Bowling for Columbine Enters the Criterion Collection + The Big One (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Here's a new Criterion release that seems to've come out of left field, in more than one sense.  I'm not even sure why it struck me as odd, to be honest.  It's a very famous documentary, won the Academy Award, broke box office records for documentaries... and of course, if Criterion has important and political docs like Hearts and Minds, The Kennedy Films and The War Room in their collection, why wouldn't they have Bowling for Columbine?  I guess Bowling just sat in my mind as a very particular artifact of an exact moment in time, and it felt strange to see it out of its element fifteen years later.  But of course, revisiting this new restoration, it speaks even more to 2018 than it did to 2003.  Just replace Bush's name with Trump's and add a couple digits to the number of school shootings we've had across the country.  If anything, Michael Moore's mission to discover the root cause of this horrifying trend is more important than ever.
And if you haven't visited Bowling, or any of Moore's work, in a long time; it really holds up.  For me, at least, the quality of his recent work cast a bit of a shadow over his early triumphs.  I mean, I'd never lose sight that he's the guy who practically reinvented documentary filmmaking with Roger & Me.  That while he's not the first documentarian to invite audiences into the filmmaker's situation and make the story of creating the doc the subject, I think it's safe to say he's the one who perfected it to the point that it became a reliable tool in the documentarian's arsenal.  But, you look at his last film and it's just a lecture that he happened to film.  And even if you say Trumpland doesn't "count," Where To Invade Next is just barely opened up any further.  It's like he enlisted a bunch of fans from different countries to say what he wanted to say so he could present his lecture in an interview format.  You could see it when he shifted from TV Nation to The Awful Truth.  Now, instead of being entirely a collection of envelope pushing, man on the street documentary segments, it's a segment or two sandwiched between talks he gives to an in-studio audience or directly to the camera.  Some of the humor and ideas are still there, but the exploratory thrill is dead.
Contrarily, this might be Moore's ultimate masterpiece.  Sure Moore obviously has his political opinions and agendas like anybody who sets out to make a movie ever.  But in Bowling, you really get the feeling he's filming to ask questions and seek answers, not just use the silver screen to pontificate.  In Criterion's new feature, which we'll look at more a bit later, he talks about how they set out with an overall message about control in mind when they started filming, and how that changed as he talked to everybody he met in the filming process.  Just on a more simple, basic level, I think you can see that when he talks to people, from his man-on-the-street and run-and-gun ambush interviews to his scheduled sit downs with celebrities and politicians, he doesn't really know what they're going to say to him in this.  When Charlton Heston stands up and walks out on him during his interview - to go and hide in his own guest house - that's at least as much of a surprising and crazy moment to him as it is to us.  Revisiting Columbine in 2018, I feel like I learned that it's not the times that've changed, or that we've gotten too used to his bag of tricks; it's his material that had the power to surprise, and it's damned effective.
So, I've wound up buying this film a couple times now.  MGM originally released this as a 2-disc special edition DVD in 2003, which I copped right away.  They later substituted it in the marketplace with a cheaper single disc edition, which I never had cause to bother with.  But in 2004, MGM put out another one of his movies, an older one called The Big One, on DVD.  You could get it just by itself, or in a little boxed set where it was packaged with Columbine (the 2-disc version, happily) and an exclusive bonus disc.  So I bought the the same Columbine release twice, so I could get that bonus disc.  And then of course, just now in 2018, I picked up Criterion's new special edition blu-ray, if only for curiosity's sake.
