Is the goal of documentaries to educate or entertain? Can a film do both? Maybe. But I assert that in documentary filmmaking one of the two unavoidably takes precedence. In Michael Moore’s films, entertainment wins out. In Bowling for Columbine (2002), Moore uses cartoons and Chris Rock clips among other things as an approach to the documentary. Just look at this film as it contrasts with Night and Fog (1955, Alain Resnais), which, in my opinion, represents an infinitely more honest and effective way to approach documentary filmmaking. Specifically, look at how Resnais’ formalist approach to filmmaking allows the content of his documentary to dictate the film’s progression while with Bowling for Columbine, Moore’s filmmaking style shapes the content.
Bowling for Columbine opens with a montage. Montages are interesting because you can often take and analyze them outside of their film. Moore’s opening montage is bolstered by a strong, very gung ho, pro-American song. He moves between an image of a teacher directing her smiling young students outside to a harmless clip of bowling to some blonde bimbo playing with an assault rifle in what looks like a cheesy 80s ad format to an image of the statue of liberty. What is Moore saying? For me, he is painting a picture of pre-Columbine America in hopes of affecting a new post-Columbine America. He wants gun-control. In this montage, what seems out of place? The narration is very matter of fact, very ‘it’s just a normal day in America.’ What is clear from this opening is the film’s focus on subversion. Michael Moore is a master of subversion, which to me is a key component of comedy; not documentary filmmaking. But, the fact remains, Moore is a documentary filmmaker and this film is a documentary, so rather than dismiss this film, I am going to press forward and view it on its own terms.
The next scene demonstrates what becomes a staple of Moore’s brand: the undercover investigation. He seems, in the scene, to be playing a character for the people he interacts with. In Michigan, there is a bank (North Country Bank and Trust) which offers a free gun in conjunction with the opening of some account. Moore investigates by assuming the role of some random putz who’d like to open an account and get a free gun. Two things are at play here as Moore goes through the motions of acquiring the gun. At a comedic level, I believe the scene works from irony. The audience knows Michael Moore and know that he has no interest in the gun. Borat and Bruno sell the concept of a clown and a ridiculous (staged) situation getting real reactions from real people. But Moore is not clowning. His situations are real (some measure of suspended disbelief is required), which make them seem more ridiculous. Life is stranger than fiction in this scene and his movies. At a serious, political level, the point is that it is much too easy to get a gun in America. They’re handing them out at banks. I guess we are supposed to be alarmed.
Fast forward to a clip of a famous Chris Rock bit. “You don’t need no gun control. We need bullet control. Bullets should cost $5, 000,” Rock quips and I guess, because no more is made of the clip, Moore agrees with him. Besides being very funny, what is the clip’s function in the film? The film, and this points back to Moore’s style, works with a very broad canvas. More than this, Rock and Moore, while addressing the topic with humor, both are talking about a form of gun control. Moore, at least in the film’s first half, points to the ease in which a person can have a gun. Rock suggests a means in which to make the process more difficult.
The next scene is where-even though I understand Moore’s style- Bowling for Columbine regresses for me. This scene, and it is not the only scene in the film to do it, loses much of the seriousness a documentary in exchange for laughs. The scene follows some gun strapped militia in Michigan, while Moore talks with its members. Others may disagree with me, but I just felt they all seemed really dumb. I say this not as a criticism of them but as a criticism of Moore. It is not difficult to make anyone look dumb with a camera and editing and leading questions. My problem though is that a documentary should make a genuine attempt to understand its subjects. You do not have to agree with a person, but you should allow for some understanding. A superficial look at one of the subjects of Hoop Dreams (1994, Steve James), William Gates, might show a kid with a lot of God-given talent who forsakes his academic career and hard work only to flake out in basketball. Perhaps this level of understanding requires more time than Moore’s film, which contains so much already, can afford, but no one can convince me that these people come off well, and for Moore to cozy up to and then set up these people strikes me as underhanded and exploitive. To my larger point about his form directing the content, look at the conversation with one of the militia men talking about, “a level of sophistication” they all have as the camera shows scantily clad camouflage wearing, gun toting women in a calendar the man organized. It is not hard to see the irony Moore sees. These are not sophisticated people.
Next we meet James Nichols. Brother of Timothy McVeigh co-conspirator, Terry Nichols. Again we are left to determine the point of this episode. Is there a link between guns and the McVeigh inspired Oklahoma City bombing? Maybe James can give some clue. Moore asks about the federal search of Nichols land, to which, James replies a shrug, “Yeah, I had blasting caps, dynamite fuses, black powder, muzzle loaders, diesel fuel. Sure.” Now the audience knows for the rest of this scene that he is a crazy person. Moore then moves to the kitchen where they have a casual conversation about law enforcement and conspiracy theories. We never here Moore’s question leading to this rant, but perhaps, as the film has us believe, he started on the topic himself. Without the context of the conversation, the audience is left to play catch up with this insane psychotic rant. By the end of this conversation, Moore brings up Gandhi. On the one hand, you have the pro-gun lunatic ranting about ex-wives and tyranny, and on the other, you have Gandhi. We do not need guns, because Gandhi did not use guns. Late Nichols provides this quote, “I use the pen. Because the pen is mightier than the sword. But you must keep a sword ready in case the pen fails.” By this point and from the absence of logic in this quote, we realize Moore is not dealing with rational people. Later, once more, on the subject of gun control, Nichols finally concedes to some measure of control, because after all, “there’s whackos out there.” End scene. Let the irony sit as that is the last we hear from Nichols. Does Nichols represent pro-gun America? The form Moore chooses for his documentary makes that case.
