The Camera Is Mightier Than The Gun:
Bowling for Columbine

Louise Kjær Sørensen

Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine is his best film ever. It won the Cannes Jury Prize in May 2002, the César Award for Best Foreign Film, and in March 2003 it achieved the ultimate commercial acknowledgement when it won an Oscar for Best Documentary. It is also the best selling documentary ever, bringing home more than $50 million. It takes a critical look at a gun-loving, fear-driven American society and at its center is the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado where two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed 12 classmates and one teacher and left a number of others injured before they pulled the trigger on themselves. The title of this hilarious, but also very heartbreaking film, is an allusion to the Columbine shooting. On the morning of the massacre, Ed Harris and Dylan Klebold allegedly spent their last hours at a bowling alley, where they bowled two games before going to school and opening fire at their classmates. People blamed their depravity on everything from violent video games to hard-core, heavy-metal rocker Marilyn Manson who Moore interviews in the film. That morning was also the day the US dropped the highest number of bombs in Kosovo! But Moore poses the question: if people are going to blame violent video games and rock music, why not also blame bowling? Through the film, Moore takes the audience on a journey to find the answer to the question: why is America such a violent country?

The film begins with Moore going to a bank and opening an account where you get a complimentary gun of your own choice when you open an account. The next scene is taken from a Chris Rock show, where he introduces an alternative form of gun control. Even though Moore uses humor and irony to make his point, the film still takes up very serious questions of American history. At one point Moore lists US military and covert operations that have installed corrupt leaders around the world, including Augusto Pinochet and the Shah of Iran. In another scene, he escorts two Columbine students who were injured in the shooting to the headquarters of Kmart, whose officials agree to stop selling handgun ammunition in their stores (the 9mm ammunition used by Klebold and Harris was purchased from a Kmart). In another scene Moore shows clips of the shooting from the surveillance cameras at Columbine High while at the same time playing records of the 9-11 calls from inside the school and from the media. Moore's attitude to the subject is at one and the same time surreal, serious, silly, and sad and that mixture is exactly why his message comes across so strongly.

The film features an extensive interview with University of Southern California Professor Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, who while taking Moore for a walk through South Central in Los Angeles (said to be one of the most violent places in America and certainly not a place for two white men to hang out) tries to come up with an explanation for the excessive violence in America. Glassner makes the point that South Central has been wrongly portrayed in the media as have many other things Americans are afraid of and that the real beneficiaries of this climate of fear are the big corporations selling security devices, guns, and bullets. Glassner also makes another point that is important to consider when discussing gun control: 85% of all guns in America are purchased in white suburbia! This is only one example among many where Moore is very successful in bringing unknown data out into the open and denying the urban legends that play a major part in creating the climate of fear that is taking over American society.

Even though Moore has an ironic distance to the problem, he still feels that the problem of violence runs deep and is somehow related to the racism that has always permeated American society. When interviewing NRA's president at the time, Charlton Heston (Heston retired from his position after the movie, due to his illness, he has Alzheimer's), Moore asks him if he can come up with an answer as to why the number of handgun killings is so much higher in the US than in other countries in the world. Heston answers that the violent past stems from many things such as ethnicity, unemployment, poverty, and last but certainly not least the fact that the US has a very violent past.

Like so many others, Moore can't explain why the US is much more violent than other countries. However, he gives it a shot and with his film starts a debate that will leave you thinking when the movie is over. Moore doesn't come up with a final answer to the questions he poses, but he gives the viewer the basic tools to draw his or her own conclusions.

Still Moore shows us what he think plays a big part in the high rate of violence, which is the fact that the American people are driven by fear of pretty much everything from killer bees, to razor blades in apples on Halloween, to the fear of 'the black man'. Moore concludes that the part the media and the big corporations play is paramount in the debate. One of his examples is the Lockheed Martin factory in Littleton that produces rockets. How can children have a normal relationship to gun control when their parents go to work every day and produce weapons of mass destruction? There is so much more to the movie and Moore succeeds in taking the debate a step further than that and the documentary reaches a new all time high of filmmaking. It reminds us that this is a society where more than 11,000 people die every year from gunshot wounds, where the media indulge in images of violence, and play upon the white community's fear of 'the black man'. It is also a society where banks give out handguns when you open an account, where the public lives in constant fear of being robbed and killed, and where poverty is a serious problem 'forgotten' by politicians. Moore takes up serious issues like these with an agenda that permeates his new documentary, but this agenda works because it exposes the double standards that Heston and others have promulgated for years. His intensive use of source music as ironic punctuation is sharp, as is the film's ability to shift gears between humor, pathos, and horror. An example of the contrast between sound and image is the sequence where Moore shows pictures of death, destruction, and world misery while at the same time playing Louis Armstrong's classic What a Wonderful World. But Moore goes beyond this classic form of intervention by making a history-of-America-cartoon where his use of irony is his way of starting a debate about a very serious question. The narrator is a bullet that explains why Americans are driven by fear. Moore comes to the conclusion that the reason is that Americans have been scared of everything ever since the first immigrants arrived from Europe. However, he also concludes that this fear is irrational and that the only real threat to Americans is from Americans themselves!

I like this film and the fact that is it meant to shake up the conservative American society and make Americans take a critical look at their own country. Moore masters his job with perfection and continuously succeeds in making the audience identify with him. However, I think Moore can also be very manipulative in his presentation of information. Throughout the film, he meticulously develops his point that it is because of Americans' unreasonable fear of irrational things that America is so violent; with that groundwork in place, when Charlton Heston finally gets to make his point he ends up looking like a disturbed old man.

At times I felt the film was unstructured and lacked focus. Most of the questions Moore asks are not answered immediately, and keep the viewer waiting for an answer that comes later in the film. But even though Bowling for Columbine seems at times a bit confusing and unstructured, it all comes together in the end. This is a film that is multi-facetted, unnerving, stimulating, likely to provoke anger and sorrow on both sides of the political divide, and above all extremely funny.

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