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.
John Walter and Andrew Moore–the director-editor and producer-cinematographer of How to Draw a Bunny–have far better taste in music than Michael Moore. For their documentary, they commissioned a percussion score by the immortal Max Roach and then added, as an opening and closing theme, the Al Green classic “Take Me to the River.” That’s all you need to know, to understand that an insidious wit is at play in their movie. How to Draw a Bunny is a collage-like portrait of the artist Ray Johnson, who in 1995 jumped off a bridge in Sag Harbor and drowned.
Insidious, funny, quizzical, reclusive, candid, hieratic, common as dirt: Johnson was all these things, and the film moves with liquid ease into precisely his channels. A gay man, and an abstract painter of exquisite sensibility–qualities that were both nurtured at Black Mountain College in the 1950s–Johnson became one of the “hungry, thin artists” whom James Rosenquist recalls for the camera, speaking of the vanished era of $28-a-month New York apartments. Free to make art all day long, Johnson took to making art for free. He created innumerable collages, which he mailed to hundreds of people, most of whom he knew, some of whom he’d merely read about in the papers. He also staged performances, which he called Nothings, and drove would-be collectors to distraction by making up price lists that only Lewis Carroll could have deciphered. His suicide, committed on Friday the 13th, was most likely meant as the signature on a grand artistic project.
“Ray wasn’t a person,” says fellow artist and Warhol associate Billy Name. “He was a collage, or a sculpture.” John Walter and Andrew Moore couldn’t have chosen a more elusive subject for a movie; their success in evoking Johnson, and in documenting his world, is a triumph of sympathy over psychology, memory over historicism. There’s no trick to what they’ve done (although Walter’s touch as an editor deserves the name of magic). Through sheer intelligence, they’ve saved the breath off a mirror.
How to Draw a Bunny won the Special Jury Prize at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and is now beginning a theatrical release in New York, at Film Forum.
Short Takes: Arthur Dong, the maker of the harrowing Licensed to Kill, is now bringing out a follow-up of sorts, titled Family Fundamentals. Since the earlier film brought Dong face to face with the convicted murderers of gay men, many of whom explained away their crimes by quoting the Bible, he decided to look at the relationships between some openly gay people and their militantly antigay, religiously grounded parents. So we have the subjects of Family Fundamentals: Susan Jester, the politically active, lesbian daughter of a Pentecostal church leader who advocates “curing” homosexuals of their “addictive lifestyle”; Brett Mathews, a former Air Force officer who is the son of a stony Mormon bishop in rural Utah; and Brian Bennett, a conservative Republican from California who served as chief of staff and surrogate son to Congressman Bob Dornan for a dozen years, until the day Bennett came out. Unfortunately, only Susan Jester’s mother gave interviews to Dong; so the film is lopsided, and also lacks the confrontational power of Licensed to Kill. Still, Family Fundamentals is a deeply valuable project, one that’s alive with the sorrow, anger, resignation and humor of its witnesses.
Good news: Su Friedrich has a new, hourlong essay film, titled The Odds of Recovery. It’s an autobiographical piece about surgery and long-term love, gardening and hormonal imbalance, turtles and self-help books. Every shot has Friedrich’s characteristic fusion of sculptural weight and glancing mobility–even if the picture was recorded by a video camera left running on a chair in an examining room. Unlike Friedrich’s best work–have you seen Sink or Swim lately?–The Odds of Recovery is neither rigorous in its architecture nor strongly intuitive in imagery. But, to take the title seriously, I’d say the film bodes well for the future. Friedrich is being as smart as ever in The Odds of Recovery; but in the manner of the self-help books she consults, she’s also allowing herself, for the first time, to get just a little sappy.
Finally, for those of you who are looking for a fiction film, let me recommend Skins, the new picture by Chris Eyre. Set on the Pine Ridge reservation, it’s the story of Rudy (Eric Schweig), a Lakota policeman, and his relationship with his older brother Mogie (Graham Greene), a Vietnam vet who came home with wounds both visible and unseen. Mogie now drinks full-time and makes vulgar, angry jokes out of everything; and Rudy almost goes nuts as he fumbles to help Mogie, writes him off, tries to rescue him, inadvertently destroys him. What’s most impressive about Skins–apart from its allowing an entire cast of Native Americans to be themselves–is the interplay in the movie between physical grace and clumsiness. The two brothers were football stars when they were in high school; but now people are forever staggering around, crashing into one another and sometimes throwing punches, and Rudy can’t seem to regain his balance.
Screening Schedule: A warm welcome to the Gramercy Theatre, Manhattan’s new movie house for revivals and art films. It’s managed and programmed by the Department of Film and Media of the Museum of Modern Art, which has taken over this long-shuttered theater while MoMA undergoes a large-scale renovation and expansion. Kicking off the Gramercy program is a retrospective of the films of Delphine Seyrig–as classy an inauguration as I can imagine.
Among the other programs in New York that make moviegoing worth the effort, “Directors from the Edge” is bringing Nordic filmmakers to the theater of Scandinavia House. Norway’s Anja Breien will be present on October 16 to introduce both a new short and an older feature film, and on October 17 to show her 1975 feature Wives, a response to John Cassavetes’s Husbands that has become a landmark in feminist filmmaking.
And for those of you in the Bay Area, keep an eye out for “Cinemath,” a series of films at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, with each screening introduced by a distinguished mathematician. By the time you read this, you may already have missed my favorite picture in the series, Mario Martone’s Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician, on October 13; but you may still be able to catch the October 20 screening. It’s Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers–the one film by him that I actually enjoy watching–introduced by Dave Bayer: professor of mathematics at Barnard College, mathematical consultant for A Beautiful Mind and author of the equations that describe the optimal shuffle of a deck of cards.
Correction: In my previous column, I wrote that Aleksandr Sokurov’s magnificent Russian Ark would open in New York and Los Angeles in mid-October. That date has now been pushed back to December. Sorry for the misinformation–but if you want to start lining up now, I won’t discourage you.