Cue the Beatles. The second montage of the film is accompanied by a popular Beatles recording. This montage scatters together a host of images including kids playing with toy guns and a blind man having target practice to demonstrate a love affair between America and guns. Why does a blind man need a gun? He doesn’t. America’s right to bear arms is not about need we gather but about love. The montage moves to clips of gun accidents and then into acts of violence. It is apparently a slippery slope. This montage could stand on its own as representing the point of the entire documentary (at least the first half as the second raises some new questions). Moore further spells out his perceived connection between weapons and culture and the Columbine tragedy. This short scene at Lockheed Martin serves no other purpose in the film but to make the director’s point.
The third montage is my favorite. The song is Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” No one ever accused Moore of subtlety. Again his mastery of irony and subversion is on display as we get clips of various U.S instigated atrocities. Remember the scene before ended with the Lockheed Martin guy explaining how in matters of foreign affairs, the United States has to act appropriately. The justification for his company manufactured weapons of mass destruction was that it was a defensive measure counter to other aggressors. This montage shows: United States interference in Iran, assassination in South Vietnam, coup in Chile followed by a dictator being installed, 70,000 murdered in El Salvador, CIA training Osama Bin Laden, weapons distribution in middle east, invasion of Panama, massacres in Southeast Asia, and a mistake in Sudan, capped off by the events of 9/11. What goes around comes around I guess. Moore’s scheme is much larger than just gun crazy civilians. It goes all the way up to the top which he argues creates a culture of violence.
Finally I would like to discuss two of Moore’s most frustrating and unconvincing methods. They are his use of statistics (which I never trust) and what I call the bum-rush interview. They mark two ways in which the director flagrantly leaves his prints on the material rather than letting the material tell the story. His use of statistics will seem like a small grievance from me but it is because he uses numbers so superficially with zero regard for lurking variables. The statistics he gives for the number of gun-related murders for each country are worthless. Of course we have a great many more gun-related murders than Germany, because we have a great many more people. Our murder rate (number of murders per 100,000 people) is right there with all of the countries he named, and that includes other types of murders as well. His style of interview (interrogation) is equally unsatisfying. Who when caught off guard is going to be at their most eloquent? You may argue that when people are unprepared, they are more honest and revealing, but I do not see it that way. Charlton Heston thought he was going to be interviewed for one thing and was ambushed by something else. He was largely ridiculed for his response. Roger Ebert called his answers “pathetic,” but I thought his “mixed ethnicity” answer reasonable (especially if you have seen Do the Right Thing). Regardless of any of this, I call this bullying interview exploitation of an unprepared subject. It is far from ethical.
John E. O’Connor’s essay, with its title, asks the question, “Michael Moore: Cinematic Historian or Propagandist?” Obviously, I would say propagandist. To be clear, propaganda has value, but is, in my opinion, unworthy of being under the documentary category. Resnais’ Night and Fog is devoted to history. It puts the camera on the subject and follows. It recounts the horrors that took place in its concentration camp. The narration is stately; unexpressive and matter of fact. O’Connor references a 1930s idea of documentary as, “productions that would move audiences to social or political action.” But I call this view a reduced image of the documentary. It was reported that after Finding Nemo in 2003, kids started flushing their live fish down toilets. A documentary should shine a light on and make clearer a truth, which is where I think Moore falls short because of his non-salient points and self-important film techniques that obscure the good ideas he does sometimes have. Lynn A. Higgins in her essay, “Documentary in an Age of Terror,” asserts that documentaries, “are the news.” How often have we heard what a propaganda spewing machine the major news outlets have become? Perception is nine/tenths of the law which works with what Higgins finds a difficulty in Documentary filmmaking, when she states, “Despite efforts to define and circumscribe it, however, documentary has never been as distinct as one might wish. A fictional image has the same reality status (or lack of it) as a documentary one, and both are signifiers whose relation to meaning is subject to interpretation (23).” A documentary should then work to circumvent perception and get at truth rather than simply creating a new perception. In the same essay, she later writes, “In a world of images so out of control that a bipartisan website during the 2004 election campaign was dedicated to debunking “spin” and what it called “simulated reason,” the public always risks becoming consumers of a semi-fictional spectacle of power (37).” I feel that during Michael Moore movies we are merely consumers of a semi-fictional spectacle of Moore’s power.