It's Been Real
Bowling for Columbine
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"So if I'm just normally mentally defective, but not criminal?"-Michael Moore

"If a bullet cost $5,000, there'd be no more innocent bystanders."-Chris Rock

Early in this column, I coined the term docuMEntary to describe documentaries that focus on the person making them as much, if not more than on the subject they claim to be about. At the time, I claimed that Michael Moore is the most prominent docuMEntary filmmaker, a view I still hold. It is important to also point out, however, that Moore is one of the most successful documentary filmmakers of all time, with four films on the top ten highest grossing documentaries list. People usually either love Michael Moore or hate him, yet what is impressive is that individuals on both sides of the fence tend to see his movies in droves. What makes people see Michael Moore movies isn't the particular hot button issue he is examining, unfortunately. People see Michael Moore movies because of their feelings on Michael Moore. Almost no one sees a Michael Moore movie to become more informed on an issue; that would be a silly thing to do, as it is obvious that all of the information Moore presents will be completely biased. People see Moore's movies as a way of validating things they already believe or pulling apart Moore's straw-man arguments to prove why they disagree with him.

What makes Michael Moore interesting isn't what he advocates (though, I will freely admit I likely find him more interesting because I usually agree with him), but the way in which he advocates for what he believes. Michael Moore doesn't make documentaries, not really. He makes docuMEntaries that are constructed from the get go to persuade people to adopt his views on an issue. There's nothing wrong with this as a rule, especially since everyone seeing a Michael Moore movie knows this to be the case. I might have larger problems with Moore if he was less of a cultural touchstone; if fewer people knew him as a liberal propagandist, more people might take his films at face value, as attempts to seek out the truth. Yet Michael Moore is always bigger than whatever movie he is making, and so the message is always secondary to the man. As long as Michael Moore stands so openly in favor of persuasion rather than investigation, I am not too worried that he will misinform the masses.

Moore can be tough to stomach even for people who agree with him, largely because he uses heavy-handed satire and a street-level approach that almost attempts to make him seem like a regular documentary filmmaker. Moore approaches all of his targets as a "regular man on the street" even though nothing could be further from the truth. He may be outside the corporate structure he so often attacks, but he certainly isn't a regular guy wandering in to confrontations; he is a talented filmmaker and advocate who constructs situations for himself to "wander" into. Moore tries to give a populist spin to the ideas he advocates, but he never fails to come off as condescending. He doesn't just believe he's right, he knows he is, and the person who knows anything is always more likely to come off as pigheaded.

Bowling for Columbine is Moore's most tonally and thematically scattershot work, jumping from one point to the next so quickly it can be easy to lose sight of the larger picture he is painting. It is also probably his best movie, a savagely funny and pointed condemnation of American gun culture and our lust for violence that at its best manages to relate our gun violence problems to a larger American culture of fear. Moore hangs his movie on the tragedy at Columbine High School, examining potential catalysts for the shooting and interviewing Marilyn Manson (who was blamed by some for inciting violence) and South Park's Matt Stone, as well as many residents of Little Rock, Colorado about the tragedy and what might have prevented it.

Yet Columbine is clearly the draw to the movie more than Moore's actual focus. By naming the film Bowling for Columbine and promoting it's focus on a national tragedy, Moore got legions of people into seats for a much broader discussion of gun violence in America. The film opens in Moore's home town of Flint, Michigan (where a bank offers a gun to anyone who opens an account) and goes as far afield as Canada to research potential reasons why the United States' gun-death rate is so astronomically inflated compared to any other developed country. And while Charlton Heston, president of the NRA and archetypal stupid white conservative, did embroil himself in a Columbine related scandal (refusing to cancel a pro-gun rally in nearby Denver just 10 days after the shooting), Moore's climactic meeting with him is more crass and baiting than brimming with journalistic integrity or valid argumentation. It seems obvious Moore had wanted to get in a room with Heston for a long time, and this documentary just gave him the chance.

Moore's work always blends smart (if heavy-handed) satire, tough humanism, and a petty tendency to be a bit of a bully. Moore can come across as mean-spirited, but he is redeemed by the sense that he is always concerned for the state of his society and hoping to make it better (even if he does so in a way that makes him seem like a condescending know-it-all). Bowling for Columbine is a very funny film about issues that aren't funny at all. Moore uses the humor throughout to remind people that some things are too horrifying to laugh away. Michael Moore is many things, but it would be hard to deny he is a concerned citizen with his country's best interests at heart. His movies might be more unbiased if he would step out of the limelight, but its unlikely they'd be more persuasive. Moore places himself in front of the camera as a means of putting the issues he triumphs center stage. He uses his own celebrity, and his own infamy, to force people to debate the issues he cares about, even if they are only arguing about how wrong he got it. In short, Michael Moore is good for this country, whether you like or loathe him. And if he was willing to put himself aside and stop making docuMEntaties, a lot less attention would be focused on some very important areas.

Read more It's Been Real here

Coming up on It's Been Real:

6/24: Hellboy: In the Service of the Demon

7/8: Rockumentary Month: Don't Look Back

7/22: Rockumentary Month: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

8/5: The Cruise
comments powered by Disqus