CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, journalists are human too. We are not merely hecklers in the human comedy, the suckerfish of tragedy. We have thoughts and feelings. We experience pain and insecurity. We suffer disappointment and sorrow. Sometimes, we just need to be held.
Of all these human emotions, the most acutely-felt is often regret. For though we make it look effortless--often because we don't exert any effort--it can be a tough racket: being forced to capture in a few-thousand word snapshot all the nuances of people's lives, being frustrated when you don't quite nail them. Take me, for instance. Four years ago, I wrote a piece on documentary-filmmaker Michael Moore. Entitled "One-Trick Phony," it was what is known in the trade as a "kneecap job." Even by my own often uncharitable standards, it was a nasty piece of work.
Taking on the self-styled populist avenger, the bra-strap-snapper of corporate America, I went after Moore with a pick-axe. I said his career had been "one, long tiresome impression of a harlequin Reuther brother whistling the song of the working man," while all he really did was ambush mid-level proles in company lobbies. I called him a "Ritz-Carlton revolutionary" and a "high-cholesterol Cassandra" who dressed like "an unemployed lumberjack." After displaying initial comic genius with his General Motors-bashing "Roger & Me"--his critically acclaimed, if factually-compromised first film--Moore had, I suggested, become "a preachy bore . . . whose work has become so sanctimoniously unamusing it could make Cesar Chavez pull for management." Then I quit playing Mr. Nice Guy.
While most Moore critics stop at ridiculing him, since he is, both figuratively and literally, a fat target, I talked to his co-workers, acquaintances, and former employees, nearly all of whom made my editorial pronouncements look like a good-natured game of Slapjack. They called him "paranoid," "mercurial," "demanding," and a "fork-tongued manipulator." Though Moore's entire shtick is predicated on fighting the jackboot of corporate oppression, they detailed everything from his temper tantrums to his threatening to fire an assistant who sent a yellow cab instead of a limo to fetch him at the airport. They compared working conditions under Moore to "a sweatshop," "indentured servitude," and "a concentration camp." One of his former producers said it was like "working for Idi Amin--without the laughs." Another staffer simply said, "My parents want him dead."
But that was then, and now, it is four years later. With the mellowing brought on by age, I realize that we are all God's children, doing the best we can, struggling to get by. And so today, outside the heat of battle, in the cool light of day, as I watch Moore's latest documentary, "Bowling For Columbine," I can't help but be haunted by one mammoth regret: that my piece wasn't nearly mean enough.
For some time now, cultural observers have noticed that being a sparkling left-wing satirist is not a vocation in danger of overpopulation. Now that Mort Sahl is dead (or is he still alive?), you might count Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower, which is hard to do if you've actually read them. The Nation's Katha Pollitt is a sparkling self-parodist, though not much of a satirist. So the field has pretty much been abandoned to Michael Moore, and more's the pity, since it is hard to imagine the likes of Twain or Swift comparing themselves to Mother Teresa (as Moore has done), while still expecting to be taken seriously as funnymen.
Not that the marketplace has passed a similar judgment. Moore's latest book, "Stupid White Men" (which isn't, as the title suggests, an autobiography), has become a New York Times number one best-seller. A collection of union-hall-pamphleteer conspiracies stitched together in the mouth-breathing verbiage of someone who's quite proud of their GED, the book is useful in that it collects all Moore's crackpot theories in one place. The media tells us lies. . . . the election was stolen. . . . George W. Bush is an alcoholic. . . . we need Jimmy Carter. . . . on and on it goes.
As for the yuks quotient, a typical line is "I think it was Thomas Aquinas who once observed, 'There's nothing like your own shit to make you realize how much you stink.'" Clever stuff. In a sidebar chart (it's the kind of book with sidebar charts) Moore offers "Mike's Fantasy List of Women Presidents" which includes Hillary Clinton ("only if I could get invited for sleepovers") and President Oprah ( "the fireside chats with Dr. Phil would save us all.") Yuck.
Considering that Moore, just days after September 11, wrote "We, the United States of America, are culpable in committing so many acts of terror and bloodshed that we had better get a clue about the culture of violence in which we have been active participants"--it's small wonder that the New Republic has called Moore "Chomsky for children." But it is precisely his culture-of-violence rap, along with his knee-jerk anti-Americanism, that has seen Moore earn some of his best reviews since "Roger & Me."
Having already won several film-festival awards, "Bowling For Columbine" was such a hit at the Cannes film festival, that it won a 13-minute standing ovation, along with the 55th anniversary Jury Prize. While the French are renowned for lapping up sub-standard American entertainment products, they are less likely to celebrate screechy and preachy moralistic diatribes, of which "Bowling for Columbine" is almost nothing but. But since the film contains heaping spoonfuls of America-bad-everyone-else-good notions, they appear eager to make an exception. As Brandweek reported, since Moore's film also won the "Cannes Prix Educational National" award, voted on by hundreds of French teachers and students, it will now become part of their national curriculum, shown every year at schools in France.
