Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bowling for Columbine

Michael Moore's best movie is also his most misunderstood. He has a well-deserved reputation as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, but this is perhaps his least political film. People who haven't seen it (largely because they despise Moore and won't watch anything involving him) think it's a pro-gun control film, and that message is certainly present. But it's certainly not the overarching one.

What Moore set out to do was explore a question that most citizens just assume as a way of life in this country: Why do Americans kill each other with guns far more than anyone else does? What is it about our culture that causes gun violence?

As he points out in the film, if it were simply a matter of the number of guns or having access to them, Canadians would have even more gun deaths than we do. If it were violent video games or movies causing, then lots of other countries would have the same problem. If it were merely "a violent history," then wouldn't nations with a track record of starting wars (yeah, we're lookin' at you, Germany) have bigger problems?

There is simply something about the American character that causes us to solve our problems with firearms. Moore's thesis is that stricter gun laws would help, but more importantly, our attitudes need to change. We simply must learn to solve conflicts non-violently. That applies from the street corner to the Middle East.

Although we think of ourselves as a brave people, Columbine shows us to be a fearful nation, overreacting to every conceivable danger. It shows us Canadians who leave their front doors unlocked. It doesn't make them an ideal society; people still get robbed. It does show that they don't let fear govern their lives, along with their national foreign policy.

Most identify the movie by its final scene, where Moore confronts Charlton Heston, then the head of the National Rifle Association, who refused to cancel an NRA conference in Denver just a week after the Columbine shooting. Depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, you either saw that segment as an ambush of a harmless old man, or as a "gotcha" moment where the leader of a powerful and damaging organization is confronted with the consequences of his group's actions. You can probably figure out which side I fall on.

To me, though, the film's most telling moment is when Moore interviews the father of one of the Columbine massacre's victims. He asks the man, "What is it about Americans that makes us kill each other with guns?" The father replies, "I don't know, what is it?" Moore answers, "That's what I'm asking you!"

The film doesn't have a definitive answer (nor solution), but at least the questions it asks are fascinating and essential. In fact, I've had teenage students watch the whole thing, not even realize they've just viewed a documentary. Some of them even want to discuss it afterward. Believe me, that's quite a feat, no matter what your politics are.

Nolanometer Final Grade: A-


Lance Christian Johnson said...

Overall, it is a great film because it asks questions moreso than it provides answers. However, I'm not sure that you're right when you say that part of its message is pro-gun control. I think it's more gun awareness that he's going for, as he points out how the Canadians have guns but not our gun problems.

I do think that the Charlton Heston segment is pretty tacky on Moore's part though. What the hell was Heston supposed to say? It was a "gotcha" moment - and a pretty tasteless one using an image of a dead girl to create drama for his film.

Overall, I think it's a great film, but that segment leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Nolan said...

As to your point about Heston, I'll use your line: I like the scene, but I'm not gonna defend it. He and the NRA displayed the sensitivity of a dishrag by coming to Denver and being brazen and obnoxious in the wake of the shootings, so I don't mind a little payback. He's not a private citizen; he's a leader of one of the most destructive organizations in America. So fuck him.

As to your first point that Moore favors gun awareness rather than restrictions, I'm going to wholeheartedly disagree and even go so far as to say you're wrong.

Consider that a large part of what the NRA does is gun awareness, as Moore states (he was a member in his adolescence). But what they also do is oppose virtually any kind of gun control, and that's what riles Moore about them.

Then there's this exchange with that crazy brother of the OK City bomber:

John Nichols: No one has the right to tell me I can't have it. That is protected on our constitution.
Michael Moore: Where does it say a handgun is protected?
John Nichols: No, gun. We should...
Michael Moore: [interupting] It doesn't say gun. It says "arms".
John Nichols: Arms. What is "arms"?
Michael Moore: Could be a nuclear weapon.
John Nichols: It's not these - That's right. It could be a nuclear weapon.
Michael Moore: Do you think you should have the right to have weapons-grade plutonium here in the farm field?
John Nichols: We should be able to have anything...
Michael Moore: [interupting] Should you have weapons? Should you have weapons-grade plutonium?
John Nichols: I don't want it.
Michael Moore: But, should you have the right to have it if you did want it?
John Nichols: [thinking about it] That should be restricted.
Michael Moore: Oh. Oh, so you do beleive in some restrictions?
John Nichols: Well, there's wackos out there.

Clearly, he's using one of the most frequent pro-gun control arguments here.

There's also the segment where he takes the Columbine victims to Kmart to try and get them to stop carrying handgun ammunition (yes, I know bullets and guns are the exact same thing, but one doesn't work without the other). He wasn't making Kmart AWARE they had the bullets; he and the kids wanted them banned. Of course, there's also the sympathetic portrayal of the Columbine parents, whose main platform is gun control.

Lastly, to address your Canadian point, his point is that Canadians are of a different national temperament. They are not fearful, vengeful, and violent, so they can own guns responsibly. However, he says this about Americans:

"But one thing was clear: whether it was before or after September 11th, a public that's this out of control with fear should not have a lot of guns or ammo laying around."

It's pretty easy to infer that he's in favor of restricting Americans' access to guns and bullets from that statement, no?

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Yeah, my words were poorly chosen on that one. Still, the point seems to be more complex than simply "gun control". In other words, I got the feeling that he'd be just as happy if we had just as many guns but less fear and people were less obsessed with guns.

Nolan said...

You are now essentially agreeing with the thrust of my blog. To wit:

"People who haven't seen it (largely because they despise Moore and won't watch anything involving him) think it's a pro-gun control film, and that message is certainly present. But it's certainly not the overarching one."

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Pretty much. I'm not making myself very clear, but I realized that I'm just splitting hairs anyway, so it doesn't really matter.

Brooke said...

If you liked "Bowling for Columbine" check out "Tough Guise" by Jackson Katz. Great movie- I think every high school student should see it.