The creator of Bowling For Columbine, this year’s most devastating big screen documentary, shoots from the hip on violence, gun control, Charlton Heston, George Bush, satire and the Canadian solution to an American problem
Blue-collar lefty, shit-stirrer and all-around thought criminal par excellence, award-winning film-maker/author Michael Moore continues on his subversive path with the timely release of his new docu-feature Bowling For Columbine. A searingly powerful, troubling but immensely enjoyable exploration of America’s love affair with the gun, the film maintains Moore’s reputation as a ferocious scourge of corporate capitalism’s ugliest manifestations.
Thus far, his best-known work (the remarkable Roger & Me ) bore witness to his dogged personal pursuit of General Motors chairman Roger Smith, the man whose ‘downsizing’ policy had turned Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan into a social wasteland. It became the highest-grossing documentary feature of all time, appeared on over 100 critics’ Ten Best Films of the Year lists, won the New York Critics’ Circle documentary award, and garnered an Oscar nomination.
Subsequent screen ventures (Canadian Bacon and The Big One) attracted less attention, but Moore’s profile has rocketed thanks to his anti-corporate antics in the television series The Awful Truth and TV Nation. His literary efforts, as well, have become unmissable dispatches of wit and insight, with his latest Stupid White Men occupying top spot on the New York Times’s bestseller list for the last nine weeks.
When we catch up with him, at a press conference promoting his latest anti-Bush, one-man theatre show, Moore – as ever, a baseball-capped, treble-chinned, pleasantly plump scruffball – couldn’t be more quintessentially American if he tried, an impression borne out by his work.
Stunningly brilliant for long stretches, Bowling For Columbine dispenses totally with subtlety, with Moore’s huge force of personality and impassioned in-your-face polemic instead lending it a heartfelt, emotional charge that is devastating but never dispiriting.
From the recorded tapes taken out of the Columbine high-school cafeteria security cameras, to an astonishing confrontation at the home of National Rifle Association spokesman Charlton Heston, Moore doesn’t flinch from his central question for America: “Are we a nation of gun nuts – or are we just nuts?”
Hot Press: It was tragedy on an unbelievable scale, but what specifically was it about Columbine massacre that inspired you to examine the all-American love affair with guns and ammo?
Michael Moore: Well, Columbine was the trigger. But it’s been percolating in my head for a long time to do something about the American thirst for violence and why we so often use violence as a means to an end. I’ve been thinking about this since I was a kid, it’s hard not to if you’re American.
I have clear memories of sitting on the living room floor on Sunday November 25, 1963 at around two in the afternoon, when my mother was vacuuming the carpet and I’m sitting on the floor close to the TV so that I can hear it. They’re bringing Lee Harvey Oswald into the garage in Dallas, when Jack Ruby steps forward, puts the gun in his ribs and shoots him live on TV. That’s the first one I witnessed.
HP: And what are your own abiding memories of April 20, 1999?
MM: I walked into work one day and everybody was gathered around the TV because kids were running out of the building with their hands above their heads. That’s the first image I remember, the kids at Columbine running out with their hands above their heads because they were all suspects. They were all potentially guilty. I remember that image, and the police with their guns trained on these kids, lining them up.
You don’t really see those shots any more because we don’t want to reveal that that’s what we think of our children, that they all could potentially do this because that’s what we actually know instinctively as Americans. These weren’t monsters, these were normal kids and it really could happen to anybody. If you believe that it’s too frightening, you don’t want to go there.
HP: As with a lot of your previous output for film and television, Bowling walks a fine line between the tragic event at its centre, and dark humour. Did striking that kind of tone pose problems?
MM: The first thing I had to deal with was people asking me how could I call it a comedy, as it’s a school shooting we’re dealing with. But of course you have to see the film to understand. I’m not making fun of that, there’s nothing funny about school shootings. And that got me thinking about how it is important to tread where people are afraid to go. This is exactly where humorists and satirists should be going.
HP: Going after Charlton Heston and co?
MM: Exactly. The National Rifle Association are agitating against the film because they are so afraid of what may come of what he said, and whether the press will start to focus on the racial comments that he made. As a society, we try to avoid race as much as possible, and even when someody makes a racist comment we just want to turn our head the other way and hope that it’s something else.
So when he says in the film that the problem in America is our mixed ethnicity, and that he’s proud of the wise, old, dead, white guys who founded the country, the NRA has tried to shift some of the focus onto something else. But what are they gonna say – that we don’t have a lot of murders in the United States? We don’t have a lot of guns? What could they possibly say?
HP: Why do people like that agree to be interviewed? Haven’t they seen your work?
MM: I think it’s because they want to be on TV. I have no better answer for that. I would never talk to me, I don’t know why people do sometimes, though I do give people a fair chance. I don’t go there and do things like other people do, to just make somebody look bad. I turn on the camera and let them speak. I didn’t give Heston his lines when he said those things. I just let people talk and I’m respectful to them when I’m in the room. I’m not doing some wink to the camera to say how smart I am and what a jerk the other guy is.
HP: Is it true that you get extremely nervous when you confront people like Heston?
MM: Yes, it is. If you knew me you’d see that I absolutely hate going into those places, my stomach is in a thousand knots. So in the film when I’m in the bedroom with this other guy, and I can see the bullet in the chamber and he cocks the gun and puts it to his head, and he’s crazy, whipping this gun around? I’m wondering what I’m doing there, I’m frozen, there’s no movement and my hands are poised for me to do something if I need to do it quickly.
