Bowling For Columbine DVD review

Film / Video Reviews
Bowling For Columbine DVD review
Aug 19, 2003, 19:23

BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE directed by Michael Moore; MGM, 2003

The world according to the movies of Michael Moore is a very simple one. To the tips of his stubby fingers, Moore is a Manichean, suffusing his films with an obstinately good vs. evil take on humanity. While Moore himself would admit to being the least introspective of directors, he's doubtless much smarter than this. A smidgen of effort, and surely he could conceive of George Bush or Roger Smith as redeemable human beings. But to present them as sympathetic persons, men who in one or more aspect of their lives evince some good (perhaps they're nice uncles?), would defeat his purpose as a film-maker. The behavior of the powerful men he loves to bait is system-sanctioned and therefore beyond his reach. Likely, the black and white configuration of reality in his films doesn't reflect Moore's view of life so much as it serves as a useful position to assume in propaganda. He's not interested in the irreducible truth, if there is indeed such a thing, but rather subscribes to a form of pragmatism that conveniently ignores much in favor of emphasis on direct action. Whether you're a leftie or not, how much this particular (non?) philosophy corresponds to your own predilections will determine how well you respond to the Moore aesthetic.

In a sense, he's not all that different from the most textbook example of Hollywood system directing. Politics aside, both it and what I'll call the “Moore-system” look to elicit stock responses, and will go to shameless, often embarrassing lengths to

ensure that the desired emotions are thoroughly stirred. The results, unsurprisingly, make for frequently terrible, often dishonest film. But in the face of low wages, mass layoffs, minors bearing firearms, etc., Moore asks: “Who cares?”

Moore's abiding populism is both an asset and weakness. On one hand, it's refreshing that he at least believes in something, ie people. So even though we let out a collective groan as, amidst clip after clip of violent atrocities, the soundtrack blares “What A Wonderful World” in a characteristic fit of Moorian, uh, wit and juxtaposition, you can't hate him so much because he's genuinely, righteously pissed. In contrast, there's no missing the indulgent smugness of Stanley Kubrick when he condemns humanity to a slow, torturous death to a background of classical music in just about any one of his films.

Moreover, Moore's choice of a popular American idiom like jazz over the cold, aloof elitism of Beethoven's Ninth, while seemingly insignificant, only strengthens his man-of-the-people persona. And make no mistake, the version of Moore presented on camera is a persona. A facade all too eager to invade every scrap of celluloid can't be denied; but Moore, defender of the downtrodden, in his frumpish, blue-collar pose, is a somewhat likeable creation. There's no attempt made to drape his paunch in a whole lot of artist mystique. But enough about Kubrick.

For such a populist director, though, Moore sometimes doesn't give his audience's intelligence its fair due. There's an obsequious tone that nags at the viewer throughout Columbine; it's unmistakably present in his interaction with Canadians, where his questionable findings in my home and native land strike me as being too easily affirming. They're the sort of scenes where we're all supposed to get the fuzzies because, by virtue of being Canadian, we've earned the privilege, but even a moment's reflection will tell you that the sentiment is cheap.

There are a few times, too, when Moore would be wise to remain quiet. Repeating a ridiculous statement of a gun-toting wingnut, while understandably tempting, serves as a sort of laugh track. The viewer is invited not only to laugh along with Moore, but to do so at the expense of the interviewee. This can be fine when deserved, but we're smart enough to know when something is funny. It's symptomatic of Moore's insecure need to always move his audience, whether through laughter or tears.

Worse then his alternately condescending and butt-kissing tone, however, is the uncomfortable way in which the comedic and solemn mingle. He shows admirable restraint by allowing the security footage of the Columbine massacre to stand on its own, with no music or voice-over commentary to suck up the powerful visual impact. As well, it would take a man much stronger than myself not to laugh at the short cartoon produced courtesy of South Park conspirators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. But Moore's encounter with Charlton Heston, particularly in the movie's final scene, is a strong contender for the most embarrassing moment in the whole history of cinema. It is so contrived a gesture, so desperate in its attempt to simultaneously move the audience and guilt-trip Heston, that it achieves none of these goals and in the process exploits a young girl's death. Given where Moore places the picture of the young girl, we realize that his intention was never to make Heston think about his insensitivity. Lost of its fraudulent practical and didactic design, the gesture is reduced to an empty ploy that is dishonest, insensitive, and pretentious.

When Moore is practical, such as when he enlists the aid of two boys shot at Columbine High to convince K-Mart execs to discontinue their sale of bullets, he is also confusing. His achievement is laudable, but its inclusion in the film is questionable. Does he want to show that corporate reform is possible? Is it self-congratulatory? Exploitative? I'd like to think it's a little bit of each, not to mention corny. It actually brings to mind an article by the late Dwight Macdonald, “The Invisible Poor,” which was a somewhat dry roundup of facts on America's needy. The piece, which ran in The New Yorker in 1963, somehow made its way into the hands of White House higher-ups, prompting an official declaration of war against poverty. Now, what results were yielded from said war I don't know, but my point is that what is uninteresting aesthetically can often be effective in other ways. But a movie should above all be pleasurable. For once, Moore's moral and aesthetic stance is made somewhat ambiguous.

Synopsis be damned. Bowling For Columbine is a film that's all heart, no scruples. You decide.

-Armen Svadjian

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