'CANADIAN BACON,'' the new comedy by Michael Moore, had its beginnings at an American film festival Moore attended when the Persian Gulf conflict was heating up.
Pursuing the political agenda that's made him famous with moviegoers in ''Roger & Me'' and television viewers in ''TV Nation,'' he asked a group of fellow filmmakers to sign a petition opposing the war - and found there was hardly a person in the room willing to make the gesture.
Apathy is Moore's biggest bugaboo, and this incident set him thinking about America's aversion to political action - signified most dramatically by the low numbers of eligible voters who actually cast ballots in elections.
What we need, he decided, is more movies that get people's political juices flowing. And this doesn't mean art films aimed at a privileged few. It means popular pictures that raise controversial issues while entertaining millions in multiplexes and shopping malls.
Moore's first fiction movie, ''Canadian Bacon,'' is his effort to fill the political-picture gap. The story begins when an unpopular president decides the American public needs a new villain to rally against now that the cold war is over and the ''evil empire'' is gone.
Convinced that Canada is the best candidate, the chief executive starts a promotional campaign to generate ill will against his country's northern neighbor. Succeeding too well, the crusade prompts a patriotic Niagara Falls sheriff to launch his own guerrilla raid into ''enemy'' territory, with predictably absurd results.
On the lighter side
If this sounds like somber stuff, bear in mind that the president is played by Alan Alda and the sheriff by the late John Candy, with expert jokesters like Rhea Perlman, Stephen Wright, and Rip Torn rounding out the supporting cast.
Overflowing with sight gags, slapstick, and assorted silliness, ''Canadian Bacon'' looks every bit as frivolous as dumb-and-dumber movies that hit the shopping-mall circuit on a regular basis. Yet its political satire is quite pungent at times, recalling classics like ''The Mouse That Roared'' and ''Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.''
Making the picture, Moore knew it was a risky venture that might end up too provocative for John Candy fans and too frivolous for art-film admirers. ''It's a difficult movie to pull off,'' he told me during the Cannes Film Festival, where it had one of its earliest showings. ''I want it to have a political point of view, but I don't want to give a sermon.'' The task was complicated by studio bosses who wanted to exploit Candy's last performance by ''dumping in as much of him as possible'' at the expense
of more serious subtexts.
Bridging the gap
In the end, Moore feels he achieved his goal. ''Most films in America are dumb and stupid and make a lot of money,'' he says. ''Then you have a few art-house films that don't make much money. I think there's a big middle ground. People who live in the Pittsburghs and the Milwaukees and the Flint, Michigans, have a brain and would like to see a film that has all the normal movie conventions but is also about something. Why do these things have to be incompatible? Couldn't you have a Jim Carrey movie that
makes social commentary?''
The great divide between comedy and commentary didn't always exist, in Moore's view. ''Look at Charlie Chaplin, our great film comedian,'' he says. ''All his early films were social comedies or political comedies. He was commenting on the times in which he lived. Where are those films today? They don't exist. The closest we get is 'The Player' and a few others.''
Moore's aim in ''Canadian Bacon'' is less to persuade his audience than to stir it up a little. ''It's not a question of whether you agree or disagree with the message,'' he says.
''That's how I feel about Oliver Stone,'' he adds, referring to the director of ''JFK'' and other politically pungent films. ''You can hate him or love him, but thank goodness he exists.
''We need movies that do this,'' Moore continues. ''We need to reach the people who are choosing to go out in the woods and play in militias because they're feeling the despair of being unemployed. The American dream is up in smoke and they're getting their anger out by looking for an enemy to blame - immigrants, welfare people, and so on....
''As we decline economically, as fear grows, that fear could easily be manipulated ... and I think those who believe as I do have a responsibility to present an alternative. In my own small way, I'm trying to get people thinking about this stuff.''
Does this mean films can make a real difference in the way people think, feel, and behave?
''Absolutely,'' says Moore with conviction. ''One movie isn't going to change the world, but [films] can inspire people to think and question. The movies I grew up with in the late '60s and '70s did that for me. I saw 'Hearts and Minds,' the Peter Davis documentary on Vietnam, and I snuck into 'A Clockwork Orange' as a teenager, and I was blown away. This stuff can't help but make you think.''
Foray into fiction
Although he's best known as a maker of nonfiction works - like ''Roger & Me,'' about his quixotic effort to confront a General Motors mogul with hard questions about corporate policies - Moore says he's thoroughly enjoyed his first foray into fiction.
''It's easier than nonfiction,'' he states with a smile. ''You can make it up. You've got a blueprint called a script, and the actors will actually say what you tell them to say!
'With nonfiction, you don't have a clue what's going to happen. I'm going to continue doing both ... and I don't really want to distinguish between them. I only want to think about telling a good story.''
This sounds fine when Moore says it, but documentary is traditionally a much harder sell than standard entertainment fare - which means nonfiction may not always be the best way for Moore to achieve his goal of reaching as many moviegoers as possible. But is this conventional wisdom necessarily correct?
''If you make the film entertaining,'' Moore insists, ''people will go see it. Look at 'Hoop Dreams' and 'Crumb,' and it shows people will go to an entertaining documentary.
It goes to show ''you can be entertained and think at the same time.''