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They Aim to Please

Two cheers for Michael Moore—and a raspberry. Released as the countdown begins for a second Gulf War, Moore's latest documentary psychodrama, Bowling for Columbine, is nothing if not timely in articulating sentiments and posing questions that few public personalities are willing to entertain (let alone so entertainingly).

Moore is the great grandstander of American documentarians. There's a Bowling for Columbine promo picture that shows him with a camera on one shoulder and a rifle on the other, but really it's the angel of populism and the devil of narcissism that are perched beside his ears. Less shamelessly self-aggrandizing than The Big One (a movie about the filmmaker's book tour that opened with an ovation from his adoring fans), Bowling for Columbine seizes upon the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in the Denver suburb of Littleton as the pretext for an essay on violence in America. The movie can be devastating and is often hilarious. Trolling through the U.S.A., Moore gleefully teases out the absurdity of a Midwestern bank giving away free guns to those opening new accounts and the political confusion of the Hollywood liberal who produces Cops.

Still, for someone who takes pride in his teenage marksmanship, Moore is mighty fond of shooting fish in a barrel. Moving into creepier territory, he pals around with Oklahoma bomber Terry Nichols's older brother, interviews some Columbine kids who attended bowling class with shooter Eric Harris on the morning of the massacre, and befriends others wounded in the rampage. It's exploitation with an agenda. Eager to link U.S. domestic and international violence, Moore points out that Littleton's biggest employer is Lockheed Martin and that the Columbine attack occurred on the very day that Serbia suffered maximum aerial bombing. The connection is spurious (and it can be argued that NATO intervention on behalf of Kosovo prevented further bloodshed). Moore, however, is not one to let ambiguities—or, as the jumbled chronology of Roger & Me demonstrated, facts—get in the way.

Exploitation with an agenda: Moore in Bowling for Columbine
photo: United Artists
Exploitation with an agenda: Moore in Bowling for Columbine

Details

Bowling for Columbine
Written and directed by Michael Moore
United Artists
Opens October 11

How to Draw a Bunny
Directed by John Walter
At Film Forum,
through October 22

The Decay of Fiction
RA film by Pat O'Neill
At the Walter Reade,
October 12

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Credit Bowling for Columbine with a strong argument for enhanced gun control and a willingness to wonder why this argument is a perennial of American political discourse. (As Arthur Schlesinger noted 30-odd years ago, "No one has ever tried to assassinate the president with a bow and arrow.") As a movie, however, it's poorly structured, a half-hour too long, and devotedly fixated on the filmmaker's persona. Preempting whatever appreciation the viewer might feel, Moore documents himself accepting gratitude for staging a successful protest against Kmart's sale of bullets and hugging needy victims as though he were Mother Teresa in a baseball cap.

Shamelessly roping in the events of September 11 (and egregiously scoring a crude montage to "What a Wonderful World"), Moore has his eye on the big picture. Just why is America so violent? Canada has nearly as many guns, Germany is burdened with a more murderous past, and Britain administered a larger empire. (Third World bloodbaths in Rwanda, the Indian subcontinent, and Cambodia are discreetly omitted as test cases—as is the New Left cult of violence.) Moore includes a cartoon history lesson on the making of what Richard Slotkin named Gunfighter Nation; luckily for his film, Moore does not attempt to appropriate the discredited thesis of Michael A. Bellesiles's Arming America, which wishfully maintains that the national gun culture was a late-19th-century development.

Who was it that called violence as American as apple pie? The nation's founding revolution occurred in the middle of the institutionalized terror of slavery and a 300-year struggle with the Indians; the bloodiest civil war in recorded history up until that time was followed by a half-century of pitched battles between capital and labor, not to mention thousands of vigilante lynchings and state executions—and that's just violence at home. But how does it explain kids shooting up their suburban high schools? Isn't there also a distinctively American culture of aggrieved self-importance? Moore, who might well understand that cultural foible, ridicules the attempt to scapegoat shock-rocker Marilyn Manson for Columbine and ignores the standard conservative claim that Hollywood violence is responsible; his culprit is the fear-mongering media's obsession with killer bees, Y2K power failures, and Columbine-like outrages. (It's true that Americans enjoy the spectacle of mayhem—foreigners are often surprised to encounter the laughter that movie carnage inspires.) To make amends, perhaps that same media can be persuaded to stage a celebrity death match between Moore and a right-wing gasbag like Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh.

Moore evidently had something similar in mind. Bowling for Columbine's grand finale shows the filmmaker using his lifelong membership in the National Rifle Association as a means to dupe the organization's chief cheerleader Charlton Heston into an at-home interview. The ensuing debate might almost inspire pity for the doddering actor (who has since announced that he suffers from Alzheimer's)—were it not for earlier footage showing the idiotic satisfaction he took in addressing an NRA pep rally in post-Columbine Denver.


A more enigmatic performance artist than Moore, Ray Johnson (1927-95) is the subject of John Walter's absorbing documentary portrait How to Draw a Bunny. An art-world prankster, Johnson made an anti-career by using the U.S. Post Office as the major distribution system for his complex, punning collages. As a good American, he was preoccupied with celebritude—appropriating images of Elvis and James Dean and founding obscure fan clubs—even while cultivating his own obscurity.

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