But when I watch myself in the film the most disgusting thing about the film is that I’m in it. What is wrong with journalism in America? I’m not the guy who should be asking the hard questions of these corporate leaders or the head of the NRA. There are people with degrees in journalism who are paid to do this, who are much smarter than I am. There’s something wrong about this, this should be an embarassment to the media to sit in the theatre and see me doing what I’m doing and asking the questions that I’m asking.
HP: The NRA must be delighted with the film’s success...
MM: Yeah, and here’s the good news, after the fourth weekend on release in the States, having broken the previous record for a documentary which was set by Roger & Me , more people are going to see this film than any other documentary in a movie theatre before. So it’s actually reaching a much wider audience than one would normally expect with this kind of politics, or this kind of filmmaking.
The same thing has happened with my book Stupid White Men. It’s now been 32 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, it’s the largest-selling non-fiction book in America this year. And I quote those numbers not to give you the sales statistics but to tell you that you’re not looking at a fringe American. I am someone who I believe to be in the majority. We are filled with discontent, don’t like what’s going on, don’t want a war with Iraq, did not elect the man who sits in the White House. You can go down the list.
HP: Bowling For Columbine seems resolute in its belief that movies and media aren’t contributing factors to violence in American society.
MM: Well, I don’t think they are contributing factors to the violence in the country. Otherwise Europeans and the Canadians and everybody else would have many more murders than they actually have. I believe the problem is the media that presents itself as non-fiction, as reality, the news. They say to you every night that this is what happened today, when in fact it’s not. These are the six stories that they’ve picked out to scare people, to give them that jolt that we all love because of the fight or flight instinct that all animals have.
We needed that ten thousand years ago because there were animals that ate us. We’re not scared by predators that much any more, yet that instinct is still in us. We love a good scary story, we love going to horror movies, it’s why we turn to look when we see a wreck on the highway. We want the horror. So I think the manipulation of news in the way it uses us, and presents itself as the truth when it isn’t the truth, is unnecesarily scaring people and encouraging peole in America to buy more guns than they need. And so you end up with all these guns laying around.
HP: But does Hollywood – and the wider filmmaking community – bear any responsibility because of the graphic nature of the violence it portrays?
MM: Well, I remember after Saving Private Ryan, thinking that if more of the guys I went to high school with had seen that film instead of the John Wayne films that we grew up on in the ’50s, I don’t think some of them would be dead today. I don’t think they would have been so eager to go off to war. For you to suffer through what you see in the first 25 minutes of Private Ryan you’d have to really believe in something to want to risk your life and sacrifice yourself in that manner. And so in some ways I think it’ s good to show that realistic violence as opposed to the A-Team cartoon violence.
But I like both. I’ve never subscribed to that theory. Maybe we should look back in British history and find out if after a certain Shakespeare play there were more swordfights in the street. Maybe there were, maybe it was an issue at the time.
HP: Ultimately, what do you hope that your fellow countrymen will take from the film?
MM: I honestly hope they leave the theatre thinking that they’ve seen a good movie. I set out to make a film that I would like to go and see, and that I hope other people would want to see. My goal is that if 10% leave the theatre in America thinking about what I’ve said, then I’ve scored a huge victory, and if 5% of them do something then maybe something will happen. I have to keep my expectations low because otherwise I would just give up in utter despair.
HP: And how do you hope that European audiences will respond?
MM: I’m much more optimistic about this film in terms of a European audience because there’s hope for them. I honestly don’t know if there’s hope for us. You have only started to go down our road: but if you want to end up like us then you should keep taking away social services, start putting women on buses so they can go on an 80-mile round trip to work off their welfare. Make it harder for them, make their lives more miserable than they already are. Have more acts of state sponsored terrorism against the poor.
If you keep doing that you will have, as we’ve started to have, a more violent society, more crime, more fear. British people, for example, don’t feel as safe as they felt 20 years ago. That’s the result of Thatcher and Major and the kinder gentler version, Tony Blair.”
HP: Have you ever felt tempted to use your energy to run for political office?
MM: What I’ve learned through these films is how the media can be a positive force, a power for good. Even though that night on the news they began with a scary snake story, and we were only ‘other news’. My films have always done that and the TV shows have done that too. If you saw my TV shows, The Awful Truth and TV Nation you’ll know that we were able to geta a lot of things done for people by going in there with that camera. It’s a great weapon for justice. But humour is also an incredible force which is rarely used, especially by the left any more, as a means to achieve things that we’d like to see happen. There’s this quote I love from Mark Twain: “against an assault of laughter nothing can stand”.
HP: Do you feel that you represents many of your countrymen?
MM: I don’t know. When I watch this movie I sit there and I think that as Americans we’re better than this. You know this about us, that as individuals we’re good people. You do like us mostly when you encounter us. There’s something charming and fascinating about our simpleness and our ability to just put it out there on our sleeve, saying this is who we are. And we’re good as people, as individuals. So why then, when we collectivise ourselves as a society, do we do so much harm and damage to the world?
HP: There’s always Canada...
MM: Exactly. But you know, if I could go on a mission in the United States, it would be to encourage people to look north, because there are answers. If we could be more like the Canadians then maybe we wouldn’t get so freaked out about being the only superpower.