Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A Tale of Two Americas

While I agree with my friend Adam that there are more productive activities than watching TV, I confess that I do sometimes bask in the warmth of its glow. That being said, I will dispense with the apologies and continue with a discussion of 2 documentaries I recently watched.

I have close friends who admire Michael Moore, but I had never seen any of his work. While this would sometimes leave me on the outside of their conversations, I couldn’t bring myself to pay for any of his showings. A few weeks ago Bravo aired Bowling for Columbine and I caught it on Tivo. Now, I’ll admit that I am a bit to the right of MMoore’s views and that may have motivated me to avoid his work in the past. But, I try to approach issues with an open mind. I will often find my self listening to progressive talk radio just as often as I hear the conservative stuff. I am in favor of less government, but I don’t think the way we do healthcare in this country is working. I am a registered Independent who takes an honest look at each issue and tries to avoid making decisions or judgments just because it is the party line.

So, with remote in hand, an open mind and my faithful companion at my side, I watched; and I was entertained. He had me from the opening scene where he gets a free gun at a bank for opening a CD to the end where he pesters Charlton Hesston into an interview and challenges him to justify gun-ownership. Bowling had it all: interviews, cartoons, surveillance footage of the Columbine tragedy and wacky gun-toten militia-men in Minnesota.

Did you know that the creators of South Park are from Littleton, and went to Columbine? They provided a funny little cartoon titled A brief History of America that, although humorous, drives home Michael’s point—we white people are living scared and we have the guns to prove it. According to the film that is what drove the murders at Columbine—I think. It was a bit hard to follow his arguments, mostly because he makes so many. Was it the militia in Minnesota? He spent more than a few frames talking with Timothy McVeigh’s brother; perhaps that was what inspired them?

Could it be because the world’s largest weapons manufacturer is in Littleton? Moore actually asked a Lockheed Martin executive:

"So you don't think our kids say to themselves, 'Gee, you know, Dad goes off to the factory every day and, you know, he builds missiles. These are weapons of mass destruction.' What's the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?'"

And Moore wasn’t kidding; the polite executive just stood there for a minute and replied,

“I guess I don't see that connection.”

Moore interviews Marilyn Manson so we know the cause wasn’t the music.

Soon the movie begins to build to a climax when the possibility that gun violence in the U.S. is triggered by the number of guns Americans own is explored. It is just so easy to get a gun and since everyone has one, that must be why we lead the world in gun crimes; and it probably explains Columbine. However, Moore points out that Canada has even more guns than we do, yet they only have a fraction of our number of gun homicides. So the problem can’t be the guns. I really didn’t see that coming. Up to this point in the film I thought Moore had been leading me down the need-for-gun-control path. But here he is saying it’s not the number of guns we have—just look at Canada. So what is different about Canada? According to Bowling for Columbine, Canadians don’t live in fear. They leave their doors unlocked, they have great healthcare and their news is ‘nice’. Much different than the U.S. where we live in fear which is perpetrated by the evil media.

I don’t necessarily buy all of this, but it seems to be leading somewhere and I certainly can’t turn it off. Now comes the kicker, Moore is wrapping up and he has one last punch to throw. Given his last line of reasoning, I expect him to go bother some media exec. They are, after all, responsible for instilling all of the fear that makes us shoot each other. But, instead, Moore uses his final scene to interview Charlton Hesston and question him about gun ownership. This seems misplaced to me since he just convinced me that the number of guns isn’t our problem. Oh well, the credits roll and I don’t feel cheated, just a little confused.

(You don’t have to spend much time on the ‘net to find a lot of talk about Bowling for Columbine. It spurred a lot of interest and there are many people who claim it is filled with lies. There are also plenty of people, Moore included, who stand by this work as truth. I’ve tried not to comment on this debate. I figure if that interests you, you can go decide for yourself. What I was impressed by was its ability to entertain, where I felt it lacked was in the failure to complete its argument.)

Another underlying theme in Bowling for Columbine is the horrible state most things are in. The media is bad, wages are low, healthcare is failing, we have too much violence, too much fear and things are not getting better. Even the places where you’d expect goodness, like a suburban public school, are torn down in this film. Moore’s interview with South Park co-creator Matt Stone ends with a rant about schools messing up kids:

“… the teachers and counselors and principals don't help things. They scare you into conforming and doing good in school by saying: ‘If you're a loser now, you're gonna be a loser forever.’ They just beat it in your head as early as sixth grade: ‘Don't *&%@ up. 'Cause if you do, you're gonna die poor and lonely.’”

So, wow, the schools are bad. That kind of put me in a funk...

