National Review Online, April 4, 2003, 2:30 p.m.
In the field of mockumentary filmmaking, there are two giants. Rob Reiner created the genre with his film This is Spinal Tap. Michael Moore has taken the genre to an entirely different level, with Bowling for Columbine. More by Kopel on Michael Moore.
In 1984, This is Spinal Tap premiered as the world's first self-described "mockumentary." The film purported to be a documentary of a heavy-metal band called "Spinal Tap." In fact, there was no such band. No group had ever hit the charts in the 1960s with a song called "Listen to the Flower People." No rock drummer named John "Stumpy" Pepys had ever died in an inexplicable gardening accident. No arena rock performance had ever featured a pair of midgets dancing around an 18-inch replica of Stonehenge.
Over the course of the movie, most viewers figured out that "Spinal Tap" was not a real band. The realization often came somewhere between the band's rocker "Big Bottom" ("I met her on Monday; it was my lucky bun day") and the sensitive ballad "Lick My Love Pump."
Still, a substantial portion of the audience sat through the entire film without ever realizing that the whole thing was a joke. They left the theatre believing that there really was a band called Spinal Tap. In response, the creators ended up producing a Spinal Tap MTV video, and even a 1992 Spinal Tap "Reunion" tour. The stupidity of a fraction of the audience had brought its own "reality" to life.
This is Spinal Tap is an excellent movie which was, unfortunately, neglected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. No such fate befell Bowling for Columbine. While only an unusually dim minority believe that Tapis truth, Bowling for Columbine has seduced almost all of its audiences with its brazen mockumentary.
You can't really understand the artistic accomplishment of This is Spinal Tapir you naively expect to find the album Smell the Glove in your local music store. Likewise, you cannot understand the brilliance of Bowling for Columbine if you actually believe the purported facts in this mockumentary. For the benefit of the overly credulous, let me summarize some of the "facts" in Bowling for Columbine. Then, I will explain how Michael Moore demolishes the pretensions of the audience and of elite cinematic opinion in a way that has never before been accomplished.
The introduction of Bowling is a purported clip from an NRA documentary, announcing that the viewer is about to see a National Rifle Association film. Obviously, Bowling is not an NRA film, and so Moore makes it clear right at the beginning that Bowling is not a documentary (based on true facts), but rather a mockumentary (based on fictitious "facts"). It's a humorous movie, but the biggest joke is on the audience, which credulously accepts the "facts" in the movie as if they were true.
The first mockumentary "fact" is the title itself. The Columbine murderers were enrolled in a high-school bowling class. After the NRA introduction, the film begins on the morning of April 20, 1999, the day of the Columbine murders. Narrator Moore announces that on that day, "Two boys went bowling at six in the morning." This serves as a setup for a later segment looking at the causes of Columbine, and arguing that blaming violent video games (which the killers played obsessively) or Marilyn Manson music (which the killers enjoyed) makes no more sense than blaming bowling.
In fact, the two killers ditched bowling class on the day of the murders. The police investigation found that none of the students in the bowling class that morning had seen the killers that day. The police report was completed long before the release of Bowling for Columbine, so the title itself is a deliberate falsehood. (I don't use the word "lie" because the mockumentary genre allows for the use of invented facts.)
After the April 20 lead-in, Bowling begins an examination of middle-American gun culture, and indulges the bicoastal elite's snobbery toward American gun owners.
We are taken to the North County Bank in Michigan, which — like several other banks in the United States — allows people who buy a Certificate of Deposit to receive their interest in the form of a rifle or shotgun. (The depositor thereby receives the full value of the interest immediately, rather than over a term of years.)
Moore goes through the process of buying the CD and answering questions for the federal Form 4473 registration sheet. Although a bank employee makes a brief reference to a "background check," the audience never sees the process whereby the bank requires Moore to produce photo identification, then contacts the FBI for a criminal records check on Moore, before he is allowed to take possession of the rifle.
Moore asks: "Do you think it's a little bit dangerous handing out guns at a bank?" The banker's answer isn't shown.
