Before I go into my critique of Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” I have just one thing to say: booming while the subjects are walking super fast is the worst thing ever. It’s painful. Here’s our sound assignment: http://vimeo.com/10944972
Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” captures the attention of viewers due to the brusque actions taken by the filmmaker as he hounds down corporate executives, goes into people’s homes and poses difficult on-the-spot questions to his interviewees. Yet the value, or rather, categorization of this film as a documentary is questionable. Is it really a documentary? Or just propaganda like many believe? The key issue here is the editorial decisions of Moore. But first let’s tackle the technical aspects of the film.
The film is undoubtedly shot in a cinema verite style, although Moore has become famous for his interpretation of his style, in which he, as the director, is in many of the scenes, whether on screen or speaking to the subjects in the shot without appearing himself. This style of his makes it really difficult at times to figure out when he is the director and interviewer and when he becomes a character in the story. The majority of the interviews are filmed with a handheld camera, with the lavalier microphones showing, without regard to the rule of thirds or proper exposure. Essentially they become very much on-the-spot interviews for which Moore doesn’t really control for other things like noise. In this lies an important editorial decision. Moore clearly could’ve set up more formal interviews or at least had his cameraman use a tripod, but the decision to not do so gave the film a feeling of always being on the move, always going forth to collect more information.
The editing of “Bowling for Columbine” was spectacular in many respects. There is great use of archival footage and the musical choices were phenomenal. During the archival footage of U.S. invasions and interferences in other countries, the song in the background had lyrics such as “what a wonderful world,” thus creating a chilling sense of irony. Placing footage of Charlton Heston at the NRA conference right after showing footage of crying, hysterical witnesses of the Columbine shooting created great contrast and helped advance the story arc. My biggest props goes to the “A Brief History of the United States of America” cartoon. It was amazing!
There were, nevertheless, issues with the editing. During one interview it randomly cuts to the interviewee playing a video game for 3-5 seconds before going back to a regular interview headshot. And during some interviews there were blatantly obvious jump cuts that could have been avoided, yet weren’t. These editing decisions are beyond my comprehension.
My main criticism for this film lies with the story arc itself. The way Moore revealed why the film was called “Bowling for Columbine” (because the shooters had been in a bowling class just before the massacre) mid-way through the film and the way he tied it all back together by ending with a homicide case at a bowling alley in Littleton, Colorado, was pleasing, yet the rest of the film seemed to be composed of vignettes instead of a cohesive story. While the part about just how different Canada was from the United States and other such components were interesting on their own, they seemed to be too tangential to be fully applicable to the story at hand. In fact, it seemed like Moore was trying to prove his point with as long a segment as possible, almost to fill up time.
So is “Bowling for Columbine” really a documentary? Perhaps not in the traditional sense. After all, it seems to focus on Michael Moore himself much more than anything or anyone else. For example, when K-Mart announced that it would stop selling handgun ammunition, all the camera attention was on him instead of on the students. And Moore was definitely trying to sell his point. The words he chose were very editorial in nature. In speaking to Dick Clark, he said, “These women are forced to work, but they’ve got kids at home.” Yes? And? Why should anyone get anything for free? Does that mean all mothers should not have to work? Moore’s film would have had much more impact if he had left out some of the extreme viewpoints he expressed. So I suppose his film can be called a docu-torial (editorial documentary), if you will.
A personal commentary: I stand with the belief that guns don’t kill people, people do.