Michael and me

Michael Moore's new film "Bowling for Columbine" is a heavy-handed, semicoherent diatribe about gun violence. But when I showed up to confront him about it, he charmed me senseless and beat me at my own game.


Jeff Stark
October 11, 2002 12:00AM (UTC)

I wanted to bust him. I wanted to go in there and tell Michael Moore that I think he's heavy-handed, that he's reckless with the facts, that he doesn't know anything about the Columbine killings. I even had a secret weapon.

That was my agenda. And contrary to what I learned in my crappy journalism school, I didn't really care if I was breaking some sort of rule about hallowed objectivity: Journalists, film critics, readers -- everyone has an agenda. Just like Michael Moore.

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He's made a career out of it. His first film, "Roger & Me," targeted General Motors for bankrupting his hometown, Flint, Mich. Moore's television shows, "TV Nation" on NBC and "The Awful Truth" on Bravo, went after rich people and corporations. His bestselling books cover similar territory; "Stupid White Men" is particularly critical of George W. Bush.

His new film, "Bowling for Columbine," has all kinds of agendas. The central question is why so many Americans die from guns every year -- far more than in any other country. Of course this is a Michael Moore film, so there are a lot of distractions. It starts off with kitschy toy gun commercials and ends with an attack on National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston. In between, we meet the Michigan Militia, look back at the Columbine incident and go backstage with Marilyn Manson. There is also a surreal cartoon history of the United States narrated by a talking bullet. And, at an even lower moment, a three-minute montage of every single foreign-policy debacle of the last 50 years, played to the tune of "What a Wonderful World."

"I see skies of blue and clouds of white ..."

Napalm in Vietnam.

"The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night ..."

Mass graves in Chile, or El Salvador, or Kosovo.

You can almost hear the anvil falling from the sky.

There are many lessons in the film, which mostly add up to the idea that guns are not inherently bad (something of a step forward for the left, I would argue), but that a conspiracy of news media and big business creates a culture of fear that in turn feeds more violence. And the government is complicit for not providing a social safety net. There are a lot of smaller points. One of them is that we should be more Canadian: Our northern neighbors have about the same amount of guns per capita and only a fraction of the gun violence.

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But look, I wasn't feeling very Canadian after seeing the film. I was feeling American. Combative. I decided that I wanted to make a fool of Michael Moore. Actually, what I really wanted to do is exactly what Moore does to everybody else: I wanted to let him make a fool of himself.

I wanted to tell him that he's bad for the left, or what's left of the left. That his obnoxious pranks humiliate some and alienate others. That, to paraphrase Elvis, I could use a little less talk, a little more action.

[Confidential to Michael: My editors, including David Talbot, with whom you apparently had some sort of rift a few years ago, didn't know a thing about my agenda -- they didn't even know that I'd hooked up an interview. And no, neither GM nor Nike nor Borders put me up to it either. It was just me.]

To do unto Moore, what I really should have done was get a video camera, ride the subway to his apartment on the cushy Upper West Side of Manhattan and tried to open his front door. Anyone who knows Moore's television shows and movies would recognize the gag: In "Bowling for Columbine" Moore follows a star map to Heston's gate; in another scene, he checks front doors in a Toronto neighborhood to find out if it's true that Canucks don't bother to lock them. (They don't.)

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Ideally, I would find Moore's door locked, and I would ring the doorbell and he would open the door in his underwear and a stained T-shirt, because that would be the easiest cliché -- kind of the equivalent of the gun nut who wears a "Fuck Everybody" hat in "Bowling." To help the scene play out, Moore would be tired from watching talk shows late into the night, or working on his Web site or terrorizing his employees or something. And I would ask him a question in my nicest sotto voce.

"You know, Michael," I would say, deadpan, "would you like to apologize to the left for making us all look like crazed conspiracy theorists? And did you really plagiarize some silly list you found on the Internet? And what do you want to say to the people who will inevitably find all kinds of errors in 'Bowling for Columbine' -- because they always find errors in your work."

And he would be groggy until he figured out what was going on, and then I would back up and let him freak out.