Until the other night when Christa brought home a documentary titled Paper Clips. Paper Clips is a documentary that spends its time asserting that there are good things going on in the world, especially in Whitwell, TN. When the story begins we meet the Whitwell Middle School principle and she tells us that she has decided to do something about a problem at her school. You see, everyone in her community is the same. They are all white except for 5 black students and one Hispanic. They are all protestant. And for the most part the students, in this small town of 1600 people, do not have contact with people who are different from themselves.

Her solution was to start a special program focusing on the Holocaust. Under the direction of teacher Sandra Roberts and Assistant Principle David Smith, students were introduced to the atrocities carried out by Hitler. At one point early in the teaching they were discussing the number of Jews that were killed and one student asked, “How many is six million? I’ve never seen that.” From his question the journey begins and their goal of collecting 6 million paper clips is born. They learned that during World War II paper clips were sometimes worn on lapels as a sign of resistance to the Nazis so they wrote letters asking for donations of paper clips.

The documentary traces their collection process, which starts slow at first, but picks up momentum after an article by the Washington Post and a segment on the NBC Nightly news. Each step of the journey is captured in this film and I could sense the changes the students and teachers were experiencing as their world began to grow. You see, each shipment of paper clips that came to their tiny school was accompanied by a letter which usually told the story of a Holocaust victim or survivor. Then they were visited by a group of survivors from New York who shared their stories at a town meeting. Students who had only read about Jews and the horrible suffering they endured were now sitting across the table from people who were actual concentration camp survivors. It was touching to see the people of Whitwell soften as they heard the survivor’s stories.

When the Whitwell students reached and then surpassed their paper clip goal, they built a memorial to house them. Now they conduct educational tours for other students who come to visit them on field trips. It was amazing to see them not only learning about tolerance, but also teaching it. I couldn’t help but wonder what Michael Moore would have to say about this town. They are the very people he mocked in his History of America cartoon—Whitwell is only 116 miles from the birthplace of the Klan, they are mostly white and I am sure that they are armed.

At one point, the Assistant Principle tells us about the change this project has made in his life. He explains the prejudice that was passed down to him from his father, a Klan member, and the struggle that has caused him. He confesses that he has changed and plans to pass on a different model to his sons. When the film finished I was inspired with hope and motivated to pursue change in my own world.


Blogger Johnathan M. Thomas said...

Nice review J. I have never seen any of Moores work. Your words confirm what I have seen in other interviews with him.

Paper clips? I will have to find that and watch it.

I believe we all have a choice in life. Build up or tear down... Love or hate... Embrace God or reject God.

It is clear to me the ones that encourage.


Tue Nov 22, 10:20:00 AM PST  
Blogger Johnny said...

I am not a supporter of Michael Moore, but aside from that I found your comments at the end of each review telling. At the end of MM you felt in a funk and at the end of paper clips you felt inspired to change your world. Hmmmmmmm

Tue Nov 22, 03:49:00 PM PST  
Blogger Leo said...

Hey Jason -- I have seen Bowling for Columbine, as well as Roger & Me, so I am somwhat familiar with Moore's work. I had the same feeling of confusion after watching Bowling for Columbine, but I took it as a positive. Here's why: Moore's signature style is inflammatory juxtaposition; you can't help feeling angry/sad/whatever it is he is trying to make you feel, even though you know he's doing it. I admire Moore for taking on the subject matter that he does, even if I don't always agree with how he presents things, and his style *is* effective at getting right at your gut when it comes to what is going on in the films.

I saw the lack of conclusion in BFC in a positive light exactly because it didn't feel like he was jamming a point of view down my throat. He raises a ton of interesting points and questions, and basically says, OK, here's what we know, and now it's up to you to go discuss it among yourselves and see if you can figure out why things are the way they are.

Any movie that can do that is worthwhile.

Wed Nov 23, 08:48:00 AM PST  
Anonymous Allan White said...

J, a great look at some good docs. I'm starting to think about the nature of the documentary format more - my own work is leading me that direction with the video work I've been doing over the last few years.

While I haven't seen BFC, I have certainly heard enough about it. I think he challenges the concept of authenticity in the documentary format - he seems to have a tendency to exaggerate or shape the story to fit a certain end or conclusion (or lack of one, as in BFC).

Of course, this lies in the power of editing and who you decide to interview. He seems to depart from the old-school approach of seeking "truth", and showing that to the audience, and letting them make their own conclusions.

Another difference I see between him and the great masters of the doc: the great masters of the format treated their subjects with respect, and even love (even those who might seem less than lovable). Michael Moore seems to view his subjects with contempt, and I think this is reflected in his films.

This discussion makes me think about the responsibility we as editors have and the contract we establish with our audience... another post in itself!