So the audience is left with a smug sense of the pro-gun bank's folly. Yet just a moment's reflection shows that there is not the slightest danger. To take possession of the gun, the depositor must give the bank thousands of dollars (an unlikely way to start a robbery). He must then produce photo identification (thus making it all but certain that the robber would be identified and caught), spend at least a half hour at the bank (thereby allowing many people to see and identify him), and undergo an FBI background check (which would reveal criminal convictions disqualifying most of the people inclined to bank robbery). A would-be robber could far more easily buy a handgun for a few hundred dollars on the black market, with no identification required.
The genius of Bowling for Columbines that the movie does not explicitly make these obvious points about the safety of the North County Bank's program. Rather, the audience is simply encouraged to laugh along with Moore's apparent mockery of the bank, without realizing that the joke is on them for seeing danger where none exists. This theme is developed throughout the film.
From the Michigan bank, Moore moves on to an examination of the rest of Michigan's culture — or, more precisely, to eccentric and unrepresentative segments of that culture, thereby playing to the audience's feelings of superiority over American gun owners.
For example, hunting is a challenging sport, requiring outdoor skills, wildlife knowledge, patience, and good marksmanship. Most members of the urban audiences cheering Bowling for Columbine are no more capable of participating in a successful hunt than they are of conducting a three-day, backcountry cross-country ski trek, or playing rookie-league baseball. The vast majority of hunters are also very safety-conscious. In 2000, for example, there were 91 fatal hunting accidents in all of North America, within a population of over 16 million hunters.
Yet Moore ignores all of this. Instead, he comically reports an incident in which some reckless hunters tied a gun to their dog to take a funny picture, and one of the hunters was shot. According to the police reports, the foolish hunters had only a still camera, but Bowling presents a fabricated video clip which purports to have been filmed by the hunter's friend. Because the clip appears to be a home movie, Bowling makes hunters seem viciously callous: The "hunter" holding the camera continues recording after his fellow hunter has been wounded, rather than immediately stopping to help the friend.
Similarly, the ideology of gun ownership and civil liberty is not presented by reference to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, or to legal scholars such as liberal Democrats Sanford Levinson or Larry Tribe. Instead, Moore goes to the Michigan Militia.
While Moore allows the militia members to present their case, he makes the group (which has no record of illegal violence or any other illegal activity) appear extremely dangerous by informing viewers that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols attended militia meetings. Moore conveniently neglects to mention that the two were eventually kicked out, for talking about violence.
James Nichols, the brother of a convicted mass murderer, is offered as a spokesman for the right of free people to resist tyrannical government.
Bowling then departs Michigan and heads for Littleton, Colo., to develop the thesis that American militarism created the mass-murder atmosphere that resulted in Columbine.
Aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin has a factory in Littleton, so Moore asks a company spokesman if "our kids say to themselves, 'Well, gee, Dad goes off to the factory every day, and he builds missiles, he builds weapons of mass destruction. What's the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?'" The camera then takes a shot of a workplace safety slogan — "It has to be foreign-object free" — to imply that Lockheed Martin employees revel in the killing of dehumanized foreigners.
Of course the connection is nonsense. While one killer's father once served in the Air Force, neither family worked in the defense industry. The other killer's parents were gun-control advocates — so much so that they forbade him to play with toy guns — unlike the many children who are shown with toy guns elsewhere in the film. One of the killers' gun suppliers was the son of a Colorado anti-gun activist. Thus, Moore might just as well have asked a spokesman for a gun-prohibition group if "our kids say to themselves, 'Well, gee, mom and day say that guns are just for killing innocent people. So if I have a gun, I guess I should use it for killing innocent people.'"
Moore returns to the bowling theme a few scenes later, to present the argument — which the audience of course supports — that neither bowling nor Marilyn Manson was responsible for the Columbine crimes. The audience is encouraged to feel intellectually superior to the politicians, who are pictured blaming Marilyn Manson.
Yet the connection the movie draws between Lockheed and the Columbine mass murder is even more tenuous than the connection with Manson. The Columbine killers had no connection to Lockheed, but they did listen to Marilyn Manson. And Brian Warner's choice of the stage name of "Manson" shows that mass killers can enjoy enduring pop-culture fame — precisely what the Columbine killers hoped to achieve. (I avoid mentioning their names so as not to assist their vicious quest.)