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I don't have a video camera. And also, well, to put it as gently as possible, I really didn't care. Not that much. My problem with Moore is a bit slighter than any of that suggests. Honestly, more than anything, I just don't like his aesthetic. I don't like his style. I don't like his everyguy posturing. I wish he knew when to stop. I wish he was smarter. Ultimately, I don't think the political left needs its own Rush Limbaugh.

So instead of charging in headfirst, I scheduled my interview just like all the other reporters from magazines and newspapers. Moore is getting a lot of press for this film, in part because it did well at Cannes (of course French people are going to like it: It makes fun of Americans). Our interview took place at the Regency Hotel, which is one of those incredibly fancy places on Park Avenue -- the fanciest street in all of New York. There was a red BMW and two limos stationed out front when I got there, the kind of detail that I scribbled in my notebook with my poison pen. It was all going to play out. I would find Moore. I would ask him hard questions. He would get more and more frustrated. And he would make a fool out of himself. That was what was going to happen.

Except that it didn't.

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Michael Moore charmed me. Or something like that. Over the course of a half-hour interview, he was sweet, calm and intelligent. He seemed weary. He was self-critical. He seemed sensitive. He wanted me to like his film.

Public relations people should take note -- especially the flacks who might someday find Moore and a camera crew at their front desks. He was almost perfect. He ducked my jabs. He deflected entire lines of questioning. His sad-sack weariness made me even feel slightly sorry for him.

When I look back at the transcript of the interview it's hard to see what happened. Part of the problem was that I was kind of nervous. I'm not exactly the Christopher Hitchens type; I don't usually go out looking for a fight, journalistic or otherwise. Frankly, I'm not dogmatic enough to stick to a party line. I get swayed. I get influenced. I want to believe people.

It's a liability, I know. I never even got to use my secret weapon.

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The transcript of the interview follows. My questions are in bold and Moore's answers are in roman type. My thoughts, a post-production voice-over of sorts, are in italics. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length -- like almost every transcript you read in Salon. The questions and answers appear in the order in which they were asked.

A standard tack in every interview is to start out with the easy questions. You're supposed to win your subject's trust so that he's less likely to be threatened by the tough ones that come later. ("What a nice day, eh, Reverend? So how long is it now that you've been fucking pigs?") I probably started a bit fast.

Have you been watching the news?

No, what's up?

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There's just been another shooting in Maryland -- that sniper. It's a teenager this time.

Do they believe it's the same guy?

Yes.

Where was this one?

At a school in Maryland.

At a school? Outside a school? What was the race of the child?

I don't know, actually. The details are still coming. I brought it up now because this case was all over the news this weekend. It just seems like, of the different fear stories that we see on TV, it's one of the main ones: the no-reason, random shooting. Did you identify different sorts of gun violence stories in your reporting? This is sort of an inarticulate question, but ...

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No, I know what you mean. Yeah. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that it really isn't the guns. It's the larger society and culture that we've created, an ethic in American society that says every man for himself, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, let's punish the poor for being poor. Other countries, other societies are: "If you get sick, we should help you. If you lose your job, we should help you." When you create a society like that, you're automatically going to have less violence -- if everyone has the sense that they're all responsible for everyone else.

OK, this is what's happening. One, I'm distracted. I don't really want to ask Moore about gun violence in the media, and I know next to nothing about the sniper case -- it just happened a few hours ago. Remember, what I really want to do is bust him. So I'm not even thinking through my questions yet. Moore, for his part, makes a perfectly gracious -- and professional -- response. First, he assures me that he understands my babbling. Then, he goes right on message. He's into his film immediately. He also saves me from my own bad question. I go into something a little more complex ...

You seem concerned with systems. Part of your point is that gun violence doesn't come from one of these little causes, but a whole system. The thing is, systems are easy to criticize but difficult to change.

This one especially.

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Right. So how do you start peeling back those layers? Each person, each different interest, wants to identify its own cause and go after that particular angle. But in your film, those interests would often get pilloried. How do you change an entire system without taking all these little steps?

Now, notice Moore's control here. First, he compliments my question. All journalists want to be told they're asking good questions. Of course, what journalists should want are answers to our questions -- and Moore doesn't really provide one. But check out the dazzling rhetoric, the easy command of facts, the use of the Pledge of Allegiance -- not once, not twice, but three times. And you know he dropped his voice and shook his head for it too. I have to admit, he's pretty good.

