My first thought was, when I walked out the door, is that George Bush is in a shit-load of trouble!
—Michael Moore, to a huge, enthusiastic crowd, in 39 Cities in 23 Days
We all need our Paydays.
—Unemployed Payday plant worker, The Big One
The differences between The Big One and Bowling for Columbine are instructive. For the first, Michael Moore tracks his promotional tour for Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American, a book that is, sadly, as relevant today as it was seven years ago, focused on the effects of unemployment. The second film, more famously, looks at various reasons for excessive gun violence in the States, a quest inspired in part by the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School.
Over the course of The Big One, Moore and crew visit St. Louis, Portland, and Milwaukee (“We’re considered more of a second tier city,” says one media escort, “So we get more thoughtful people”), among other cities. In each, he does tv interviews, signs books, and regales enthusiastic audiences with standup-like stories (for instance: he sent out checks to the various presidential campaigns of 1992, and lo, Pat Buchanan accepted a contribution from a group called the “Abortionists for Buchanan”).
As always, it helps if you take Moore on his own terms, which means you have to appreciate his style of humor (often quite sharp), tendency to self-aggrandize (at once parodic and sincere), and penchant for repeating his important points. Moore’s hounding of some apparently unsuspecting rich corporate representative about a deplorable policy or decision results repeatedly in said employee looking angry, embarrassed, or otherwise unhinged (hands raised to the camera are not uncommon), as Moore looks bemused, performing for an audience who can consider itself righteously entertained and edified.
The Big One examines class warfare in the United States, executive bullshitting, and working folks’ daily pains and worries. Moore shows up at the office of Johnson Controls (which makes auto parts and which has just announced it is closing its Milwaukee plant in order to move operations to Mexico) with a gift: he’s carrying an oversized ceremonial check for 80¢ to pay the first Mexican worker for his or her first hour of labor. The human resources rep is flustered, Moore is insistent and the point is unavoidable.
The tour, initially conceived by Random House as a five-city gig, metamorphosed—following the book’s rise to the New York Times bestseller list—into another installment of Moore’s campaign against Corporate Evil, targeting local suits who crossed his path in some 47 cities. This shift in scale is in itself an interesting phenomenon to contemplate (and the film even gestures toward such contemplation for about three seconds), epitomizing a process where the book and the author become equally sellable products. Instead of pursuing this idea, though, the film takes up a more traditional endeavor, promoting Moore as a hero of and for the working folks.
Moore is both appealing product and dynamic champion. Throughout his travels in The Big One, he finds far too many versions of Roger Smith (reluctant costar of Roger & Me), CEOs and administrators who refuse to give him straight answers when he asks about downsizing policies, factory closings and anti-union practices. In Centralia, Illinois, Moore finds a Payday candy bar factory about to close, despite (or actually, because of) the fact that it has just turned a $20 million annual profit. In Philadelphia, he won’t cross a Borders Book Shop workers’ picket line to sign books inside (the picketers are protesting lack of benefits and low pay), so the chain cancels his New York store appearance.
He finds similarly dire situations for other workers and unemployed folks, in Madison, WI, Chicago, Cincinnati (where he gives Proctor & Gamble a special Downsizer Award, for laying off 13,000 people since 1993, while the company has made record profits, $6 billion: the reason given by the hapless rep is that P&G needs to remain “competitive”). Moore finds time to play guitar riffs with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, speak to university and other audiences (his standup routine is actually quite amusing), share book tour survival strategies with Garrison Keillor, and chat with a predictably strange Steve Forbes campaign worker.
This all leads to a climax of sorts, a meeting with Nike CEO Phil Knight, in Portland. It’s hard to say what Knight was thinking when he invited Moore and crew for a visit, but Moore takes full advantage, arriving with a pair of tickets to Indonesia, suggesting that he and Knight tour the factories where 12-year-old girls make Nike sneakers (36% of the shoes are made there). Knight can’t fit the trip into his schedule, and, by the way, he sets the record straight: the girls are 14, not 12.
Moore doesn’t pretend to be naïve or even working class anymore. The film is upfront about its self-promotional angles, showcasing his popularity and interactions with the people he seeks to represent, and his underdoggish flailing against the people he seeks to bother. The scene with Knight is cagey, allowing Knight enough rope to do whatever damage he’s inclined to do to his own and Nike’s PR. At first you can’t believe that he’d set himself up like this: he can’t possibly come off well in the interview, unless he’s serious about changing conditions and policies (Moore tries to convince him to open a plant in Flint, but can only get him to agree to contribute a matching $10,000 to Flint’s public schools).
Then you think, there are probably all kinds of ego-tripping and irrelevant psychodrama guilt issues going on for Knight, none of which explain or excuse the abuses his company inflicts on workers daily. Basically, he’s a big easy target for Moore. But the episode usefully illustrates Moore’s standard tactic, which is to expose the intellectual frailty, general buffoonery and willful blindness that characterize multi-billion-dollar international business types. Their success is premised on the fact that most folks don’t have the time, energy or resources to challenge their everyday oppressors. Moore does, which helps to make him an effective advocate and rousing agitator.
After watching The Big One, Bowling for Columbine looks almost of a piece. He’s toned down his act over the years. Just so, he backs off center stage for the Bowling commentary track. “On this DVD,” Moore says at the beginning, “I thought we’d do something different. Why don’t we hear from some people on the lowest rungs of the ladder?” And so, he introduces the receptionist, the production assistants, and interns who worked on the film (with pictures included in a “Staff and Crew Photo Gallery”).
