In 2002, the release of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine heralded the filmmaker’s entry into the pantheon of helming greats. The doco, produced on a shoestring budget, not only grossed 58 million dollars at the box office, but won a slew of accolades. Foremost among those trophies was the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. I finally got my first look at this gem just this week, and the overall efficiency of the message was what initially struck me. Every scene in the picture had merit; every interview was of consequence. Furthermore, this was the start of Moore’s one-man army incursions. He presents as the Robert Rodriguez of docos, having directed, wrote, produced, and narrated Bowling.
The title stems from the infamous Columbine High shooting in Colorado, where two gun-toting students let loose on the entire school. The pair of outcasts allegedly went bowling before the big unleash, the twentieth of April ‘99. The genius of Moore is that he does not dwell on the school shooting per se, but on the metanarrative and social issues which enabled this heinous behaviour. He moves around seeking answers. He queries Michigan servicemen, given that he is from Michigan and the Lockheed air base is where the action starts. He also asks a couple of berks who knew the deadly duo. Moreover, he conferred with townsfolk about this dog who shot its owner. Could the dog have thought this through? After all, it was dressed to hunt. He came to surmise that Michigan is paradise for gun lovers.
He went to profile the Michigan militia, who claim that they’re just concerned bedfellows. They’ve been brainwashed by powers that be, causing them to revolt. One member offered a curious logic to his guns. He uses a pen, which is mightier than the sword, but keep the sword handy just in case the pen fails. Meanwhile, in Littleton, Utah, one local commented that the Columbine tragedy could be a microcosm of the world. The government’s common defence against weapons is for protecting their subjects. However, history shows that they have also utilised these tools to overthrow governments the world over. To name a few, Iran, Vietnam, Chile, and El Salvador were all collateral damage to Uncle Sam’s imperialism.
Columbine has been described as being ‘painfully normal.’ Since Columbine, schools have broadened their zero tolerance policies. Bringing a nail clipper, chicken stick, folded gun-shaped paper or even dyeing your hair blue are just some of the infractions. Their overblown responses have typified the fragile state of affairs. In post-Columbine, wearing a Scottish kilt for your junior prom will cause problems. So, who should be the scapegoat? The expert answers ranged from South Park to videogames, TV to Satan, society to Marilyn Manson. True to Moore fashion, the helmer seeks Manson’s side of the story. The latter admits that he’s an obvious pick and highly visible in pop culture. Blame it on the push for consumption and fear, where keeping people afraid ensures their consumption. When asked what he would say to the Columbine peeps, Manson offers that he won’t say a thing, but instead would listen. He points out that’s the opposite of what everyone else did.
Can we blame the bowling? After all, that was their last hurrah before the shooting. In a similar fashion, we could blame violent video games on the Japanese. We could also use the breakup of the family unit as another scapegoat. However, one must note that, at the time of filming, a much smaller nation as the UK had more divorces than the US. Perhaps, Moore suggests, we could look at America’s violent history: cowboys, the Wild Wild West. However, numbers don’t lie: in 2002, the gun fatalities across the West painted a grim picture for Uncle Sam. While there were 255 deaths in France, 165 in Canada, 68 in the UK, 65 in Australia, and 39 in Japan, there were a staggering 11,127 lifeless bodies across the States. Moore then questions Americans if they are born homicidal. To drive his point, he proffers a cartoon similar to The Itchy and Scratchy Show, where he mocks his fellow Americans, their treatment of blacks and native Americans, the long-standing oppression of minorities and women, their war-freak mentality, and their penchant for weapons. The scare campaigns, Halloween, even weight loss pills….
This is in stark contrast to Canada, right at America’s doorstep. Windsor, a city of four hundred thousand, recorded no murders in 2002. Indeed, there are so few murders in Canada that they live markedly different than Americans; they have a very different mindset. The US seems more intense. Moore adds that the poor were not prioritised in Bush’s America. The 9/11 culture of paranoia and fear was turned into profit. Whether prior to or after 9/11, Moore observes that a public drowning in fear should not have access to this much guns and ammo. In interviewing the famous actor, Charlton Heston in Lockweed, Michigan, Moore goes full circle. Heston’s views were crucial since he was at the time the sitting five-term president of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Pity though that he had so little to say. We have a violent history with guns, perhaps over anybody. Gun sales are through the roof and can all be reconciled with Bowling for Columbine. ‘Yes, it was a glorious time to be an American.’