That is a good question. I don't know if it can change. It may be too late for us. We may be too far down that road of forgetting what the mandate is, in terms of being a society that is there for everyone, and justice for all. "And justice for all," that's what we have our kids say every day. "And justice for all."

Well, where is the justice for all when you've got 40 million living in poverty? When you've got 50 million people with no healthcare whatsoever? When you've got another 30 to 40 million who cannot read or write? What's the justice there? It's nothing but injustice there. We will never survive as a society if we don't solve those problems.

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Now here's where Moore pretty much cuts me off at the knees. I ask him for a more concrete answer, and what he comes back with is this amazingly self-critical speech. I don't realize it, but he beats me here by doing to himself exactly what I want to do -- before I even get a chance.

So you're saying that it's unsolvable.

I'm hoping that it isn't. I'm not as optimistic as I used to be. I look at myself, you know. It's like, I was very active in the [Ralph] Nader campaign in 2000. And I thought then, "Geez, why don't we take four years and really build a real independent movement in this country." Because clearly, the majority are on our side on all the issues. If you look at the polls, the majority want full healthcare, the majority want to go after polluters, the majority want gun control. We're really in the majority. We're in the mainstream. So why can't we organize it? It's not like we have to go convince people that there should be gun control or stronger pollution laws or whatever. People are already with us.

So anyway, I'm saying all this because I'm just wondering why I didn't help to organize any kind of movement or party or something in the past couple of years. If I'm not doing it, others aren't doing it. I feel that I'm contributing, sort of, to the defeat. I hate to say that, because I don't want it to go down the drain.

This might be a good time to bring up Moore's personal appearance. The interview started at 11:35 a.m. I was led into the hotel suite by one of his friendly, efficient publicists. The room was more or less dark. Moore greeted me with a smile but remained seated. He is a very large man. Larger than he is on television, somehow. It reminded me of this rather pathetic line that I read from him once: "I'm not perfect. I'm sorry I'm overweight." God, that line is sad to me. He was drinking a Coke out of a hotel glass, and right after the interview started he took off his baseball cap and started rubbing his face. The message in his movements: "I am so tired. This is mind-numbing work. You have no idea. But you have a story to file, and I have a film to promote, so let's do this." At the same time, he was friendly and asked me if he could get me anything. I had a glass of water. Our conversation eventually got back to the sniper case.

There is nothing one can do about this violence?

There is nothing you can do. It's in the cards. It's fate. I mean, look, how many people live in the Washington, D.C., area? Five million people? In the whole greater area? There are 5 million people. And eight people have been shot. And 4,992,000 haven't been shot.

Ooh, am I going to get him committing his own little Bushism? Nope:

Wait, what is it? 4,999,992 people have not been shot. You could report it that way. Why are people's eyes fixed to that TV?

He takes a sip of Coke.

Well, like you said, because of the randomness of it, because we're all walking into the shopping center or whatever -- it could be me. Yes, it could be you. A lot of things could be you. But it ain't gonna be you.

If I were sharper, I would have said that those words wouldn't be much consolation to the kid's mother. But I didn't. Did I mention the part about how he kept rubbing his eyes?

You have three times greater chance of being struck by lightning than of being shot at school. But because it's going to start raining outside, you're not going to be afraid to go outside and hail a cab.

So then your solution is to be less afraid? Or ...

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think fear brings on a lot of the calamity. We almost will it to happen because we're so afraid of it.

Do you lock your door?

Yes!

Yeah. Yeah, I do.

His voice trails off, almost sorrowfully.

And you're not in a particularly dangerous place, right?

Now, I know exactly where Moore lives -- I even have a note in my notebook that says he paid $1.27 million for his 17th-floor apartment. But no, I don't bring this up. I'm laying a trap -- a trap that he's going to walk around with relative ease.

No.

So how do you get past that? How do you get past the point where you don't have to lock your door?

Well, I have to lock my door for different reasons. The danger of where I live is that there's a lot of rich people around me, because I live on the Upper West Side of New York. You know. So I'm not exactly their best friend. So I find them frightening. [Chuckles.] So I'm locking my door because of them. I've chosen to leave the comfort and security of my hometown and come to the town where all the rich live, all the corporations and Wall Street, you know, who helped to destroy my hometown.

