Mar 26, 2010

Bowling for Columbine, A Michael Moore's Documentary

Jing Ke & Chen Lou
Oct, 2007
Course Title: Film Studies

Bowling for Columbine and Documentary Film

About this film
In this film, Michael Moore looks into the nature of violence in the United States, focusing on guns as a symbol of both American freedom and its self-destruction in a deep interrogation and incisive exposure, which spurs us to think; while, with tendentious and aggressive point of view, this film looks more like a symbolically individual interpretation than a rational documentary film.

Documentary film
Literally, “documentary” is to document reality. Although “documentary film” originally referred to movies shot on film stock, it has subsequently expanded to include video and digital productions that can be either direct-to-video or made for a television series.
The term “documentary” was first used by documentarian John Grierson’s review of Robert Flaherty (1884-1951, a filmmaker who directed and produced the first commercially successful feature length documentary film Nanook of the North in 1922)’s film Moana published in the New York Sun in 1926. In the 1930s, he further argued that documentary was the cinema’s potential for observing life in a new art form, which meant that the “original” actor and “original” scene are better guides than their fiction counterparts to interpreting the modern world; and that materials “thus taken from raw” can be more real than the acted article. Grierson generally held documentary as “creative treatment of actually” compared with the dramatic fiction as “bourgeois excess”.
Modern lightweight digital video cameras and computer-based editing have greatly aided documentary makers, as has the dramatic drop in equipment prices, which placed far more interpretive control in the hands of the director, leading some critics to question whether such films can truly be called documentaries.
However, as a matter of fact, directorial manipulation of documentary subjects has been noted since the work of Flaherty, and may be endemic to the form.

Moore as an Auteur Director
Accurately, this film is not only directed, but also written, starring, and produced by Michael Moore. He is also the director and producer of another celebrated documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. In his documentaries he tends to present a critical look at some social problems like gun violence or international issues like globalization and the Iraq War. He is active in promoting his political views and is known for his “fiery left-wing populism.” Besides film, he is also a director of TV series and a writer of three best-selling books, and all of his works reflect a left-wing viewpoint on American political and social issues. Although some Americans see him as a betrayer of the country, he claims himself as a patriot. In 2005 Time magazine named him one of the world's 100 most influential people.[i]

Bowling for Columbine had brought Moore international attention after its release and won numerous awards, including a 55th Anniversary Prize, Cannes Film Festival in 2002; an Academy Award for Best Documentary Features, International Documentary Association - Best Documentary of All Time and the C├ęsar Award for Best Foreign Film in 2003.

Content and Focus
Bowling for Columbine is released on October 11, 2002 and explores what Moore suggests are the causes for the Columbine High School massacre (Occurred on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School, two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed 12 students and a teacher, wounded 23 others, before committing suicide.) and other acts of violence with guns in America. Moore focuses on the background and environment in which the massacre took place and looks into the nature of violence in the US, he describes gun as a symbol of American freedom as well as its self-destruction at the same time.
The arrangement of materials in this documentary is, to some extent, disordered. Moore mixed and interweaved a great lot of materials, real and artificial, historical and real-time, into the film to make it more convictive and impressive.
Remarkably, this film enjoys a commercial success: with a budget of only $4,000,000, it grossed $40,000,000 worldwide, including $21,575,207 in the United States. It also broke box office records internationally, becoming the highest-grossing documentary in the U.K., Australia, and Austria.

Features of the film
1. The Use of Cartoon:
Moore tries to convey the historical connection between whites' fear of non-whites and the protection of gun ownership using an eight minute cartoon. The cartoon starts with the Mayflower (the ship), focuses on the colonists' fear of indigenous people, and only links this fear to blacks as they approach the civil rights era. This cartoon, together with some news clips, each tending to indicate the emphasis on violence and crime in news reports, and interviews illustrate the “security-minded” attitude of U.S. residents all prove that the Columbine massacre is not merely an outcome of the easy availability of guns in the U.S., but instead more connected to a “climate of fear” which is engendered by the American media. The eight minute cartoon is an artificial element in the documentary, which shows the director’s creativity and sense of humor.

2. Ironic Choice of Music:
About 20 minutes in the film, the song Happiness Is a Warm Gun plays during a violent montage is shown. The footage of it mainly reflects people buying and firing guns, a town in Utah passed a law requiring all residents to own guns, a blind man who is a gun enthusiast, etc. Also, when the film cuts to a montage of a review on American foreign policy decisions from 1953, which is filled with violence and hegemony, the film is set to another song What a Wonderful World. So we can feel the director’s intention to express his criticism in gun holding and American foreign policy through the choice of music.

