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Bowling for Columbine is more than a film that discusses the April 20, 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. It is a documentary that examines the culture of fear and consumption that has been encouraged by the American media and its government. Film critic Paul Arthur quotes Sartre when he says, “every aesthetic implies a metaphysic.” He takes this a step further when he says, “[…] in documentary, every aesthetic also implies an ethics.” (The Art of Real: Standards & Practices). This means that what the audience sees in any film is subject for interpretation, it can be understood from many different points of view. However, because of the nature of reality within the documentary, what is seen must be carefully presented. Any use of framing, mis-en-scene, or cinematography should attempt to stick as close to the truth as possible, since audiences are in fact, persuaded by the use of certain aesthetics. Moore deviates from this ethic in carefully constructing his interviews through voiceovers, dialogue, and mis-en-scene to influence the eye of the beholder towards his side.
The film visits an amalgam of influential business and entertainment leaders, scholarly experts, and average people. These interviews are shot in several different ways, depending on the point of view the respondent has. Those who seem to agree with Moore’s point of view are shot in a more casual, conversational setting. Those who offer an opposing position are almost villainized or made to look unintelligent through effective camera and staging techniques. One of the first interviews is done with a P.R. Manager at a local weapons factory, Lockheed Martin. Throughout the interview, a loud buzzing noise distracts the viewer from what he is saying, making what he is saying appear to be false. Moore asks the questions, yet he is never seen onscreen at any time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the audience gets an entirely different interview style in his discussion-like exchange with a Los Angeles prosecutor. They are walking down a pleasant street to emphasize the point that the “dangerous” South Central L.A. isn’t actually dangerous (Robbers). The camera performs a reverse tracking shot on them as they stroll throughout the neighborhood; it is quiet and serene and the prosecutor’s words are clearly understandable. The film’s use of color and shadowing mirror that of The Thin Blue Line. Those perceived as innocent are seen in bright, neutral backgrounds while those interviewees perceived to be guilty or of questionable character are wearing dark colors and there is a use of shadows from the background that conjures up images used in horror movies when the monster will soon appear. The very tone in Moore’s voice when interviewing people directs his respondents to answer a certain way as well.
This is most obvious when comparing his interview with rock star Marilyn Manson and his interviews at the beginning of the film with a bank manager. The director finds a bank that is giving all new account openers a free gun following a background check. Moore goes to the bank and immediately asks for the “account with the free gun.” Already, he has set up a position for the audience to recognize the absurdity of this through a humorous interaction (Robbers). His quick approach of the front desk, demanding question, and camera editing that is rapid, choppy, and short, mirror what he is calling an inane process of doling out weapons. In contrast, his interview with Marilyn Manson allows for Manson to aptly state his position. The rock star is placed behind a plain white background, posing him in an almost pure, god-like persona. This interview feels more like a conversation between the two rather than an interrogation, as was shot in the interview with the bank manager previously. The two men face one another, the camera to the side of them in a friendly, unassuming angle.
During the length of the interview, Moore uses counterpropaganda against itself, utilizing techniques from that of both Frank Capra and Joseph Goebbels. In Capra’s Why We Fight, clips from German and Japanese Propaganda films are shown. They depict children training in military boot camps to elicit the audience’s sympathies. In the same fashion, Moore uses footage from a group of Christians protesting the Marilyn Manson concert in Denver. He juxtaposes the calm, collected interview with Manson against a raging “religious right” crowd where an orator is angrily opposing the Manson concert. They both seem to agree Manson’s point that the media is responsible for planting seeds of fear in the minds of Americans in order to keep them consuming whatever they think will protect them (Robbers).
The last interview worth mentioning is one of the most discerning moments in the film. From the beginning, Moore all but ambushes actor and pro-gun activist Charlton Heston. This sets the stage for an uneasy discussion between the two that truly gets to the heart of the matter. He poses his questions in such a way that by answering them, Heston incriminates himself. For instance, he is asked whether American culture plays a part in the nation’s violence, a point that had already been disproven by statistics earlier in the film. Yet the nature of the outdoor interview in keeping up with the “good guys” posed within nature motif, one feels just a bit of sympathy for the elderly actor (Finn).
By delineating the “good guys” from the “bad guys,” Bowling for Columbine divides both its audiences and its respondents into two distinct categories based upon their reactions. There is the gun-toting, conservative N.R.A lobbyists and the liberal, anti-gun protesters (Finn). Although some may find the film’s use of ambush interviews and contextual framing to be outright manipulation of reality, there is no denying that Michael Moore is a director with a unique style that allows him ideological converts by appealing both emotionally and logically to his audiences (Arthur).
Released in 2002, Moore makes his point in a post-9/11 world as he uses many classical Hollywood techniques such as parallel editing, optical effects, and adjusting elements the of mis-en-scene that allow him to frame reality in his own way (Arthur). He clearly inserts himself into the interviews with those who agree with him, taking a more omniscient God’s-eye-view in those of his dissenters. It is obvious from the very beginning what the message is, and who is saying it. Michael Moore and the overall liberal point of view stands together to make a statement against the culture of fear the media, big business, and the government inculcates into the minds of America that has resulted in the tragedy of Columbine as well as countless other senseless acts of violence.
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