2003 US MGM DVD on top; 2018 US Criterion blu bottom.
So, this isn't exactly a fancy, new 4k restoration.  You don't need to read Criterion's booklet to gather that they just got this HD master from MGM; it looks just like they used for their original DVD.  But that's not terribly disappointing, because at least half of this film is made up of old, vintage footage taken from various, lower quality sources.  Mind you, that's not to say that there's no benefit to be gained in taking this film to HD.  The DVD has all the usual fuzzy compression issues of a 2003 DVD, that the blu-ray smartly clears away in the crisper, original footage.  Take the comparison shots above - the first pair is of some news footage taken at a press conference.  Comparing the DVD to the blu, yes technically the compression's still better, but because it's inherently SD footage, there's basically no appreciable difference.  The level of detail is baked into the source material.  But the second pair shows their original footage that genuinely does clean up nicely.  You can see how much sharper and finer it gets in 1080p.  So it's there.  But I'm not sure how much of an effect it will have on your viewing experience when most of the movie, you're going to be watching shaky, underlit or flat-out duped video footage.  Just something to bear in mind.

Of course, getting the audio bumped up to lossless DTS-HD might be a more concrete reason for some people to upgrade.  Interestingly, the DVD had a 5.1 mix.  So, I did go turn to Criterion's booklet with questions here, and apparently theirs is "the original 2.0 surround soundtrack... remastered from the 35 mm magnetic printmaster."  Both versions also include optional English subtitles, and the DVD also had Spanish.
So, now let's get into the extras.  As you might imagine, the 2-disc DVD set had a bunch of stuff... only about half of which was preserved on the Criterion release.  But, with that said, maybe it's not such a terrible loss.  The first and most obvious MIA extra is the audio commentary.  But as Moore explains elsewhere, he felt like most of what he had to say was already in the film, so he let his "receptionists and interns" do it.  I've seen extras like this get a lot of slack or just treated like jokes - "ha ha the lady who answers the phone is going to do a commentary?!" - but I don't think it's a bad idea on its face.  All these people worked on the film and have plenty of boots on the ground experiences and anecdotes they could share about working on the film you'd never hear otherwise.  What was it like being the actual person trying to convince the survivalists to let you film them out in the woods?  Unfortunately, this is only a little bit like that, and a lot more like a big room full of young people giggling, talking over each other, and talking about things that only amuse each other ("remember when we stayed up all night in your apartment?").  It's not completely without value; there are fun and interesting bits to glean; but for the most part, I think most everyone on both sides of the fence considers it a failed experiment, which is why we don't see any more of these being created.
DVD-only special feature.
So, okay, that's out.  Also missing is Moore's introduction, and it's obvious why Criterion dropped that one.  He talks about the DVD itself, including the special features Criterion didn't include.  How much would it suck to hear Moore say, "watch this great interview" only to have that interview not be there?  So fair enough.  Then there's an interview, followed by an audience Q&A, with Moore and former press secretary Joe Lockhart at a comedy festival.  I'm not sure why they dropped this one, but apparently it was an HBO event, so possibly a rights/ licensing thing.  I'm sure that's why the music video for Marilyn Manson's song from the film was also dropped.  That's basically about all that was entirely cut, apart from like a photo gallery, text and DVD-Rom only features like a "teacher's guide," and a pair of inserts.

I say entirely cut, because there's also one featurette that was shortened.  The "Film Festival Scrapbook" features a collection of moments from Moore at film festivals, including portions of three different press interviews, a speech from David Lynch, Moore on the red carpet and accepting his award from Naomi Watts at Cannes.  Criterion cuts it down to just the three interview segments, removing Lynch and the rest of the bits.  And the rest of what has been carried over is Michael Moore's Academy Award acceptance speech, complete with an intro/ defense filmed in his backyard, an interview with Charlie Rose, a segment from The Awful Truth that we saw glimpses of in Bowling, the trailer, and finally a feature called Return To Denver/ Littleton.  Unfortunately, this sounds like a Pets Or Meat-style follow-up to the doc, where Moore returns to the scene of his documentary to see where the people have progressed or remain the same.  But really it's just a pre-screening speech he gave... not terrible, but kind of a let down.