After blaming Lockheed for 13 deaths at Columbine, the film moves on to blaming the United States government for 3,000 deaths on September 11. It does this by arguing that we got what we deserved, because our nation revels in the killing of civilians by air.
A montage of U.S. foreign-policy atrocities (to the tune of "What a Wonderful World") concludes with the statement that the U.S. gave $245 million to the Taliban in 2000-01. The next shot is of the World Trade Center in flames.
In fact, that money was not given to the Taliban government, but rather to U.S. and international agencies that distributed humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan. In other words, the fact that the United States gave money to Food For Peace and for girls' schools for Afghan refugees is supposed to prove that the America deserved to be attacked by al Qaeda.
Right after the footage of the airplanes hitting the Twin Towers, Bowling shows a B-52 memorial at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Moore intones: "The plaque underneath it proudly proclaims that this plane killed Vietnamese people on Christmas Eve 1972." The point is obvious: that the United States government and al Qaeda both perpetrate murder by airplane.
In fact, the plaque on the B-52 at the AFA is not as Moore describes it. The plaque says "B-52D Stratofortress. 'Diamond Lil.' Dedicated to the men and women of the Strategic Air Command who flew and maintained the B-52D throughout its 26-year history in the command. Aircraft 55-083, with over 15,000 flying hours, is one of two B-52Ds credited with a confirmed MIG kill during the Vietnam Conflict Flying out of U-Tapao Royal Thai Naval Airfield in southern Thailand, the crew of 'Diamond Lil' shot down a MIG northeast of Hanoi during 'Linebacker II' action on Christmas Eve, 1972."
Moore thus confirms the absurdity of the blame-America-first position popular among the Hollywood Left, by showing that such views require the ignoring of obvious facts — such as the difference between financial aid to a dictatorship and humanitarian aid to refugees, or between fighting enemy pilots and perpetrating war crimes against civilians.
A long mockumentary segment reports on the NRA convention in Denver in May 1999. The segment begins with NRA president Charlton Heston holding an antique rifle above his head and delivering the signature line: "From my cold dead hands." Actually, Heston never displayed a rifle or uttered that line at the Denver convention.
Moore bashes the NRA for being insensitive by holding its convention in Denver two weeks after the Columbine murders. That insensitivity is heightened by the implication that Heston did the "cold dead hands" rifle display there. Viewers are not informed that the NRA convention had been scheduled many years in advance, that Mayor Webb (who at the last minute told the NRA to cancel the convention) had eagerly solicited the NRA convention for Denver, or that the NRA drastically reduced its four-day convention, holding only its annual members' meeting, in an afternoon session legally required by its non-profit charter from the state of New York.
The litany of scapegoating (Lockheed Martin, the United States, the NRA) then abruptly shifts into the anti-scapegoating segments concerning bowling and Marilyn Manson.
In keeping with the mockumentary format, Moore tells the audience that bowling was "apparently the last thing they did before the massacre." Even if the killers hadn't skipped class, this statement would be untrue. Bowling class was at 6 A.M.; the killings began around 11 A.M.
The "scapegoat Lockheed and the NRA" segments serve as a perfect counterpoint to the "don't scapegoat bowling or Manson" segment. By leading the audience into fatuous scapegoating of Lockheed and the NRA, the film demonstrates the pervasiveness of scapegoating — even by people who denounce it.
A cartoon history of the United States comes next, on the theme that American gun owners are racist. The Second Amendment is said to have been written "so every white man could keep his gun." Actually, at the time of the Second Amendment, every state allowed free people of color to own guns. Moreover, anti-slavery activist Lysander Spooner would later use the Second Amendment as part of his argument to show that slavery was unconstitutional. Gun prohibition, he argued, is a condition of slavery; the Second Amendment guarantees the right of all people to own guns; hence slavery, and its attendant gun prohibition, are unconstitutional.
