Editor’s note: Art Threat has launched a cultural archaeological project that involves digging up previously published but now inaccessible film reviews and cultural musings from Montreal-based writer and teacher Matthew Hays. We’re calling it The Hays Files, and to get things rolling, we’re republishing a review Hays wrote of Bowling for Columbine when the documentary first shook up the cultural and political scene ten years ago. Each article will be prefaced with a short contemporary intro from Hays. Enjoy!
I won’t ever forget meeting Michael Moore. I had interviewed him by phone but this was the first in-person interview, at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s hard to put into words just what a sensation Bowling for Columbine was at the time. Everyone had an opinion on it. I had just seen the film at a packed press screening. I was in tears by the end of the film, and there was a standing ovation–something I’ve never seen before or since at a press screening at TIFF. — Matt Hays
The images have become etched in our head. The overhead camera, positioned in some live-at-five newsteam’s helicopter, captures a large group of students fleeing a school building. As it turned out, it was Columbine, a name that has now become a famous symbol of epidemic school shootings.
For shitdisturber Michael Moore, that day was the last straw. Sitting down to discuss his latest political opus, Bowling for Columbine, at the Toronto International Film Festival, Moore says he was stunned by the event—the worst of its kind in history—but was also bowled over by the increasing normality of such occurrences in his country.
“Yeah, I’d had it,” he says, the anger showing in his face. “It seemed back then there was, like, a school shooting a week and I thought I’ve got to do something with this.”
And do something with it he has. With Bowling for Columbine, Moore investigates America’s obsession with guns, but uses that point of investigation to launch into myriad different directions. He visits a gun boot camp, where National Rifle Association members exchange their enthusiasm for firearms; he goes to a Michigan bank, where customers are given free guns when they open an account; he takes survivors of the Columbine shooting to K-Mart, where they insist the corporation stop selling ammunition.
These are but a few scenes in a film that demands multiple viewings; Moore has created an epic essay-style film, employing his unique strain of irony and absurdity to skewer a culture of violence. He connects right-wing hypocrisy with racial tension with corporate malfeasance with media alarmism with American foreign policy (see the planes flying into the World Trade Center on the big screen for the first time) while interviewing Dick Clark, Marilyn Manson and South Park creators along the way.
In taking the dive into the gun debate, Moore ends up contradicting many of the theories he’d initially subscribed to. “I started with a typically liberal viewpoint,” he concedes. “I thought that if only we had less guns and better gun control laws we’d have less violence. Then I got into making this film and it was clear that wasn’t the answer.”
“Especially coming to Canada and going into the Office of Statistics in Ottawa, and learning there are seven million registered guns in Canada—even though most of them are shotguns, not handguns or Uzis. But you can get a gun fairly easily in Canada. But you’re not shooting people like we are in America.”
Thus Moore actually ends up agreeing with the NRA’s old mantra about guns not killing people, but rather people killing people, with one caveat: “It’s true: guns don’t kill people, Americans kill people.”
Canada, as it turns out, figures prominently in Bowling for Columbine. Not only is Moore fascinated by our lack-of-violence ways, he also came to Canada for producer backing, seeing as his thesis was just too danged controversial for many U.S. financiers.
But the true north strong and free comes under much self-consciously naïve praise by Moore, who pokes fun at our trusting nature. Canadians are asked if they bother locking their doors at night. Most say no, which contrasts neatly with Americans, who are shown to be in a deep state of panic about what their neighbours might do or be thinking about doing to them.
Isn’t Moore propping up some rather base stereotypes here? “If I were a Canadian I wouldn’t say what I’m saying in this film. I’d make a documentary about racism in Canada, or your treatment of your native population. Or how since Mulroney was prime minister, how the social safety net is being worn away, how Canadians have started to beat up on their poor.”
Moore is quick to point out that the film is selling extremely well in foreign markets, while distributors at home are already talking about refusing to screen Columbine. The film won a special award at Cannes, where it received 10-minute standing ovations.
“I think the reason it’s playing so well in foreign markets is because you in Canada, or Australia, or Europe, you are afraid you’re becoming more like us. Americans in Cannes had the idea that the film was doing so well there because they hate Americans.
“But I watched the film with audiences there, and the truth was, people were feeling like, whatever we do, we have to stop going down this road. We have to start dealing with the race issues in our country, because if we don’t deal with it now, if we don’t deal with our conservative governments, you’re going to start to look like us. This is like a warning siren for other countries.
“Face it, you have a Canadian ethic. Your ethic is that we’re all in the same boat. If someone gets sick, we should all see that person to the hospital and pay the bill. Your ethic is that if someone loses their job we all suffer as a result. Our ethic is every man for himself. You don’t have anything? Fuck you, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Me me me, mine mine mine.
