Why Does Anyone Turn to a Michael Moore Film?
From Bowling for Columbine to the recent Fahrenheit 11/9, one wonders, what is being validated in Michael Moore films?
Bowling for Columbine
19 Jun 2018Other
There's something that has always rankled me about Michael Moore—all the more so since my political sensibilities seem to align with his. Like Moore, I'm deeply concerned with the economic and quality-of-life disparities between the upper class on the one hand and the middle and lower classes on the other. Like Moore, I believe that class distinction is a real issue in the world and not simply a marker of who worked harder than whom. Like Moore, I hold that the lack of equitable health care, rampant fear and violence, and racial injustice plaguing American society in a manner that is entirely incommensurate with our standing in the world and with our vaunted view of ourselves as a nation. Also, like Moore, I do not concede that any of these beliefs and concerns demonstrates an antagonism toward or lack of faith in the United States in its potential (however attenuated, however far from our actual grasp) to live up to the ideals canonized by our Constitution.
Given these commonalities and given his prominence and ability to rile people up on both sides of the political spectrum about issues that matter (healthcare, corporate greed, gun violence), I have continually turned to his films. The question becomes: what do I turn to his films for? What does anyone turn to a Michael Moore film in order to obtain? For those who disagree entirely with his views, they serve as a welcome target of ridicule. I suppose some on the left may look to Moore for validation but, limiting our purview to Bowling for Columbine, I'm not entirely sure what is being validated.
To boil down Moore's "argument" in the film (insofar as one exists) in a manner that seems entirely fair to the claims set forth in this endeavor: the US has the highest rates of gun violence of any first-world country because we are a fear-mongering nation. But I can't imagine anyone arguing entirely against this point—not even Charlton Heston, who is treated as the endpoint of the film, kind of like the ultimate "boss" in the role-playing-game that Moore has set for himself. That claim is simply too obvious on one level: fear leads to a proliferation of arms, which leads to greater levels of fear—a pernicious and seemingly intractable feedback loop. This is a claim that would be familiar and acceptable to the most avowed defender of the second amendment as well as the most committed advocate of gun control—only the lesson learned differs; the gun rights person believes this justifies heightened awareness and arms acquisition while the gun control advocate believes the cycle must be broken.
On another level, the claim only gives rise to more important and nebulous questions. How did we get to this impasse? What historical factors led to this outsized veneration of the gun? And most importantly, what can we possibly do to ameliorate the situation?
Moore has very little interest in the historical questions of how we got into this mess. His historical overviews come in two batches, and both are trite and reprehensible (at least they are reprehensible if they are meant to be in any way informative). One such potted history is dubbed by those working on the film as the "What a Wonderful World" sequence owing to the fact that it's set to Louis Armstrong's rendition of that saccharine perennial that saturates documentary films that, in the end, can't be taken as seriously as they intend themselves to be taken. (The other film that comes to mind that ironically employs the song to no great effect is Michael Mazzola's Unacknowledged—and this is emphatically not a plug for that ridiculous film; I'm still cursing my brother for putting that brain-dimmer on the other day.)
The sequence in Bowling for Columbine runs roughshod through a series of historical moments in which the United States was violently involved in questionable pursuits over the course of world history. These moments range from the 1953 overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadeq of Iran and the installation of the Shah to the US backing of the assassination of South Vietnamese President Diem to the various means of support offered to the Taliban. This culminates in video of the 9/11 attacks with the title: "Sept. 11, 2001: Osama bin Laden uses his expert CIA training to murder 3,000 people", a claim so insidiously tendentious and requires such a convoluted conception of causality as to beggar description. The level of historical naïveté (I'm tempted to go so far as to say historical stupidity) evinced by this sequence is astounding.