The audience is now informed that the National Rifle Association was founded in 1871, "the same year the Klan became an illegal terrorist organization." The voice-over says that this was just a coincidence, but the cartoon shows gun owners helping Klansmen to murder blacks.
The phrasing of the Klan line leaves some viewers with the impression that the Klan was created in 1871, even though the group was founded in 1866 in Tennessee. What happened in 1871 was congressional passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act, which allowed the president to suppress the Klan by denying Klansmen the writ of habeas corpus. (The Klan was, of course, composed of men who fought on the losing, pro-slavery side of the Civil War.)
President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 into law, and worked for the rapid extermination of that terrorist organization. Grant dispatched federal troops into South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida to destroy the Klan and to protect black voting rights. In an April 1872 report to Congress, Grant pointed out the continuing problem in some southern counties of the Ku Klux Klan attempting "to deprive colored citizens of their right to bear arms and the right of a free ballot."
President Grant also signed the Enforcement Act of 1870, which made it a federal crime for the Ku Klux Klan or similar conspiracies to interfere with the civil rights of freedmen — including their Second Amendment right to arms.
Frederick Douglass justly called Grant "the benefactor of an enslaved and despised race, a race who will ever cherish a grateful remembrance of his name, fame and great services."
The 1871 founders of the National Rifle Association were thus diametrically opposed to the Confederates who founded the KKK. The NRA founders were Union officers who had fought on the winning, anti-slavery side of the Civil War. Dismayed by the poor quality of Union marksmanship during the war, the NRA's founders aimed to improve the shooting skills of the American public at large. The first NRA president was Ambrose E. Burnside, who had served as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Ulysses Grant left the presidency in 1877, but continued his long career of public service in retirement. In 1883, he was elected president of the National Rifle Association. From 1871 until the end of the century, nine of the NRA's ten presidents had fought against slavery during the Civil War. These included Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, a hero of Gettysburg, and Gen. Phillip Sheridan, the famous Union cavalry commander. During Reconstruction, Gen. Sheridan served as military governor of Louisiana and Texas, and removed hundreds of local officials (including the governors of both states, and the chief justice of the Texas supreme court) from office for failing to respect the rights of freedmen and for failing to enforce laws for their protection.
In Bowling, Michael Moore brags that he is an NRA "Lifetime member." So it might be expected that Moore would inform viewers about the NRA's noble anti-slavery history. But Moore's connection to the NRA is bizarre; he told Tim Russert that he joined the group so that he could be elected its president and make it support gun control. This is aggrandized self-delusion, rather like Barbra Streisand announcing that she was becoming Catholic so that she could be elected Pope and make the Church support polygamy.
The supposedly racist nature of white gun owners is reinforced by Bowling's statement that an 1871 law made it illegal for blacks to own guns. No such law existed, although it is true that many gun laws from the late 19th century — such as licensing and registration laws, or bans on inexpensive guns — were selectively enforced in the South so as to deprive blacks of firearms. These are the same kinds of laws that Moore promotes today. Indeed, he turned the Bowling for Columbine premier into a fundraiser for the Brady Campaign, which works hard to outlaw inexpensive guns used by poor people for protection.
Having established the racism and paranoia of American gun owners, Moore now begins an extended sequence depicting the media as racist fear-mongers. He first argues that the media create irrational fears about black criminals. (According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, table 43, 4,238 blacks were arrested for murder and non-negligent manslaughter, compared to 4,231 whites.)
University of Southern California Professor Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear, gets lots of camera time to explain how the media sensationalize crime and hype fears to unrealistic levels. And this is where Bowling's genius truly shines.
On the one hand, Bowling works the audience into self-righteous anger at "the media" for using cheap sensationalism to promote fear. At the very same time, the film uses — you guessed it — cheap sensationalism to promote fear. The very techniques which he decries in the media, Moore uses himself, with obvious approval from the audience. Moore thus enacts a real demonstration of how the audience is itself complicit in the cycle of fear.
Moore criticizes weakly researched media stories that scare people over nothing (such as phony stories about razors in Halloween apples), but at the same time, his own factual claims are either invented or taken grossly out of context.
