Michael Moore's new movie, "Bowling for Columbine," has been raising a ruckus since its May première at the Cannes film festival, where it was the first documentary chosen for the official competition in 46 years. It won a special award marking the festival's 55th anniversary and it sparked heated discussion among viewers, some of whom found it less a reasoned exploration of social issues than an ego trip for a self-promoting director.
Moore took the controversy in stride, as he can afford to do, since he's one of the few documentary filmmakers with a mass-audience reputation. He rose to fame with "Roger & Me," his 1989 look at the disasters suffered by his Michigan hometown when General Motors downsized its operations there.
The title of "Bowling for Columbine" refers to the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado three years ago. It also refers to Moore's observation that the teenage perpetrators enjoyed bowling at least as much as the violent video games and heavy-metal music that many commentators blamed for turning them toward the dark side.
Moore doesn't put the onus for this tragedy on bowling, but he questions cause-and-effect equations that pin the rap on familiar scapegoats. He feels America's contemporary fascination with guns is rooted in racism, class inequality, and the climate of everyday fear and anxiety fostered by sensation-hungry journalism.
I talked with Moore shortly after "Bowling for Columbine" made its Cannes debut. Decked out in the conspicuously casual clothes and ever-present baseball cap that have become his trademarks, he expressed warm pleasure with the favorable reviews his movie was getting.
He was also eager to talk about the issues it raises, including the popularity of violence in today's media. He still hasn't figured out all the causes of this and admits he's not immune to its pull.
"Part of it is just human nature," he says. "If 'Cops' is on, I'll get riveted to it and watch it."
Perhaps the most controversial scene in "Bowling for Columbine" is Moore's confrontation with the National Rifle Association's president Charlton Heston in a visit to the Hollywood star's living room. Heston's responses to Moore's aggressive questions aren't very articulate, and Moore refuses to let him off the hook. The result is a squirm-inducing scene that even some of the movie's admirers find socially awkward.
Moore says he worked hard to get this episode, since Heston wasn't easy to contact. "His agent, his manager, his publicist, nobody let me talk to him for two years," the filmmaker said. "They knew what I was up to."
He finally located Heston's house using a map of celebrity homes, rang the bell, and was promptly invited by Heston himself to return the following day for an interview.
Moore knew his questioning of the gentlemanly star might strike some viewers as uncomfortably pushy. "The [film] editors were encouraging me to cut it," he admits, "because people would have sympathy for him, and you want the audience to have sympathy for you. But I said no, that's not fair. I think people should see this."
Moore says he grew up around guns he even won an NRA marksmanship award as a boy but he is skeptical about the American tendency to take their presence for granted. A scene in "Bowling for Columbine" shows him hefting a rifle he's received as a premium for opening a new bank account. He still keeps it as a souvenir.
"My wife is very upset," he says with a smile. "She wants it out of the house!"
Since Moore feels American society would be more secure if organizations like the NRA didn't promote guns so eagerly, he may try a quixotic scheme he dreamed up recently. He points out that the NRA is a nonprofit organization, which means anyone can join it. He's thinking of running for president of the group, and says he'd win if enough antigun Americans joined to vote him in.
The result would be an NRA that lobbied for gun control just the kind of paradox his mischievous mind savors. "I believe there's at least 5 million Americans who agree with me on this issue," he asserts, "and if I got them to join and vote for me, I could win!"
Moore is more optimistic than many filmmakers about the ability of movies to affect the ways people think about important issues. He claims "Roger & Me" had a "tremendous" impact on public attitudes toward corporate business and says popular opinion should never be written off as resistant to change.
"People are much smarter and more liberal than you'd think," says this smart, liberal pundit. "I never dreamed [my book] 'Stupid White Men' would be on the bestseller list, but there it is. Don't believe most people are as right-wing as the right-wingers say. It's just not true!"