Review: Looking For Trouble - 7th December 2002
(Credit: The Sydney
you went at this year's Cannes Film Festival, one
film was being discussed: Bowling for Columbine. "Columbine"
as in the Columbine High School massacre. "Bowling"
as in what the murderers did before they opened fire
on their classmates. Film as in a mad, furious, funny
documentary about America's gun culture by Michael
Moore, the lumbering scourge of stupidity.
sequence lent itself to anecdote, from the opening
scene where Moore, looking every bit the redneck,
claims his free gun in return for opening an account
at a Midwestern bank.
about that!" the Cannes crowd kept saying. What
about that bit where he bails up Charlton Heston,
film star and head honcho of the National Rifle Association!
In his own home! They would repeat the film's lines
from memory, playing out scenes as people once recited
their favourite Monty Python sketches. Except Bowling
for Columbine isn't about silly cheese-shop owners.
It's about death and fear. It's about white America's
fear of black people next door and Muslims in the
next country. It is about how, on the basis of that
fear, George Bush might well throw the lever marked
"war". In other words, the Big Stuff.
too, was everywhere in Cannes, an overweight, regular
Joe in a baseball cap talking to whoever would listen.
He grew up in Flint, Michigan, a town the entire economy
of which depended on the General Motors car plant.
His family was Catholic and unionised. One journalist
made the mistake of suggesting he was not your typical
leftie. "Why?" Moore reacted angrily. "Is
that a class comment? I come from the working class
so my instinct, my knee jerk should be more right
college drop-out, for 10 years Moore ran a weekly
newspaper, The Flint Voice. A left wing paper?
guess so," says Moore. "We didn't use those
terms in Flint."
is now a millionaire, based in New York among the
smart set, but back then he made $US99 a week. It
was politics that made him a filmmaker. When GM found
it could make car parts more cheaply offshore and
closed the Flint factory, Moore spent a couple of
years pursuing the company's chairman, Roger Smith,
across the US, determined to ask him a few tough questions.
The result was the 1989 documentary Roger & Me,
a hilarious account of class politics that became
the biggest-grossing American documentary then made.
has been no stopping Moore since. He is good at getting
noticed; he also has impeccable timing. His book,
Downsize This!, tapped into a tide of public anger
about soaring corporate salaries at a time of mass
redundancies. A subsequent film, The Big One, followed
his promotional tour for the book and focused on people
with myriad small tales of decline to tell. His most
recent book, Stupid White Men ... and Other Sorry
Excuses for the State of the Nation, is a comic take
on his homeland and his greatest success yet. It was
scheduled to be published, in a classic example of
Moore's accidental timing, on September 10, 2001.
September 12, his publisher, HarperCollins, had decided
to hold the book back a few months, the thinking being
that this was not the time for a book castigating
the nation's environmental destructiveness, racism
and general idiocy. A few months passed and Moore
rang to find out what was happening. He says the publishers
demanded a rewrite, especially of the chapter called
"Kill Whitey" and of his criticism of Bush
("George", reads one heading in the chapter
"Dear George", "are you able to read
and write on an adult level?").
publisher also wanted Moore to put up $US100,000 ($179,000)
of his own money to re-publish if he ever wanted to
see it on the shelves. He tried, without success,
to negotiate. The book was released in the end only
because news of its suppression had spread on the
internet and become something of a literary scandal.
were no publicity tours, no chat-show appearances,
no advance copies dispatched to reviewers. The idea
was that the book would quietly disappear, but something
else happened. Stupid White Men ... and Other Sorry
Excuses for the State of the Nation shot to the top
of The New York Times best-seller list and stayed
there, despite the fact that the liberal newspaper
hasn't reviewed it. In Britain, it topped the best-seller
list before it was released, thanks to internet sales.
And in Australia it remained in the best-seller list
for three months. Moore had become, no doubt about
it, a phenomenon.
may well also be an egomaniac, although he professes
to be puzzled when he reads that: "Clearly, I
am a person who suffers from a lack of ego. I mean,
if I felt better about myself I wouldn't look this
way." Yes, he puts himself in his films, but
he says he is acting as our stand-in. "I'm just
there doing what you probably would like to do and
holding back from wanting to choke a few of these
this way, at least, he is not a traditional leftie.
He shares the American belief that, yes, one person
can make a difference. In Stupid White Men he stampedes
for a national holiday in honour of Rosa Parks, the
black woman from Montgomery, Alabama, who became the
poster girl for the civil rights movement in 1955
when she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger.
