Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine is a mess, but a worthwhile examination of American violence

Bowling for Columbine

The title suggests that this would be a movie that explores America’s gun problem, but what it becomes is an exploration of America’s violent tendencies. More himself is a larger than life satirist and documentarian who has been a prominent progressive voice in the media for decades. In this film he tries to explain why America is so different.

When Moore made this documentary the gun debate was different. More democrats were supporters of gun rights and the age of the mass shooting was in its infancy. In 2002 Columbine was still fresh in peoples memories and 9/11 had just occurred completely changing the fabric of American culture.

More starts tying ideas together, from our foreign policy to our relaxed gun laws and local news’ disproportionate coverage of crime. Moore’s ability to construct a story out of disparate parts is perhaps the most impressive part of this film.

Footage from TV news, filmed acts of violence, cartoons and typical Moore political stunts all come together to try and coherently tell a story that seems to be too big to analyze.

It doesn’t explain the violence, but instead give a Clockwork Orange-y stream of images that are range from tragic to comic. Afterward watching you have difficulty connecting all the dots, no matter how much sense it may make as an individual statement. The film does better at mocking the absurdity that dumbs down America.

Moore is most convincing when downplaying the importance of gun ownership, heavy metal and violent entertainment. But looking back today, the debate hasn’t evolved.

The protective high school policies past after Columbine weren’t successful. The implementation of metal detectors and police in schools hasn’t stemmed the tide of school shootings.

When revisiting the film Moore seemed even more pessimistic than when he made the film.

“It’s the American equation: Dumb down the population; make them ignorant and stupid. Ignorance leads to fear. Fear lead to hate. Trump knew that part of the equation really well. Hate leads to violence, or to use your ballot as an act of violence against the people you hate,” Moore said.

The wide array of topics taken on in this film shows how little we can truly agree on. There are hundreds of factors that effect violence, and what’s covered in the film probably contributes, but it’s lack of focus makes this movie raise more questions than it answers. In the end we’re left wondering what specifically is wrong with us.

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The sad punch line of Anthony Weiner

Weiner

Everyone is in on the joke of Anthony Weiner. A name destined for ridicule was a self-fulfilling prophecy for Anthony Weiner.

The former congressman’s unintentional tweet of a close-up of his crotch began his fall from grace in the public spotlight. He resigned shortly after, but wanting to return to public life, he decided to run for mayor of New York City. In Weiner, by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, we get a live view of the politician’s cycle of self-destruction and redemption. After the tidal wave of women coming forward against powerful men I think it’s worth revisiting.

The movie begins when Weiner’s campaign for mayor began. The first third of the film feels hopeful and like the beginning of his redemption. Weiner is enthusiastic, passionate and charismatic. Before long he was a major contender in the race. Until…

Ten women come forward about Weiner’s continuing to sext them after his resignation from congressman. Everything starts to spiral out of control as his attempts to avoid talking about his strange compulsion towards sexting strangers on Twitter become more and more desperate as he resorts to shouting matches, name calling and middle fingers.

In a shot in this film, Weiner emerges from a photo booth with his son to face a crowd of reporters. During the flashes and noise his son starts crying, and Weiner tries to comfort him while continuing to smile and pose for the camera. This sums up the story of Anthony Weiner. His need to be seen ultimately hurts those around him, and possibly fuels the narcissism that leads you to send explicit text messages to a bunch of women after just being disgraced for sending explicit text messages to a bunch of women.

After the watershed moment starting with Harvey Weinstein’s accusers coming forward and the string of women who came forward with their own stories of powerful men. If Anthony Weiner was accused of the same crimes today would we treat them differently?

I think so. Most media organizations were trying to think of the most clever dick joke that would headline the front page. Sure, his name didn’t help, but we treated it like a joke because we treated Weiner like a joke. His sexual misconduct was awkward, digital and therefore funny.

Luckily the outcome was the same. Weiner is not likely to return to public life soon, his 21-month prison sentence for sending obscene material to a teenager on November 6.

The Myth of Sugarman and the Man Who Filmed Him

Searching for Sugarman 

In isolationist apartheid South Africa an American steeped in legend became as big as Elvis in the country. The folk singer Rodriguez had become a national icon while little was actually known about him. Rumors circulated that he committed suicide. In most stories it was on stage by either gun or self-emulation. The man of myth was dead, or so they thought.

