped him and the part of America that responded to it, regardless of psycho-socio-economic circumstances. The love of his life, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) is a dancer whose art shapes her in the same way. As the film shucks off meaningless time lines and dead words, it asserts its own poetry about the way art brings an indestructible life force into the world. David Chase once told me that he made Not Fade Away to meditate upon art as his way of praying, and there seems to be much of the same energy in Miles Ahead.
Miles Ahead counterpoints artistic energy with the contrasting American materialism that spawns greed, degenerative drugs, sexual excesses, and racism. The disparities emerge vividly in an early scene in which Davis, who has only just met Taylor, comes to see her dance at what appears to be an audition. Love blooms as Taylor’s dance becomes visible to Davis as the physical equivalent of his bodiless music and removes them into a realm momentarily safe from the despicable white men conducting the audition, who leer at Taylor, one muttering, “It looks like there’ll be a little dark meat for Thanksgiving.” Ultimately, the world takes a toll on their marriage and on Davis’ health and career, but Cheadle follows through on his promise to lift us away from the dross in a music-drenched final scene in which he cheats the social destruction inflicted on Davis by imprinting the screen with the parentheses that routinely contain biographical birth and death dates, with a difference. There is no death date (1926-).
Both Where to Invade Next and Miles Ahead acknowledge the burdens of history; and both defy them, epitomizing in their different ways, this nugget of wisdom from the Talmud, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
This post is part of an ongoing partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Antenna: Responses to Media & Culture and the Society for Cinema & Media Studies’ Cinema Journal.
Martha P. Nochimson is a film and media critic, and the author of David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire (University of Texas Press, 2013). More about her work can be found .