There are countless movie plots that revolve around a man getting up the gumption to walk into a bank with a gun. But Michael Moore’s new film, Bowling for Columbine, is the only movie I know of that involves a bank giving a gun to a man. It’s just this sort of absurdity that makes Bowling for Columbine a documentary: Life is indeed stranger than art; a bank that gives away guns as gifts in exchange for opening new accounts is hardly the strangest thing the filmmaker encounters as he tries to unravel the various causes of gun violence in America.
The title of the film comes from the anomalous fact that before they killed 15 people at Columbine High School in suburban Denver in 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to their first class of the day–bowling. It’s not a fact that helps explain why this massacre occurred, but it represents the countless tidbits of trivia that the media fed us in lieu of real answers: the kind of music these boys listened to, descriptions of their haircuts, the kind of coats they wore. There’s a blizzard of unrelated facts surrounding every incident of gun violence. Seizing a single, isolated cause may not be possible. But Michael Moore isn’t afraid to step into the fray and ask, ” Why are Americans so willing and able to shoot each other?”
It takes him two hours to reach something resembling a best guess. What makes this film so effective is Moore’s documentary style. He’s not so much a narrator as he is a prankster and a gadfly. Just as in Roger & Me, his film about the closing of a General Motors plant and its effect on the workers and the town in which they live, Moore busts into corporate headquarters with a camera and does his best to make people uncomfortable. But what’s so disarming in this film is the sense that after a certain point Michael Moore has no idea what he might find out. It slowly dawns on the audience–as it does on the filmmaker himself–that common assumptions about guns, violence, race, the media, and America, are inadequate for the task at hand. This is a real documentary; there is no script. When Michael Moore goes into K-Mart’s headquarters with two survivors from Columbine and demands that they stop selling ammunition, the most unbelievable thing happens: the honchos at K-Mart agree to the demand. It’s a moment that’s as much of a surprise to the director as it is to the audience. For once, Michael Moore suddenly has nothing to say but “thank you.”
But this is hardly a film comprised of warm and wonderful moments. It’s a documentary of hard facts, difficult intuitive leaps, and graphic violence. It may be more gruesome than any movie you’ve seen; it’s more likely to make you sick to your stomach, more likely to make you cry. The body count may not approach that of The Matrix (which seems to have become the poster-child for senseless Hollywood violence), of course. But Michael Moore wants us to understand that each gun death involves a bullet being propelled at high velocity through flesh and a human being who will never get up again.
When a six-year-old child is shot to death by another six-year-old in 2000 in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, Moore patiently pieces together fact after fact to give us a disquieting whole. For the news media, the story ended with the tragedy itself and the shock value inherent in a death caused by a six-year-old with access to a gun. But for Moore, that’s only the beginning. He finds out that the gun belonged to an uncle with whom the child and his mother were staying after being evicted from their house. The mother’s rent had been subsidized as part of her welfare benefits. But when she enrolled in a welfare-to-work program, she was no longer entitled to the subsidized rent. So she lost her home for a job that paid $13,000 a year–well below the official poverty level– and was over an hour-and-a-half away by bus. Moore wants us to think about the long train of events that caused her not to be home when the boy found the gun, put it in his backpack, and took it school. But he’s not finished yet; Moore pursues the corporations involved in the welfare-to-work program, the philosophy behind those corporations, and the fear behind that philosophy.
Bowling for Columbine ranges over a dizzying array of fact and coincidence and manages to include such seemingly disparate entities as Marilyn Manson, Osama bin Laden, Charlton Heston, South Park, and James Nichols, brother of Terry Nichols, who aided in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Oh yeah, and militias and Africanized honey bees. And Canadians. And Dick Clark.
In the hands of another director, all this footage would be a mess, but Michael Moore’s editing is superb. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that Moore is as much an author as he is a filmmaker. He uses a writer’s technique, first building his argument about guns, then examining specific cases like Columbine, before finally returning to his larger question about violence in American culture. It’s the film’s pace that shocks and keeps the audience riveted. This is a masterpiece of contemporary documentary filmmaking and as with other great works of literature and film it will reward multiple viewings.
And what’s the answer to his original question? Why are Americans so willing and able to shoot each other? I won’t give it all away. Answering the question posed by a documentary like this one would be analogous to telling people who haven’t seen Citizen Kane that “rosebud” is just the name of a childhood sled. I will tell you that Michael Moore doesn’t end up with the usual thesis of gun control advocates–that guns are just too readily available in the United States. Canada, Moore reminds us, has about as many guns per capita as the United States, but there is a much lower per capita number of gunshot deaths in Canada. What’s different about Canada (and much of the rest of the world) is the way the media arranges the facts. Moore shows us how the American media often arranges the facts in such a way as to frighten us, rather than enlighten us. And then he offers his best guess. In the end, his search for answers offers a complex, disturbing portrait of who we are as a nation and why.
Kirk Lynn is a co-producing artistic director and playwright-in-residence for the Rude Mechanicals. He lives in Austin.