The standard liberal apology for filmmaker Michael Moore goes something like this: It's all very well to have your intellectual beefs with the guy, but who else can make progressive politics palatable for that forever vexing beast known as the American public?
It's a pleasant, though none too clever way of saying: Let's not discuss the filmmaker's grandstanding, his salt of the earth affectations, and penchant for argumentation via machine-gunning barreled fish. Let's not worry about corporate media, because we have our very own champion of the rust-belt proletariat, Michael Moore.
Is anyone surprised that the left is marching to irrelevancy?
All of this is not to detract from the significance of Bowling for Columbine, an all-you-can-eat buffet of food for thought on the following question: Why, more than any other industrialized nation, do Americans kill each other with guns?
Unfortunately, Moore doesn't answer his big question as much as he dances around it, performing stunts that, however funny, do little to further the debate. The film gets its title from the morbidly banal fact that just before their murderous rampage, Columbine assassins Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went bowling. It's an ironic comment on guns being as American as ... er, bowling. As one Michigan Militia member notes in the film after securing a soybean field, "If you're not armed, you're not an American."
Bowling is by turns a rant and a travelogue, spanning from LA to Toronto, Littleton, and Michigan. In one episode, Moore returns to his hometown of Flint, where a 6-year-old boy has shot a girl to death in his first-grade classroom. Moore later discovers that the boy's mother traveled 60 miles to work for $5.50 an hour at a Dick Clarkowned theme restaurant that received tax breaks for participating in the state's welfare-to-work program.
This woman's story is at least a film in itself, but what got Moore's tent-sized boxers in a bunch was the opportunity it provided to harass Dick Clark. Moore's forte, of course, is making the rich and powerful look stupid. A noble pastime indeed, but when probing something as profoundly complex as American violence, celebrity stunts are a cheap sideshow. Moore indulges this later by assaulting a clearly senile Charlton Heston.
The reason Moore's stalking of the bourgeoisie worked so well in his past documentary Roger & Me was that outside a few Leninist cells in Michigan, he was an unknown. Two TV shows, as many best-selling books and 14 years later, Moore is hardly the same nobody. But he can't part with the false earnestness and his disheveled, ordinary guy shtick. How many ordinary guys live in million-dollar Manhattan apartments?
When Moore has the decency to stay behind the camera and listen, we're treated to some pretty insightful commentary from unlikely places. Like Marilyn Manson, whose music was said to inspire Klebold and Harris. When asked what he would say to the Columbine killers, he responds, "I wouldn't say a word to them. I would listen. And that's what no one did."
The film's most disturbing scene is the footage from surveillance cameras of Harris and Klebold during their rampage. Accompanied by 911 calls from students, teachers and Klebold's father, it underscores the imperative of the gun debate better than any of Moore's stunts.
Moore manages to deliver effective pre-emptive strikes against most of the knee-jerk explanations for America's tendency to shoot first and think later. European countries like Germany and England have equally bloody pasts and Canada nearly matches the United States in the number of guns per capita. All these countries feast on our violent media products -- Japan's are even gorier. And Canada has higher unemployment. So, why does America suffer over 11,000 gun-related deaths per year and Canada less than 400?
Part of the reason, Moore suggests, is a culture of fear rooted in slavery and racism that's been made lucrative by the media. Here he employs an animated film on American history by the South Park team and a highlight reel of forgotten media scares like Y2K, killer bees, and even people-slurping escalators. It's an effective argument, though Moore stretches it by pondering irrelevant coincidences like the fact that Columbine occurred on the same day the United States bombed Kosovo. In addition he dumps a montage of American-sponsored imperial violence accompanied by Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." It's a loose thread of argumentation, a cheap irony that serves only to score points with his lefty disciples. Does anyone think American snipers take their sustenance from the Chilean coup or the Contras?
Is Bowling for Columbine a success? It's hard to say. I found myself as angered by the Michael Moore show as American gun violence. But whether your bumper sticker reads "My President is Charlton Heston" or "I'd Rather Be Smashing Imperialism," it's sure to provoke debate. Though if Moore's prescription is gun control, perhaps he should first consider practicing it as a filmmaker.
This weekend Bowling for Columbine will be released nationwide, including Denver. Kimball's Twin Peak Theater expects to bring the film to Colorado Springs next month.