In fairness to the French, Moore's version of America gives them plenty to hate. Besides being a slovenly repository of happy meals and Shamrock Shakes, the protagonist (Moore) is a whiny nitwit, at turns deathly earnest and smugly glib--and he's supposed to be the good guy.
The drama in a Moore film always comes from a cinematic version of the "Tonight Show"'s Jay-Walking segment--the running bit in which Jay Leno hits the streets and asks ordinary Americans to display their ignorance by asking them such stumpers as, "In what year did we fight the War of 1812?" Checking my stopwatch, I clock the film at 1 minute 20 seconds before Moore's first human sacrifice--a harmless bank teller in Michigan, who sports a sensible hairstyle and a North County Bank golf shirt. As part of a bank promotion, they are giving away free guns, after background checks, when a customer opens a new account.
After the teller asks if Moore's ever been ruled "mentally defective"--a fair question, considering the customer--Moore asks her, "Do you think it's a little bit dangerous handing out guns at a bank?" This is, of course, amusing in the way Moore's films periodically are--in the way cooking ants under a magnifying glass on a hot sidewalk tends to enthrall your average ten-year-old boy. Unfortunately, it is one of his last entertaining moments.
From there, we are off across America to prove we are a nation of militia-joining, bloodthirsty gun nuts, who use the rubric of the second amendment as a fig-leaf excuse to pump lead into each other for sport. The film's catchy, if non-sequitirish title, "Bowling for Columbine," is a reference to the uber gun-nut Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who happened to go bowling in an elective-class the morning of the massacre.
From the tofu farm of James Nichols, brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry, to Q&A's with disenfranchised juvies, sporting bad skin and worse dental work, Moore seems to unearth every anti-government extremist who dreams of black helicopters and blood in the streets, proving that we are a violent nation almost beyond salvation.
Moore himself has said his is not merely an anti-gun film, but a larger film about the culture of fear that fosters our gun culture. "The American media," he told Phil Donahue, "wants to pump you full of fear." He says the media overstate everything from child abductions to the recession, which is a curious statement, coming from the author of so many sky-is-falling manifestoes. Just take a paragraph, almost at random, from "Stupid White Men," and you come up with: "Investors lost millions in the stock market. Crime went up for the first time in a decade. Job losses skyrocketed. American icons like Montgomery Ward and TWA vanished. Suddenly we were 2.5 million barrels short of oil--every day! Israelis started killing Palestinians again, and Palestinians returned the favor. By mid-2001, thirty-seven countries were at war around the world. China became our new enemy--again. . . . In short, all of a sudden everything sucked." It's enough to make you want to hole up in your basement with canned goods and a weapons cache.
In the film, Moore heads to Littleton, where he visits Lockheed Martin, the weapons maker and Littleton's biggest employer. Always one to blame societal ills on big corporations and/or the military-industrial complex, Moore interviews a Lockheed flack while his camera pans the factory's corny successory posters. As Moore nearly pops a hamstring, hyper-extending himself while reaching for a causal factor in the Columbine shootings, he asks the poor flack if he doesn't "think our kids say to themselves, 'Well, gee, dad goes off to the factory every day, and he builds missiles, he builds weapons of mass destruction. What's the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?'" (Neither Klebold's nor Harris's parents worked for Lockheed, and Klebold's father has actually been identified as a liberal who favors gun control).
By this point, the flack is as puzzled as we are. He kindly explains that he's not catching the parallel, and that our missiles are generally built to defend us "from somebody else who was the aggressor against us. We don't get irritated with somebody and just because we get mad at them, drop a bomb or fire a missile at them." In what is perhaps the most-heavy handed two minutes in any film of the last 30 years, here, Moore cuts to a montage of American atrocities throughout the decades.
Against the strains of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," Moore cuts to a caption and image timeline explaining how we are guilty of everything from propping up tin-pot dictators to killing innocent civilians the world over. As Armstong sings the last words, Moore flashes a visual of the smoking World Trade Center, with the plane flying into tower two as a caption informs "Sept 11, 2001: Osama Bin Laden uses his expert CIA training to murder 3,000 people." Perhaps the likes of Bianca Jagger, Daniel Berrigan or the French would think Moore's uncorked a real sly piece of satire, but he's rolling out pretty heavy artillery to explain a school shooting.
The two-fold problem Moore runs into with attempting to fashion some deep polemic out of found material is that: (A) He has no idea what he wants to say, and (B) Neither does anyone that he finds. As he encounters Marilyn Manson backstage, they commiserate about the preposterousness of the Columbine rap nearly getting pinned on Manson by opportunists who said that the killers listened to his violent lyrics. (And they're right, it is preposterous, but slightly less preposterous than blaming Lockheed Martin). Manson tells Moore that the media are responsible for a "campaign of fear and consumption--keep everyone afraid and they'll consume." Moore agrees, and adds, apropos of nothing, that on the day of the shootings, the president dropped more bombs on Kosovo than at any other time in that war. This sounds less like a coherent argument, more like a conversation between two late-night dorm-room potheads.