First, it equates all of these incidents without context, without discussion, and thus without insight. Some of these moments were true abominations executed by authority with a level of avaricious indifference that ought to be excoriated as corrupt and vile. Others were outright mistakes owing to limited awareness of the facts on the ground. Others were consequences of well-intentioned support of allies. These are distinctions that are necessary to explore in any worthwhile discussion of these political decisions and projects. Moore treats them as all on par, and the point of the sequence is to create a cumulative sense of devastation, righteous indignation, and collective guilt—all in the service of demonstrating that we are a profoundly violent society. Yet, Moore explicitly states that he doesn't feel US society is any more inherently violent than the majority of the other developed countries. In this sense, Moore creates an atmosphere of hopelessness that works against any of the good he hoped might come out of his film.
Second, the use of Armstrong on the soundtrack is more than just an act of blatantly poor taste—although it is also that. The heavy-handed and all-too-on-the-nose irony of the juxtaposition of the song's message of hope and the blessed grandeur of existence with the images of despair and degradation (coupled with their explanatory titles that represent moral flailing where they intend to point accusatorily) trivializes where it attempts to create distance. It's meant to be an example of Moore's twisted gallows humor, his willingness to find a smile hidden in all the tragedy. Instead, it comes across as juvenile nihilism, a roll call of "facts" (some more so than others) in search of an argument. Moore's slovenly assemblage of overly conspicuous music on the soundtrack and kitschy or decontextualized archival footage, coupled with his inability to remove himself from the picture is, of course, his stock-in-trade. I can't think of many other directors who release such poorly constructed films as their signature style.
The second moment of "historical overview" is at least more amusing. It consists of a South Park-like animation that offers a glib overview of the development of the United States seen as a congeries of armed responses to imagined fears. (Apparently it was considered so close to the grain of the South Park aesthetic as to create a falling out between Moore and Trey Parker and Matt Stone.) Of course, yet again, inanities suffuse the narrative. To say that all oppression, violence, and racial disharmony stems simply from fear is an argument so reductive that I would imagine even Moore would blanch if he thought of it as an actual argument. Of course, it isn't that. It's a piece of fun, a moment of entertainment. Moore might like to say it's entertainment with a point, but that point is so (literally) cartoonish that it can only survive as an either/or—either this is satire, and we are meant to be amused, or it's argument disguised as amusement, and we are meant to be convinced. If the latter, I suppose the better phraseology would be "we are meant to be taken".
On the question of what we as a nation should do to get out of this situation of escalating gun violence, no solution is offered in Bowling for Columbine other than the implicit demand that we stop attempting to elicit fear in the media. Other explanations for the crisis are summarily dismissed without much honest consideration. The idea that gun violence may result from the violent history of the country (which, as long as you include fear as the activating force of that history, seems to be the message of the animated sequence) is dismissed by claiming that Japan too has a violent history but has a mere fraction of US annual gun deaths. Blaming violence on poverty is shrugged off because Canada has a higher level of unemployment. This is another example of Moore's total disregard for historical inquiry. Military and domestic violence are very different things; accounting for their differing exigencies requires a careful distillation of the historical record. Moreover, there's an important distinction between unemployment and outright poverty—particularly a form of degrading poverty that in this country reinforces racial and educational divisions.
To blithely claim that the only relevant distinction between the US and other developed countries is that the US thrives on a culture of fear is to avoid any responsible sifting of the situation. Moreover, when Heston ascribes American violence, in part, to the racial/ethnic complexity of the nation, Moore is nonplussed—he takes Heston's comment to be another racist attempt to blame violence on the racialized other (in an interview, Moore claims he was thinking to himself: "Did he really just go there?"). But without having explored the topic to any real depth, isn't it an equally reasonable assumption that Heston was invoking the fraught history of a country that has struggled since its inception with the issue of equality across racial lines? Moore dismisses this argument as well by pointing to Canada's diversity—but again, these comparisons have little value. Canada did not endure the legacy of slavery on anything like the level experienced by the United States. This is not a plea on my part for US exceptionalism. It's a plea for historical specificity instead of empty assertion and a throwing up of arms. Bowling for Columbine becomes the filmic avatar for the fellow that says "Man, things are really messed up," as though that were somehow enlightening.