3. Numerous Interview and Discussion:
In this film Moore interviews various people, including the National Rifle Association's president Charlton Heston, the rock-and-roll musician Marilyn Manson, and many residents, he seeks to explain why the Columbine massacre occurred and why the United States has a higher number of violent crimes — especially crimes involving guns — and he charges that the occurrence of violent crimes in the U.S. is relatively higher than other developed nations.
The interview is a central part of the documentary; Moore conveys what he wants to tell the audiences through the interviewee’s mouth, which makes the film quite “objective” – what is expressed is not the director’s viewpoint, but the interviewee’s.

4. Starring of Director:
Unlike most documentaries in which the directors never make an appearance, Michael Moore jumps to the front of lens in Bowling for Columbine and the whole film is absolutely under his steering. He gets a free gun for opening a bank account, he takes two Columbine victims to the Kmart headquarters to claim a refund, he visits Canada to show front doors unlocked and people are much less concern over crime and security, etc. His intervention arouses furious disputation on the objectivity of the film. It makes the documentary seems like a true-man show and some critics even contend it as “deliberately, seriously, and consistently deceptive”.[ii]

Put aside the argument on the standard of objectivity of documentary, which is always under impugnment, Bowling for Columbine is unquestionably successful in exploring into the thorny subject like the cause of the high murder rate and nature of violence in the US. It is thought provoking, agitative, and impressive.
Here are some reviews of the film from a website, which claims to express the opinion of “the top critics and audiences in the US”[iii], witness the popularity of this documentary:

●For anyone who cares about the future of America, it is required viewing.
●As the national media become more sedate and incurious; this country desperately needs a gadfly like Moore. Indeed, we need more like him.
●Moore has perfected the art of highly entertaining, self-important, politically motivated documentary-making, and he has got as potent a topic as ever with Bowling for Columbine.
●Anything that coaxes us into thinking about why we are the way we are, even as imperfectly as Bowling for Columbine does, is an energizing change of pace.
●A great national conversation starter.

The theory of Gate-keeper: In human communication, in particular, in journalism, gatekeeping is the process through which ideas and information are filtered for publication. The internal decision making process of relaying or withholding information from the media to the masses. The theory was first instituted by social psychologist Kurt Lewin in 1947 and is still one of the most important theories studied by students of mass communication and journalism. Gatekeeping occurs at all levels of the media structure - from a reporter deciding which sources are chosen to include in a story to editors deciding which stories are printed, or even covered.

When concerning to this movie, Moore, undoubtedly, did a good job as a gatekeeper, who displayed genuine information that are totally truthful. However, making a decision between what to show and what to ignore itself is a kind of gatekeeping, and as a result of this, he seems to be selling his point of view to viewers furtively and smartly in the name of documentary film.

For example:
● The title originates from the story that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two students responsible for the massacre, attended a school bowling class early that morning, at 6:00 a.m., before they committed the attacks at school starting at 11:18 a.m, which at last proved wrong because their absence of school that day (NOT SHOWN). However, Moore incorporates the concept of bowling in other ways, such as a Michigan militia uses bowling pins for their target practice, the two boys’ classmates recollections about them with the bowling class. By doing these, Moore suggests that bowling could have been just as responsible for the attacks on the school as Marilyn Manson or even Bill Clinton. In sum, all of these give spectators impression that they are persuaded into buying this kind of subjective opinion of the director himself, what is the other reality, who cares? It seems that it is the way that using reality to get superficially “objective” opinion really matters rather than the whole reality itself.
●After an interview with NRA president Charlton Heston, who walks away from the interview while the cameras are still rolling, Moore leaves a photograph of six year old school shooting victim Kayla Rolland in Heston's house when he departs (SHOWN ON PURPOSE). By doing so, Moore actually exaggerated the tendentious view of them both, and give an ostensible demagoguery for viewers on the ostensible assumption that he only himself is seeing reality and on the side of right and totally true.

What is more important, after all these provocations and dig-deep efforts, Moore actually did not add up to certain definite answer or really objective consensus. It is more like gate-keeper who let the advantageous information flow into his display rather a rational or holistic scan contributing to further insight, ironically but unbelievably by the way, the information is actually genuine and thoroughly truthful on its own.

Moore played a great role in his documentary film and succeed in spurring viewers to think more about the nature of violence of American; but as a gate-keeper with tendentious and aggressive approach in his documentary film, all the communication that he did seemed symbolic and some sort of individual heroic, hardly add up to a rational approach or real answer to the issue.


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