I am not the Michael Moore fan I used to be. I wrote an essay in one of my film classes about how Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) is unethical for its portrayal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as a grandfatherly type in order to advance his anti-invasion agenda, an agenda I politically agree with, not because Saddam wasn’t evil (he was), but because it wasn’t our nation’s place to occupy another country and rub their noses in our values; you best believe there wouldn’t be an ISIS if Saddam was still in power, for better or worse. As for this year’s American Sniper controversy, I think the documentarian’s comments were provocative for the sake of being provocative since the film was doing so well at the time and he didn’t actually address any of its flaws (which exist, but not because snipers are “cowards;” they’re not – it’s just that, when a movie theater cheers a human being getting sniped in the face, it doesn’t sit well with me).
Regardless, Moore’s Academy Award-winning Bowling for Columbine (2002) is undoubtedly a masterpiece in the realm of nonfiction filmmaking, not so much a documentary as it is an essay that raises illuminating talking points about our culture and our propensity for violence. Today marks the sixteenth anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre about twenty minutes away from where I grew up, an event which made people question what would drive two American teenagers to murder thirteen of their schoolmates. People immediately blamed shock rocker Marilyn Manson for his controversial artistry (even though the perpetrators weren’t even fans of Manson’s music), but that already flawed theory doesn’t account for how, out of all the millions of people who listen to Marilyn Manson songs (myself included), only two of “us” committed murder.
Moore’s interview with Manson is as poetic as it is honest. The musician also articulates himself brilliantly in the Rolling Stone essay, “Columbine: Whose Fault Is It?” ‘Tis better to have people express themselves artistically, no matter how dark that art may be, than it is to have them express themselves violently; art isn’t evil – it’s a beauty.
South Park co-creator Matt Stone (who went to my middle school and my high school’s rival) delivers his own insight into the issue in Bowling for Columbine. As a native to suburban Denver (Moore incorrectly goes so far as to call Stone a former Columbine student), he knows better than anyone what it’s like to grow up like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris did. However, hilariously enough, Stone felt that Moore juxtaposing his interview against the (awesome) cartoon, “A Brief History of the United States of America,” misrepresents the short as his and Trey Parker’s, and, so, they take the torch to Moore in their Team America: World Police (2004).
As a young person who grew up on ultraviolence, I can assure you that I never once even entertained the notion of shooting up my school (or anyplace else, for that matter). As a born-and-raised Coloradan, I can attest to how high-pressure it is to live in an environment where literally all you have to do is step outside and perfection is there to greet you (the Rocky Mountains, the Denver skyline, et cetera). Some people react to an environment like this by lashing out against it, and some of those people take works of art – like Klebold and Harris did with Oliver Stone’s (borderline unwatchable) Natural Born Killers (1994) – and turn them into something they’re not, because these people themselves are twisted into things they shouldn’t be.
With the Joker-inspired Aurora theater shooting trial coming up, violence in entertainment is still a relevant issue, especially in Colorado. Is Hollywood a reflection of life in America, or is it the other way around? Might it be possible that violence has been a facet of human nature since time immemorial, and art may shape the violence we see today without inspiring it?
Maybe Michael Moore does have a point or two about American Sniper, after all.