The International Documentary Association has recently announced that Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine is the number one entry on its top twenty list of "all-time favorite non-fiction films." Now, I was a big fan of TV Nation. I thought Roger & Me, Moore’s apoplectic response to General Motors’ treatment of his decaying hometown of Flint, Michigan, was a fine piece of work. I’ll state up front that I haven’t seen Bowling for Columbine. Even ignoring the curious coincidence that the best "non-fiction film" ever made was made just this very year (despite the presence of non-fiction films date back to the very beginning of commercial cinema; a paying customer could have seen Burial of the "Maine" Victims during the Spanish-American War), however, it seems highly unlikely to me that Bowling for Columbine is the best non-fiction film ever made; it’s almost certainly not the best documentary. Moore isn’t really a documentarian. He’s a polemicist. Bowling for Columbine is a movie about America’s attitudes towards guns. I don’t have particularly strong feelings about guns one way or the other; I’ve never shot anything larger than a .22, and while I have a few friends who enjoy target shooting, most people I know who collect weapons prefer the cutlery in the Museum Replicas catalog. I’m not especially fond for the NRA, but they seem neither inherently menacing nor intrinsically laughable. In my mind, the best and most memorable bits on TV Nation dealt with race: a competition between "Homicide"’s Yaphet Kotto and a convicted (white) murderer to hail a cab after dark; a security booth set up to ask drivers leaving an exclusive gated suburb what business they had in Detroit; Rusty Cundieff‘s attempt to buy slaves befoe Mississippi finally gets around to outlawing them. The format of TV Nation allowed Moore and his production team to do a handful of sketches per episode, enabling him to throw a handful of over-the-top characterizations against the wall and see what sticks. But that aesthetic doesn’t work for me in documentaries.
It’s not that I object to Moore’s staged scenes or the fact that he injects himself into his movies or the fact that makes no bones about taking sides. Errol Morris’ (rightfully praised) The Thin Blue Line is about a miscarriage of justice, and it takes sides. It has dramatic reinactments (including terrifically funny one involving a flying donut, surely something that at least some of the audience for a movie about a convicted cop-killer found distasteful) which may or may not depict the truth. also placed on the IDA’s list, as did the dizzyingly wonderful visual poem Man with a Movie Camerca. Would fake documentary The Battle for Algiers count as non-fiction? What about something like Silkwood or Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story? In any case, Moore’s habit of stretching the facts isn’t a problem; it’s a problem for people who get their political information from highly partisan comic filmmakers, perhaps, but it could make for an entertaining film. The camera may not lie, but it doesn’t always tell the truth. Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s paean to jolly old Hitler, lies from the first shot of Nuremburg from the air and leaves me feeling unclean, but it’s a masterful piece of filmmaking.
The reason I don’t want to see Bowling for Columbine (apart from finding Moore’s work for the last few years unfunny) has more to do with scope. Moore’s own publicity materials can’t find a single topic, instead saying that Bowling for Columbine is about a range of the Columbine shootings, a bank that gives its customers guns, Charlton Heston, the NRA, a six-year-old who killed another six-year-old, and a guy who makes his own napalm. From reviews, I know that he also extensively discusses the way the media reports about crime and Canadian attitudes about guns. That to me suggests not a documentary but a very special themed episode of TV Nation. Ken Burns’ documentaries try, at painful length, to cover broad topics, and I can’t stand them; no movie is going to communicate the entirety of the Civil War or jazz or baseball. Baseball is a trivial subject, but it’s got more than a hundred years of history and iconography and ideology and legend attached to it; any movie that tries to communicate all that will be miles (and hours) long and about three inches deep. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, on the other hand, is about one baseball player, Hank Greenberg, and what it says about Jewishness in America or the role of the national pasttime or even just what baseball was like in the ‘30s comes along for the ride. The best non-fiction films, in my mind, are about one thing that reflects on something larger. The Thin Blue Line and the chilling Paradise Lost are about individual cases; if they serve as indications of how justice in America can be twisted, that’s because they’re about individuals who have had it happen to them.
Albert and David Maysles are probably best known for their film of the Altamont Speedway concert, Gimme Shelter, but their earlier Salesman is, in my mind, the greatest documentary ever made. The four hard-luck Bible salesmen it follows as they go about their jobs are real people; you feel like you know them better after the movie is done. It’s a document of their lives. But because of the Maysles brothers’ skill, it feels like more than that. While everything they Maysles show actually, that doesn’t mean that they’re depicting "the truth"; they’re artists whose medium is fact. Their Meet Marlon Brando is basically a film of a press conference, but it comes out as both a study of celebrity culture and an sharply lit character study of Brando manipulating same. Salesman is about four men trying to get by working a somewhat seedy job, but it ends up being about success and failure and the American dream. A documentary should make the viewer learn about something and see it in a different way, then make her see everything else in a different way, too. But when movie sets out to depict something as broad as "the fearful heart and soul of the United States", it isn’t a document; it’s a portfolio.