cinema, compulsory reading, US Politics, USA

Bowling For Criticism

A Canadian article criticising Michael Moore’s film “Bowling For Columbine” has made to the top ranks of the MIT’s blogdex today. It’s easy to see why given the linking-power of anti-Moorians on the web. But they, like most of those getting at Moore miss a rather important point:

Bowling For Columbine” isn’t a documentary. The film is essentially a sort-of fact based cinematographic, cleverly positioned, political pamphlet. It is a well done, important film – but it is hardly a documentary in the classic sense of that term. It is well worth ciriticising that Moore continually claims it is. But that’s about it.

Moore’s main points are important even if, as the Canadian newspaper Star reports among other points,

“[a]ctor Charlton Heston, the head of the National Rifle Association, did not callously go to Denver 10 days after the shootings simply to proclaim to cheering fellow NRA members that he was going to keep his gun until it is pried ‘from my cold, dead hands.'”

This simply doesn’t matter for the film’s fundamental messages.

Moore claims that there is a much higher (physical, not economic) risk aversion in the US than in Europe which is responsible for a lot of paranoid behavior. I have to say, the highly emotionalised American discourse regarding the dangers of rogue states post 9/11 probably underscores this claim – if you want to see it that way.

Moreover, Moore claims that this higher risk aversion is a consequence of what he claims is the central social cleavage in the US – an unresolved racial conflict based on ritualised and inherited slave owner vs. slave identities. A possible conclusion, which I really cannot really say a lot about. But his claim is – here in the realm of social policy – supported by important allies, as for example this paper by Alesina, Glaeser, and Sacerdote indicates. To them, racial animosity is the principal answer to the question “Why Doesn’t the U.S. Have a European Style Welfare System?”. Charlton Heston somehow made the same point in the film – and, if I remember correctly, that section was not even cut in a particularly distorting manner.

Bowling For Columbine” is not a scientific elaboration. It is an opinionated, scary, but also entertaining film that expressed some of the fundamental anxieties a non-negligeable part of Americans seems to have with regard to the society they live in as well as an attempt to explain some of the fears the rest of the world recently developed with respect to the former land of unlimited opportunities. And – being cleverly marketed by a director who increasingly presented himself as the bearer of truth in a time when people readily swallowed everything that would “verify” their gut felt opposition to the Texan way of life – the film was turned into a huge commercial success.

Again. It is an important film. It is film whose message deserves to be taken seriously. It is a non-fiction film. But is hardly a documentary in the classic sense. Moore deserves criticism for telling the world it is, but again – that’s about it.