For instance, Moore lets Glassner criticize the media for sharply increasing coverage of homicides during a period when the actual homicide rate was falling. Yet his own frantic film about the terrible dangers of American gun violence comes even as gun crime rates have fallen sharply from their early 1990s levels.
Glassner's book points out that an American schoolchild is much more likely to be killed by lightning than in a school shooting. Yet Moore's film rests on the premise that the Columbine shooting represents an American epidemic of violence.
Even while denouncing Americans for being so afraid of violent crime, Bowling for Columbine works hard to make them still more afraid.
The audience accepts Moore's cinematic fear-mongering — while congratulating itself for being too sophisticated to fall for media fear-mongering. So even as Bowling offers its audience the superficial social satisfaction of being less media-malleable than the rubes who are presented as typical Americans, the audience nevertheless falls for sensationalistic media exploitation. The L.A. Weekly noted the "tabloid" nature of Moore's film, and the film's tawdry use of cheap emotion and cheap shots could indeed serve as a model for an aspiring tabloid television producer.
Accordingly, the smug audience of Bowling is degraded not merely to the level of ordinary gullible Americans who buy into the fear-mongering on the evening news, but still further — to the trash-news level of people who are easily manipulated by tabloid media.
Thus, Bowling turns the audience's very pleasure in watching the movie into a deconstruction of the audience's blue-state social pretensions. The Bowling audience is every bit as ignorant and fearful as the audience for Inside Edition.
Moore's technique is that of turning an audience's acceptance of a work's superficial message into a much deeper message which critiques the audience itself. Thus, Bowling for Columbine makes the audience complicit in its own delegitimization and degradation. Most of the audience, of course, never "gets" the real point.
Moore's clever techniques of inversion reach an apogee with the Willie Horton ad. Political historians will remember that in the 1988 Democratic primaries, candidate Al Gore criticized Gov. Michael Dukakis for a Massachusetts furlough program under which Willie Horton — who was serving a murder sentence of life without parole — was given a weekend furlough, and raped a woman. During the fall campaign, the pro-Bush National Security Political Action Committee ran a Willie Horton commercial.
The official Bush campaign ran its own advertisement, "Revolving Doors," which attacked the furlough program but did not mention Willie Horton.
But Moore pastes text from the National Security PAC ad over film from the Bush commercial, thus creating the impression that Bush invoked Willie Horton. Moore falsifies the advertisement by pasting onscreen the text: "Willie Horton released. Then kills again." This libels Willie Horton, who perpetrated a rape but not a murder during his furlough. The audience already knows that it is supposed to be angry about the Willie Horton ad, because it was unfair and because it politically seduced gullible Americans. So Bowling does a "Willie Horton" of its own on the audience, making the film's version of the ad into a falsehood and so turning the audience into dupes of a Willie Horton ad — just like the 1988 dupes of the original ad. For good measure, the ad makes the audience believe that a black man is guilty of a crime he never committed; Bowling thereby perpetrates the same manipulation of racial fears which it accuses the media of perpetrating.
After over an hour spent on the horrors of the United States, Moore switches to the peaceful society of Canada. He begins by arguing that Canada and the United States are very similar — except that Canada has a generous welfare state, and no culture of fear.
It's true that Canada does have a lot of guns compared to England or Japan, but Canada's per-capita gun ownership rate is about a third of the American level.
Moore films the over-the-counter purchase, no questions asked, of some ammunition in a Canadian store. The Canadian government has pointed out that such a transaction would be illegal, since the buyer is required to present identification. Moore did not respond to a request from the government's Canadian Firearms Centre to explain whether he staged a fake purchase, edited out the ID request, or broke the law.
Moore then tells the audience that 13 percent of the Canadian population is minority ethnic, the same as in the U.S. Actually, it's about 31 percent in the U.S. More significantly, blacks and Hispanics, who are involved in well over 50 percent of American homicides (both as victims and as perpetrators) make up about 2.5 percent of the Canadian population. In the United States, each group makes up about one-eighth of the U.S. population.
