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.

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.

“His whole life was a game, like his work,” one colleague says of this Duchampian figure who turned every attempt to sell his art into a Zen exercise. “Ray wasn’t a person,” another elaborates. “He was Ray Johnson’s creation.” One of the pleasures in Walter’s documentary, which won a special jury prize at Sundance and leaves little doubt of Johnson’s significance, is the parade of veteran painters, confounded dealers, and miscellaneous bohos who expound upon the subject’s mysterious personality without ever explaining him: “Everyone had a story about Ray Johnson.” Even I have one. During the first week of 1995, Johnson—whom I’d never met—called me out of the blue with a question concerning the framing of a photograph in a book I’d written. A week later, he jumped into Long Island Sound and drowned. “If none of us could understand his motive for living, how could we understand his motive for dying?” someone wonders.

Walter’s documentary ends with the police video taken of Johnson’s house in suburban Locust Valley, Long Island. Unprepossessing on the outside, the place turns out to be all studio, filled with boxes and meticulously stacked pictures. There is nothing on the wall and no image facing out except one oversized, deadpan portrait of the artist. That Johnson’s suicide was obviously his final work is a most disquieting form of integrity.

The Decay of Fiction, eight years in the making and showing once this weekend as part of the New York Film Festival’s massive avant-garde sidebar, is the most complex piece ever produced by Los Angeles-based special-effects whiz Pat O’Neill—and the fullest expression of his career on the periphery of the dream-factory assembly line.

The filmmaker uses a combination of 35mm location shooting and a digital overlay to transform L.A.’s once grand and long-shuttered Ambassador Hotel into a haunted mansion. The Ambassador has enjoyed a curious afterlife as a movie set, but O’Neill allows it to represent itself. Silver ghosts gather around the derelict swimming pool. The empty Edward Hopper rooms are animated by creeping shadows, fluttery curtains, and the memory of guests past (dressed in styles that range from the ’30s to ’50s). The old Coconut Grove nightclub, originally furnished with papier-mâché monkeys and the fake palms from a 1920s Rudolph Valentino vehicle, is here a moldering wreck populated by phantom gangsters.

O’Neill coaxes the suggestion of a story out of various movie moments, bits of soundtrack, and references to the Ambassador’s legendary past. The evocation of Robert Kennedy’s assassination in the hotel kitchen is as awkward as it is unavoidable. With its daylight documentary aspect and dreamlike interludes, The Decay of Fiction combines the two poles of L.A. art—it’s a sunshine noir—and, like all of O’Neill’s films, it’s magically accomplished. (Too much so, perhaps: The muscular craft sometimes polishes the emotional content to a very fine sheen.)

In its abstract movie-ness, O’Neill’s 73-minute fantasia exudes a wistful longing to connect, not so much with Hollywood history as with the history of that history—as embodied by such self-reflexive visions of the movie colony as Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive. The narrative motor isn’t there, but the “all is vanity” mood is fully sustained. In the last few moments, O’Neill loops Orson Welles’s voice as the Shadow, repeating “who knows?” as the film’s resident death-angel pirouettes into the final carnival of souls.

Related Story:

Citizen Ray: Talking With How to Draw a Bunny Director John Walter” by Dennis Lim

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