I know Moore is trying to be funny here, but I'm not laughing. In fact, for the first time in the interview, I can smell the blood of easy irony -- Moore's favorite cocktail. Watch me. Here's my killer line:

Must be hard for you.

Moore laughs, of course.

Well ...

I turn it up a little.

There are a lot of people who would like to have that problem.

Well, yeah, it's something you aspire to, right, to live on the Upper West Side of New York. Whoa-ho. For me, I'm here because I've chosen to make films and TV shows and make books about these people who have caused a lot of harm and havoc to the rest of the country.

I do know what you're saying, but at the same time it seems really ... frankly, it just seems a little bit disingenuous.

Watch what Moore does here. He's going to flip this whole line on me by asking two simple questions.

Why is that?

I don't know. Probably, just at the very easiest, a lot of people would love to be in your position. A lot of people would be willing to trade a lot in order to ...

What position is that?

To have to live on the Upper West Side? To have to ...

It doesn't have to be on the Upper West Side. It could be anywhere in Manhattan.

You don't have to do any of this stuff.

And here's where he takes control. Watch him come in with the righteous crusader bit.

Well, I do. I feel that I have a personal responsibility to my own conscience to be here in New York, to do these things. Obviously, if you were going to describe my work, what is my work? I spend a lot of time taking on corporate America. Is that going to be easier to do in Flint, or in New York City?

And watch me fall for it.

Are you doing this because it's easy? Are you going to stand up and say that you are doing the easiest thing? Your whole thing has been to be as difficult ...

We go on like this for a while, but it never goes anywhere.

Let me get back to the film.

OK.

At this point, I'm free to go ahead with my criticisms. But notice how I pussyfoot into this question. Trust me, I feel like a tool.

I thought the part with surveillance footage of and the 911 tapes from the day of the Columbine killings was completely horrifying and ... moving. This is true; it is. And I was kind of blown away. And there are things that I really loved about the film. But then there was this part that I didn't like, and I just wanted to ask you directly, face to face ...

Yeah, what?

I just feel like some of it is really heavy-handed. The "It's a Wonderful World" sequence, in particular. To me, when I see something as graceful as the Columbine footage with the 911 calls, I have a hard time even figuring out how that's the same filmmaker. Can you tell me what you're trying to do?

Well, first of all, I'm a complex person. So there's a graceful side, and there's a heavy-handed side. I'm not just one way. That particular sequence? You know, the comedy in the film, and the comedy of what I do, the humor of what I do, is the flip side of anger, a lot of anger. And sometimes it's good to be angry, sometimes it's good to lay it all out there.

And I know that thing, maybe the cartoon history of the United States [sigh], may seem heavy-handed to some people. It may feel like a bitter pill to have to swallow. It may be too angry.

He gets all quiet here.

But wouldn't you rather get the authentic feeling from the artist, from the filmmaker, than me trying to mold it in a way that is more palatable to you or to the audience? Wouldn't you rather that I just laid it out there? And I'll take my hits for it.

What else did you feel was heavy-handed?

Notice that? It sounds like an apology, but it really isn't. And now he's interviewing me.

Well, as far as stacking the deck, I wonder about things like the Columbine footage that you used of the girl who said that they shot the one kid because he was black. And that was pretty much dismissed as the words of a young girl who was in a lot of trauma who was pulling things out of her head. It was pretty clear that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris [the two Columbine shooters] had no anti-black agenda. They weren't hunting down black kids.

Well I've also read the depositions of her and the other people in the library there and there were other racial comments. And I do believe that that had something to do with it. It wasn't their motivation for doing it, but they were so off, so insane. We'll never know what the truth is because there were so many different reactions from the witnesses. But I thought that that should be in there, and it's what she said.

Yes, it's what she said, but it's also what she said when she was still in shock.

Yeah, but they said racial things. And they were insane. Everyone was saying stuff from whatever thing they were in. You know, it's a documentary, so it's what happened. And you can take it or leave it. And you're a viewer of this film, and you might have said to yourself, "She's in shock, it's not a racial thing." Others will think something else. I just leave it there and let people make up their own minds.

