Perhaps trying his best to sound like René Magritte, Michael Moore has announced that "Bowling for Columbine" is "Not a film about gun control." You might find this puzzling. In its 120 minutes, "Columbine" rarely strays from its sole issue, guns, except when trying to explain why Americans are so fascinated with guns. Only then does it concern itself with other topics, such as racism, classism, welfare, workfare, Afghanistan, consumerism, the Civil War, 9/11, the '53 Iranian coup, the media, pollution, imperialism, terrorism, and again, for good measure, racism. But primarily, "Columbine" is an entertaining film about what is, to most, an incredibly unentertaining subject: gun control.
Moore's surrealist statement is meant to draw attention to the fact that his is a film that tries its immodest best to seek out the root causes of America's obstreperous gun culture. It's too bad, because the batty world of gun enthusiasts provides the filmmaker with his best material. It's only upon strolling into the misty swamps of deep political causation that Moore becomes, like many, far less focussed and much less funny. But then again, it isn't tremendously clear what exactly the filmmaker is trying to say about the causes of gun culture.
In what is becoming an increasingly rapid-fire approach to political filmmaking, Moore tears his way through the contradictory facts of international gun culture. Here are some of them. Canadians have a lot of guns -- seven million registered gun holders occupy ten million households -- but being the generally gentle bunch that they are, our northern neighbors rarely get around to putting bullets in one another. The Japanese play a lot of gory video games, but seldom take these fantasies as reality. The Germans have an impressively genocidal history, but are much less trigger-happy than Americans. The English had an empire which dwarfed the US's, but have a charmingly low rate of gun-related homicides. And meanwhile, Americans are blowing each other away at the rate of over 11,000 people a year -- a rate, per capita, higher than all the above-mentioned nations combined.
Most liberals, many centrists, and even a few republicans would suggest stiffer gun laws to solve the problem, and leave it at that. They might be right, but if Moore agreed to the same, he wouldn't have much of a movie. The filmmaker of course doesn't rule the problem of gun control out, and during the film, he, along with two survivors of the Columbine massacre, successfully lobby Wal-Mart to discontinue selling ammunition over the counter. But for the filmmaker something larger is at stake -- something having to do with the security state that Washington is currently putting into place. For Moore, it also happens to do with racism. And the media. And the war on terror. And imperialism. You get the idea.
Or maybe you don't. Moore's style of filmmaking is sloppy and rambling, which is never a good thing in the realm of political argumentation. For example, Moore is quick to say that America's violent past has nothing to do with the US's ongoing gun craze. Then he treats us to a montage illustrating all the horrendous things that the US has done around the world, starting with the Iranian coup in 1953, and culminating, without much subtlety, with the attacks of September 11th. Yes, arming the Afghan rebels probably had something to do with the 11th, but what does it have to do with gun culture at home? If Moore is trying to make a connection, then he definitely needs to reconsider his disdain for those who would blame Columbine on chattel slavery and empire. As mentioned above, our northern neighbors have got plenty of guns, but are less prone to use them; but nonetheless, Moore is an advocate for tighter US gun control. He is quick to use Britain to discredit all empire-related theories, but Britain hasn't had an empire for some time now, and when it did, teenagers couldn't purchase ammo for their semi-automatics at the local Wal-Mart.
On that most American of subjects, race, Moore comes the closest to hitting the mark. As the radical abolitionist Wendell Phillips wrote, "More than any other people, we Americans are afraid of each other," and Moore would definitely concur. However, he would take it a step further: it is the paranoid politics and media frenzies of America that are the most successful at giving its citizens their itchy trigger fingers. The film goes to great lengths to show how the American media is not just adept at making citizens afraid of each other, but is specifically gifted at making whites abjectly afraid of blacks. Moore humorously points out that while white corporate criminals go unseen, black suspects are shown nightly on television in hour after hour of "reality" TV and evening news programming. Almost syllogistically, white America is made to feel threatened and duly goes about barricading itself in its suburban ranches. Canadians mostly leave their doors unlocked according to Moore, even in downtown Toronto, basically because their nightly news is concerned with more elevated and less racist topics. Things are so much more enlightened up there, aren't they?
There is more than a grain of truth in this, but unfortunately Moore misses an opportunity to make clear that white men (and boys), whose political sympathies are on the far right, have committed most acts of terrorism and orchestrated violence in the US. Moore includes the fact that the Columbine shooters singled out a black student because of his color, but leaves out that they were also avowed neo-Nazis. The Oklahoma City bombing is obviously the result of right-wing "patriot" extremism, and many of the other publicized school shootings were the results of loony takes on National Socialism. Far-right violence related to these incidents -- for example, abortion clinic bombings and the recent dragging of a black man in Texas -- are also inexplicably omitted. Europe's recent round of assassination attempts (successful and otherwise), and synagogue bombings are also nowhere to be found, perhaps because they undermine Moore's thesis that Europe is currently a non-violent utopia. (Tellingly, some in the European media are now hollering about how European gun laws are much too lax and must be reformed.) One could also investigate how guns relate to domestic violence, but it seems like Moore would rather tell us how Clinton's bombing of the Serbs has a more than coincidental relation to Columbine's massacre.
Maybe all this jumbled argumentation has to do with the fact that Moore has spent most of his recent career putting together television shows. His shows are entertaining, but they are rarely, to use an anachronism, reflective. Intellectual shows fail in the rating game, and Moore, who is astutely aware of this fact, has made the sound bite world of TV his home. It's not a bad position to take perhaps, but a theater on the Lower East Side is not the eight o'clock time slot. The filmmaker seems uncomfortable with the idea that in a theater his audience is willing to give his ideas more than a glance between commercials, and instead retreats to a television format that many in his audience might usually avoid.
In an appropriate climax, Moore confronts, mano a mano, the poster boy for the NRA, Charlton Heston. Moore is edgy, and visibly surprised that he has obtained an audience with the supreme leader of the survivalist right. He is also bellicose enough to bring the interview to an end in record time. Heston, somewhat confused, probably senile, wordlessly walks off camera after Moore interrupts him several times in the first couple of minutes of the interview. Unexpectedly, Moore comes off as the bad guy, as a grossly impolite and self-righteous demagogue. Perhaps he has attained the impossible: even liberal audiences walk away feeling a bit of pity for one of their favorite enemies.
With age, Michael Moore has begun to show signs of maturing into a kind of happy left-wing brutalist. After watching Moore pound and taunt his enemies in interview after interview, one begins to realize that he is perhaps taking a little too much pleasure in his interlocutors' humiliations. I couldn't help but think, after sitting though the film's multiple barrages of split-second montages, that Moore has been developing into a left-wing Bill O'Reilly, an unforgiving pugilist for the downtrodden. Despite the multiple cheap shots, easy bullying, and self-righteous, pugnacious rambles, "Bowling for Columbine" does have its many delirious moments, usually involving some yahoo making army-grade napalm in his basement. One can't help but laugh at the gun-toting right, even when one of their members is holding a pistol to his head to prove it's loaded. (That stunt was performed by the wild-eyed tofu-farmer James Nichols, Terry's big brother.)
If the film's thesis is elusive, its passion and talent is not. Moore is an invigoratingly rare figure for the left: he is both media savvy and a wit; he is not prepossessed with self-serving academic jockeying; he wastes no time with the pathetic manners of the Politically Correct. Perhaps most importantly, he has no fear of addressing American power directly, of making its flagitiousness boldly public. Despite its flaws, "Columbine" is a film of deliciously black humor, fierce and effective.