MACLEAN'S ARCHIVE : Films
October 21, 2002
Staring Down the Barrel of A Gun
With Canadian money and Yank moxie, Michael Moore takes aim at the fear and loathing behind America's fetish for firearms
Brian D. Johnson
When Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore's documentary look at gun-crazy America, premiered in Cannes last May, the guerrilla filmmaker found himself in a bizarre, bilateral line of fire. On the one hand, some U.S. critics were dismissing his film as an anti-American rant; on the other, there were Canadians who complained that, to draw a contrast to America's gun culture, Moore had painted a risible caricature of Canada as a haven from violence and poverty.
But Bowling for Columbine is the most important movie to come out of the United States since the events of Sept. 11. This anatomy of trigger-happy America is by turns funny, harrowing, sad and surreal. I love it. Still, I was one of those critics who quibbled about how the film portrays Canadians as mild-mannered naifs who don't lock their doors. In Cannes, I accused him of fudging facts. The film points out that, although Canada has a much lower murder rate than the U.S., we have an arsenal of 7 million guns in 10 million households. Moore uses this to bolster his argument that the reason Americans shoot each other in such great numbers isn't a lack of gun control, but a "culture of fear." Yet the film fails to mention that Canadians tend to own hunting rifles -- not assault weapons, and not loaded handguns in purses, glove compartments and bedside tables. "What you're doing," I told Moore, "is using Canada as your straight man."
Not only did he agree -- by the time he addressed a rapturous audience at Bowling for Columbine's North American premiere, during last month's Toronto International Film Festival, he had appropriated the line. "I've been thinking a lot about your questions from Cannes," he told me in a subsequent interview. "I am using Canada as a straight man to make my point. The problem is, you Canadians don't take compliments well. You have a lack of self-esteem. You've created a society where, by and large, you care about each other. You have a separate ethic, not only from America, but from the rest of the world. But you won't flaunt it."
MICHAEL MOORE is America's clown prince of the proletariat. In his hit documentaries (Roger & Me, The Big One) and TV shows (TV Nation, The Awful Truth), this working-class hero from Flint, Mich., comes across as a blundering Everyman -- a merry prankster in ball cap who likes to ambush corporate villains with a camera. But behind the cartoon persona is a wily promoter with a shrewd sense of politics. Moore, 48, is the most flamboyant, and tenacious, voice to emerge from the American Left since the yippie heyday of 1960s radicals like Abbie Hoffman.
In an era of raging patriotism and pro-Bush sentiment, he stands as living proof that there's a mass audience for dissent in America. Stupid White Men, Moore's satirical assault on Bush and the "Idiot Nation," has hovered near the top of Canadian and U.S. bestseller lists. And now, as Bush itches to invade Iraq and a sniper picks off victims in Maryland, Bowling for Columbine strikes with uncanny timing. It's also his most daring and sophisticated film.
Canada, meanwhile, can take some credit for putting Moore on the American map. In 1989, he was an impoverished nobody when he drove up to the Bluewater Bridge border crossing in Sarnia, Ont., en route to Toronto's film festival for the world premiere of Roger & Me. A Canada Customs official asked if he had anything to declare. Moore pointed to boxes of Roger & Me T-shirts, ball caps -- and 5,000 lint rollers.
Moore tried to explain that he was using them to promote a movie about the devastating layoffs of auto workers in his hometown of Flint, the birthplace of General Motors, and how a GM official had basically said "let them make lint rollers" (the other product Flint was famous for). After two hours of wrangling, Moore got his lint rollers into Canada. A week later, his film was the hit of the festival. Warner Bros. bought world rights for US$3 million, setting a record for a documentary -- broken last May when United Artists paid that much for just the American rights to Columbine.
It was Canada's Alliance Atlantis that sold them. Despite his success, Moore can't get arrested in his own country (except perhaps literally). Unable to finance his productions in the U.S., he's turned Canada into his staging ground. It was here that he made Canadian Bacon (1995) with the late John Candy, his misfired attempt at a fictional comedy. And it was producer Michael Donovan of Salter Street Films, the Halifax impresario behind This Hour Has 22 Minutes, who produced The Awful Truth. Donovan also co-produced Bowling for Columbine, a US$3.2 million movie funded principally by Salter Street's parent, Alliance Atlantis.
"You know who is most embarrassed by the Canadian content of the film?" says Moore. "Alliance Atlantis and Salter Street. They begged me to reduce the Canadian references." But Moore's U.S. co-producers wanted them to stay. "I am looking at Canada through American eyes," he stresses. "If I were a Canadian, the documentary I'd make about Canada would be about how you treat your native people. It would be about the control of the media being concentrated, essentially, in the hands of two people. It would be about how you've snipped away at your social safety net, and started to beat up on your poor. If I were Canadian, that's the film I would make."