These eight go on to describe their responses to the film, wonder about all the guns in Michigan, vaguely remember history that shows up in the movie, and make cracks about “American traditions” like militia groups: “Remember when the movie was six hours long!” on says. Another observes, “I think bowling is kind of violent,” or “April 20: that’s my brother’s birthday,” answered by, “I think that’s Hitler’s birthday too.” When the Chris Rock segment comes up (as he suggests in his stand-up routine that bullets should cost $5000, to encourage a lower rate of use), one of the “lowest rung” commentators announces, “This is how I get my news: Chris Rock, The Daily Show, and Henry Rollins. That’s how I know everything.” And when George Bush comes on screen, they giggle and make fun of the phrase “evil doers.”
The film proper takes a similarly skeptical view of official rhetoric. The question at its center is deadly serious: “Why are people scared?” Moore’s filmic essay on gun violence in the United States takes Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s 1999 assault on their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School as a point of departure, then goes on to consider a range of contexts—legal, cultural, political, and media—in order to complicate this profound and difficult question. That it comes up with no simple answers is to its credit.
At first glance, the reasons for fear seem numerous and overwhelming: images of violence pervade U.S. media (news, fiction, videogames, etc.); ideals of masculinity are premised on aggression and possession; guns are readily available, as well as a “right” granted by the Second Amendment. Moore’s film notes each of these reasons, yet argues that they don’t constitute definitive answers. In fact, Bowling for Columbine, the first documentary in competition at Cannes in 46 years and winner of 2002’s Academy Award for Documentary, offers another reason: race and racism continue to divide and frighten Americans.
This is most explicit in the animated “Brief History of the United States of America,” by Harold Moss of Flickerlab. The story goes like this: Pilgrims cross the Atlantic to escape persecution; in the New World, they run into scary Native Americans whom they massacre. Importing free labor from Africa (“the genius of slavery”), the New World denizens find more reason to be afraid, arm themselves against rebellion, and soon the U.S. is “the richest country in the world.” Increasing internal resistance to this particular economic system is met by the invention of multiple shot weapons, and when the KKK is declared illegal (a “terrorist organization”), the NRA is born. As blacks migrated to cities, “whites ran in fear to the suburbs, and once in the suburbs, still afraid, they bought millions and millions of guns” in an inevitably failing effort to preserve their property, privilege, and sense of “order.”
The film goes on to point to a variety of examples, some more clearly related than others—“Africanized” killer bees, racialized designations of the “evildoers,” Willie Horton, Susan Smith (who accused a “black man” of carjacking the children she killed), Charles Stuart (who accused a “black man” of murdering his pregnant wife), and the ongoing fear of perps “of color” inculcated and promoted by the long-running series Cops.
The argument that racism shapes fear and violence in the States is compelling, but the film has other bones to pick, including the lessons of fear and violence absorbed by children from their elders. Moore observes that Harris and Klebold went bowling, for a class, on the morning before they started shooting. On that same morning, the U.S. launched its most devastating air attack on Kosovo. He also observes that Lockheed Martin employs many of the kids’ parents, that they make a living building weapons of mass destruction. When he asks one employee to comment on the apparent irony of this situation, the man is incredulous, unable to see a connection.
Moore traces the U.S. culture of fear, seeking corroboration from a range of interview subjects. Littleton native Trey Parker, co-creator of South Park, observes that the NRA committed an act of astoundingly bad taste when it refused to alter its plans for a convention in Denver, days after the Littleton shootings. Marilyn Manson, heaped with blame for this and other episodes of school violence, intelligently (and in full “scary” face makeup) remarks on the perpetual “campaign of fear and consumption,” by which people are convinced to buy products in order to stave off rejection as well as attack. To exemplify the danger of this connection, Moore brings a couple of Columbine survivors down to the local K-Mart to convince the chain to stop selling ammunition: much to everyone’s surprise, Moore included, the managers agree to stop.
As startled and grateful as he is at this moment, there’s no question that Moore has an agenda. Here, he talks his way into Charlton Heston’s L.A. gates, whereupon he asks him pointedly about his NRA speechmaking (in the wake of Columbine and again, during a rally in Flint just after the shooting of 6-year-old citizen Kayla Rolland by another first-grader). Moore presses Heston to come up with possible reasons for the States’ inordinate rates of gun violence, Heston suggests “historical” proclivities, then finally blurts that it must be bound up in American “mixed ethnicity.” Moore doesn’t wait, but repeats the phrase back to Heston, who blanches when he hears his own words come back at him. He cuts off the interview and shambles off, his back retreating from the camera as Moore asks him to look at little Kayla’s photo. Heston is an easy target, but his slip speaks to the slippery workings, unconscious or hyperconscious, of what now seems an inexorable campaign of fear and consumption, realized again and again in U.S. popular and political cultures.
This particular “campaign” is only exacerbated during the 2004 presidential election. Moore carries on his mission in a third disc included in the “collection’s edition,” a 13-minute featurette, 39 Cities in 23 Days, showing Moore on tour for Dude, Where’s My Country? On these stops, it’s clear his own status has changed: he’s a rock star, acclaimed by humungous crowds, often on university campuses. And while he surely returns their energy, Moore’s demeanor now is changed, informed by the possibility of ending the Bush administration. Here, he’s not telling funny stories. Here, he’s angry. At the time, some 300 U.S. troops had died in Iraq. As Moore puts it plainly, brave young troops agree to fight and die, asking only one thing in return, that their efforts be justified and the people do so in good faith.
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