Bowling For Columbine
A Film Directed and Written by Michael Moore
The new film from iconoclastic author/film-maker/provocateur Michael Moore is inconclusive, fragmentary, confusing and upsetting - which is to say, it seems to be everything Mr Moore hoped it would be. With his typical mix of flaring outrage, humor that is heavily flavored with irony, and evocative use of imagery, Moore has once again done what the conventional wisdom declares impossible - produced a watchable, intelligent, thoughtful documentary film for theatrical release.
Moore stands alone in current American cinema, and his achievement is noteworthy. He has inserted himself into his films as no documentarian has done before, giving each film, and his body of work as a whole a cohesive center. At considerable risk to himself - not the least from vicious charges of demagoguery and egotism by those who disagree with him - he has brought a personality - and popularity - to the documentary film that not even such proponents as the paragon of that genre, Frederick Wiseman, could create.
Daring to be boorish, to be unfair, to show his bias, Moore's approach is one of confrontation and participation in the process rather that of the "invisible" and presumably "objective" observer of documentary tradition. Moore apparently recognizes the essential dishonesty of this position. It is virtually impossible for any creative artist to eliminate the conscious and unconscious evidences of his or her predispositions from a work, and the attempt to give the impression of "objectivity" then becomes doubly duplicitous.
And so, he takes the opposite tack, exposing himself, his camera, his process, to constantly remind the viewer of who is doing the filming. By viewing the information presented in full understanding of who is making the filming and editing decisions, and what sort of mind-set and questions that person brings (and doesn't bring) to the investigation, Moore invites the audience to consider both the evidence he presents and his interpretation of it, in a way that is far more fair, far more daring and far more provocative than classical forms of the genre.
To take an extreme contrast, Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph Of The Will, about the 1934 Party Rally held in Nuremburg purported to be an "objective" documentation of the scenes of that event. In hindsight, it is easy to see the propagandistic value - the extreme prejudice with which every scene, indeed, every frame, is imbued. Everything from the camera angles and perspectives, to the music, to the selective editing underscores Riefenstahl's theme of Nazi "triumph" - often in contradiction to the actual facts.
The impossibility of creating a clear line of demarcation between the "documentary" and the "propaganda film" was brilliantly illustrated by Riefenstahl's film - although it has taken decades for the message to sink in even as far as it has. Moore speaks to this problem by aggressively abandoning the posture of "impartiality" in favor of clear, contentious activism. Where Riefenstahl's manipulation and dishonesty are concealed, Moore's films put his point of view and any limitations arising from it squarely in the foreground.
The result is a series of films that provoke the audience to examine their own prejudices, to examine the evidence Moore presents, to criticize (that is, to think critically about) the subject Moore introduces and his presentation of it. Although, like Riefenstahl, Moore clearly has a sense of what he thinks is a reasonable conclusion, unlike her, he is unwilling to impose it on the audience by manipulation, and constantly includes his thought-processes and decisions as a valid part of our investigation.
Bowling For Columbine is another useful, powerful contribution to the national dialogue on violence. Psychiatrist James Gilligan has called violence a "national epidemic," and it seems Moore would concur. Starting from what he describes as the "typical liberal" point of view that the presence of so many guns is at the root of our problem of gun violence, Moore explores more than the easy answers to the question.
At one particularly wrenching point, interviewing a parent of one of the children slain in the Columbine killings, the parent asks Moore, "Why is there so much violence here?" Moore repeats the question back to him - he repeats it back to Moore, and after several repetitions, the two conclude that they don't know. And that is typical of Moore's approach - not offering "answers," but provoking subjects - and audiences - to question for themselves.
Not that he shys away from presenting his own ruminations and examinations. Having examined the conventional "liberal" wisdom that it is the number of guns available to Americans, and our easy access to them that makes gun violence so prevalent here, Moore finds statistics that effectively contradict it. He visits Canada, where there are nearly as many guns per household as there are in the US - and finds that gun-related homicides are a tiny fraction - less than 1/10th - of what they are in the US.
