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.
At the height of the Beltway sniper terror in Washington, there was no serious call for gun control. But the DC police advised citizens to walk in brisk zig-zags. It's the kind of thing that makes Michael Moore's angry and uproarious documentary about America's toxic love affair with weaponry very relevant. Already it's a word-of-mouth box-office smash, and a Cannes award-winner. The problem is that each screening is liable to be a liberal rally where the converted get well and truly preached to. Both performances I've been to have ended with fervent applause and a great deal of earnest Europeans streaming back out into the foyer, their determination re-doubled and re-tripled never to agree with the American practice of spraying the nearest McDonald's with bullets before turning the gun on oneself. They look like the same movie-buff sophisticates who adore the gun-totin' movies of Tarantino and Ford.
Yet gun control does not appear to be precisely what Moore is calling for. In fact, it's not entirely plain what he is calling for, or where he believes the problem to reside. One second he's implying that free-and-easy gun laws are the problem; the next, he's pointing out that Canada, with its equally lax gun rules, and equally lavish consumption of violent Hollywood movies, has a tiny murder rate. (Moore incidentally neglects to give the murder-rate as a percentage of the population.) One minute he's saying that violence is endemic in the US, the next he's saying that it's a paranoid suburban myth fuelled by the nightly news; this last certainly gets a much rougher ride from him than does that other media sensationalist Marilyn Manson.
Even the film title's meaning is ambiguous. The kids who shot up Columbine high school went bowling at 6am on the terrible day, so is bowling perhaps the problem? Bafflingly, this heavy-handed sarcasm might equally be deployed by the rightwing firearms apologists whom Moore clearly loathes. So the making of this documentary was clearly a journey of discovery for Moore himself, who makes no bones about not having the answers. Refreshing, but exasperating too.
This is a very big, brawling mix of ideas and interviews, with wacky clips, spoofs and pastiches, some devastatingly funny and pertinent, some of them pretty lame. Moore begins with an extraordinary interview with a Michigan bank which gives rifles to all new customers; he wonders aloud if a bank really wants a whole lot of people with guns around. He takes in an interview with the survivalist militia weirdos, and a very scary guy with swivelling eyes who was acquitted, by a whisker, of the Oklahoma City bombing. He shows horrifying CCTV footage of the Columbine massacre, and talks to survivors of that and other grotesque tragedies over which Americans helplessly shrug. (How incredible to compare Britain's fierce legislative response to Dunblane.)
And armed - to use an unfortunate phrase - with the National Rifle Association membership card he's had since winning a marksmanship prize as a teenager, Moore interviews Charlton Heston, whose pro-gun rallies were clearly designed to keep giving the old boy fixes of public adulation unavailable from his dwindling big-screen presence. Could it be that America's addiction to firearms is connected to the decline of Charlton Heston's movie career? Mr Heston himself says that America's gun-related violence is down to having more "ethnicity" than other countries, a remark he clearly regretted the instant it left his lips.
Moore scrambles around the film like a big shaggy dog, jumping up and knocking things over, excitably putting together all sorts of possible connections. He's not always convincing, though, when he draws wide-ranging parallels with the US's military adventures, overt and covert. The handgun psychologically equivalent to the B-52? A little glib.
I will say this, though: at the point where Charlton Heston wanders abstractedly away when the questioning gets too hot, with Moore in angry pursuit, the ageing actor suddenly wears an expression of weary, wounded blankness very similar to Ronald Reagan's when he was being questioned about the Iran-Contra scandal.
The seismic events of September 11 presumably happened in the middle of the production schedule, inspiring Moore to open up his focus very wide to global, geo-political questions, when he might have been better off concentrating on the domestic American scene: that is, the mechanics and economics of power which underpin gun outrages. But Moore tactlessly raises the element of race, though with a different perspective from Heston. The underclass is what scares America's whites into owning guns, and it's the underclass themselves who are largely the victims of the crime from which the Wasp patricians can insulate themselves.
This is a remarkable film in its way. It isn't afraid to go back to first principles, or to sound callow or earnest or uncool. And Moore really does look like a lone figure in the American media mainstream, challenging gun culture - a heresy in which the rest of Hollywood's pampered progressives have no interest. For most of them, there are no votes, and no ticket sales, in saying that guns aren't sexy. It's a pleasure to a hear a dissenting voice.