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Monday, February 15, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Bowling For Columbine

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Winner: Best Documentary Feature, 2002

Director: Michael Moore

Michael Moore. Is there a more divisive filmmaker working today? Maybe Roman Polanski. Maybe. His methods can be suspect, his politics can be inflammatory (even for those who agree with his stance in principle), and his antics occasionally obscure his point, but the impact that he's had on filmmaking really can't be denied. Bowling For Columbine, more than any film before it, made the documentary a commercially viable form of filmmaking. An angry, energetic look at American gun culture, it's one of the most unforgettable films of the last decade.

As with many of his other films, Moore allows himself to take center stage in Bowling For Columbine, presiding over the subject like a cinematic P.T. Barnum and using spectacle to help underscore his argument. The most memorable bit in the film, to my mind at any rate, is the cartoon segment that points to a fear of reprisal for slavery as the prime motivator for the high volume of arms across the country. Another memorable segment involves Moore's interview with Marilyn Manson in which the two discuss why Manson became such an effective target after Columbine and how the tragedy distracted from U.S. activities overseas. When asked if he's aware that the day after Columbine the U.S. dropped more bombs on Kosovo than any other day, Manson replies:
I do know that, and I think that's really ironic, that nobody said 'well maybe the President had an influence on this violent behavior.' Because that's not the way the media wants to take it and spin it, and turn it into fear, because then you're watching television, you're watching the news, you're being pumped full of fear, there's floods, there's AIDS, there's murder, cut to commercial, buy the Acura, buy the Colgate, if you have bad breath they're not going to talk to you, if you have pimples, the girl's not going to fuck you, and it's just this campaign of fear, and consumption, and that's what I think it's all based on, the whole idea of 'keep everyone afraid, and they'll consume.'

This line of thinking, that fear is the most effective tool for leading a population, is further articulated in Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, though I think it's more successful in Bowling For Columbine because here the ire isn't directed at any one political party (Bill Clinton was, after all, the President when bombs were being dropped on Kosovo) whereas Fahrenheit 9/11 can be read as an attack on the Republican party in general and George W. Bush in particular.

Of all the criticisms lobbed at Moore, one of the most common is that he's politically biased, but to say that Moore is biased and frame that as an accusation is to ignore the fact that everyone, to some degree or another, is biased. A documentary may capture real events, but they're constructed into a narrative just like any other film. Every documentary is biased because putting a film together means that you have to be selective, that you have to have a point to your story. Moore just wears his biases on his sleeve. His methods may not always be honest - for example, there's a scene in the film where Moore opens a bank account and is given a gun as a free gift for doing so, which was apparently a set-up for the film and doesn't reflect the reality of the bank's policy in that you wouldn't actually be handed the gun in the bank, you'd get it elsewhere - but his message is still solid. In a place where gun violence is so prevalent, why are weapons being treated as "gifts"?

Beneath the flash, what Bowling For Columbine is trying to do is make us examine what it is, exactly, that we want "personal freedom" to mean. Time and again the constitutional right to bear arms is brought up as a defence of gun culture. What Moore points out is that while the right to have a gun may make a person feel secure, the knowledge that someone you might not want to have a gun has the same right to it that you do, makes that person fearful. To counteract this fear of the unknown and undesirable other who has a gun, you have to have more guns, more elaborate guns, guns that can do more damage. It's a vicious cycle. Does this mean that people shouldn't be allowed to own guns? Not necessarily, but certainly as a society we need to take a closer look at the psychology of gun culture and look at the issues that inform the feelings of unrest that only weaponry can satiate.

Moore's showmanship, his willingness to get in people's faces and make a spectacle out of a situation, has made him a lot of enemies but it is also why he's an engaging screen presence. On the surface he seems somewhat glib, leaving many of the people he interviews open to mockery through ironic framing, but his humor actually has a disarming effect. He makes you laugh at some ridiculous policy or tin eared statement by a politician and juxtaposes it with something serious that makes you think about the larger picture. His presence is off-putting to many people, but even if you disagree with him, his films are still of value because they spark debate about things people should be talking about. He's not a perfect filmmaker and his methods are sometimes suspect, but his passion and desire to steer discourse in a certain direction makes his work worth a look.

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