He reports the theories of various commentators and pundits who blame everything from "the media" to shock-rock singer Marilyn Manson, and even explores them, including a thoughtful interview with Manson among the footage. Other interviews, with Law Enforcement officials, the brother of convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry McNichols, members of the Michigan Militia, a pubic prosecutor, educators. students from Columbine and "people in the street" serve to highlight and expose a variety of points of view and explanations.
And among all this, Moore does find the seeds of a possible explanation, and he is not reticent about putting them forth. As one of his interviewees - a professor who has made a study of the media - notes, violent crime rates in America, and especially murders, have been dropping gradually for two decades. Yet during this same period, the amount of time spent reporting on violent crime has increased by orders of magnitude.
Moore notes that this focus on - almost a promotion of - the "dangerous" nature of American life creates a climate of instability and insecurity that businesses and politicians can then offer "remedies" to cure. He likens the process to that of advertising, where a producer first identifies a need, then seeks to make people recognize that need in themselves - sometimes though emotional manipulation and even mis-representation - and finally offers a product that they promise will satisfy that need.
Knowing that some companies have invented or purposefully exaggerated "problems" - think "halitosis" or "B.O." - and then sought to make people self-conscious about them in order to sell them a product, it shouldn't be surprising that those who want power over everything from the political process to socio-economic development should use the same tactics - destabilization through the exploitation of insecurities coupled with promises of relief from that destabilization - to get their messages and programs across.
But Moore is too good a film-maker to approach the subject from this abstract, conceptual level. Instead, he lets the images, the people he encounters, the situations he both creates and observes do the talking for him. And they do an excellent job - not of creating a watertight, convincing argument, but rather of suggesting alternative meanings, alternative interpretations of phenomena we encounter every day.
Moore's approach is simultaneously eclectic and wide-ranging. He notes with curiosity the fact that the same company that is the nation's largest Defense Contractor - Lockheed-Martin - is also the company that is the largest employer in Columbine, where they have a major facility devoted to the creation of delivery systems for truly terrifying weapons of mass destruction, and also the company that designed the "Welfare-to-work" program that employed the mother of the Flint (MI) six year old who shot a first-grade classmate to death in what was the "youngest" incident of school gun-violence.
Is there a connection? Moore asks more than once. He asks executives from Lockheed-Martin. He asks participants in the welfare to work program. He asks teachers. He asks ordinary citizens. He ask us.
And it is in providing information, introducing people and watching them present their cases, and in "connecting" various bits of dialogue, interview, file footage, reportage and imagery through the filmmaker's art that he suggests the possibility that there may be an answer out there, and that we, the audience, may be smart enough to figure it out for ourselves. In the end, he leaves us free to come to any conclusion we wish. What he asks is that we look at the material he presents and consider it.
The production values of a documentary film are unique to that genre. The sense of immediacy of hand-held camera work, resulting in sometimes dizzying camera movement and sometimes incomprehensible camera angles is par for the course, where content is more important in the final event than presentation. That said, Moore has developed the style to a high degree of professionalism. His camera operator often anticipates movement and is positioned to intercept it or to carry on observation subjects would like to terminate.
The one-on-one interviews show a strong understanding of how to make such potentially boring exchanges dramatic, through frequent changes in the camera's point of view (unusual in a documentary) and rapid cutting between interviewer and interviewee that give the conversations a real sense of engagement.
Michael Moore is an accomplished filmmaker, in a genre no one else has ever developed so successfully. Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, his use of technique, his opinions, if you expose yourself to his work he will make you think, question, explore some of your own preconceptions and prejudices. And that, it seems to me, is his real objective - to engage, to excite, to upset, to involve his audience into taking a new look at the world around them, to consider more possibilities than they did before they saw his films. In Bowling For Columbine, he once again achieves that objective.
That's my take on it. What's yours?