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Culture Reviews
Bowling for Columbine
Gun-nuts blasted - at point-blank range.

By Neil Mc Gowan

There’s nothing subtle about Michael Moore. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore tackles his topic head-on – why prevalent violent gun-related death (11,000 people die of gunshot wounds each and every year in the USA) is such an integral, and apparently acceptable, part of American life?

The film is not any kind of narrative retelling of the shooting of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado – in a carefully premeditated attack. Instead, this is a pure documentary - there are no actors, and everyone who appears to comment does so as themselves, in their own words, voluntarily. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold not only murdered their classmates, but laid a sequence of primitive booby-trap pipe-bombs around the school building. Having killed thirteen others, they finally shot themselves. The question WHY this would happen in quiet, American suburbia is the motor behind the movie.

Moore is an unashamed popularist, and anyone familiar with his TV work will know what to expect – ridicule and laughter aimed at those Moore holds to blame. Gags and gun-deaths rarely mix, but Moore pushes-out the boundaries to look at the overall approach to guns in the USA. Slapstick is his forte, and the Michigan North Country Bank couldn’t have tried harder to play his sad sap. They trace a newspaper ad for the bank – “open a new account, and we give you a free gun”, from a wide choice of models. More amazing than the offer itself is that the bank willingly allowed Moore to be filmed signing-up for the account… “What kind of Account? I’d like the one where you get the free gun, please”. Having gone through the rigmarole (“so this question means that it doesn’t matter if I am a psychopathic maniac, provided I have never been charged with a crime as one?”), he gets his gun: “OK, the first question is – do you really think it’s a good idea to give out guns in a Bank?”

He doesn’t, however, duck the serious side of things, and a sequence of longer interviews add both substance and structure to the movie. Littleton’s most famous son is Matt Stone – creator of South Park, (and the “Oh no, they killed Kenny!” line). Stone is more pensive and pessimistic in real life – he attributes the Columbine killings to an education system “in which you have to succeed, because if you slip just once, you are marked as a failure and you’ll wear that mark the rest of your life – you cannot climb back on. It defeats the whole principle of education as self-improvement”. Strangely the most moving interview is with Marilyn Manson. It seems almost impossible that the slender, androgynous evil-embracing Manson can reach common ground with the bearded, bear-like, klutzy do-gooding Moore in a baseball cap? Manson’s concern seems entirely genuine and not invented for the camera – he was held to have been responsible for putting the idea of killing into the minds of Harris and Klebold, who listened to his songs endlessly, including on the morning of their killing spree. But what else did they do that morning – that might have pushed them over the mental edge into psychopathia? They went… bowling? So could bowling be as bad an influence as… Manson?

Opposing voices, including the Gun Lobby, aren’t denied their camera-time either. It is true, of course, that a history of the National Rifle Association presented as a South-Park style cartoon (actually it is not Stone’s animation) is, perhaps, a little one-sided? Moore’s take on this is that they will do exactly the same, so he has a duty to make his point as sharply (and controversially) as they do. One stunt which he swears was not set-up, was turning up at Charlton Heston’s house (Heston is the President of the NRA, famous for the “pry it from my cold, dead hand” speech) unannounced, ringing the doorbell, and asking for an interview? Heston agrees, and gives a more guarded account of his reasons for supporting NRA viewpoints than he has done in public. He declines to discuss why the NRA found it necessary to stage a meeting in Littleton just days after the shooting, “even though the Mayor said “Don’t come here. We don’t want you here””.

But these are just the words. What Moore does superbly well is to use the big-screen medium to highlight the glamour, the sexiness, the allure of violence. He holds back the information that nearly half of the parents of Columbine High pupils work building Guided Missiles – until the right moment. His campaign to force K-Mart to stop supplying ammunition in its supermarkets (Harris and Klebold bought their ammunition from K-Mart) features too… as does a look across the border at Canada, where a similar society unaccountably has 90% fewer gun-related deaths?

The sophistry is faultless, and as a final fireproofing from attack, he dedicates the film to two other young victims of gun crime – Laura Wilcox, shot by a mental patient (how did he come to have the gun?) whilst doing voluntary work in her college vacation, and Herbert “Sluggo” Cleaves – the son of Moore’s personal friends, shot dead randomly on his porch by drive-by attackers in Flint, Michigan…Moore’s own home town.

The film is passionate; Moore’s view is clear, from the outset; he offers his opponents at least some chance for comeback; he propagandises, but he doesn’t preach. You will either love or hate this film, there is no middle ground. Psychopaths and gun-nuts – stay home and masturbate over gun magazines or something, will you? This isn’t the film for you. As the Mayor said - “Don’t come here”.

24.02.04
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