“I’m telling you, having that American mentality, it creates a culture of violence. If you have state-sponsored violence against the poor—and I think packing single mothers on a bus for 80 miles to hold down two minimum-wage jobs instead of watching her kids is violence—it’s no wonder that people in the lower class have so much violence, in many cases directed against themselves. They’re in this horrible cycle of despair.”
A number of American critics have been calling Moore on statements just like this. Why, isn’t that red talk? Could Moore be suggesting that communism or socialism are possible answers? Moore has the perfect response to shut the conservatives up.
“No, I think Americans should be more Christian. What would Jesus do? How do we come off calling ourselves Christian, when the whole message of this guy was ‘Blessed are the poor.’ That was the first thing out of his mouth on that mountain.
“The Pope himself has said that capitalism is a sin. It is an economic system that benefits the few at the expense of many. I don’t know what the solution is, I’m not saying that communism and socialism are the answers. I’ve never read anything by Marx or gone to college, I’m not that smart. I just look smart to you because of the glasses.”
While many of Moore’s targets are easy, like the various gun nuts he interviews, a few of the connections he makes left some in the audience cold. Moore points out, for example, that the Columbine massacre took place on the same day that a record number of bombs were dropped on Kosovo by American forces and their allies. As well, many of the parents of victims of Columbine worked nearby at the largest munitions plant in the country.
“It depends on the audience. I’m not saying there’s an a-to-b connection with any of the things I bring up. I’m not saying that because parents of some of the kids at Columbine work for the largest weapons manufacturer in the country, therefore there was a mass murder there. I’m not that simplistic.
“I’m trying to say that woven into the American fabric is this culture of violence, and it comes in all these different forms, whether it’s massive weapon making or whether it’s kids with guns. We live in the wealthiest country in the world, where we believe so much in our freedoms. Shouldn’t we be treating each other better?
“What about that Globe and Mail poll I just saw? The one that says a majority of Canadians believe we’re partly responsible for 9/11. The rest of the world admires us a lot, but frankly, if we’re this shitty to our own people, the way we beat up on our poor, the way we can’t even get as far as saying that children and old people should have an automatic right to health care. If we would do that to our own people, what would we do to other people?”
Moore also comes out as clearly opposed to the bombing of Kosovo. Doesn’t he feel that in some extreme instances intervention is necessary? “In some instances, yes. But the Serb people were already demonstrating in huge numbers. This thing was moving in the right direction. Why not support them? The American solution is always to bomb. A majority of Serbs wanted Milosevic gone anyway. We ended up bombing Serb hospitals and schools. I’m not saying they did it on purpose, but it happened and I think it was unnecessary.”
Then there’s the film’s signature sequence, its astonishing climax, in which Moore goes head to head with NRA ringleader Charlton Heston. In the film’s final moments, Moore stages what must be his greatest coup yet. He convinces Heston to let him into his Hollywood mansion, where he confronts Heston about gun insanity.
At first, their banter is friendly, until Heston realizes Moore is not on his side. Eventually too pissed off to go on, Heston gets up and walks away from Moore. Moore is now bracing for the fact that since the scene was shot, Heston has revealed he is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the degenerative disease. What once looked like a funny stunt now could quite easily be perceived as a cruel joke on a sick senior.
“He didn’t actually say he had Alzheimer’s, he said he had Alzheimer’s-like symptoms,” Moore corrects. “He also stated that he would not be stepping down from his position at the NRA and that he would be continuing post-production on his latest film.”
Does Moore think the timing is suspect, a mere few weeks prior to the film hitting screens across North America?
“I’ve been asked by MGM/UA [the U.S. distributors of the film] not to comment on that question.”
What? Michael Moore, agreeing to a corporate request not to comment on something?
“I haven’t really thought it through. I hope he’s okay. I would not want anyone to have any disease. I wish him the best.” But do you think the timing was suspect?
“You’re the reporter, I’ll leave that up to you.”
Despite the tête-à-tête with Heston, Bowling for Columbine lacks the capital-b Bad Guy from many of Moore’s previous works. Instead, the film looks at cultural tendencies and attitudes, and their complex relationship to behaviour. With Columbine, it is as though Moore has gone metaphysical.
“That’s exactly how I feel. It was very easy in the past to focus on Roger Smith [the nemesis and corporate CEO namesake of Roger & Me] or an HMO on our show. Here, who’s the antagonist? It’s us, really. What am I gonna do, beat up on the audience for two hours and tell them they’re the enemy? This was a very hard movie to make.
“I cannot allow myself to sink into depression. And that’s why there’s humour in these films, because it’s a release of the pressure of the despair there. If you leave the theatre in despair, you’re going to be paralyzed. I want you to leave angry. I’m trying to push your citizen-action button. This is a democracy. This is not a spectator sport. If the people don’t participate, it doesn’t exist.”