Bowling for Columbine
g.maclennan at qut.edu.au
Tue Dec 24 16:06:55 MST 2002
Just before I went on leave, I took part in the opening nite of Michael
Moore's Bowling for Columbine. This was shown at the Dendy here in
Brisbane. The Dendy strives to give alternative and art cinema a fair
showing. As part of the opening nite Maxine the manager had arranged a
discussion panel - 3 academics and Brian Laver, anarchist, tennis coach and
I did the usual net scan before going on and was interested to discover
that the film had a 20 minute standing ovation at Cannes, where it was the
first documentary shown in 50 years. I also read a wide selection of
reviews form American papers and was surprised they were so favorable.
Another surprise awaited me when I got to the cinema and found it was
packed with mainly young people. More astonishment followed when after the
film the audience stayed for the discussion.
The film itself was very good. Though I do not agree it is Moore's best
film. It does though show the strengths and weaknesses of both his
politics and his art. I should be clear here that I now (having vacillated
over this) regard Moore as the Brecht of our time. I also rejoice that a
film or a book of his reaches the widest possible audience. He is
absolutely one of the good guys and it is great that he can pack a cinema
in Brisbane. No other Leftist could do that.
Moore's great strength is that he does have the popular touch. In part he
achieves this by a mixture of techniques and approaches. For instance I
think it helps if we understand him as a performance artist as much if not
more than as a documentary film maker. The set pieces where he entraps the
rich and the foolish are joys for me. Less pleasing are the moments when
he performs the same "candid camera" type routine on the harmless and the
nutty. It is a reminder that populism can all too easily merge into its
dialectical counterpart - misanthropy.
Still liberal communalism would appear to be the dominant tradition of the
Left in the USA and Moore articulates it brilliantly.
There is though one occasion that I would like to comment on in some
detail. This concerns the K-Mart episode where Moore takes two victims of
the Columbine shooting back to where the bullets where bought. This had
all the making of a classic Moore set piece. What made it different though
was that he was out maneuvered by K-Mart. What was at stake is the
political limitations of what have been called the 'aesthetics of
failure'. The basic technique is that Moore goes up to the rich and the
powerful and they give him the bum's rush. However their petty display of
power in front of Moore's camera always back fires. Moore becomes a
surrogate for you and me and all the powerless in a world dominated by the
rich. The latter are shown not to be part of the community and in a sense
they are expelled from humanity.
However someone at K-Mart has done a recent public relations course and
they turned the tables on Moore by giving him a "victory". To the applause
of millions K-Mart announced they would no longer sell bullets. There you
are -capitalism donned its human face and Moore the jester was left with
nothing to say.
Let me though finish on the film's great strength. Moore correctly puts
his finger on the culture of fear that is spread through the media. This
has reached hysterical proportions now in Australia. Recently I spoke to a
young couple who had cancelled their overseas honeymoon trip for fear of
terrorists. They will in stead drive around Australia where their chances
of getting killed in a road crash are probably much greater. (The Great
Powers or whatever forbid of course.)
How are we to respond to this urging to fear and to hate? Well I concluded
my spiel by saying that we must absolutely refuse the invitation to fear
and hate and instead we must dedicate ourselves to creating a world of
love. I would have had to be tortured repeatedly once before I would ever
utter the word 'love' at a political occasion. But time and tides have
changed me and there I was advocating unconditional love à la Bhaskar. The
resulting applause from the young audience made me think that maybe I had
been mistaken all those hard Leninist years ago.
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