Friday, October 18, 2013

Where's Our Documentary?

Film: Bowling for Columbine
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

With the exception of Roger and Me, I always come to the films of Michael Moore with some trepidation. I can’t change the truth that Moore is an excellent filmmaker. He has a unique voice for a documentarian, but he’s also a polemicist. If you say that you like Michael Moore’s films, you’re suddenly a Whole Foods-shopping pinko communist. If you say that you hate Michael Moore’s films, you are a right-wing religious fundamentalist Nazi. While certainly true in some cases, it’s not true in all. Bowling for Columbine suffers the same problem. Moore is so polarizing that it’s easy to miss the actual message of the film.

As the title indicates, this is a film about America’s fascination with guns and the terrible cost that that fascination sometimes forces us to pay. The film came out several years after the shooting incident in Littleton, CO, but even if it came out now, “Columbine” as a word has changed its meaning in the American lexicon. It’s not a flower anymore; it’s a high school in Colorado. Moore is completely up front with why this is such an interesting topic for him. Within the first few minutes of the film, he talks about his own history with firearms and his membership in the NRA. Let me repeat that: super pinko leftie Michael Moore is literally a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, or at least was when this film was made.

Early in the film, Moore makes the most obvious comparison he can—he discusses the vast difference in the number of firearm deaths in other first-world countries with the number in the United States. It’s not a shock that those other countries have counts in two- or three digits while the American total is over 11,000. So the obvious problem is guns, right? Except that this is not where Moore takes the film, and he’s really to be commended for this. It’s the easiest possible argument to make, but Moore avoids it, and even shows it to be fallacious. He does this by looking at Canada, a country with its own love of firearms and a surprisingly low firearm murder rate.

So what is Moore’s hypothesis? It’s not our fascination with guns, but our fascination with fear. We are constantly bombarded by fear and fear mongering from our government, advertising, the news media, entertainment media, and virtually everywhere else. He makes a pretty compelling case. Is it true? I have no idea. I’d love to see more research done on it. Moore makes a good argument in favor of this hypothesis, but he’s also a filmmaker and is certainly capable of only showing us the things that agree with his point of view.

It’s not something I advertise a lot, but I live in a town that experienced a mass shooting. On Valentine’s Day in 2008, a gunman killed a half dozen people on the campus of Northern Illinois University. I live a couple of miles from campus. The building I had an office in just two years prior overlooked the building where the shooting happened. There isn’t a lot mentioned about the NIU shooting anymore because, well, the body count wasn’t high enough to stay in the public consciousness. I’ve lived through this, more or less. My daughter was in daycare a couple of blocks away when the shooting happened. It’s a scary thing to see CNN helicopters over your house and see the local Indian restaurant on television above a caption listing the death toll.

The single biggest problem with the films of Michael Moore is that they are the films of Michael Moore. It’s impossible for him to do anything without immediately causing an uproar and creating mass emesis throughout Red State America. If Moore eats a pizza, pizza manufacturers go on record as saying it wasn’t one of theirs while hamburger restaurants claim that by eating pizza, he wants the burger industry to fail. It’s tiresome and these days, it’s unavoidable.

So to get beyond that, it’s important to focus on the film at hand. It’s a smart film, and a funny one. It’s clever in places. It’s also at times potentially unfair. Moore, while his hypothesis may well be correct, is never satisfied with focusing himself too much. He always sprays with a wide hose, and he has more than enough blame to go around here.

I’d love to see him get back to films like Roger and Me, but I suspect it’s impossible because these days, everything he touches is immediately tainted or sanctified (your choice) with the Moore name. And that’s too bad, because the truth is that he’s really a pretty good filmmaker and Bowling for Columbine, while only a documentary in the strictest of terms, is a pretty good film.

Why to watch Bowling for Columbine: Love him or hate him, Moore makes a good film.
Why not to watch: Your reaction to a polemic makes people think they know everything about you.


  1. I pretty much agree with your take on Michael Moore. I don't think his talk with Charlton Heston helped his cause (valid though it may be). Heston just appeared too sick to feel much for him but sympathy.

    1. Agreed. The perception from that scene is, right or wrong, Moore is pretty much a dick. It shouldn't hurt his case, but it kind of does.

      Then again, my mother refuses to watch any film with Heston in it because of his politics, so some people's mileage obviously varies.

  2. As a whole this film didn't work for me because I simply didn't buy Moore's conclusion. It felt like he was trying too hard to find something new with the issue other than the common sense "more guns equals more gun deaths". The U.S. has more car fatalities than other countries, too, because more cars equals more car deaths. And Canada has experienced their own shootings in schools; they just don't make the news here unless they're really big, like the one in Montreal in the late 80s.

    I vaguely remember that college campus shooting that you talked about, but you're right: if you had asked me to name ones I wouldn't have come up with it. I don't know if that's more a comment on me or our society as a whole. That must have been crazy to go through.

    The film that Moore did that I felt was the least politicized is Sicko. It's about the state of medical care in this country. Moore doesn't present it as a left vs. right debate, but simply as a human issue. It may be what you're looking for in regards to getting back towards Roger and Me.

    1. I should give Sicko a chance. Moore has become so polemic, though, that I tend to avoid his films unless I'm forced to watch them.

  3. This one still strikes a chord with me. While I do think that Moore reaches a bit farther than he probably initially had planned on doing, the messages and ideas still work, even 11 years later. Makes sense why it won the Oscar and practically made him an even bigger name that gets associated with all sorts of controversies and annoyances. That said, he is a talented filmmaker and I wish he would make another documentary soon. Nice review SJ.

    1. It hits me harder than a lot of his films do, too. That probably wouldn't have been the case when it came out, but it certainly does now.

      Sadly, Moore can't work without controversy now. I'd complain about that, but he brings most of it on himself and does so intentionally.