Michael Moore Bowls a Strike at Telluride

In 1989 Michael Moore's life was changed by one of the kindler, gentler establishments of the movie industry. "Roger and Me," his documentary eviscerating GM head Roger Smith, was accepted by the Telluride Film Festival and from there went on to get a distribution deal and international critical acclaim.

"I didn't know anything about the film industry," Moore said of his Telluride experience. "I was broke. My original plan had been to get the crew together, rent a van and tour the country for roadside screenings."

Moore could be seen ambling through the streets of Telluride, Colorado again this year, rich from his best-selling book "Stupid White Men" but still the jovial populist, yanking at his trademark baseball cap and talking to adoring fans about the North American premiere of his powerful new film, "Bowling for Columbine."

The documentary, which he hopes will spark a national conversation about America's obsession with violence, is a radical exploration of America's love affair with guns, its "paranoid mentality," as Moore calls it, and the violent nature of U.S. foreign policy.

"I made [Bowling for Columbine] because I was angry," said Moore. "I wanted to know, 'Why us?' Not only why did Columbine happen, but why are 11,000 people killed by guns in the U.S. every year when almost everywhere else the numbers are in the low hundreds?"

To answer that question, Moore took his camera and crew from Littleton -- where he interviewed still shell-shocked survivors of the Columbine massacre and townspeople who now specialize in security systems -- to Beverly Hills, for a bizarre tête-à-tête with NRA spokesman Charlton Heston, and across the border to Canada where Moore, in one of the more hilarious scenes, trespasses into strangers' homes to prove that Canadians don't lock their doors.

Like "Roger and Me," "Bowling for Columbine" is propelled by a humorously enraged quest to find the truth. The movie is a journey -- Moore's and ours -- and it begins with Moore positing that the solution to violence must be gun control. (The unforgettable opening scene shows Moore acquiring a free rifle when he opens a new account at a Michigan bank.) But soon enough, Moore, ever the Midwestern Platonist, is arguing that controlling individual gun purchases is too easy an answer, since there are as many weapons in countries with low murder rates.

From there, "Bowling for Columbine" races off into a series of broadly related violence-in-America questions that include the U.S.'s military-industrial complex, its fascination with televised bloodshed, its tradition of scapegoating blacks, ignoring poverty and sanctioning what he calls "state-sponsored violence."

Moore is most convincing in showing that Americans are reluctant to embrace progressive reform because they have become deeply fearful. Although violence is statistically down, every night they watch on television the day's roster of rapes, abductions and murders. It is this violent TV sensationalism, Moore argues, that is creating "a national atmosphere of fear and paranoia" and distracting Americans from important social issues. The film has no final point, no single answer for Columbine or other killing sprees, but it is undoubtedly the most intelligent, thought-provoking and entertaining film about violence in America to have come along in years.

All of Telluride was buzzing about "Bowling for Columbine" the morning after the premiere. In a public conversation in Telluride's Elk Park, Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens did his best to roil Moore about his usage of Serbian film clips, his Ghandian stance on American foreign policy, his strategy of throwing a dozen theories in a kettle and stirring, but ended up being uncharacteristically mild.

"You're a man of the people and I'm a snob and an elitist," said Hitchens with a wave of his cigarette, letting Moore steal the show. Telluride --- whether because of the abundance of remarkable films or the limited oxygen at 10,000 feet -- seemed to have a calming effect on Hitchens.

For regulars the Telluride Film Festival is a kind of religious experience, a Burning Man for adults whose drug of choice is dramatic scenarios from all over the world. For 29 years the festival has pushed into the increasingly commercialistic film world movies by new directors that fuse politics, technology and art. This year the program included the world premiere of Paul Schrader's "Auto Focus," about the sexually sordid private life - and murder - of "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane; the world premiere of "Frida," Julie Taymor's ode to Frida Kahlo; a tribute to actor Peter O'Toole; the North American premiere of "Spider," the latest film from David Cronenberg and the North American premiere of "Talk to Her," a story about the friendship of two men from Oscar-winning Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, among others.

As usual, the festival offered a wide selection of independent and foreign films that need the kind of critical attention "Roger and Me" got to compete against Hollywood blockbusters. Chief among them was "City of God," a shattering epic about Rio de Janeiro's drug-riddled housing project Cidade de Deus directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund. Based on the novel by Paolo Lin, the movie is at once a masterpiece of contemporary filmmaking and an education on the cyclical nature of 20th-century urban poverty.

Meirelles and Lund shot the film on location in Cidade de Deus and interviewed 2,000 resident street kids, eventually settling on a cast of largely non-professional actors to tell the story of dozens of intertwined Cidade de Deus lives from the 1970s and 1980s. "The focus was always on the truth," said Meirelles in an interview. "In Cidade de Deus, a 16-year-old kid is at the height of his life. He knows that if he is lucky he'll last another three or four years. The wasting of lives is the theme of the film."

"City of God" may well mark a new era in Latin American filmmaking. It falls on the heals of such riveting movies as "Central Station," "Amores Perros" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which take on contemporary social issues with plots that pop and ferocious visuals. "City of God" uses the lightning-fast editing techniques of music videos, but never seems to fall prey to aesthetic slickness. Some critics are beginning to call the new movies from Latin America the "Buena Onda" (the Good Wave), in reference to the 1960s French New Wave of which François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard formed a part.

Whether or not arty video stores will soon have a section for the Buena Onda, "City of God" will be recognized as a 2002 cinematic tour de force (Miramax will release it in the U.S. this fall). The movie is Meirelles and Lund's first feature and they, like Michael Moore, might look back at Telluride as the pivotal moment in their careers as film directors.

Tamara Straus is editor in chief of Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope: All-Story magazine (www.all-story.com).

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