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Old timers tell of a mystical place not far from here. Health care is provided for all citizens. People take in idyllic winter scenes whilst enjoying jelly doughnuts and long johns with maple icing. It has a large frontier and a few major cities. Even in these cities people are polite, stand five feet behind you in the ATM line and leave their doors unlocked day and night. There are seven million guns for ten million families, yet homicides from firearms are an eighth that of the United States. There is magical wildlife, though no one has gone so far as to suggest pixies and unicorns.

Those of us who had heard tales of this frozen utopia were reasonable to be skeptical. If such a place indeed existed, why were we not emigrating in droves?

Then came Michael Moore’s third feature film, Bowling for Columbine.

It turns out that this land of song and story is real. They call it “Can-a-da.” Upon reflection, is such a society the exception in the industrialized world, rather than the rule, or is our own the anomaly? This is the central question of Bowling, and the answer is one we might not like.

Moore begins at the North Country Bank in northern Michigan. After seeing an advertisement in a newspaper that claimed the bank would give a person a gun as up front interest for opening a Certificate of Deposit account. The bank, as it turns out, is a licensed firearms dealer and within minutes a background check is done, the paperwork is signed (making sure to spell “Caucasian” correctly) and the director leaves with a bolt-action Weatherby Mark V Magnum rifle. Some may be surprised to find out that Michael Moore can actually use the thing and that he won an NRA marksmanship award when he was a teen. This isn’t such a jaw dropper, as he is a Michigander. And they loves they guns there.

Less than five minutes in, we see another Michigander made good, one Charlton Heston. Anyone familiar with Moore’s work can soon see that Heston is to serve as the foil, much like Phil Knight and Roger Smith before him. More on Heston will follow.

Michigan isn’t only home to Heston, Moore and Bob Eubanks. It also boasts one fine militia, whose former alumni were none other than Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols. The folks in the organization prefer to distance themselves from these two and actually come off as uncomfortably normal fellows. Nearby Decker resident James Nichols, brother of Terry who makes his living as a certified organic soybean farmer for that tasty tofu many pick up at the co-op, is… shall we say… less than normal.

Much is made of the assertive documentary work of Michael Moore. Bowling for Columbine is no doubt largely responsible. The relatively normal Yooper Nichols is interviewed for what appears to be well into the evening. At some point he goes off the tracks and begins to regale the interviewer with tales of “blood run(ning) in the streets” and pantomimes of blowing his head off with the .44 magnum under his pillow. We don’t see any alcohol present, but one has to wonder. James Nichols wasn’t found guilty in conspiring with his brother or McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bomb plot, but it would be hard not to infer things from his rhetoric and behavior.

One final stop in Michigan is made to foreshadow the nominal subject of Columbine. Oscoda, the small town near the now-closed Wurtsmith AFB where Eric Harris spent much of his childhood, provides a scene of alienated youth and sets up a dominant theme. Littleton, after all, is home to not only an Air Force base, but also Lockheed-Martin, the world’s number one weapons manufacturer. Could there be a connection?

Lockheed’s PR man doesn’t think so. The viewer might arrive at a different conclusion after taking in the foreign policy montage that follows. This is arguably the most jarring footage in Bowling, though some would point out the school security footage of the actual Columbine shootings in real time as a close competitor. In the theater, this was probably more intense than home viewing, where the grainy footage seems thankfully distant.

Apparently the NRA didn’t see the security film. Otherwise, their insistence upon staging a rally despite the protestations of citizens’ groups and the Denver mayor would be appalling. It would have been wise to contact Marilyn Manson’s agent. He had the good sense to cancel his tour after the events of April 20, 1999.

Manson has a good deal of sense, actually. After taking a beating in the mainstream media following the massacre (Harris and Klebold were fans) he appears to be one of too few individuals who has reflected dispassionately about the whole episode. When juxtaposed with Heston, Manson is surprisingly articulate and reasonable. It is his interview that eventually brings us to Moore’s answer to that central question: Just what makes us so different from the rest of the industrialized world? As Manson points out, there is a cycle of fear and consumption which conditions us.

