Michael Moore is a media figure who stirs ambivalent emotions. Is he a buffoon who makes light of serious, political issues, the "wrong man on the right side" as I have heard him described? Or is he exactly the person that the Western world needs, a fearless satirist who takes on the forces of conservatism while making his sermon accessible to all?
It all depends on how you judge the political efficacy of Moore's very particular position in the scheme of things. To some, Moore has been "co-opted" by the system long ago, and can only produce superficial, jokey critiques that register as entertainment fodder like every other mainstream film or television show. This is what can be called the "society of the spectacle" critique of Moore.
To others, Moore is a true subversive, someone who has pulled off the rare trick of turning the system against itself. His fame is now such that nothing can stop him, and his new essay-documentary Bowling for Columbine is a testament to his gangbusting gall. Moore takes the staple device of current affairs journalism – the ability to barge in on anyone, great or small, with camera turning and questions blazing – and turns it into his battering ram against corporate America.
Bowling for Columbine is a meditation – if that is the right word – on the violent culture of America. Begun in the wake of the Columbine school massacre and completed as the Twin Towers collapsed, it poses, not without irony, as a sociological investigation into the causes of such misery.
The film, which is skilfully assembled, ranges widely – at times far too widely. Moore seeks out ordinary people who have even the slightest relation to tragic real-life events, and tries to get under the skin of their casual, everyday, often rather horrifying attitudes. He is not above mocking "freakish" characters, but then again he is always quick to present himself in a not exactly glamorous light.
Moore strides into banks that sell guns, military installations, even the home of Charlton Heston. He travels to neighbouring Canada in order to get a comparative perspective on a culture that has a similar number of guns but nowhere near as much violence. After juggling the statistics, as he loves to do, he settles on the rather woolly conspiracy-thesis that America thrives on a "culture of fear". Didn't Michael Hutchence warble a tune about that?
It is too easy to fault Moore for not being a standard-issue, Noam Chomsky-style intellectual. His brand of critique is made in broad, swinging strokes, and often he hits his targets with vigour. There is much in Bowling for Columbine that brings home the insanity of America as a Western power, and the ideology upon which it thrives.
Sometimes Moore strains too hard for laughs, and at other times pushes too hard for a big emotive propaganda effect – as when he leaves the photo of a dead girl in Heston's backyard for the star to ponder. Worst of all is Moore's tendency to seek out fellow comedians to corroborate his social views, as when he gabs with a creator of South Park or runs a Chris Tucker clip.
But Moore's success is remarkable, especially when one considers the ominous absence of a similarly prominent, left-wing comedian in Australia. And there is a good chance that Bowling for Columbine will do more than just preach to the converted. As an exercise in agit-prop political cinema for the masses, it has to be admired.
© Adrian Martin December 2002