Indeed, in a making-of feature included in the Criterion Collection's new edition of Bowling for Columbine, Moore explicitly states that his initial message was going to be a call for greater gun control. He abandoned that message once he realized that Canada has a plethora of guns in homes but does not suffer the same onerous burden of gun-related deaths. Instead, the film becomes a rambling road movie in search of a solution where most of the running time's energy is focused on the need for the search as such combined with a series of "bits" like randomly trying front doors to homes in Canada to see if the occupants really do leave them unlocked and opening a bank account that comes with a free gun. This is the kind of "exposing" of US weirdness that puts this film on par with The Man Show and Sacha Baron Cohen's over-hyped Who is America?
The problem with the tactic of "exposing" the idiots (a seeming point of pride for Moore and Cohen) is that it is all-too-easy and accomplishes very little. (The most Cohen, for instance, can claim is that one of his pranks led to the resignation of a state representative of Georgia). Showing individuals to be idiotic (or, in more accommodating language: revealing them to be capable of idiocy in certain confusing situations) is hardly surprising. Any individual is capable of idiocy. The issues that need exposing are not at the level of the individual. The world isn't the way it is because musician Joe Walsh and senator Trent Lott can be fooled into saying something stupid. Rather, it's the other way around. Lott can say something so utterly dumb and yet be in power because of the way power in this country operates. Lott is the prop, the patsy of power, not its source.
In Bowling for Columbine, Moore treats Canadians as the "control group" and a series of interminably similar interviews ensue -- all of which have Canadians musing over the odd violence of their southern neighbors. Meanwhile, he does his level best to skewer the hypocrisy of the US by asking his targets questions designed to make them appear unreflective when often the question itself betrays a weak grasp of logic and causality. A striking example of this occurs during Moore's interview with a representative of the defense and security technology company Lockheed Martin, which has three facilities in the vicinity of Littleton Colorado, where the Columbine massacre occurred. To Moore, it seems natural to connect the transportation of missiles through Littleton (late at night, with the community largely unaware) to the mass shooting. Moore (in his diatribes on both violence and fear) seems to subscribe to some kind of viral theory regarding social ills. If Lockheed Martin weapons are being manufactured and distributed in town and a mass shooting occurs in town, there must be a connection, right? But when the Lockheed Martin employee reasonably claims not to see a causal connection there, Moore lets the moment sit in that characteristic manner that signals to the viewer that something stupid was just uttered. The lapse in clear thinking in this instance, however, resides with Moore, not his interlocutor. Bowling for Columbine eschews rationality for mild sensationalism, sets aside the precision of thought in preference to the nebulous overreach of undirected emotion.
This is the central conundrum for me when I find myself face to face with a Michael Moore film. He recognizes the conundrum. He insistently refers to himself as a "filmmaker" (and "writer" as he proudly displays on a hat he wears in the opening scene) rather than a "documentarian". As he explains in the making-of feature, he always viewed documentaries as the filmic equivalent of vegetables—they were something you consumed because they were "good for you" but they were hardly enjoyable (he refers to his adolescent conception of PBS as "pretty boring stuff"). And in their shaggy dog manner, Moore's films are entertaining. My concern, however, is that in the majority of the cases (Sicko strikes me as the exception here) the entertainment aspect of the production comes at the cost of any coherent message, any clear communication of reliable information, any argument that might persuade those on the fence on a given issue, much less those on the opposing side.
This is a shame because, despite the criticism above, I admire two qualities in Moore that I think ought to play a greater role in his overall public persona, if that persona is going to be a force for ameliorating the serious problems that he rightly discerns in the modern United States (and in several other nations as well, of course). The first quality rarely emerges in any functional manner in his films and that is his pugnacious ability to argue a point of view. When Moore is debating someone on television (usually in interviews in support of his films), he is often effective, employs the right amount of righteous indignation (rarely devolving into shouting but often with just enough fire to be captivating), and marshals his facts clearly and with well-structured arguments. My favorite examples come from the interviews in support of Sicko—particularly the arguments he had with Wolf Blitzer and the follow-up confrontation with Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Especially with Gupta, Moore stays on point, doggedly defends the statistics he chose (when Gupta relied largely on outdated data), and exposes a troubling level of hypocrisy in his opponents. Too often the films lack that focus and zeal (I suppose Fahrenheit 9/11 might be a partial exception but some of the logical lapses in that film are terribly disappointing). Moore is too busy in most of his films playing the smart-assed clown.