But Moore doesn't stop there. Following his half-baked culture-of-fear theme, he goes to South Central, to ask a cop, who is, in all likelihood, about to bust some minority down the street, why he doesn't instead bust the people who are responsible for polluting the air, that makes it impossible to see the "Hollywood" sign from South Central. Later, he meets with a producer of the show "Cops," and suggests that instead of demonizing blacks and Hispanics by showing them getting arrested on television, maybe they could do a show called "Corporate Cops," where Enron-types get arrested. (The producer, tells Moore it wouldn't make much of a visual, unless they could get the corporate criminal to "take his shirt off, throw his cellular phone at the police as they come through the door, [and to] jump out that window--then we'd have a show.")
The only solution Moore offers to curtail gun violence, isn't, oddly enough, gun control, but for us to become more like Canada--a country that has it's fair share of guns, but a tiny fraction of our gun deaths. Why this is so, Moore never adequately explores. In interviews he has made some faint noises about there being less suffering, and thus, less violence in Canada because of their socialized medicine. But for the most part, Moore leaves the viewer at sea, free to suppose that if we could just listen to Anne Murray records, take up curling, eat poutine and add "eh" to the end of our sentences, we too, would be a peace-loving people.
By the end, Moore's deus ex machina creaks so loudly you'll need earplugs. Going back to visit Flint, Michigan (Moore's working class hometown, an antecedent he's usually fond of mentioning 12 or 13 times per interview), he re-visits the 2000 school shooting in which a six-year old boy found a gun in his uncle's house, brought it to school, and shot and killed a six-year-old girl. Moore pours it on thick. The media, at the time, were tempted to blame any number of factors for the tragic death. But class-warrior Moore settles on his usual bogeymen--conservative greedheads, multinational corporations, the NRA, all the regulars.
Because of brutally unfair welfare-to-work laws, Tamarla Owens, the boy's mother, was forced to trek to work 40 miles away everyday to Auburn Hills. She had to drive through rich people's neighborhoods to work two minimum-wage jobs, one of which was pouring drinks at Dick Clark's "American Bandstand Grill." Dick Clark, it seems, has blood on his hands. But he has lots of company, since our old friends Lockheed Martin, Moore tells us--his head now spinning so fast that sprockets seem ready to bust loose--have become the number one firm in the country in privatizing state welfare systems.
Because Owens, obviously victimized by the system, was forced to be an absentee mother out of necessity, she had to leave her children with her brother. Largely unsupervised, her youngest found a gun, brought it to school, and iced his first-grade classmate.
It's a harrowing tale, one which Moore first takes to Dick Clark in an ambush interview (Clark quickly peels away in a minivan, unfortunately missing Moore), and later to NRA president Charlton Heston. Heston, of course, has announced he has symptoms consistent with Alzheimer's, which is apparent, because when Moore buys a star map and shows up at Heston's gate unannounced, he lets Moore in for an interview. Starting off slowly, peppering him with chatter about the second amendment, Moore ends up closing in for the kill, asking Heston if he'd apologize for bringing NRA conventions to both Flint and Littleton after their respective shootings. Heston wisely calls it quits, but as he flees his own living room, Moore follows him, hectoring him with a picture of the girl Tamarla Owens's son shot. "This is her. Please take a look at her, please, this is the girl," Moore says, before propping the photo against Heston's house.
It is perhaps the single-most shameful moment ever in a Moore project, which is saying something, since Moore authored an entire chapter on how O.J. Simpson couldn't have killed his wife (because rich people usually hire lowerlings to do their dirty work). Not only did he ambush a doddering old man who had nothing to do with the shooting, but he related the Owens story in a fashion that was dishonest in nearly every way.
For what Moore didn't tell us about Tamarla Owens and her family could fill several newspaper and magazine articles, and did. The uncle's house where Owens left her children was, additionally, a crack house, where guns were often traded for drugs. The gun that the boy stole from a shoebox on a mattress in his uncle's bedroom had been reported stolen once before. And Owens was hardly a model parent, merely getting squeezed by unfortunate circumstances. According to Time magazine, Owens herself was a drug addict (she denied it). Additionally, reported Newhouse News Service, according to a state Family Independence Agency petition, she admitted holding down her oldest boy so he could be beaten with a belt by two male friends, and she also admitted beating the boy with a belt while sitting on him, after first duct-taping his hands, feet and mouth.
In short, Owens and her clan were to responsible gun ownership what Moore is to responsible journalism. To beat Heston up for her problems is itself an act of violence. It is perhaps understandable why Moore attempted to drop himself from the narrative, and put a less-fortunate type like Owens front-and-center. As he recently told one reporter, he has a sign on his editing-room door that says "when in doubt, cut me out." The reason he says, is "First of all, I can't stand the look of myself. Secondly, a little bit of me goes a long way. . . . because it's just a bit much. That's how it feels when I watch it." After watching "Bowling For Columbine," it's easy to see how he feels.
Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.