Whatever you think of Michael Moore, that pudgy, popular agent provocateur, the guy knows how to get an audience going.
I saw his latest political bombshell, "Bowling for Columbine," in a large, packed theater at the Toronto Film Festival, and the impact was electric. People laughed, cheered, jeered at the "villains" and burst into prolonged applause when it ended. Anyone clinging to the old canard that documentaries are dry, dusty affairs obviously hasn't seen one of Moore's. Like the movie that put him on the map, "Roger & Me" (one of the most successful documentaries ever released), his latest screed is an impure and highly entertaining gumbo of comedy, confrontation, righteous anger, crusading zeal, dubious populism and moral showboating.
It's impossible not to have strong reactions to "Columbine." People tend to reject it outright or defend it wholesale, and both positions seem equally wrong. It's both powerful and infuriating, brilliant and facile, hilarious and horrific, witty and demagogic. It's a great movie to argue about.
Baseball cap in place, Moore sets off on a quest to understand the unique American romance between guns and violence. Why do Americans blow each other away at a rate that far exceeds any other country? The filmmaker admits upfront that he was a gun-loving NRA member himself at an early age--the first indication that not all our knee-jerk leftist assumptions are going to be met. His journey takes him from his home state of Michigan to Colorado to L.A. and to Canada, from a startling visit to a Michigan bank where the prize for opening a new account is a handgun to an unnerving appointment with Oklahoma bombing suspect Terry Nichols's brother. The guy sleeps with a loaded .44 under his pillow and looks like he might use it at any moment.
Moore's methods are scattershot, impressionistic and personal: rigorous historical analysis is not his bag. He often settles for easy ironies and broad gestures, such as playing Louis Armstrong's "It's A Wonderful World" over a montage of U.S. aggression in Iran and Guatemala and Nicaragua. He visits the missile-manufacturing Lockheed Martin plant near Columbine, implying a dubious connection between the weapons plants (and our aggressive foreign policy) and the high-school shooting spree. So if Lockheed Martin were based in Vermont, Columbine wouldn't have happened?
Even more annoying--especially for someone who fancies himself a man of the people--is the way Moore sometimes makes himself look good at the expense of his unsuspecting subjects. There's an irrelevant interlude in South-Central L.A. where Moore thrusts a mike in front of a busy L.A. cop and asks him a whimsical antipollution question about why it's impossible to see the Hollywood sign through the smog. The audience is prompted to laugh at the cop's flustered response, but this cheap "Candid Camera" ploy exposes the condescension lurking beneath Moore's camaraderie.
I was afraid we were in for more of the same when Moore shows up at Kmart corporate headquarters with a wheelchair-bound victim of the Columbine shooting. They are on a mission to protest the selling of bullets at Kmart (it's where the killers of the 1999 shooting spree bought their ammo). Anyone who's seen Moore's other movies knows what to expect--a corporate runaround in which all the Kmart bureaucrats will come off looking evasive and hypocritical. But an amazing thing happens--the mission succeeds. Kmart agrees to stop selling bullets. You can see that Moore is as surprised as we are. Still, you have to take your hat off to the guy: what other filmmaker could actually change a major corporate policy--and with the cameras rolling?
"Bowling for Columbine's" saving grace--what keeps it intellectually honest--is the fact that Moore doesn't have all the answers to his questions. He holds up one cliched theory after another about the root causes of American violence, and punctures holes in most of them. The movie isn't saying that guns in themselves are the problem, even if it demonizes Charlton Heston and the NRA for their extraordinary insensitivity. (The group held their annual meeting in nearby Denver just after the tragedy.) Canada, he points out, is as gun-obsessed as the U.S. Canadians own 7 million guns. They are subjected to the same barrage of violence in movies and music. They too suffer from poverty and unemployment and have a multiethnic population. Yet in the same year that 11,127 people were murdered by guns in the U.S., only 165 were killed in Canada. There's a very funny sequence in which Moore goes from house to house in Toronto and discovers that nobody bothers to lock their doors there. (Needless to say, the Toronto audience ate up the flattery.)
Those unlocked Canadian doors get at the heart of Moore's argument, for what he sees in America is a culture ruled by fear, a fear fueled by the news media and the politicians and exploited for profit and power, a fear disproportionate to any real danger. (Remember the Y2K panic anyone? How much money was made off that one? Take a look at those SUV ads that feature hissing rattlesnakes to see how Madison Avenue plays the fear-for-profit game.) Moore's thesis comes via Barry Glassner, a University of Southern California professor and the author of "The Culture of Fear." It's a provocative argument, though one formulated before the events of 9-11. Not that our very real anxieties about terrorism negate the Glassner-Moore thesis. On the contrary: one has only to look at how the Bush administration is exploiting that fear--and hyping new scares--to see the connection between fear and political power. (What happened to the notion that, in times of trial, our leaders were supposed to reassure us?)
The person who articulates the connection between panic and consumerism most eloquently is, of all people, Marilyn Manson, the cultural conservative's favorite bogeyman. When Moore asks him what he'd tell the kids at Columbine, he's the only one with the wisdom to say he wouldn't tell them anything, he'd listen to what they had to say. How can you not like a movie in which Marilyn Manson is positioned as the voice of reason?
That's Moore at his unexpected best. For him at his self-righteous worst, there's the aftermath of his interview with Charlton Heston at the movie star's home. Heston, feeling (correctly) ambushed, cuts off the interview and walks off in a huff. Moore then plants a photo of the murdered Flint 6-year-old outside Heston's door, and walks away with his head hanging solemnly, the camera lovingly recording his sensitivity. It was almost enough to make me sympathetic to Heston--if the NRA president hadn't hung himself with an unconsciously racist remark.
Yes, Moore, when he's not being funny and smart, can at times be a self-aggrandizing pain in the ass, but too many critics have dismissed his movie on the basis of their personal animosity. But who else in our timidly apolitical movie culture is raising these issues, planting these grenades under the body politic? Who else has the chutzpah to show up, camera in hand, on Kmart's doorsteps? Perhaps it takes a shameless showman to get American moviegoers to ponder these essential questions about our national nature. His razzle-dazzle techniques can be superficial, but his movie is deep enough to draw blood. Don't swallow "Bowling for Columbine" whole. Fight it. Question it. Enjoy it. But by all means don't miss it.