 

After apartheid two South African fans try and track down Rodriguez with documentarian Malik Bendjelloul. It was more difficult than they expected. Rodriguez was surprisingly completely unknown in America. After a lot of detective work they were able to find him. He had been living modestly, working construction, and was completely unaware of his success in South Africa.

 

The musician is humble, and doesn’t seem too bothered about losing a lifetime of fame. He is grateful for the recognition even if it is 30 years later.

 

Bendjelloul won the Oscar for best picture with this documentary in 2013. In 2014 he threw himself in front of a train to commit suicide. He had gone the way Rodriguez did in myth. In death he too became a legend, with his quirks and abilities becoming an object of interest.

 

His compulsive and mapped out walk around his apartment before and after work, his eating the same breakfast for six months just to enjoy having something else and breaking up with a girlfriend because they had been dating for four years four months and four days becomes more than just individualism and becomes larger than life. Perhaps that’s just a tendency to respect the dead, but his art like Rodriguez’s is legendary in itself.

 

Too often we get wrapped up in the artist trying to understand the art. The story of Rodriguez wasn’t explored very much in South Africa because everyone knew the myth. It had to take another artist, Bendjelloul, to help find him and in the process create something beautiful.

A fly on the wall at Camp Restrpo

Restrepo

The Korengal valley in Afghanistan was the deadliest place in Afghanistan for US soldiers when Sebastian Junger and Tim Heatherington embedded with a team of soldiers holding outpost Restrepo.

The outpost was named after PFC Juan Sebastian Restrepo who was killed during the campaign to build the outpost. The film is 90 minutes of soldiers soldiering. The filmmakers hardly factor in the equation and there isn’t much narrative structure. There’s no political statement made. No real beginning, middle or end. Instead we get a glimpse of how these soldiers react to life and death situations, both during and after they occur.

The interviews with the soldiers show the lasting psychological impact war has. Some of the soldiers say they can’t sleep or are still haunted by the sight of seeing their friends die.

The film isn’t all as dark as that, though. You see a level of camaraderie between these soldiers that makes you wonder how someone can have so much fun in such a scary place.

Comparing this with the sequel, Korengal, this clearly stands out as the superior. Whereas Korengal is a more TV-ready informational documentary it has nowhere near the personal and emotional depths Restrepo reaches.

The observation of these troops allows their stories to be told without much outside help. Korengal, though also great, never achieves Restrepo’s authenticity.

Dark Days humanizes the “mole people”

Dark Days

For his debut film – actually his first time working with a camera altogether – Marc Singer shows the lives of homeless people living in “Freedom Tunnel.” The tunnel was a disused subway track that had been taken over by some of New York’s homeless population. The film humanizes the homeless that live there which some referred to as “mole people.”

 

The London-born director moved to New York City in the 1990s and worked mostly as a model. He started befriending some people in the homeless community and eventually heard about Freedom Tunnel. With no experience in filmmaking, Singer decided to create a movie about these people in the hopes they could make the tunnel residents money for better accommodations.

 

The tunnel itself looks nearly post-apocalyptic. The make shift houses are made of plywood and sheet metal. It’s the third world accommodations minus the sunlight. Despite this many of Freedom Tunnel’s residents show pride in their houses they built. Some enjoy the community and it’s lawlessness. And Singer is able to show this along with their horrendous living situation.

 

Singer didn’t focus on the character subterranean dread, he focused on their relationship to the tunnel. Some were set in their ways and others hoped to escape the tunnel.

 

One resident, Dee, was addicted to crack and would fiercely defend herself is someone asked her to quit. One resident, a young man who had run away from home, explained how he recycled all day to “get that crack head money,” ($50) which would be enough to get fed and get high.

 

The true redemption story is the bald resident (they didn’t give his name). Throughout the film he is trying to find a way back on the surface. He is a recovering addict and pushes back at some of the rampant crack use, but to little avail. Still, his redemption doesn’t equal a condemnation of the rest. There are moments of empathy with all of the characters, and you can tell they were comfortable with Singer’s presence.

