The closest thing you get to a dull moment in Michael Moore’s latest picture, Bowling for Columbine, is an interview with Marilyn Manson. Looking sylphlike in his concert get-up–his face slashed ear-to-ear by a band of black paint, his eyes behind their pale contact lenses flashing a roadkill
stare–Manson lolls backstage, discussing the teen murders in Littleton, Colorado, and his special place in their history. He was the favorite recording artist of the boys who shot up Columbine High School. As a result, professional opinion-mongers made him their leading candidate for Evil Force Behind the Massacre–to which nomination, he responds with words that are straightforward, sensible and a little long-winded. For once, it seems, Moore has failed to generate much-needed comic relief, or heat, or light; and then Manson rescues the scene with a zinger worthy of his outfit. Asked what he would say to the people of Littleton, he replies sharply, in a decisive baritone, “Nothing. I wouldn’t say a word. I would listen to them. Because that’s what nobody ever did.”
This line may or may not serve as an endorsement of Bowling for Columbine. Yes, Moore listens to some of the people of Littleton–for example, a trio of girls who studied with the murderers in their for-credit bowling class. But Moore also listens to all sorts of other people, in all sorts of places: members of the Michigan Militia at their training camp in the woods; a sociologist on the streets of South Central LA; a series of Canadians in their unlocked homes (into which Moore drops uninvited); a guy in a welfare-to-work program, taking the long, long bus ride to his job. To these interviews–which are prankish, somber and alarming by turns–Moore adds found footage, deliberately corny music, an animation in the South Park style, a quick parody of TV cop shows. He’s even got videotape from the surveillance cameras in Columbine High School, showing part of the assault.
To what purpose, you may ask, does Moore assemble this mishmash? The answer is quasi-sociological, quasi-polemical and wholly personal. Moore wants to know why Americans, more than any other people, are given to murdering one another with guns. Apparently, Marilyn Manson isn’t to blame–and neither are half a dozen of the other usual suspects, from inner-city poverty to high divorce rates to an overabundant supply of firearms. Moore makes nonsense of all these explanations. Then, thanks to his skill at uncovering people’s attitudes–a skill that’s central to all his interviews, and embedded in his working-class bearing–he develops his own hypothesis. We’re unwise to keep guns close to hand, he argues, because we’re all so afraid. We’re afraid because the shadow of slavery is still upon us.
This is a pretty sophisticated analysis, and highly sophisticated filmmaking, for a guy who won’t appear in public without his baseball cap. I might criticize Moore for using too much jokey music, and also for making himself the focus of the story once or twice too often. Mostly, though, he listens to people, in sorrow and outrage and raucous amusement; and what he hears, he communicates without a dull moment, except maybe one. Bowling for Columbine is Moore’s best film yet.