"Bowling For Columbine"A Documentary by Michael Moore
Review by Poonam Srivastava
If a tree falls in the woods ... ?
Michael Moore's new documentary, Bowling For Columbine, is a shot, or rather a battery of shots, heard around the world -- except for the province of these here United States. As such, it fails as beautifully as it succeeds.
As is customary for Moore, we have the in-your-face camera work as Mike jabs his microphone in the faces of regular folks and celebs alike. The question Moore is probing seems to be the relationship of gun ownership to violence. Why do Americans kill other Americans with guns? Bowling For Columbine answers the question by weaving clips from television, familiar images from media news, and interviews in real time; with a musical score that deserves it's own triple star rating. The audience is served up a very juicy slice of the American pie.
In the interview with celebrities and regular folk Moore delights us with his humor. His camera points at us, takes aim, shoots. In full wide screen we see who we are, what it is to be us - American, human, isolated, helpless, most of all, fearful. We smile at shots of little Michael as he gets his first toy gun and goes out"to shoot up the neighborhood." We accompany chubby adult Michael, a guy in baggy jeans with a baseball cap that says"WRITER", to a bank where he is handed a rifle as his gift for opening an account. Pointing a presumably empty rifle at the bank official, Moore asks,"Is it really such a good idea handing out guns in the bank?"
The film finds its center of gravity in two incidents that define America at the turn of the century: Columbine and Buell. In the first, two Colorado high school seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, turn the guns they had shot their classmates with on themselves. They did this the same morning that President Clinton informed us of our beginning the severest air bombing raids in the history of American military aggression, Kosovo. The second: the Buell Elementary School tragedy near Flint, where a 6-year-old boy shot and killed a first-grade classmate, also 6. The audience falls into a palpably uncomfortable silence as familiar scenes from Nightline and CBS hit the big screen. The discomfort deepens as 911 audio recordings and school videos, never shown on TV, with panicked school employees and students scurry like a flock of ducks upon the initial shot from a hunter's rifle.
Then Moore does what he is so good at. He takes his story one step further. We step into the neighborhoods where the six-year-old's mother ended up living. We meet the kids that surrounded the two Columbine shooters. We sense the heartfelt disbelief of neighbors and police officials. Then we visit Lockheed, the center of economic life for much of Michigan and Colorado. A Lockheed executive stares sincerely into the camera and speaks of Lockheed's commitment to the community. With Moore, microphone in hand, we also board the bus that the six-year-old boy's welfare mother rode two and a half hours a day - morning and night - to support her family. The bus is filled with Blacks and Latinos. We ride that bus with workers that travel from the most decrepit neighborhoods - complete with boarded up buildings and muddy, swampy streets - to the lush suburban shopping centers where they work serving rich shoppers. Made me think of Life and Debt.
Both killings shocked our nation and sent us into a barrage of responses to this new "crises." Regardless of your political ideology, you had to smile as you watched Specialists and Experts give urgent seminars on how to reduce violence. Newscasters covered the crisis of our violent youth. Teachers and school officials watch students filing past armed security guards and metal detectors. There is a video presentation showing how school uniforms reduce violence. Here we watch a boy, dressed in loose jeans and T-shirt hanging out, pull out gun after gun from his pockets and then from inside his clothes while the voice over urges for a uniform. There is also the first grader suspended for pointing a chicken wing at his teacher and saying"bang, bang."
Moore holds up a mirror to us. We laugh and we cry and just as we are asking ourselves "Why us", he widens his camera lens. He takes a look at other, modern, western, developed, comparable, nations. He takes a look outside of Michigan to LA, and then Canada, Europe, and Japan. Then he deepens his perspective and takes a look at who we are historically. We are treated to two mini films within this film. There is a composite of historical archives showing American military involvement and CIA coups throughout the world. There is also an animation of the history of the scared white man in the USA. Here he touches upon the parallel birth and rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the N.E., and the growth of racism.
Moore points his finger clearly at where he always has: class issues, poverty, the economic slavery of the working class, detachment of the wealthy to social responsibility, issues of race, and our isolation from the rest of the world. Its the perfect climate for corporate capitalism. Following that finger to it's logical conclusion, we see ourselves quivering and quaking, trembling at anything that goes"boo" -- isolated from the rest of the world, isolated from each other. We see our defining cultural character trait and it is fear. And something else: a regressive emotionalism, an outlook onto the world and ourselves that reduces all to good or bad, black or white, right or wrong, us or them.
Perhaps in the second point, regressive emotionalism, Bowling for Columbine suffers from the very phenomenon it explores. I couldn't help but wonder why Michael Moore constantly chose sensationalist, divisive images. Once his point is made as to just how silly and scared we are he doesn't try to balance it with a fuller look at either corporatism or the history of American popular struggle. The film has received critical attention throughout Europe and in some US media. It is the first documentary to win Cannes in a long time. It's list of awards is long and wide.
But why is Bowling for Columbine not better distributed? It must be said that Michael Moore has made himself a nice profit on the film. Surely, that was not his only motive. Perhaps his next movie will take on the powers that control movie distribution. Bowling for Columbine is a must see movie despite it's all too American emotionalism and the fact that it's probably not showing near any theater near you. Having said that, nine months after the movie release, and in the classic conundrum style of all things American, the film's presence is being felt in second run movie halls and has even made it to Oprah.