Comparing U.S. gun-death totals with Canada's, Moore offers a U.S. total that includes death by legal intervention (e.g., a violent felon being shot by a police officer) while omitting this same category from the Canadian total.
We return to Flint, Mich., for a long segment on Kayla Rowland, a six-year-old girl who was fatally shot in school by a male classmate the same age. Moore blames Michigan's requirement that welfare recipients work at a job. Because the killer's mother, Tamarla Owens, commuted to work in a shopping mall 70 hours a week, and because she still could not pay her rent, she was about to be evicted. She thus moved in with her brother, and then her unsupervised son found a handgun, brought it to school, and killed Kayla Rowland.
Actually, Owens earned $7.85 an hour from one job ($1,250 a month, almost entirely tax-free), plus at least the minimum wage from her second job, and received food stamps and medical care. Her rent was $300 a month. Michigan had rent-subsidy and child-care programs too, but Owens apparently did not know about them. So, contrary to the impression created by Moore, Michigan's welfare-to-work program is generous: Even without the rent subsidy, Owens earned more than enough to pay the rent. Perhaps Owens's caseworker should have told her about the available subsidies, but the caseworker's mistake hardly means that the Michigan system is the Dickensian horror portrayed by Moore.
Moore tells the audience that Ms. Owens and her son were living with Owens's brother. He doesn't tell the audience that their home was a crack house, or that the stolen gun was received by the brother from one of his customers, in exchange for drugs.
"No one knew why the little boy wanted to shoot the little girl," says Moore. Actually, the killer was the class bully; said that he hated everyone at school; had been suspended for stabbing a child with a pencil; and, subsequent to the shooting, stabbed another child with a knife.
We now get a quick cut to Charlton Heston speaking at a gun-rights rally in Flint, holding a rifle above his head. Moore explains that Heston came to Flint after Rowland was killed. Later, when interviewing Heston, Moore tells him, "You go to these places after they have these horrible tragedies." There's a considerable distortion here. Kayla Rowland was killed on February 29, 2000. Heston appeared at a Bush campaign rally in Flint over half a year later, in mid October.
Moore told Phil Donahue that "The American media wants to pump you full of fear." And that's just what Moore himself does, terrifying and angering his audience about American gun owners, George Bush, American media, American foreign policy, American welfare policy, the National Rifle Association, and the American character. The theme of the movie could well be encapsulated by D. H. Lawrence's claim that "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer."
Bowling for Columbine revels in the tabloid-style, raw exploitation of emotion — in promotion of unjustified fear, in falsehoods and quarter-truths, in oversimplification of the problems of race, and in mean-spirited pandering to the audience's bigotry about people of different social backgrounds.
In this way, Bowling subverts its own audience. To participate in Bowling's emotional journey is to surrender to the very same mendacious hate- and fear-mongering that the movie purports to criticize. Liking Bowling for Columbines no different from liking the sleaziest "news" show on television, except that the audience for the latter doesn't claim to be more aesthetically — or morally — sophisticated than the mainstream American public.
Bowling also subverts elite Hollywood opinion. Imagine if the Academy gave the award for "Best Music — Original Song" to a film that used an unoriginal song, such as "Jingle Bells." Such an award would show that the Oscars are based on Hollywood politics rather than on artistic merit. The presentation of Best Documentary to Michael Moore for a film based on so much untruth has proved the same thing.
Some readers may doubt that Moore intentionally created an entire film whose subtext so thoroughly contradicts its literal text and that so effectively mocks its audience and its creator. My response is that we are long past the era of being chained to an artist's precise intentions. Georgia O'Keefe is said to have denied that her flower drawings were evocative of female genitalia. Does that mean we should pretend that O'Keefe paintings are not overflowing with female genitalia?
The fact is that a mockumentary larded with untruths and brazen self-contradiction is gobbling up documentary prizes: a special award at the Cannes Film Festival, the National Board of Review's "Best Documentary," the International Documentary Association's choice for best documentary ever, and the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Countless actors and producers may have railed at the Academy for poor taste, but no artist has ever demonstrated the film elite's hyper-partisan preference for political correctness over truth as thoroughly and well as has Michael Moore.