What happens when somebody who spends his life tilting at windmills actually brings one down? You’ll find out in the most interesting scene from Bowling for Columbine, documentarian/provocateur Michael Moore’s entertaining and dismaying senior class project about guns.
Near the end, Moore cajoles two teenage victims of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre into a trip to Michigan. He practically drags them into a confrontation with several executives from Kmart—the place where the Columbine killers (who went to bowling class a few hours before shooting their classmates) bought the bullets. The victims both have those bullets still lodged in their bodies; one is paralyzed from the waist down.
After much trademark Moore awkwardness, a Kmart spokesperson steps outside and grants Moore his wish: Kmart, she says, will stop selling bullets. Moore looks like the wolf-whistling construction worker when the girl stops. This doesn’t fit his mise en scene at all. He expresses his joy to the camera and eventually crows over the boys’ great victory over the faceless corporation, but there’s an obvious touch of disappointment in his voice.
And therein lies the biggest fault of this cunning yet sometimes clueless examination of the fear that seems to drive America’s unique obsession with firearms: Moore has no third act. He won’t give us the slightest idea of what he proposes to do about any of this. He doesn’t even voice his own thoughts about guns. It’s impossible not to enjoy Moore’s showmanship, and Lord knows we need every liberal loudmouth we can get to shout back at the conservatives in this country. But in everything from his first film to his excellent website, he gives us more than the tabloid-style infotainment he’s presenting here.
Bowling for Columbine still is a provocative presentation of issues and viewpoints about the gun control debate, but anybody with a passing knowledge of current events has already seen them before. Moore is skilled at presenting facts to his greatest advantage (like any filmmaker), but he seems to feel the problem is bigger than him. He always seemed so resourceful in Roger and Me and The Big One; here, he even seems to see how small his Kmart triumph is. And no, his bullying interview with sad old NRA bastard Charlton Heston doesn’t count as positive social change, even though we haven’t seen the likes of this liberal masturbation material since Jimmy Swaggart sinned.
Moore’s only hints of solutions are produced from unlikely sources. Matt Stone, the co-creator of South Park, links high-school violence to the overwhelming culture of achievement (which was explored a few months before Columbine in Election). Sad young bastard Marilyn Manson also weighs in with trenchant observations on the absurdity of blaming popular culture for behavior.
Perhaps corporate America and Moore have battled to a stalemate. They appease him when necessary, and he narrows his vision. Actually, if Moore truly wants to affect real change, he’s got a perfect documentary subject in his own pendulous gut: the shameless American fast-food industry and our culture of genial gluttony. It’d be some wonderful zen to watch Moore waddling after a stocky McDonald’s executive who gets tired and has to stop, and then Moore can’t ask him a question because he’s breathing too hard, and then they go get insulin injections together.
Moore is content to gawk at gun nuts and cry at tragedy, which still makes for an entertaining film. But there’s another point to consider: I watched Bowling for Columbine in a crowded theater in an upscale section of Oakland known as Piedmont. It’s a five-minute walk from Berkeley, and it’s populated largely by college-educated folks of a liberal bent. The audience clapped and cried, and it cheered as the credits rolled. Moore clearly connects with his audience in a way that few polemicists since Upton Sinclair have done—but you can’t help wondering how much of his preaching is being done to the converted.
Broadcast television is where his messages would do the most mainstream damage—but as the self-avowed liberal producer of Cops says in the film, “I don’t know how to tell that story.” Moore tells a decent story here, but in lacking any coherent new thought about solutions to problems that everybody already sees, he’s going off half-cocked.