No American at this year’s Cannes Film Festival made more mileage out of the current French wave of anti-Americanism than did Michael Moore.
From what he claims was the longest standing ovation accorded a film ever in Cannes (the longest I ever clocked was 11 minutes for “Strictly Ballroom”) to his invocation of President Bush’s name whenever he wanted to get an automatic laugh, Moore pounded the pavement of the Croisette as relentlessly as he stalks the big game in his films. His left-populist critiques of Yankee waywardness hit their mark with French teachers, who gave it their own prize, just as they did with the jury, which bestowed “Bowling for Columbine” with a unanimous special award.
I have grown increasingly suspicious of, and resistant to, Moore’s grandstanding, slippery and polemical editing techniques and predictable biases since his cheeky debut with “Roger and Me” 13 years ago, and I found “Bowling” offensive on a number of levels.
He distills American foreign policy of the 20th century down to about a 90-second montage of relentless bombing, as if all military action is unprovoked, equally reprehensible morally and one-sided. He makes a specious connection between the chronological convergence of the Columbine High School massacre and the U.S.’s heaviest bombing foray on Serbia, as if one had anything to do with the other and without admitting that the latter actually had a positive result. And he shamelessly uses split-screen surveillance camera coverage within Columbine High to chart the movements of the killers on that fateful morning, showing things many would likely rather not see.
But much as I’ve been tempted to reject the film as a whole on the basis of its artistic and ideological sleight-of-hand, I can’t do that for a couple of reasons. First, his attack on the irresponsibly sensationalistic, “If it bleeds, it leads” news media is dead-on. Second, the central question the film raises — Why is America so much more violent than other First World countries?–is genuinely provocative.
IN THE FILM’S MOST AMUSING INTERLUDE, Moore visits Canada and finds out that, proportionately, Canadians own guns in at least equal measure to Americans, but they still leave their doors unlocked and don’t kill each other much at all. So what is it that makes America to different?
Moore introduces a goofy little cartoon to suggest that American gun craziness has something to do with slavery and the fear of violence at the hand of blacks, but never pursues this deeply suspect argument any further.
He also ambushes National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston with the question, as if anyone could possibly answer it off the top of his head without any advance thought. Actually, the formerly liberal-activist actor survives Moore with his gentlemanly dignity intact, saying that the answer lies somewhere in the history of our country and then quietly putting an end to the interview when he realizes Moore’s intent is to make him look bad.
Moore poses this difficult question and puts others on the spot with it, but then disappointingly refuses to offer a cogent analysis of his own, even though he has clearly thought about it for years.
Along the way, he neatly obliterates some of the theories politicians have offered up relating to violent movies and video games, nasty music and so on — kids all over the world digest this cultural junk food without taking up arms. And Moore himself is a walking and talking example of how being raised in a gun-loving environment doesn’t necessarily result in gun-toting adults.
The film effectively argues that the notion of Fortress America is fostered by a “climate of fear” stirred up daily by the media, but this in no way explains the American love of guns and propensity for violence that long predates the existence of a mass media. (and ignores the fact that the per capita murder rate is lower now than it was at earlier stages in our history).
BUT AS DISSATISFIED AS I WAS with many aspects of “Bowling for Columbine,” it did make me think, and something clicked in when, a few days later in Cannes, I was watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s dark romantic comedy “Punch-Drunk Love.”
Every so often, Adam Sandler’s unrealized straight-arrow suddenly erupts into brief moments of rage, then just as quickly reverts to his normal, inoffensive state. These outbursts are not rationally motivated, and upon reflection probably have more to do with family problems than anything else.
But they subconsciously connected to something in “Columbine” that gave me my own provisional answer to Michael Moore’s question about the prevalence of violence in America.
The singular distinction that, from the beginning of its history, has set the United States apart from all other nations is that, theoretically at least, every citizen is free to strive for whatever life and future he or she desires. The “pursuit of happiness” ideal has obviously resulted in great things for a great many people, but the downside is a pronounced and probably exaggerated feeling of failure when dreams and goals are not reached.
Although conditions are rapidly changing and growing more uniform at least in the Western world, one can argue that, up until recently, societies with monarchist, feudalist or socialist histories have had populaces with much more stratified class systems that actively discouraged social mobility and much hope of altering one’s inherited lot in life.
THE RESULT OF THE INCREASED expectations in the United States, created by childhood exhortations, that, “You can be anything you want to be,” is that under-achievement, the feeling of being let down by a society in which anything is possible, can literally trigger the impulse to lash out, to blame others for your own shortcomings, to punish indiscriminately where no blame can be assigned.
These feelings of inadequacy, impotence and frustration can certainly be bolstered by the images of beauty, power and success that are promulgated in the media, and matters can hardly be helped when firearms are so glamorized culturally and are so readily accessible to those who shouldn’t have them, like the little boy who shot the little girl in the instance invoked in “Columbine.”
From Michael Moore to PT Anderson and — of all people — Adam Sandler; it’s an unlikely connection, but one that their films’ chance convergence in Cannes could only have made.