Product placement is a pretty unpleasant racket, particularly when the product is placed in a column written by the product promoter, so let me admit that I might be deemed partially guilty of the crime. Then you can make up your own mind about reading on, or terminating your engagement with this text.
I have been promoting Michael Moore’s live show at the Roundhouse. As preparation I watched his film Bowling for Columbine, which won an award at Cannes, where it was the first documentary to be screened for 49 years, and where – so commentators say – it was accorded the longest standing ovation in living memory. I am not promoting the movie: apologia over.
Bowling for Columbine is a brilliant, clinical dissection of America’s obsession with the personal possession of firearms. It is a coruscating critique of the implications of that particular constitutional freedom (over 11,000 deaths by shooting last year). It widens into a penetrating examination of the forces – such as poverty, media, paranoia, corporate greed, institutional racism – that drive those tragic outcomes.
Many of us have an eye for bitter irony and the absurd in the social and political arenas. Few – very few – have Michael Moore’s ability to communicate these ironies and absurdities with such clarity, through the quiet, understated juxtaposition of raw fact and self-delusion.
The inspiration (if that’s the term) for Moore’s documentary was the massacre of 13 children and staff at Columbine High School. The film incorporates CCTV footage taken whilst two students ran amok with semi-automatics. One of the vignettes that it sets against this horrifying footage is a passionate speech that Charlton Heston made to the National Rifle Association. The speech defended members’ God-given right to freedom of movement, which had been challenged when the community of Columbine attempted to block a huge NRA rally being held at a venue just miles from Columbine High and only 10 days after the massacre. The NRA went ahead anyway.
There is more, much more besides, but the specific reason for writing this is the stunt that Moore chose to pull soon afterwards. Calling it a stunt might demean it, but a stunt it was, in the most honourable sense of the word.
Moore came in contact with two students who bore, and would continue to bear, lasting scars from the Columbine High School massacre. One was paralysed from the waist down, the other was starting a life-sentence of pain because bullets had lodged near his spine.
Now imagine, if you will, taking a weekend shopping trip to your local superstore, with your kids. You pick up some spaghetti and sauce. You turn into the next aisle, and opposite the tinned vegetables you find cases full of live ammunition – bullets, cartridges, you name it.
In America, this is how K-Mart chose to stock its stores.
Sorry – I should make it clear at this point (for legal reasons) that the cases that contain the bullets are locked. So that’s OK. Glass-fronted, maybe. But locked, so don’t come over all bleeding-heart liberal about it.
It was supermarket bullets that were fired from the students’ guns in Columbine High. Perhaps they were on a two-for-one offer that week. Who knows. It was this obscenity that Moore set out to challenge by travelling with the two students to the headquarters of K-Mart.
There, they waited for hours, attempting to see a senior company representative. None was forthcoming. The nearest they got was a press officer and a bland damage limitation brush-off. But the three quietly persisted.
Moore is a master of the art of non-confrontational confrontation. Eventually he wrested a promise from K-Mart that a senior staff member would meet with them in a week’s time.
During the intervening seven days, Moore drummed up a media circus. K-mart is not stupid. You don’t make that much cash by being stupid. The company knew what was coming.
When the three returned, national camera crews in tow, a spokesperson appeared to make a statement. Flanked by the two students, she promised that within 90 days, no K-Mart store in the whole of America – no K-Mart store – would stock ammunition ever again.
Moore was all but confounded by the result. Campaigning groups are often masters of media stunts based on direct action driven by passion and commitment to a cause. They grab attention (remember that image of Greenpeace members in inflatables around the prow of an American warship?), but rarely do they achieve an immediate result.
Moore is so savvy to the ways of the media, and his cause was so ferociously just and so brilliantly dramatised, that he got the result. I admire his ability more than I can say.
But one last thing: he is a satirist of the highest order. That means that above all, he has an eye for comedy. As a result, the horrifying, anger-inducing, issue-raising footage that Bowling for Columbine contains, is shot through with tenderness, pathos but – remarkably – an incredible humour.
They say it all the time, about any old Hollywood junk: “this film will make you laugh and it will make you cry”. That usually means “slightly amused and a little upset”. Bowling for Columbine is hilarious and deeply, deeply sad.
There. You’ve caught me being serious.