And speaking of DVD-only let downs, let's get into The Big One.  It's been just as long since I revisited that movie as Columbine, and as much as that one holds up, this one doesn't.  It's explained (eventually) that the title is a reference to a joke Moore made on the radio that America's nickname, given its collective attitude, should be "the big one."  But really, we all know the title, like the entirety of the film, is just hyping up Michael Moore's first book.  This film is a documentary of the book tour he goes on across the country for Random House after writing Downsize This.  And yeah, there are some interesting moments in here, like when the employees of a Borders bookstore he's signing autographs at ask to meet him in secret because they're attempting to unionize.  In another city, he stops by to talk to strikers at a Payday (as in the candy bar) factory.  But really, mostly, it's just about him marketing his book.  Think of comedian's road movies like David Cross's Let America Laugh.  It's one of those, right down to him playing pranks on his security detail and hugging fans.
The only real substantive element comes right at the end, where the CEO of Nike, apparently pressured by his wife who's a big Moore fan, offers to meet with Moore, and winds up looking terrible trying to explain his child labor policies.  That's peak Moore, but it's like ten minutes at the tail end of a feature length film, and would've been better placed in an episode of TV Nation or Awful Truth.  Or he could've just released it as its own, short film.  I think it would've won awards and gotten a lot of praise on its own.  But instead it's a mildly entertaining (it's overall light-hearted and occasionally addresses some genuine, serious issues with a degree of wit) ego wank.  I mean, I get it.  If you're a serious Moore fan, hearing him speak could be its own reward, like An Evening With Kevin Smith.  And there are moments that work like that, including where he basically performs the first chapter of his book, showing prank checks he wrote to various presidential campaigns.  But overall, this is much more Let America Laugh than An Evening With Kevin Smith, with a few highlights spread out across a lot of filler.
2004 US MGM DVD.
As disappointing as the film itself might've been, the DVD presentation was worse.  It's fullscreen, seems to be taken from a tape source, and and badly interlaced.  And you might think it's supposed to be fullscreen, like it's just shot on cheap video cameras while on tour.  But no, this film was released theatrically with a proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio and only looks like it was shot on cheap video cameras because of the way it's been preserved on disc.  The compression is poor, even by DVD standards.  It's just a cheap, no care given disc.  It's also completely barebones apart from the trailer (which you should watch, since it's all original footage created just for the trailer) and some bonus trailers.  The Dolby Stereo track is standard stuff, but at least it has subtitles, in English, French and Spanish.

Oh, and what about that bonus disc?  Ugh.  We're just sliding further and further downhill.  It's an eleven minute featurette of little snippets from one of his later book tours.  It's like a mini-The Big One, except he never talks to any strikers or CEOs; he just promotes his book.  It's basically clips from the talks he give, most cut so short, you never sink your teeth into whatever he's got to say anyway.  You've really got to have your head shoved awfully far up Moore's rear to care much about this.
But after coming down pretty hard on some of this stuff, I'm happy to do a complete 180.  Because, going back to the new Criterion blu-ray, there's one new feature they created that far outshines any of the other specials created for Bowling on any edition.  It's a 35-minute documentary called Michael Moore Makes a Movie, which interviews Moore, his producers and other collaborators on the making of Bowling for Columbine in a much more compelling, candid fashion.  They go through the documentary, basically scene for scene, explaining what each interview and experience was really like.  Why they talked to who they did, changes they made mid-filming, from what really happened when that conspiracy theorist put a gun to Moore's head to how Charlton Heston tried to physically trap them on his property after the interview.  Some of the other features were decent.  Moore and Rose had a smart discussion, and it was interesting to hear him address his little controversy with his Academy Awards speech.  But none of it holds a candle to this; I'd happily throw it all away and just keep Michael Moore Makes a Movie.  Oh, and it also comes with a long fold-out booklet with notes by critic Eric Hynes.
So if you're questioning whether it's worth upgrading your old DVD when maybe you've lost interest in the film, and the PQ gains aren't so impressive... I had my doubts, too.  I had pangs of buyer's remorse before I even completed by purchase.  But now that I've been reminded of just how strong the film is, and how pleased I was with the new feature, I have to say I'm really happy to have it now.  If you're on the fence about this one, I think I can safely say you won't regret it.

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