The title Bowling for Columbine arose from this meditation on just what was to blame for these events, and our propensity for gun violence in general. Why not blame bowling? It was, after all, what Harris and Klebold were doing just before they opened fire on their schoolmates. When one investigates the other proposals for who is to blame, this doesn’t seem terribly far afield. After all, they listen to hard rock music in Germany, watch violent films in France and Canada, there’s alienated youth in Japan and broken homes are more prominent in the U.K. than the U.S. They bowl there, too. What else could it be?

To illustrate, we’re provided with a short animated piece entitled “A Brief History of the United States of America.” The cartoon, which was written by Moore and produced in the animation studio of Harold Moss— not Trey Parker or Matt Stone, is a re-telling of the national story hosted by a bullet. We follow European settlers from their pilgrim roots, where they feared religious persecution, to the settling of the country, where they were afraid of the native inhabitants to the building of the country on the backs of African slaves, whom they feared to… well, you get the point. It is evident that there is a culture of fear.

Though Moore’s argument is hard to ignore, one suspects Dr. Robert K. Merton would take issue with one cog in the fear wheel. Moore sets up a number of cultural elements we’re used to being blamed for violence or deviance. Many of them are ones you’d expect out of a right wing observer. He does set up and knock down poverty as a root cause. The argument being that Canada’s unemployment is much higher than that of the United States. This might address the disaffection one encounters as a result of joblessness, but the condition unemployment does not equate to poverty in a society such as Canada’s. While fear can morph to dread and motivate violence, Bowling for Columbine falls well short of the mark in removing anomie from the debate.

The focus on fear takes us from Sarnia and Windsor, Ontario to South Central Los Angeles. Here Moore discusses the phenomena of the omnipresent black male suspect with Barry Glassner as they stroll to the corner of Florence and Normandie. As Glassner points out, our priorities when it comes to fear are a bit out of kilter. Through local news and other media outlets, we are conditioned to be afraid of a location like Compton, California. But what of the smog obscuring the Hollywood sign just up the road? Though it is a far more significant risk, the same media attempting to scare the daylights out of Americans on a regular basis is nowhere to be found on this. You could put the parties responsible on COPS, running from the Corporate Cops Division, but that wouldn’t make compelling viewing save on the CBC.¼br /> Those who watch Michael Moore’s films are conditioned as well. Is it any surprise when we turn to Flint?

The death of a first grade student attending Buell elementary at the hands of a fellow student. This was the youngest school shooter in American history. The young man responsible was staying with his uncle after his mother was evicted. Somehow he found the uncle’s handgun and a tragic accident followed. Though some rushed to blame the boy, incidentally an African-American boy, anyone thinking rationally would look to the mother. Just where was she when he left for school that fateful morning?

Being forcibly bussed by the state of Michigan to work her two jobs at a shopping mall in the Detroit suburbs.

…And Charlton Heston put his vest on…

What a coincidence! The NRA had another rally, this time in Flint just days after the shooting. Moore’s interview with Heston, the climax of Bowling, has been widely criticized. “Tasteless.” “Predatory.” Really? Suppositions have been made regarding Heston’s mental state at the time of the interview. He doesn’t come off as infirmed, only old and bigoted. Moore might have gone too far in following Heston after the interviewee ended the discussion with a picture of the Buell shooting victim, but to call his actions tasteless in light of the NRA’s need to dawn upon a mourning community like so many vultures rings untrue to these ears.

Bowling for Columbine is not a perfect documentary. It originally timed in around six hours. One suspects that the six hour version could well be perfect. There are a few shortcuts, such as the hasty dismissal of anomie. There are moments where Moore vanquishes his rhetorical foes and appears intent upon continuing for the jugular despite their submission. Despite this, it could be as close to perfect as one is likely to encounter in a feature length film. It turns the corner from Roger & Me and The Big One and sets up Fahrenheit 9/11 beautifully. The dread and sorrow and subsequent fearmongering and governmental malfeasance of September 11 lurks within this discussion of the Columbine massacre and gun violence. Irrespective of its place in the Moore canon, and it is clearly at the top stylistically and on the basis of content, this is the most deserving Oscar winner since Annie Hall. It has all the characteristics of a film that will age like a Bordeaux. Here’s to the eventual release of the tenth anniversary edition… hopefully it will contain the full six hours.

Bryan Newbury


2002, Dog Eat Dog Films, Color
1 Hour 59 Minutes
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