 

The movie ends with police forcibly removing the residents of Freedom Tunnel. The 1990s was a period of great change for New York. There was an increasing effort to “clean up” the city, that these people were greatly effected by. The exploration of character makes it sad when police push out the residents, and it seems not only unnecessary but cruel. It makes you question how America treats the homeless and how we could do better.

Point and Shoot promotes a white savior character and ignores real issues

Point and Shoot

In 2007 a young recent college grad felt unfulfilled. His degree in National Security and Arabic study found him work, but he felt like an unfulfilled man-child. In 2007 he went on a Che Guevara esque journey via his motorcycle across Northern Africa and the Middle East on a self proclaimed “quest for manhood.” Four years later he would return to go to war. And despite his story being neat, there are thousands of better stories that would inform you about the war in Libya, but instead we are looking through the lens of someone whose problems are manufactured.

When Van Dyke saw the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia and was fascinated. When he had his identity crises and took his trip, he created an alter ego called Max Hunter and completely changed his behavior. During this time he filmed his experience to make a travel documentary. While on this trip he met friends in Libya that he would later return to fight with.

During his second trip he fought with rebels, was captured, escaped and continued fighting Gadhafi until his death. A coming age and war story is may be an interesting story in theory, but it doesn’t do the conflict justice and shouldn’t be considered journalism.

Van Dyke and his girlfriend are the only two people interviewed in the film. The rest of the footage was either borrowed from Van Dyke or animated. The director Marshall Curry said Van Dyke had no creative control but at the end of the day this was only one persons story. Why we would focus on one of the few Americans in Libya at the time with so many countless people forced into this war.

The story arc of Point and Shoot is pretty similar to Lawrence of Arabia. Westerner befriends and champions a population of a mystical Eastern land. Westerner joins in guerilla war. Westerner is captured and imprisoned. Westerner escapes and sees the end of the enemy. Westerner leaves.

This is Van Dyke’s very self-consciously chosen image. Following him this closely doesn’t do justice to the Libyan people. There was also no mention about how the country remains one of the most dangerous in the world. Following his story so closely is at best incomplete and at worst the unquestioning acceptance of a narcissists story.

I left the movie with a sympathetic view of Van Dyke. I thought the hero posturing throughout may have been over exaggerated. That was until I learned he returned to the Middle East to train soldiers. He now calls himself an International Security Expert and is into John Wick cosplay, but what he should call himself is his alpha-male alter ego: Max Hunter.

The Best of Enemies explores a turning point in how we talk about politics

The Best of Enemies

In the summer of 1968 two public intellectuals sat down for a debate that would air on ABC News. It was recorded as substitute for wall-to-wall coverage of the Democratic National Convention, which ABC couldn’t afford. One was arguably the most transformational intellectual of the Conservative movement and the other was a theatrical intellectual and author, William Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. They had a lot to talk about. Protests and violence erupted around the convention in Chicago, John F Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had all been assassinated within the last year and the Vietnam War was in full swing.

The problems then seemed a lot like the problems now. There were protests about racial inequality, there was an unpopular war and many Americans were feeling anxious. There was a new wave on the left that reached for social and economic justice, and on the right moving towards laissez faire economics and “law and order.”

Vidal and Buckley were both amazing debaters. They both have a similarly aristocratic style. Yet ideologically they could not be further apart. Vidal was a bisexual taboo breaker, who wrote movies that were ahead of its time. Buckley was a big influencer of the Republican Party and helped usher in the era of Reagan who is now the deity of the Republican Party.

After a time the debate ceases to be political. The two men didn’t like each other, they even thought the other was dangerous. It became more important to discredit the other than to advance their ideals. It was an unstoppable force meeting an unmovable object.

These debates were so successful that no network ever did wall to wall coverage of a convention again. The spectacle of it was entertaining, at least more so than a political convention. Since then news has implemented this debate model for better or worse.

At the end the debate was an exercise in futility. The caricatures Buckley and Vidal represented to each other today are ingrained in the American psyche. US citizens are polarized, and the two parties are finding harder and harder to find a middle ground.

These debates foreshadowed the vitriol that would return to politics in the 21st century. I could continue with how futile the style of debate is on TV news but I’ll let Jon Stewart do it instead.