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Bowling for Columbine

Reviewed By Alexandre Paquin
Posted 12/09/02 23:43:49

"Of Guns and People: 'Bowling for Columbine' (2002)."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Michael Moore may have achieved something unique in recent American history: to become an outspoken denouncer of his countrymen's excesses without being labeled a "pinko" -- or something worse -- in the process. In "Bowling for Columbine," Moore provides the audience with a deconstruction of the American Dream through the nation's gun culture, with the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in April 1999, as the starting point.

While one may dislike Michael Moore for his convictions, it is difficult to deny that his arguments are valid. Furthermore, his books Downsize This! and the recent Stupid White Men are unpretentious and heartfelt, the latter, however, less so than the former. His political positions are carefully balanced by his humour. And unlike Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein (whose No Logo book design has ironically become one), Moore never had a place -- and, one suspects, no interest -- in the traditional American Left. Himself a college dropout, Moore's greatest strength has been to present himself as an average baseball cap-wearing, National Rifle Association card-holding American, not as an academic or college student who pretended to understand the plight of the nation. The average citizen, not only in the United States and not without reason, doubts the sincerity of the academic Left.

As Moore had put it so well in his 1996 book Downsize This!, most of the American Left today is completely out of touch with reality; Moore described college students at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor discussing "globalization", "neoliberalism", and the exploitation of the Third World by American multinationals, while remaining oblivious to the plight of the janitor who has to pick up their cigarette butts. After
they graduate, land that white-collar job they always thought they were entitled to, and move to suburbia, they will perhaps look back at those days with pride, but the janitor will remain a janitor.

Michael Moore, in this context, has become, in many ways, the popular
conscience of the United States, a man to whom the ordinary citizen could
relate, the type of man with whom you could shake hands without getting
a whiff of rehashed ideology.

Moore is most successful when it comes to deconstructing the myth of
the "American Dream." Bowling for Columbine takes potshots
at every group in American society. Lockheed Martin (not unlike Hacker
Industries in Moore's Canadian Bacon) is exposed as a villain for
both manufacturing weapons for the US military and for managing the Michigan
welfare program on which the mother of the six-year-old child who shot
another student at his school near Flint had to rely. The National
Rifle Association, which held a pro-gun rally in Denver immediately after
the shooting at nearby Columbine High School in spite of the opposition
of local citizens, is linked to the Ku Klux Klan in a hilarious cartoon
by the creators of South Park, and its president, retired movie
star Charlton Heston, makes a move which might prove disastrous for his
Reputation.

Numbers of victims of firearms demonstrate how important a discussion
of the gun culture in America had become. According to the documentary's
figures, Canada has less than 200 people killed by firearms each year,
while America has a disproportionate record of 11,000. Although the
ration falls to five to one when taking into account that Canada has one
tenth of the population of the United States, Moore's point is undeniable:
the United States has a firmly entrenched gun culture, unique in the civilized
world, and cultivated by an antiquated Second Amendment and pressure groups
such as the NRA. Moore, travelling to Canada, discovered that Windsor,
Ontario, had only one murder by firearm in recent memory; ironically, that
murder was committed by a man from Detroit. He also discovered --
unbelievably -- that Torontonians were not afraid to leave their doors
unlocked at any time.

Moments of irony abound in the documentary, beginning with Moore testing
the veracity an ad by a bank which offers a new gun to anyone who opens
a new account (he succeeds) and an interview with the brother of Terry
Nichols, of Oklahoma City bombing infamy, who attempts to demonstrate that
he is not a gun nut, only to reveal that he sleeps with a handgun under
his pillow. It is merely the beginning of more larger-than-life circumstances
that make Bowling for Columbine a delight to watch. Moore
has become famous for his blend of wry humour and social comment, and here
it works particularly well.

But Moore realized that he needed more serious material to make his
documentary relevant. The most horrific moment of the documentary
features footage from a Columbine High School security camera (the very
presence of which indicating that something very wrong was going on in
the education system long before high school shootings became widespread)
depicts the raw horror of the event, as does the inevitable shot of the
second airplane crashing into the World Trade Center against Louis Armstrong's
rendition of "What a Wonderful World."

The most important point the documentary expounds is the frenzy created
by the media over personal and national security. Whether it's killer
bees, the Y2K bug, unsafe escalators, dangerous-looking Black men, or September
11, America perceives itself as constantly under threat, and what could
be better to reassure the masses than the comforting presence of a Smith
& Wesson inside your jacket? And to stop school shootings, what
would be more useful than metal detectors? A promotional video for
a metal detector manufacturer explains how the average high school student
could hide as much as a dozen firearms, including a rifle, under his clothes
-- as though he would need that many. Paranoia means good business.

In the land of news-as-entertainment, where ratings are supreme and
where fluff such as Access Hollywood can pass as investigative journalism
among a good part of the population, what else could we expect than shock
"news" shows hosted by former models and "reality shows" like Cops
(whose producer was interviewed by Moore in the film)? The journalistic
community is constantly asked to cover criminal occurrences that it has
become immune to the unfolding tragedy. In Flint, after the murder
of a six-year-old girl by a boy her own age, television reporters were
quick to cover the event, but one reporter seemed more preoccupied by his
hairstyle than by the situation itself. And as Moore noted, none
of them tried to investigate the background of the tragedy. The state
of American news is depressing to anyone trying to learn more from the
news than who shot who and where. As if more evidence of this is
needed, even the Public Broadcasting Service relies on the BBC for international coverage.

There are, nevertheless, a few negative points about Bowling for
Columbine
, and most are related to Moore himself. While Moore
does not claim to be more than he really is, he certainly enjoys claiming
that he is less than he is, a phenomenon usually encountered among politicians
and a number of celebrities (how can we listen to Jennifer Lopez's "Jenny
from the block" without picking up the irony?). Moore now lives in
Manhattan, drives a New Beetle, and has two bestsellers to his name.
Obviously, the little kid from Flint has gone a long way since Roger
& Me
, his first documentary. And yet, his lifestyle has not
changed; if we base our judgement on what we see of him in his films, he
still goes around Central Park with the same parka, the same blue jeans,
the usual baseball cap, and his characteristically unkempt beard.
Perhaps it is intended as a way to express his disgust at the elite to
which he could now claim to belong, perhaps did he want to remember his
own humble beginning, or perhaps did he see his traditional style as necessary
to get his message across. But there remains some fleeting hypocrisy
about this which even Moore's evident belief in his message cannot entirely
Dispel.

Furthermore, Moore has an increasing tendency to seek personal exposure
more than he should. In Bowling for Columbine, it included
showing up at Kmart headquarters twice (where the Columbine bullets had
been bought) with two survivors of the massacre who would suffer from their
wounds for the remainder of their lives. The second time, Moore had
invited the media. Although he could claim a victory when the company
announced it would discontinue the sales of ammunition, Moore's attitude,
and his use of two victims for the purpose of his documentary, was akin
to the traditional politician's "I really care" trick.

Nevertheless, "Bowling for Columbine" is a compelling documentary on, ultimately, the failure of the "American Dream," and discusses points which are unfortunately too often ignored. It might not be fashionable to criticize the United States after September 11 (thus proving that Americans have learned zilch from that tragedy), but Moore artfully skewers political correctness to create a thought-provoking film. Sadly, only those already agreeing with his views are likely to bother seeing it.

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