One of the most clever media buys of recent years is the decision to advertise Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine on MTV. Tune in to MTV’s shows TRL or The Real World these days, and you’re likely to see a sober and thoughtful promotion for the movie, followed immediately by an uber-violent shoot-’em-up featuring army guys in fatigues hunting down evildoers. This is the ad for SOCOM: Navy Seals, a video game for Playstation II. This is precisely the type of juxtaposition which drives Bowling for Columbine.
Raise your hand if you knew that April 20, 1999, besides being the day that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris decided to kill so many of their classmates, was also the most intense day of U.N. bombing in Kosovo. Or that one of Littleton, Colorado’s biggest employers is defense contractor Lockheed-Martin. Or better yet, that Lockheed-Martin is the country’s biggest sub-contractor of government welfare-to-work programs.
So what’s the connection? Moore puts the issue in the crosshairs of his camera, through a series of stunning montages and awkward interviews. Events like Columbine escape the bounds of reason, but somewhere, somehow, there has to be a reason why there were over 11,000 gun deaths in the United States last year, compared to only 338 in Germany, 256 in France and under 100 in Japan, Australia and Canada. History of violence? Try again. Broken homes? The divorce rate is higher in the U.K., where there were under 200 gun deaths last year. Ready access to guns? Also too simple, when you consider Canada has over 7 million guns in only 10 million households. Just when you’re numbed by the onslaught of statistics, a picture of a little girl who died reminds you that the problem has a face.
The very narrative of Bowling for Columbine rides the razor’s edge between personal tragedy and collective aberration. Second Amendment debates seem to focus on whether the right to bear arms is a collective right (i.e., state militias) or an individual right (unlimited gun ownership). Moore’s search for answers to the problem of gun violence also teeters between the notions of individual responsibility (the path of traditional conservatives and the NRA) versus collective responsibility (the path of cultural conservatives like Joseph Lieberman, who tried to explain away Columbine by blaming it on Marilyn Manson).
No matter whether you believe that guns kill people, or that people kill people, or even that society kills people, there’s no denying that Americans kill Americans at a rate that’s two orders of magnitude out of whack with other industrialized nations. Why? Moore has a few theories of his own, which he tries on for size – he even manages to bring labor issues under his microscope. Can we expect any less from the man who, in his last movie, openly compared factory closings to terrorism?
But don’t expect any easy answers. In the opening scene of the movie, Moore visits a Michigan bank, that is offering hunting rifles for everyone who opens an account. When Moore gets his free gun, he certainly looks like he can handle it. That’s because he can. Michael Moore is a lifetime member of the NRA, and as a teenager he won several sharpshooting trophies. At several instances in the movie, Moore openly supports the Second Amendment, yet he’s also more than willing to ridicule people like John Nichols (brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols) who so blindly defend it.
Michael Moore, gun lover and bed-wetting liberal, is both passionate and conflicted. He has given us in many ways an imperfect movie. He is better at asking embarrassing questions than he is at giving us solutions. And he seems to lose his own plot somewhere between his observations about the lack of violence on Canadian newscasts and his chilling interview with Charlton Heston.
But it would be pure hubris to suggest that there even are solutions, much less easy ones, to the problem of gun violence in America. The movie is heavy-handed, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and bitter to the bone. Its release – in the midst of the D.C. sniper-hunt and under the shadow of impending war in Iraq – is regrettably more timely than Moore would have hoped.
Somewhere between the sincere and the maladroit, Michael Moore has given us a very important movie, which might just be perfect in its imperfections. At the very least, he’s given us something to talk about. And that’s a start.
Peter Church is an activist, union supporter and admitted gun hater. He lives in Oakland, Calf.