Michael Moore sees rot, deception, hypocrisy, conspiracy, and the shells of smoking guns lying everywhere.
He sees them in government programs meant to put welfare recipients back to work, in the hands of the National Rifle Association, and to a lesser extent, in pop culture. He sees smoking guns jutting from the holsters of NRA president Charlton Heston and public schools and your neighborhood bank and fear-mongering TV news and every small town with one red light and six bars.
Dick Clark himself - if you follow Moore to his logically slippery but thought-provoking conclusions - colludes, however unwittingly, to foster poverty, prevent gun control, and drive the murder rate higher.
Moore is a pro at glib simplification, at suggesting a psychic connection where none is obvious. Call him one of our finest practitioners of half-baked conjecture. But don't forget to mention that he's one of our most fearless provocateurs - a documentary filmmaker whose movies work despite their maker. How Moore goes from the U.S. murder rate to the damnation of Dick Clark in 120 minutes is more tenuous than getting from Buster Keaton to Kelly Clarkson in the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game.
But it's not about conclusions with Moore. It's about questions. If you seek the definitive thud of a solid judgment in a Moore documentary, you will be disappointed. That was true for his first film, Roger and Me, about how General Motors layoffs devastated his hometown of Flint, Mich. And it's doubly true of his scary and funny, if sometimes shameless and conveniently myopic, gun-control manifesto, Bowling for Columbine, which opens today at the Cla-Zel Theatre on Main Street in Bowling Green.
Moore is the same self-serving steamroller of a man, wearing the same baggy jeans and fat-guy windbreaker, that he was in Roger (1989) and his short-lived Fox series from the '90s, TV Nation. What he's concocted here is a weird, emotionally exhausting hybrid of stock footage, random interviews, and camera-in-face confrontations. It's his finest film, a huge sprawling mess of a political essay that flies off in dozens of compelling directions, playing like catnip to the converted and quackery to his foes. Which is too bad, because to wade uncritically into a Moore documentary is to defeat its purpose.
Moore, author of the best-selling Stupid White Men, comes from a definite leftist point-of-view. But there's enough tortured generalization here to make his most fervent supporters scratch their heads and enough unnerving truth about the roots of violence in America to quiet those who would like to think people kill people because of their upbringing and video games. The film's title comes from a historical footnote: The morning before two teenagers massacred 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., they went bowling. Moore doesn't see a lot to read into that other than its absurdity.
It's a psychological dead end, and if Moore doesn't acknowledge missteps, he throws out instead a slew of entertaining and sobering fishing lines in the hope of hooking clues to one big question: Why is the U.S. murder rate so much higher than the murder rate in other industrialized nations? Is it our culture? The pop culture in Japan is far more violent, and yet Japanese don't kill each other as often as we do. Is it the number of guns per capita? Canada beats us at that one, and its murder rate is low.
In America he finds a potent combination of fear and ignorance, and a history of self-delusion. He visits a bank that hands out free rifles when you open an account, wrapping the segment with a great punch line: “Isn't it dangerous to be giving away guns in a bank?” He wanders through Canada, opening people's doors at random, and finding a country not quite as driven by fear. There's a trip to Kmart's corporate headquarters in Michigan. He brings along two Columbine shooting victims, who still have the tragedy's Kmart-bought bullets lodged in their bodies. He attempts to get them a refund.
Matt Stone, the co-creator of South Park and a Littleton native, talks about why he thinks Columbine happened, and he doesn't look to the usual scapegoats: broken homes, drugs, video games. He points instead to a pressure-cooking culture of success where high school kids are told from day one that if they fail a test or are socially awkward, they're a loser and on the road to ruin. If they're a loser now, they'll be a loser forever.
Bowling for Columbine works best and makes it finest points in moments like that, when Moore steps aside and lets smart people say smart things. The rest is great political theater, enraged and self-righteous in a way that makes you simultaneously squirm, think, and pull at your hair. You watch Moore, a lifelong NRA member himself, confront Heston about the murder rate and hear the star mumble something about the rise in “mixed enthicity,” and you gasp. Then a moment later Moore shamelessly faces his camera with a look of sorrow and, like most of his complicated film, for better or worse, you're disgusted.