Parks was a brave woman, but Marxism 101 tells us
that her lonely act of defiance would not have made
a blip in anyone's day if the time for change had
not been ripened by decades of slow struggle.
rides over all that. He acts as if he can change the
world by lunchtime tomorrow if he can just give it
enough bluster. Forty-eight years of junk-food consumption
have ensured he takes up a lot of space; our Mike
is like a juggernaut, the irresistible force mowing
down every reactionary in sight. "Isn't that
great?" you think, with a huge sigh of relief,
as you see him bearing down on the next racist lunatic
or feral gun owner in his path. Go, Mikey!
least, that's what I think. Not everyone likes his
style. In Cannes, where many of the visiting Americans
were corporate studio clones, Moore felt the brunt
of his compatriots' disapproval. They stopped him
in the street, he says, to ask him how he could be
there with a movie that would suggest to outsiders
all was not well in America.
was as if Moore were personally inviting terrorists
to launch another attack on America, which is a bit
rich given Moore lives in New York and lost a friend
in the attacks on the twin towers. He complains in
Stupid White Men that the British media portrays Americans
as "about as stupid as slugs", but, as he
talked the press through Bowling for Columbine, you
could see he was beginning to wonder about that himself.
Not for long, though; his optimism, like his confidence,
puts this down to being raised a Catholic. As a Catholic,
he says, all things seem unattainable, but you keep
going anyway; as the lifeboat went down, he says,
he would be the one trying to bail it out with a dixie
cup. More powerful than this optimism, perhaps, is
his certainty. Moore keeps going because he is sure
he's right. "And when I'm wrong, I change my
mind and then I'm right again," he says. "And
I try to keep my sense of humour."
is humour that makes his films so watchable. He is,
he insists, making popcorn films. He sees himself
as mainstream, so he makes films he would like to
watch. "When I make a film, I'm not making it
purely for political reasons. If I just wanted to
do that, I'd run for office. As a filmmaker, my first
contribution would just be to make a good movie that
people would love to go see and leave the theatre
charged with that sense of excitement that we've all
documentaries, he says, are inherently dull because
they are made to a plan. When he started Bowling for
Columbine he wasn't sure where it would take him.
"I don't want to make a documentary saying nuclear
weapons are bad; I think we all know that. Why spend
two hours watching that movie? And, likewise, I would
never set out to make a movie saying guns are bad
because, yeah! I know that! So I never thought of
doing that. But after Columbine, I thought, 'You know
what? This is about an American mental problem. About
our culture of fear and paranoia.'"
in the middle of making it, too, he changed his mind
about gun control. He used to think, looking at the
low murder figures in Australia and other countries,
that guns were the issue. Now he has changed his mind.
"Here's why. You had this horrible shooting at
Port Arthur. OK? You passed a very strong gun law
and Australians were very proud they cut the gun murders
in half. But they were only killing 120 to begin with,
you know what I'm saying? To you, it's progress. To
us, it's not the point. I'm agreeing with the NRA
when they say guns don't kill people, people kill
people: that's their slogan, right? But I would amend
it. I'd say that guns don't kill people; Americans
look at just the guns lets us off the hook from looking
at the real problems. I think what has kept your country
relatively safe and sane is that you have an ethic
we don't have, which is that 'if one person is hurting,
we're all hurting'."
Australian politics moves to the right, he continues,
Australia will also become increasingly brutal. "You
are going to have more of what we have if you continue
down the road of not taking care of each other."
Take that with you!, he seems to be saying. You can
do it! One person can make a difference!
changed his mind about gun control when he went to
Canada, another country with a low murder rate. He
was shocked to find that the peaceful Canadians actually
own almost as many guns as Americans. This is where
his presence in the frame works the way he wants.
We see him being shocked; we witness Moore change
his mind and become right again.
of Bowling for Columbine is similarly impromptu. Even
the climactic interview with Charlton Heston was unplanned.
Moore had been pursuing Heston through the proper
channels for years. Then he simply found Heston's
house on a Hollywood star map and called in on the
way to the airport. He rang the doorbell and, like
magic, the famous voice answered. If you look closely
at the film, you can see Moore's knees shaking from
shock, he says.
humour, the wildcard approach, have done the trick
once again. Bowling for Columbine has set another
record for documentary audiences for Moore. "[The
film's backers] can't understand it," Moore said
recently. "They tried to get me to change the
title. And it turns out all the predictions were wrong.
And I knew that they'd be wrong, because I feel like
I have a sense of where people are in the country."
Most Americans, he points out, did not vote for Bush.
They are worried, too, by the craziness of everything.
"It's just that they got lazy."
for Columbine releases across Australia on December
Moore official website
For Columbine official website
- Truth, Lies & Michael Moore
- Truth About Bowling