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"Bowling for Columbine:" A Review

2003-01-05 - 3:48 p.m.

The (F)Arthouse Critic...For the Arty Farty Filmgoer in You: A Review of Michael Moore's �Bowling for Columbine�

On April 20, 1999, I was a senior in college and halfway drunk in the middle of the day. It was the end-of-the-year campus surprise party in which classes are cancelled and students spend the day getting as drunk as they can. When my friends and I stepped inside their house that afternoon to grab some more beer, some guy sitting on the sofa mentioned there�d been �another school shooting.�

Of course we stopped a moment and thought about how that was too bad--but kind of like another installment in a string of similar stories that year--so we went out on the lawn to drink some more beer.

And so the Columbine High School massacre didn�t faze me then the way it would now if it happened today: I didn�t own a TV. And because I had mountains of papers to finish and tests to take, and because I had a matter of days to decide what I was going to do with my life and where I was going to live, I really didn�t stop and feel for the people who had died.

Perhaps all of this is why I found myself, nearly four years later, getting choked up as I watched �Bowling for Columbine,� Michael Moore�s latest film. Of course, if you�ve seen any of Moore�s earlier work, (�Roger and Me;� �The Big One�) you know he doesn�t do tear-jerkers. But for several moments in this film, you see the blurred black-and-white security camera footage of the two teenagers coolly and slowly murdering their peers. It�s bone-chilling, especially if, like me, you�ve not seen that footage before. The rest of the film, though shaped around Moore�s offbeat sense of humor and filled with laughable moments, is equally disturbing as it seeks to answer questions about American�s obsession with guns and gun violence.

The most shocking thing about this film for me, other than the Columbine footage, was learning that a certain truth I�d always held dear about America is completely untrue.

I always thought that we could explain our grossly high number of gun deaths-- more than 11,000 per year, compared to the hundred or few hundred in most other countries-- because we simply have more guns lying around than everybody else.


In fact, as Moore proves in the movie, our neighboring Canadians have nearly as many guns as we do. And hardly any gun deaths. And so the shocking realization is that there�s something specifically American that leads us to turn our guns on each other.

And this is exactly what Moore sets out to do: debunk the silly and weak myths we hang on to so dearly to explain and justify our grossly high number of gun-related deaths. Moore works to pull apart some of the more popular quickie-explanation myths: the one about video games, the one about heavy metal, the one about poverty. But indeed, there is no quick answer anywhere. Moore, however, forms one theory: that the TV news, (among other prevalent forces in our lives), creates a �culture of fear� that teaches us to distrust our neighbors, lock our doors, and hold on to our DVD players and Salad Shooters for dear life. A short animated section of the movie redoes all of American history in a matter of minutes, showing with South Park-like sarcasm how the white American has needlessly murdered and enslaved people out of simple fear that was unfounded in the first place.

The sad thing about this amazing movie is that the people who need to see it most--the people clinging for dear life to the Second Amendment without question and to the heavy metal and video game myths--more than likely won�t go see it. After all, anyone who knows anything about Michael Moore and his past films is going to know that �Bowling for Columbine� is not a pro-NRA film. The people in the theatre, like me, seemed to be young, liberal, and worried about things like school shootings--they sighed and laughed and �tsk-tsked� in all the right places. I even saw the prototypical aging hippie with a ponytail. Of course, I didn�t see anyone wearing camouflage or fluorescent orange clothing.

I fear that many myth-believers will assume that �Bowling for Columbine� is all pro-gun control and anti-amendment; they�ll more than likely assume it�s Democratic, liberal propaganda. The thing is, one of the reasons this movie is so effective, and so disturbing, is that it shows that no amendment, political party, or left-or-right-wing way of thought really has anything to do with it. The gun-murder situation is not a Democratic problem or a Republican problem. And in many ways, the arguments Moore makes, while certainly not pro-NRA, are somewhat helpful in a backhanded way for the argument that more guns does not necessarily equal more violence.

In one of the most telling moments in the film, Moore visits NRA leader Charlton Heston--and if you know Michael Moore�s style, you know that this really means �Moore takes on Charlton Heston." It becomes quickly apparent that Heston is either unwilling or unable to think very broadly about the issue of why Americans, specifically, have a tendency to shoot each other. When Moore tries to raise questions, Heston gives the few standard Myth-Hanger-Onner answers about rights and the second amendment, and then, when pressed, gets up and walks away from the table. It�s an important moment not because we are exposed to what a bastard Heston is--though some will likely think that�s the point of the scene--but because of the resonating symbol created by Heston�s backside--by the turning of his back.

Moore, of course, is no such back-turner, and the last third of the film shows him up to his old ballsy tricks. He takes two Columbine students, who still have bullets lodged in their bodies, to the Kmart headquarters to ask the corporation to stop selling ammo to the masses. He tries to get Dick Clark to talk about welfare reform. And it�s here that the movie starts to go just slightly downhill. In some ways, Moore�s Ambush-the-PR-Guy tactics seemed almost unnecessary in this film--one has to ask if he really gained anything, other than getting some more self-satisfying �I-made-the-head-honcho-look-like-a-dumbass� scenes to add to his portfolio--by stopping Dick Clark in the street and making him look like the biggest prick this side of the bandstand.

It starts to seem like bullying, like it�s just for show. When he�s badgering the Kmart PR lady as the Columbine student sits nearby in his wheelchair, you might almost be able to argue that Moore is--yikes--exploiting these poor Columbine kids for his benefit. And of course, I�m sure there are politically-minded people out there intent on tearing down each aspect of Moore�s filmmaking--like when he enters random peoples� houses in Canada to show the commonness of unlocked doors and of friendly, non-upset people behind them, there�s every possibility he got 100 locked doors and only showed the three unlocked ones.

But none of this matters. Because it�s still an excellent film, and because anyone--regardless of their political affiliation or feelings on gun control--would be hard pressed to come up with sound arguments against any of the points Moore has raised here.

What matters is that Moore has narrowed down that it�s us and our American fear of our houses getting broken into that leads to so much senseless gun violence. And of course, it matters than the people whose eyes most need to be opened by this film more than likely will never see it.

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