Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine
Michael Moore changed the face of documentary film when he made Bowling for Columbine in 2002. Of course that film came nowhere near the blockbuster grosses of Fahrenheit 9/11, which Moore made two years later. But Columbine was the movie that first demonstrated the box office potential of documentary films, and it paved the way for many more successes. This had something to do with Moore's genius at self-promotion, but it was also a result of the energy and flair he brought to a genre that many people still associated with dreary educational films.
Beyond that, however, Bowling for Columbine is Moore's best movie. (It even won the Oscar, which allowed Moore to give his controversial acceptance speech denouncing the invasion of Iraq.) It has a few of the excesses that drive his critics bananas, but it also has an intellectual weight that none of his other films can match, and it's almost sinfully entertaining as well as intellectually stimulating. The subject of guns in America is one that I find particularly meaningful, and it's become even more important in the five years since Moore made the movie--partly because almost no one today is willing to broach the subject. Gun control has become an issue that no major politician in either party will address; even most Democrats have surrendered to the NRA and the gun lobby. So that makes the film seem even more courageous and precious today than when it first opened.
Yet the brilliance of Columbine is that it goes beyond the obvious bleeding-heart-liberal lament about the prevalence of guns in America. Moore challenges some commonly held assumptions by showing that Canadians are just as much in love with guns as Americans yet have almost no gun violence directed at humans. Moore questions and undercuts a lot of the usual explanations for American violence, demonstrating that many frequently intoned theoriesAmerica's bloody history, its love of hunting, the ease of acquiring gunsare not unique to our society.
Moore's thesis, which he later elaborated in Fahrenheit 9/11, is that the fear-mongering that permeates American society contributes to our epidemic of gun violence. Canadians do as much hunting as Americans, but they don't kill each other, maybe because the media in Canada are not overrun with stories about violence or frightening phenomena like an invasion of killer bees or the Y2K meltdown that usually turn out to be complete fantasies. With everyone on edge in this climate of fear, it's no wonder that so many Americans are trigger-happy.
Moore challenges his audience with new ideas, and that's a rarity in documentaries, which often preach to the converted. In Columbine, he demonstrates the curiosity of the best journalists, who set out to explore an issue without knowing in advance what their conclusion will be. This film is a mind-teasing inquiry that also uses a dazzling array of filmmaking techniques, including a witty animated set-piece about the history of violence in America. The ambush interview of Charlton Heston that ends the movie may be the most famous bit, but it's not what makes the movie memorable. This thought-provoking, vibrant film sets a gold standard for documentaries.
`Bowling for Columbine,' is a very thought provoking film.
Perhaps the first thought it provokes in any US resident is that the most sensible thing he or she could possibly do is move forthwith to Canada. It's nearby, they speak English almost indistinguishable from standard American, it feels `lighter over there,' you get government health care, there are plenty of guns but very little killing, and you don't even have to lock your doors.
The fundamental question `Bowling for Columbine' asks is: What's responsible for the exceptionally high level of killing in America? Not a lot of guns, Moore points out, because other countries have that. Not a violent history, because other countries have that. Not a love of violent movies, video games, and so forth, because other countries love all that too. Not poverty, unemployment, and ethnic diversity, because lots of countries have more poverty and Canada has as much ethnic diversity and more unemployment. Two things, according to Moore, are primary causes: the US media, which, as he shows, fans up fear constantly among the American populace; and the government in Washington, which solves everything by bombing people somewhere. There's a third thing that emerges more subtly: a gun culture, which leads to the absurd notion of self-defense, perpetuating the violence and the fear and the racism. In this the leading force is that powerful lobby, the National Rifle Association. The result of this lethal combination delineated by Moore, particularly since 9/11, is that Americans aren't very happy people: they live in a constant state of rage, perturbation, and fear, when they're not disolved in tears for the dead who're falling in the houses and streets and schools of the country on a daily basis.
`Bowling for Columbine' isn't ultimately very cheery or uplifting stuff. True, it has lots of laughs, but most of them are ironic - a little sick-making, when you think about it -- and at American expense. Those of us who live in the USA and don't actually regard moving to Canada (or somewhere else) as a real option, aren't walking out of this polemical documentary feeling any too cheerful. One may quarrel with Moore's style, though it seems questionable that so many reviewers have expressed disapproval of his personal appearance (what's sloppy dressing got to do with it?). One can hardly quarrel with most of Moore's basic facts or the urgency of his subject or his commitment to it. Because of its significance to Americans on both personal and national levels, "Bowling for Columbine" has to be considered the most important (and it's becoming the most watched) US documentary film in many a year. This is being recognized in all sorts of ways, first of all with the special jury prize at Cannes. We shall see what the Academy has to say.
It's impressive that Moore and two young men seriously injured at Columbine were able by their confrontations to shame Wal-Mart into taking handguns and ammunition out of their stores - and Moore appears to have been surprised and impressed by this result himself.
Moore has seemed crude and simplistic and confrontational in the past. His methods have not radically changed, but they've modulated into something subtler and less self-serving, such that he has an ability to talk more easily with potential adversaries -- bank employees giving out rifles with new accounts; Michigan militiamen; even Charlton Heston, the haughty President of the National Rifle Association, who invites Moore into his house to film a conversation. True, Heston ends up walking out of the room after a while, but he doesn't have Moore thrown out. Nor does Wal-Mart. This is significant. One is tempted to call Moore's methods (as he wields them today) not crude and simplistic and confrontational, but direct, simple, and honest. There's something unimposing and Middle American about his overweight slouch and scruffy baseball cap crowned head. If he lives in a house worth close to $2 million in New York now, you can't tell it from looking at him, and that consciously maintained persona, if we choose to see it thus, aids him in moving through Littleton, Colorado and Windsor, Ontario, and the other places where he got the footage for this devastating, yet simple film. For credibility among US gun-toters like Heston, Moore has an ace in the hole: he's an expert marksman and a lifetime member of the NRA.
Heston walks out because he hasn't good answers; in fact he really hasn't any answers at all. His explanations for why the USA is so violent are ones Moore has already discounted, and he can't justify his brazenly fronting for the National Rifle Association in Colorado and Michigan right after the child murders by children in those two states. Marilyn Manson (the artist accused of complicity at Columbine because the young killers liked his music) in contrast has not only good answers, but also the greatest zinger in the film. When asked what he would have said to the youth at Columbine after the murders, he says: `Not a word. I'd have listened to them. That's what nobody has been doing.' In between telling interviews, Moore has various ways of documenting contexts: an animation, recited statistics with images, and astonishing film clips like the Fifties one of cops admiring how realistic some kids' toy guns are, and the one from a metal-detector company pushing for dress codes in schools, showing a boy with baggy pants unloading a whole arsenal. What's laughable are all such solutions that don't even begin to get at the problem - that are just profiteering from chaos and insecurity.
It's encouraging that so many people are seeing and commenting on this movie. When it was over, I wished the lights would go up and there'd be a discussion group held right there in the auditorium. There was a lot to talk about. Not everything was by any means clear, nor were all the facts to be bought without question. But in one way or another, `Bowling for Columbine' brings up all the most central issues in America today. Michael Moore makes you laugh and cry; but most important, he makes you think.
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