Another admirable (if inconsistent) trait in Moore is his ability at times to change direction with certain of his subjects and interviewees. This can be a blessing and a curse. I think the "road movie" model for Bowling for Columbine is a failing—it produces a film in search of a point. I suppose that may be how Moore sees himself, the documentary equivalent of Steinbeck's Travels with Charley; but maybe trying to get that "slice of America" while also diagnosing its deepest moral quandaries is not the formula for epistemic success (although it obviously is a formula for financial and critical success). And yet, this trait can manifest itself in surprisingly touching and effective moments. The one scene that stands out from Bowling for Columbine is Moore's interview with a home security salesman in Littleton. It starts off in standard snark mode. As the sales rep shows Moore a metal gate just outside a home's front door, Moore points out that he wouldn't be able to reach the person on the other side with a knife. "Maybe a spear," Moore smirks.
We get it, of course. It's evident that this fellow is being set up as a cheap target. He will demonstrate the lengths to which certain clients will go for the illusion of security in an ever more violent society, Moore will smugly mutter wisecracks under his breath and stare back at the salesman with that Mad Magazine -like "What, me worry?" look, and we are all supposed to think a little less of a man we've never met, who has done nothing to deserve our ridicule and is merely dispensing the information requested of him. But then something surprising happens. Moore gets ready to make the connection between this heightened paranoia regarding security and the Columbine shootings and the fellow breaks down crying. He's unable to talk about the incident without falling apart and this gains Moore's sympathy. Moore reaches out to comfort the fellow. It's a touching moment but there the moment ends, leaving one to wonder why we went through the discussion of home security at all. There were no conclusions drawn, no new information brought to the table. But this is so often the case in Moore's films. We are left in a state of relatively gentle disquietude; we hear the guy telling us "Man, things are messed up," but that's about it.
Given the current release of Moore's newest film, Fahrenheit 11/9, I find myself in a position where I'm once again pulling for Moore. I think his heart is largely in the right place. He can marshal arguments well when he decides to do so. He can be a good spokesman for a more equitable world. He just seems to believe that his films are more successful when he plays this bumbling character who thinks that making some people in power look ridiculous is sufficient to unseat them. Haven't we learned by now that this is not the case? Power is far too resilient to fold simply because its representatives are shown to be morons. But that display is precisely what entertains. It's what gets people to go to his films. We feel emboldened and legitimized. But rarely do we find suitable arguments that would persuade someone who is undecided (much less someone on the opposing side).
In this manner, I fear Moore is more desirous of being a successful director than an effective documentarian. And yet, I'll be in line to see Fahrenheit 11/9 in the coming few weeks, hoping he does better, hoping we can all do better. We, insofar as we are committed to improving a nation (a world really) that is faltering, that is continually sliding into a morass of moral turpitude, we have to play to our strengths rather than playing up the purported weaknesses of those in power—because their idiocy is obviously not a sufficient weakness. If it were, we wouldn't be in this mess. Moore sees that on some level. It comes across in the interviews he gives. But he's too canny of a filmmaker to let that urgency get in the way of his stunt film. Moore is certainly intelligent; the problem is that he doesn't think you are.
* * *
Criterion Collection has recently released a new edition of Bowling for Columbine. As is typical of the company, the blu-ray comes with numerous extras. These include a documentary on the making of the film, a clip of his 2003 Oscar win, and various interviews with Moore from the time of the film's release. There's also a clip from Moore's television show The Awful Truth, part of which is used in the film.
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