I'm so behind on watching docs, although I have Fog of War in my queue up next.

Thu Nov 24, 11:11:00 AM PST  
Blogger Jason Hill said...

But Leo, that's hard. Why can't he just tell me what to do about what is wrong with America?

While I say that tongue-in-cheek, I think it’s dangerous for Moore to present some of his juxtapositional cases because he has a "big microphone" and many of his viewers take them as fact -- not juxtaposition. One such theme in the movie is the fear-motivated, black-hating, gun-owning white man. He misleads viewers when he puts Hesston on stage before his NRA crowd interposed with Columbine surveillance footage, uses a Hesston quote from a different rally and then says “Just days after the Columbine killings, despite the pleas of a community in mourning, Charlton Hesston came to Denver and held a large pro-gun rally for the National Rifle Association”. All this without mentioning that it was the NRA’s national convention which had been scheduled for over a year and due to legal requirements could not be re-scheduled without more notice to its members. He also failed to mention that they canceled every part of the convention except the one, law required, annual corporate meeting. They didn’t go to Denver in the wake of the Columbine tragedy to hold a “large pro-gun rally.” But that is the message Moore delivers and I think it is a little careless.

I do agree that Bowling does cause you to think and for that it should be viewed and discussed. You reminded me of a movie criterion I use myself: If a movie causes me to feel something, good or bad, it has done its job. I mentioned that it put me in a funk, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t inspire me to make the world a better place. For example, I choose not to live in fear, I support and volunteer in efforts that profit humanity and I don’t take my cues on life from the media.

(BTW, I’m glad you’ve let me join in the discussion even if it did take me 3 years to see this film.)

Thu Nov 24, 11:30:00 AM PST  
Blogger Jason Hill said...

Oh, yeah. Everyone should do their families a holiday favor and rent Paper Clips. I think they have an exclusive deal with Blockbuster, which is where the copy I saw came from. Don't know why they say it will be available 12/6. I also think it is on HBO Family right now.

Thu Nov 24, 11:46:00 AM PST  
Blogger KMiV said...

Good commentary. I need to see both of those films. I have seen much of Farenheit 9/11. Moore has some good points and asks some good questions. As soon as this movie aired I received a DVD on "Faith in the White House." Two perspectives are trying to make documentaries to support their agenda. It is interesting trying to see clerarly in the middle of all of this.

I think that Moore, Oliver Stone, and the DaVinci Code writer all want us to believe in a government cover up/conspiracy theory for our country, religion, and foreign relations. It is hard for me as a white middle/class American to believe this except, my dad always told me to keep an open mind. He was a pilot in the Air Force (captain) and flew bombing missions in Viet Nam. He was also an atheist. One time he told me--our government does a lot of things people don't know about and sometimes we should ask more questions. He was a serious Republican but somehow left me with the realization that it was OK to listen to different sides of the issue.

Guess we just have to keep asking questions. Thanks for this post Jason.

Fri Nov 25, 06:50:00 AM PST  
Anonymous Allan White said...

One thing this doc has made me think about is how I feel about personal gun ownership. I go back and forth on that sometimes. I feel the need sometimes to own one where I live (ironic, perhaps, because home invasions are more common in Southeast Portland where we lived last), but I've felt the last few years that I'd be willing to give up my right to bear arms if it would mean there would be fewer gun deaths.

Based on the "canadians-have-more-guns-but-fewer-gun-deaths" line, though, that might not be the solution.

Does anyone out there (book, movie, etc) really get at the heart of what causes these rampages?

Fri Nov 25, 11:36:00 AM PST  
Blogger rebecca marie said...

what i like about MM is that even though in general i disagree with him (very general) he makes his movies enjoyable. i've only seen two, but i would recommend them because they are very well done.

also, who could complain about having cause to think.

Fri Nov 25, 03:11:00 PM PST  
Blogger Jason Hill said...

Slate has an interesting article about why the Columbine stuff happened. Wikipedia also takes a pretty extensive look at the event.

Many stats don't proove you are any safer with a gun than without one. In the grand scheme I have trouble justifying the need for ownership, which probably explains why I don't.

Mon Nov 28, 08:35:00 PM PST  
Blogger Lindsey said...

What a great comparative review! I haven't seen either of these, but Paperclips sounds like a must. Thanks for sharing your reflections.

Wed Nov 30, 03:08:00 PM PST  
Blogger Steven said...

Hey Jason. Paperclips was waiting for me when I got home from work this evening. The PVR recorded it off of HBO. Yay!

I really enjoyed it. Thanks for the recommendation.

Wed Nov 30, 08:56:00 PM PST  

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