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Commentary: Breaking Faith: Bowling for Columbine

Commentary: Breaking Faith: Bowling for Columbine

When it was announced that Michael Moore's documentary on the U.S. culture of fear and gun violence, Bowling for Columbine, had won the Academy Award for feature documentary, the Hollywood audience gave him a standing ovation. Moore had invited the other nominees to join him on the podium, and they all did. He emphasized their collective dedication to nonfiction and derided the fictional reasons for the war on Iraq and the fictions of orange alerts and duct tape. He then brazenly scolded the president, saying, "Shame on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you." At that point the orchestra began to play, and one could hear boos that Moore would later claim came from the balcony and the stagehands. After the commercial break that followed, host Steve Martin was ready with a wisecrack, "It was so sweet backstage, the Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo."

Actually, Moore was holding forth at a press conference and enjoying his moment of glory. Not only had he come up with the Oscar, he had stolen the headlines. He was unapologetic about injecting war and politics into the Academy Awards. Although the next morning he was compared in the mainstream media to Vanessa Redgrave and her 1978 pro-Palestinian Liberation Army speech, backstage Moore had said he had no concerns about a Hollywood backlash. He had insisted that most of the audience, like the majority of Americans, were with him and against "Bush's war."

What none of the press asked Moore about were his own fictions: the ways in which he had doctored "truth" in Bowling for Columbine. Even those who agree with Moore's antiwar, anti-Bush politics might have been thinking, Shame on you, Mr. Moore, not for what he said on Oscar night, but for how he deceived and manipulated in making the documentary that won. That this was an important matter could not have escaped the journalists. Serious concerns had been raised about Bowling for Columbine months before in the mainstream press. On Oct. 11, 2002, in a New York Times review, A. O. Scott had dismissed some of Moore's claims as too preposterous to deserve discussion. For example, in reciting a litany of U.S. sins in foreign policy and covert actions that led to violence, Moore shows the first airliner crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers and asserts that Osama Bin Laden--using his CIA training--killed 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001. Many people accept as fact that at some point in time the CIA became involved with Bin Laden. It is Moore's next steps, suggesting that the CIA trained Bin Laden as a terrorist and that he used that training to mastermind the destruction that provoked the New York Times critic. I shall have more to say below about these extra steps and how they fit into Moore's underlying thesis in Bowling for Columbine.

Moore is clever enough to know when someone is making a fool of himself, and he gives them enough rope--time on camera--to hang themselves. If that doesn't work, he is not above getting the result he wants by creative editing that outrages his critics. It has to be said that no documentary is completely objective. Even when the camera is allowed to tell the story, the edited footage reflects the filmmaker's subjectivity. Think of Frederick Wiseman's prize-winning documentaries, which, in their own mind-numbing way, advocate a point of view.

But Moore's project is different from the traditional documentarian, and it's not just that he is a left-wing political advocate. He presents his films as feature-length entertainments. Moore accused critics of his first documentary, Roger and Me, of having no sense of humor and of evaluating his movie as if it were an academic exercise. Pauline Kael called him a "big shambling joker, who uses people as stooges and breaks faith with his audience." Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, agreed that Moore "makes no attempt to be fair," and suggested playing fair is for college football. Kael and Canby could have been discussing Bowling for Columbine.

Given the subject matter of Bowling for Columbine, I doubt that many people in the industry would have expected it to make money. Hollywood knows that there is an insatiable audience for violent films, but what could a documentary about violence say that would be either new or interesting? Moore could have followed the standard hypocritical formula of the antipornography documentary featuring lots of sex and nudity while deploring it. Moore, however, has not filled this film with scenes of gory violence. And he has, in my opinion, wisely stayed away from offering audiences "scientific explanations" of violence. Moore also wanted to address that terrible day of April 20, 1999, when two teen-agers with high-powered weapons killed 12 classmates, a teacher and themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Columbine is an upscale, predominantly white high school outside Denver, not an inner-city ghetto.

It is to Moore's credit that he avoided the academic talking heads who would have held forth on the demonic Y chromosome, the amygdala or serotonin levels in the brain. Moore is the schlep star, and his agenda is political, not scientific. Moore proceeds by a kind of lateral rather than linear thinking. He puts together a series of interviews that link his hometown and Roger and Me location of Flint, Mich., and Littleton, Colo. Much of Moore's skill as a moviemaker consists of manipulating people so that they reveal themselves in cinematic moments that are the equivalent of found art. He is the Marcel Duchamp of documentarians. Where it is possible to believe that--with the famous urinal as sculpture--Duchamp was laughing at his audience, Moore seems to be mocking or at least exploiting the people whom he films.

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