Directed by: Michael Moore
Starring: Michael Moore, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Manson, Dick Clark, Chris Rock
Funnier than most comedies, more moving than most tear-jerkers and more apt to outrage than the most frenzied Oliver Stone diatribe, Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine belongs on everyone's must-see list. It certainly must have already been on quite a few people's lists, judging by the enthusiastic reception it received at the Fine Arts when I saw it.
In my two-plus year of doing weekly reviews for Xpress, I have witnessed audiences bursting into spontaneous applause just three times -- Spy Kids, Moulin Rouge! and Lord of the Rings. Now, I can add Bowling for Columbine to that list. And it more than deserves that kind of reception. Its few detractors have called it "scattershot" -- an interesting term to use in the context of the film -- but that's only appropriate if you insist on viewing it as being strictly about gun control. Two things must be understood before coming to grips with the film's importance: Bowling for Columbine is not a tract for gun control, and Moore knows that while he can't offer too many answers, he can at least pitch the right questions.
He uses the shootings at Columbine High School -- and the bizarre fact that the killers went bowling the morning of the massacre -- as a base from which to question not just America's love affair with guns, but to question just what prompts us as a society to feel the need for them. And there's no denying that, in doing this, Moore is literally and figuratively all over the map -- but that's the point: The filmmaker himself is searching for answers where none seem to exist, and he understands the value of that search for its own sake.
It's the search itself that he's actually depicting. True, Moore simplifies some issues and glosses over others. For example, while I have no reason to doubt that America has 11,000 shooting deaths per year while Great Britain has 165 and Japan racks up a paltry 39, and so on, must note that Moore disingenuously sidesteps how this translates when placed within the context of total population.
Moore is, however, onto something when he points out that the usual explanations offered for this difference just won't wash. Those other societies are fed on the same violent movies, music and video games as the U.S., and yet they don't have nearly the problems in these areas that we have. The "degenerate elite" who create these supposedly detrimental works are, then, merely a convenient scapegoat.
By way of illustration, Moore brings on shock rocker Marilyn Manson, whose music was singled out as a factor at Columbine. Despite the fact that Manson as a performer still comes across as a kind of sexually ambiguous Alice Cooper minus the talent, it's quickly clear that he's also one of the film's most intelligent and well-spoken voices. Instead of trying to label the Columbine killers and place blame, he suggests the one rational viewpoint -- that someone needs to listen to what these kids are saying rather than dismiss them out of hand. The idea this movie drills into our heads -- that if we fail to integrate properly with our peers, we are doomed to "die poor and alone" -- is not something to be sneezed at. The closest Moore gets to providing an answer to our problems is that we -- more than any other society -- are fed on fear.
He takes this all the way back to the Halloween razor-blade-in-the-apple myth: It was never something you heard about firsthand, but was always many times removed from the source. I couldn't help but think of the two high schools in the town I lived in before coming to Asheville: You always heard what a horrible place one of the schools was, that you didn't want your child going there, that it was a hotbed of drugs and guns and knives -- but you never heard that from anyone who actually went there or had a child in school there. It was always something that someone else had told someone, and on down the line.
Moore puts forth the idea that the supposedly liberal media is to blame for all this, and he makes a good case. Has the world really gotten worse these days? That's doubtful. According to the film, our perception of our own decline hinges not on the world actually being worse, but on mass communication being better -- 24-hours-a-day news services, reality-TV shows and their ilk are voracious animals that have to be fed, and the more dire the news they can churn out, the better the ratings.
As Moore sees it, fear sells. To prove his point, he takes us into South Central L.A., an area long demonized by the media, and instead of the blighted war zone we're conditioned to, he shows us a neighborhood not that much unlike any other. Does the bad side of South Central exist outside of TV news? Certainly, but not in the glibly generalized manner that's usually put forth.
The movie is an extremely thought-provoking take on things, and that's what it's meant to be. By turns, funny, sad and disturbing, Bowling for Columbine is powerful stuff. While Moore very obviously takes sides, he has only to turn his targets loose before the camera for most of them to hang themselves -- a man implicated in (and only barely acquitted of) the Oklahoma City bombings rambles incoherently; President George W. Bush raises a nonspecific call to arms against an even-less-specific threat; Charlton Heston, president of the N.R.A., bizarrely admits that he has no actual fear of attack in his secluded, gated home, but that he keeps a loaded gun "because [he] can," then suggests America is more violent because of its "mix of ethnicity"; and so on.
Bowling for Columbine is a rich, deeply layered work that will please many and anger that many more, but it's a film that will allow no one to walk away from it without much to think about.