The Cold, Dead Heart of Gun Toting America: Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine

Article excerpt

THREE YEARS AGO, JUST BEFORE LUNCH break on an unremarkable spring day in a normal American high school, two teenagers pulled out loaded weapons and began gunning down their schoolmates. No one will ever know what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, eighteen and seventeen, said to each other in the moments before the began--the two reserved their final bullets for themselves.

The Columbine High School massacre lasted sixteen minutes and left a total of fifteen people dead. For a stunned America, denied the chance to seek an explanation from the boys who had pulled the trigger, one question resounded in the vacuum: why?

It takes a gutsy film-maker to walk into the aftermath of such a horrible event and attempt to answer that question. American writer and film-maker Michael Moore--part rabble-rouser, part astute social critic--has made a career out of planting himself smack in the middle of trouble and trying to make sense of it. In a country where patriotism is virtually a religion, he's managed to carve out a niche as a political satirist. And in a nation of gun nuts, where the right to bear arms is enshrined in law, Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002) jumps right into the thick of the trouble.

Prompted by America's worst-ever high school shooting, the film began its life as a documentary exploring gun culture in America--land of the free, home of the brave and gun capital of the world. But this multi-layered work reaches far beyond its initial premise. In Moore's eyes, the Columbine massacre was not an isolated event, but a manifestation of the hair-trigger mental state of America itself--a nation that shoots first and asks questions later.

The first documentary in forty-six years to be selected for competition at Cannes, Bowling for Columbine is a dizzying, surreal, disturbing hurtle through the flipside of the American Dream. Building from its base in the stricken high school community, it spirals out into the wider world and back through America's bloody history, spinning an intricate web of connections between the macro and the micro, individual and government, handgun and missile, small town and superpower. Starting at street level we focus on the community's love-hate relationship with weapons, draw back for a look at the way violence fits into the national psyche, and zoom out for a disturbing look at how these forces, writ large, shape America's destiny.

The cavalcade of startling interviews, sharp-witted cartoons, archival war footage, cowboy movie snippets, vintage toy gun ads and bizarre promotional videos makes for intense viewing. In the wrong hands, this collage could have backfired into a disjointed mish-mash. But Moore keeps a steady hand on the tiller. Parts of Bowling for Columbine are hard to watch, but turning away is not an option: this is intelligent and compelling entertainment that leads you to make links and draw conclusions without even realizing you're doing so.

The film opens with images of bowling balls scattering pins--a double-barrelled visual cue that refers to both the deadly power of projectiles, and the feverish and sometimes downright illogical search for an explanation that gripped America in the wake of the Columbine shootings. On the morning of the killings, the two teenage gun-men went bowling. The film's title is a reminder that complex and tragic events never have simple explanations: wheeling out the usual procession of half-baked explanations is as nonsensical as blaming bowling.

The documentary's magic ingredient lies not in the complex layers of story, or its clever juxtapositions of footage, but in the personality of the film-maker and the rapport he builds up with his subjects.

Moore's skill as an interviewer is fascinating to watch. Wisely, considering the nature of his subject matter, he does not come across as a man spoiling for a fight; his shuffling gait and rumpled demeanour call to mind a friendly and inquisitive bear. …