TORONTO--There is a moment in "Bowling For Columbine" when Michael Moore is at a loss for words for perhaps for the first time in his life. The moment comes at the conclusion of one of the public psychodramas he has become expert in staging, in which he dramatizes evildoing (as defined by Moore) in the way calculated to maximize the embarrassment of the evildoer.
His staging is brilliant. He recruits two of the young Columbine shooting victims to accompany him on a visit to Kmart corporate headquarters--where, he muses, they might ask to return merchandise, specifically the Kmart bullets still in their bodies. The purpose of the visit is to request Kmart to stop selling ammunition. After an initial contact with a PR person proves unsatisfactory, Moore and the students go to a Kmart, and the teenagers easily purchase hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
Then Moore and his camera and the kids return to Kmart, where a spokeswoman tells them, yes, Kmart will phase out the sale of ammunition over the next 90 days. Moore can't believe his ears. He asks the Kmart rep to repeat what she just said. She does. Moore has won. "This has never happened before," he tells the Columbine survivors.
"Bowling For Columbine," which plays starting today in the Toronto Film Festival, is a departure for Moore in other ways. He is a little kinder and gentler, and less certain than usual. His subject is guns in America. He wants to know why so many Americans die of gunshot wounds every year. Why, for example, does Canada, with gun ownership comparable to this country's, have only a fraction of the shootings?
This is a question Moore does not and probably cannot answer, and so his movie lacks the moral clarity of "Roger & Me," his attack on General Motors, in which he was convinced he was absolutely right. His tone in "Bowling For Columbine" is often funny or sarcastic, as before, but it is joined now by a new sorrowful note. Audiences watching the film are sometimes blindsided by emotion, and I have seen people crying during the Kmart episode and earlier surveillance camera footage of the Columbine massacre itself.
If Moore has an answer, it is that America may have talked itself into feeling endangered. He notes that while gunshot deaths and violent crime in general have gone down 20 percent, coverage of violence on the TV news has increased by 600 percent. "If it bleeds, it leads," TV news directors chant. Moore corners poor Charlton Heston, who says he has a loaded gun in the house for protection. "Do you feel threatened?" he asks.
"No," says Heston, who lives behind a gated wall. Maybe it's just the principle of the thing.
The festival's opening weekend has turned into a logistical nightmare for journalists trying to cover it in some sort of organized way. The big movies seem to be front-loaded, so that three or even four press screenings of important titles compete at the same time.
"It's because of 9/11," a festival insider told me. "The studios wanted to play all their stuff before Wednesday, because they're convinced everyone will go home early."
If I were a wise producer's rep--like my friend Jeff "The Dude" Dowd, for example--I would advise my clients to schedule their movies for late in the week, when visiting critics will be looking for screenings and copy. As things now stand, the schedule is so crowded that some pictures have press screenings that overlap with interview times. Maybe you see the first 30 minutes, run out to interview the director about the story so far, and then hurry back to see how it ends.
*** If I could see only one film today, I would make it Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away," which plays at 6 p.m. at the Varsity and opens Sept. 20 in Chicago. This is a great film. Like all of Miyazaki's work, it appeals as much to adults as children--perhaps more so, because the subtlety of his visual universe may be lost in the kids as they focus on the story.
This is a film about a little girl, stand-offish with her parents, who is separated from them during a vacation trip and wanders into what seems to be a theme park and then into a mysterious bathhouse run by a grotesque sorceress. (There is an eight-limbed man pumping the levers in the boiler room, a creature Miyazaki's animation was born to render.) The last time Miyazaki came to Toronto, with "Princess Mononoke," he told me it would be his last film. Not quite. "Spirited Away" is perhaps his best.
The Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira, now 94, has made 14 of his 35 films since 1990. I'm going to interview Miyazaki (who is only 62) during the festival, and will tactfully point this out.