"When I think Labor Day, I think Chinese, don't you?" texts Michael Moore, suggesting I book Shun Lee, an Upper West Side staple close to the documentary filmmaker's New York apartment. I call, and the receptionist lights up at the mention of my guest. "Michael Moore? Oh, he's very regular in the restaurant," he says. I mention this to America's best known provocateur as he pushes the table back to squeeze into the high-backed booth seat opposite me and get a puzzled look from beneath his Sundance Film Festival cap. "I come here, maybe, three times a year."
Moore comes to the city to work, most recently on a memoir, and "to get some privacy". He is a public figure in Traverse City, his home on Lake Michigan, not just for his Oscar and Palme d'Or wins but for starting a film festival in 2005 that has given its economy a much-needed boost. He relishes the irony of the Republican-dominated local business association naming him businessman of the year, an unexpected accolade for the man behind leftwing film, television and print polemics including Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), a post-crash indictment of big business.
His new book, Here Comes Trouble, is in a different vein, pulling together vignettes from his life before he made his name with Roger & Me (1989), his unsparing account of what General Motors' lay-offs did to his one-time hometown of Flint. Being kicked out of his seminary for asking questions, shaming racist social clubs and getting elected as a teenager to the Board of Education to have revenge on a sadistic teacher were only a foretaste of the trouble Moore has made since.
Moore's take-downs of the gun lobby (Bowling for Columbine, 2002), the Iraq war (Fahrenheit 9/11, 2004) and drug companies (Sicko, 2007) have made him as demonised by the right in America as he is lionised by the left. Yet not a day goes by in Traverse City, he says, without a Republican giving him a handshake or a hug. "They have had, I guess, the benefit of getting to know me as a human being. We're all Americans. We are all in the same boat."
Was that the point of the book, I ask, to present a more nuanced figure? He surprises me by saying his bigger motivation was to write "something that aspired to what the nuns tried to teach us, which was literature."
Like much of Moore's work, the book takes liberties with traditional definitions of non-fiction. Roger & Me may have shocked traditional documentary makers by making no claim to objectivity but Moore says that made it "authentic". Critics have used his success to challenge his authenticity, however. The Washington Times, for example, has called him a hypocritical "jet-setting millionaire", "a fraud" brought up in a "bourgeois" suburb and "a traitor", driven by "hatred of America".
"This attack is never made by anyone from the working class, if you notice," Moore responds. "Obviously I do well now ... Not George Clooney well. But, let me tell you, when you're from the working class, you want to get out of the working class," he says. Back home, "I never get anything but 'Way to go, Mike.'"
Shun Lee, "the only non-greasy Chinese place in New York", according to Moore, is a low-lit, black-lacquered square room on two levels with translucent, red-eyed dragons snaking around the walls. On this humid holiday Monday, just half a dozen tables are occupied.
As I look for a waiter, Moore says he plans a second memoir but is also working on new films and another project – "movie, book, internet, stage show, Ice Capades, could be anything" – that "will address the political situation in the country". He won't disclose more.
Ten years ago, on the morning the Twin Towers fell, HarperCollins was shipping 50,000 copies of Stupid White Men to shops. The publisher urged Moore to tone down its critique of the "thief-in-chief", George W Bush. He refused, and it went on to become 2002's biggest-selling non-fiction book but time has not mellowed Moore's view of the former president. "Bush's presidency is revisionism-proof," he argues. "We're going to be recovering from it for the rest of our lives." I ask whether he feels disillusioned with Bush's successor. "I was overcome with emotion, voting for [Barack Obama] on that day," he says, suddenly looking down, jowls bulging under his chin's pale stubble, arms folded as if hugging himself. "I think he's a person of good heart and he means well, but ..." There is a long pause. "I thought he'd come in swinging ... come in like Franklin Roosevelt ... What an opportunity to go down as a great president – squandered." He looks pained.
The Republicans "decided to treat him as the invisible president", he adds bitterly, making sure I catch the reference to Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel about racial injustice.
I scan the room in vain for a waiter and ask Moore whether he thinks Obama will be re-elected. "It depends who's running against him," he replies. "You have a Republican group of candidates that are certifiably insane. They think the country is as crazy as they are. It's not. Granted, I think a good 50m people are probably certifiably nuts too but this is a big country. There's over 200m voters. We can weather 50m idiots."
It is hard to tell whether he is joking but Moore has experience of weathering idiots and far worse. After the 2003 Academy Awards, when he accepted his best documentary Oscar with a speech about "a fictitious president ... sending us to war for fictitious reasons", he was bombarded with threats. When he writes about recruiting security experts, former Navy Seals "used by the federal government for assassination prevention", it sounds like paranoia but his book details a long list of attempted attacks – assailants armed with knives, "blunt objects" and sharpened pencils, and one man caught plotting to blow up Moore's house.
Does he still feel threatened? He looks down as he folds his arms again. "It's less now, because the country's changed ... I couldn't live like that."
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