BORN AND RAISED in Flint, Moore grew up in a religious household with two younger sisters. Their parents, both Irish Catholics, would attend mass every day. Moore's father, now retired, worked at General Motors for 33 years, assembling spark plugs and oil filters. His mother worked as a clerk for the township. She died suddenly just a few weeks before he came to promote Columbine at the Toronto festival. "It's been very hard on me," said Moore the day after driving in from Flint with his father. "I wasn't going to come, frankly."
Moore's emotions run close to the surface, which is part of what makes him such a effective filmmaker. Performing at a press conference, one minute he's doing stand-up and the next his voice is rising into pure rage. "I've worked with comedians for 20 years," says Salter Street's Donovan, who's become a close friend of Moore, "and most are very angry. Michael uses comedy to make the point."
He grew up as "an all-American kid -- I was an Eagle Scout, I played sports, went hunting with the neighbour kids." In fact, he was a member of the National Rifle Association and a champion marksman as a teenager. He was also a precocious activist. In fourth grade, he made the first of repeated attempts to start a school newspaper, but the nuns kept shutting it down. In eighth grade, he wrote a play for the Christmas pageant about a rat convention and it too was banned. For his Eagle Scout project, he produced a slide show of local polluters.
Inspired by the radical Berrigan brothers, Moore imagined becoming a priest and spent a brief spell in a seminary. (He's still a practising Catholic.) At 18, just before graduating from high school, he got himself elected to the school board on a platform of firing his principal and vice-principal -- and became Michigan's youngest elected official. He went on to the University of Michigan, but dropped out and spent 10 years editing his own weekly newspaper, The Michigan Voice.
In 1986, Moore's reputation as a muck-raking journalist won him a job at San Francisco's left-liberal magazine Mother Jones. But he was fired after five months for what he called "ideological reasons." He went back to Flint. Selling his house and starting a weekly bingo game, he scraped together the budget for his David-and-Goliath documentary, Roger & Me, aiming a satirical slingshot at the auto giant that left his hometown in ruins.
Flint remains Moore's personal ground zero. In 1999, even as he prepared to make a film pegged to an event in Colorado -- the Columbine High School massacre -- the trail kept leading back to Michigan. Eric Harris, one of the two shooters, spent part of his youth on an air force base close to where Moore grew up. Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh's partner in the Oklahoma City bombing, attended the high school next to Moore's. And Charlton Heston, the gladiator president of the NRA, was another Michigan boy.
In examining America's gun culture, Bowling for Columbine shows that satire can't compete with reality. The film begins with an incredulous Moore opening an account at a Michigan bank that gives each of its new customers a free rifle. He goes target-shooting in the woods with camouflage-suited members of the Michigan Militia who believe that "if you are not armed, you're in dereliction of duty." He also talks to Nichols's wild-eyed brother, James, who shows him the loaded .44 Magnum he keeps under his pillow and then, to Moore's horror, aims it at his own head.
On a more chilling level, the film includes security-camera footage of the Columbine killings. He escorts injured survivors to Kmart headquarters to return the 17-cent bullets still lodged in their bodies. Challenging theories that movies or rock lyrics were to blame for the massacre, South Park creator Matt Stone, who grew up in Littleton, talks about the scapegoating of nonconformist kids. And a suprisingly cogent Marilyn Manson, rock's favourite scapegoat, asks why no one blames Bush for inciting aggression.
Moore traces so-called senseless acts of violence to a culture fuelled by military bravado and media hysteria. In a hilarious animation sequence, the film presents a rapid-fire history lesson showing how white America has armed itself against the bogeyman -- from paranoid Pilgrims to jittery slaveowners to gated suburbanites. He notes that the Columbine massacre occurred on the same day as America's biggest bombing of Kosovo. And a spokesman for Littleton's major employer, Lockheed Martin, denies any connection between mass murder and weapons of mass destruction -- as he stands in front of a huge missile on the factory floor.
Columbine is riddled with macabre coincidence. During the filming, a six-year-old boy shot and killed a six-year-old girl. It was America's youngest school shooting, and it happened in a Flint suburb. Moore reveals that the boy's mother was absent 70 hours a week at two work-for-welfare jobs. One was at Dick Clark's American Bandstand Grill. While the boy was free to find a gun at a relative's house, his mother had to "serve drinks and make fudge for rich people," says Moore, who then proceeds to hunt down Dick Clark.
There's still something of the marksman in Michael Moore. At the end of the film, he corners Charlton Heston poolside at his Beverly Hills mansion, and asks why he staged an NRA rally in Flint so soon after the school shooting. Heston walks out mid-interview. Before leaving the grounds, Moore props a photo of the dead girl against a wall. It's a shameless bid for pathos, but it was enough to bring audiences to tears in standing ovations at the Cannes and Toronto premieres. And it's a reminder that this dissident with a soft spot for Canada has an American instinct for the jugular.