OK, Moore is opening himself up on a million different fronts here. This is so easy. I mean, he's saying that we won't ever know the truth -- that there are several different versions of the truth -- while pointing out how malleable the truth is to him (she said it, so it has some truth to it, even if she was wrong). And he's also pointing out the power of a documentary filmmaker: He left it in there. It was his decision. We're supposed to make up our minds? Come on. He's just told us that he's the one making these decisions. So, I'm getting ready to come back ...

What about ...

And at just this moment, the publicist opens the door across the room and makes the five-minute motion with her hand. I've just lost the train of thought. I was supposed to get Michael Moore in this interview, and now I only have five minutes left. Sheesh. What am I going to do? Well, I need to move on.

OK, she just said five minutes. Let's talk about the lessons of the film. Lesson 1 ...

You were going to say, "What about the whole ..." What about what?

Well, I have five minutes so I'm going to jump ahead to the end of my interview.

OK.

So, lessons of the film. No. 1: Move to Canada.

No, stay in America and make it better. Make America more Canadian-like.

No. 2: Blame the nightly news.

No. Either turn off the nightly news, or look at it with a much more skeptical and critical eye. Blame the corporations that own the nightly news for setting up an agenda of fear that keeps the public in such a state of tension that they will support conservative politicians because they will always offer to protect them more than the liberals.

What is Lesson No. 3?

Lesson 3 is that if we would guarantee full employment at a living wage to every American, we will see a climate of violence reduced to an incredible amount -- to a very low level. There's something about the guy next to you, if he's making $40,000 a year he generally doesn't break into your house and steal your TV. He generally doesn't mug you on the street.

My last question: "Clearly the only way to get true gun control in this country is for there to be more school shootings."

This is pretty good. That's a rather distasteful statement Moore made right after Columbine. Bravo canceled an episode of his show because it had a segment on school violence, and he bit back with that. I knew where he was coming from, but I was pretty appalled nonetheless.

It doesn't work that way, though, does it? The more of these shootings, we don't get any new legislation passed. The way for there to be more gun control -- well, I don't really believe that we need ... Well, here's what we need. See, we do need gun control now until we change that American ethic that I spoke of. When that changes, we can have the guns. Just like the Canadians get to have their guns. Just like Swiss. Clearly human beings have proven that they can have guns around and it doesn't have to lead to a lot of violence. So we have to correct something else here.

Time.

Great, that's it.

When is this going to appear?

Probably Thursday or Friday.

Is there anything else in the film that you saw that made you uncomfortable, or that you didn't quite buy? Is there anything that I can address in the next two seconds?

Um, no. I brought up ...

You brought up your concerns?

Yeah.

OK, OK, good.

Well, there you have it. The sad end. Did you read that last part? He beat me by treating me like an individual. By wanting my opinion. By wanting to fix it all. I walked out, smiled at the next reporter and left.

I never got to use my secret weapon.

Here it is: I graduated from Columbine High School. Yes, that one. In Littleton, Colo. Class of 1990.

I know, it's not much. That was a long time before the shootings happened in 1999, and I didn't know any of the kids involved. But I imagined that we would get into this heated argument and I would get to lean back, smile at him and say something like, "Trust me, Michael Moore. You don't know a thing about Columbine. I went to Columbine."

But you know what? I wrote a story about Columbine the same day that Harris and Klebold shot up the school. Looking back on it, it's a little overwrought, and I certainly didn't realize how profoundly fucked up those two boys were, but I'm essentially proud of the piece. One of my points, I think, was that it was really awful, and that awful things happen, and that you don't really know when or why.

Michael Moore's movie didn't change my mind one way or the other. I think that he basically would agree with me. What was my problem with him? With his movie?

That I didn't like his aesthetic? That I don't like his heavy hand? That I wish he wasn't so damn obnoxious?

So what? Did Moore the person change my mind about the movie? I'm not sure. I don't like his style, but I like it when people get shot even less. And I agree that you can be angry and sad and confused and laugh all at the same time. Sometimes you try to manipulate a story, and sometimes you fail. And sometimes you're just trying to figure out a way to make sense of the story yourself.


Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

MORE FROM Jeff Stark

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