So once again we have survived.

Bowling for Columbine

This is a tricky review to write because what I really want isn’t for you to give two shits what I think about how well this movie is made or how entertaining it is or whatever. What I want is for everybody just to go out and see this movie, bring as many friends as they can, then go for food and discuss it. Then go to the vernanda group on yahoo and discuss it with me. You can have your own personal oprah book club with this picture. It’s an interactive movie, it requires feedback. Because it asks a simple, very timely question – why in the hell is there so much violence in america? – and then it leaves it to you to answer it.

Now that’s not what some of the reviews will tell you. But I mean come on, you don’t trust those other assholes do you? Opinions about Michael Moore are like assholes, only assholes have them (or whatever mark twain said, I can’t remember). Alot of people expect Mr. Moore to be preaching to the converted or telling you what to think or something. They expect it so much that they sit there and watch this movie that doesn’t even come close to doing that, and then they leave and describe some non-existent movie that is not the same one ol’ Vern saw.

Bowling for ColumbineFor example, I don’t think this movie argues for gun control. In fact there’s a scene – pretty much the climax of the movie, so stop reading if you don’t want it given away – where Michael Moore interviews Charlton Heston and asks him why he thinks there are so many gun murders in the US. But Moore points out that it can’t be the amount of guns – he says Canada has just as much access to guns, but way less gun murders. Basically, he’s letting Heston off the hook. But Heston is so programmed to defend the NRA principles that he doesn’t seem to understand the question, he seems to take it as an attack on guns.

Moore talks to many people who offer many possible explanations for our troubles, but none of them are really supposed to be THE answer. One of the most interesting themes, hit on by both the author of CULTURE OF FEAR and Marilyn Manson, and then illustrated in a hilarious montage of news footage, is the way the media and the government constantly try to terrorize us with stories of maniacs on the loose, Y2K bugs, snake attacks, and non-specific terrorist threats from evildoers. So it’s interesting that one of the top news stories today, the day BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE opened here in Seattle, was about the CIA and FBI heads both telling congress that al Qaeda will attack again sometimes somewhere somehow, and we won’t be able to stop it.

In the tradition of great documentaries, Moore talks to many interesting characters along the way. It wouldn’t even matter if the movie didn’t have such a strong center, you’d still enjoy watching these people. But he doesn’t really paint them as good guys or bad guys, as critics will tell you. Alot of them are nuts but they all make good points. You laugh at the nutty they say but you want to know where they are coming from. The people I talked to after the movie agreed that they kind of liked The Michigan Militia, and wouldn’t necessarily be against having them as neighbors. And everyone thought the Charlton Heston scene was real sad.

Oh yeah, and this movie really is sad. Moore is known for his humor and this is a very funny movie, but I also felt like I was about to cry for half of the movie. Because it’s really an unflinching look at our country’s madness and it deals with so many horrible tragedies, from slavery to school shootings to 9-11. There is a montage of stock footage from a history of american invasions, covert operations and blowbacks. I knew about all this stuff but seeing it all lined up like that, to the tune of “What a Wonderful World,” is kicked-in-the-nuts devastating.

Later, you see horrifying security camera video of the Columbine massacre. It’s not clear enough to be graphic but it’s a fuckin nightmare. Someone told me that showing this footage was going too far. I don’t know, maybe she’s right but I don’t think so. Because one thing I think Michael Moore does is he takes things that maybe we all know, but he illustrates them visually in ways that you REALLY have to know.

For example. If you’re an executive at K-Mart, you might get a letter saying look, these kids at Columbine bought their bullets at your store, and they killed 12 people. And you’re going to feel bad, but you’re going to be able to put that letter away and feel bad about it and then do nothing and forget about it and go on with business as usual.

But if Michael Moore comes in with two disabled kids who survived the Columbine massacre, and you shake these kids’ hands and they say look, I still have your fuckin bullets inside me, here are the scars… that’s another thing entirely. And as you can see, in this movie, that’s something that can change the world.

To me it was harder to watch the video of a Columbine parent, holding up a photo of his son, saying that another kid shot his son in the face with an assault rifle. You have no choice but to picture it, and to face how horrible this is. You can’t reduce it to a catch phrase and get used to it like we’ve all done. When it happened, it was a nightmare. Now it’s just “Columbine.” In 1999 we wouldn’tve believed that a studio would release a movie called BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE only 3 years later. And in 2001, we wouldn’t’ve believed that in 2002 we’d all be used to 9-11. This movie somehow manages to be both entertaining and a profound reminder of the costs of our violence and how important it is that we figure out what in fuck’s name to do about it. This is a movie that could really make a difference.

That’s one thing that really pisses me off about people who completely write off Michael Moore. Have you ever seen the episode of THE AWFUL TRUTH about the guy who needs a kidney transplant? If I remember right the guy had diabetes, and he needed a kidney transplant or he was gonna die in a couple months, leaving his daughter orphaned. His insurance policy said it covered anything stemming from diabetes, but it also said it didn’t cover transplants (or maybe the other way around). So they chose to honor the one that left him dead.

So Michael Moore brought this guy to the insurance company’s headquarters, and he went around and invited everybody to his own funeral. The guy was real funny about it but at times his fury would show through, like when a secretary told him, “You have my sympathy” and he said, “I don’t want your sympathy. I want a kidney.” On one hand you feel bad for this lady because she’s just a secretary, she has nothing to do with this policy. On the other hand, now that she knows this company she works for is willing to do something like this, what SHOULD she do? Should she really just shrug it off and say “I just work here?” Or should she take a stand for humanity? Where DO you draw the line? Can you really say you’re not responsible for an atrocity even though you’re willing to work for the company that commits it? I really don’t know the answer, but it made me think about it, and I’m sure it made her think about it.

People write it off as an unfair ambush tactic, and a silly stunt, and I guess it shows that the technique is not entirely effective because these people are able to watch it and then allow themselves not to look past the surface and consider the issues that are going on here. It’s not simplistic enough for them, so they ignore everything but the surface and then complain that it’s all surface.

And what’s more, the insurance company decided to reverse their decision. The silly stunt saved a dude’s life. I was crying like a baby when I saw that episode. I got Michael Moore’s back for life after that one.

(plus the one where a real pimp goes to Washington and tries to make all the senators his bitches. that was good shit.)

Another pain in the ass is the people who complain that Michael Moore’s work does not fit their definition of a documentary. WHO THE FUCK CARES what section it goes in at the video store? The important thing is the movie itself. You could say it’s more a visual essay if you want, made up of interviews and stock footage. I don’t care, whatever it is it works.

You say that he’s manipulative? This is true, in the sense that FILMATIC LANGUAGE is manipulative. It is a series of images sequenced to communicate ideas. Michael Moore is of the school, like Nick Broomfield, who star in their own movies. The movie is about the journey of them making the movie. But even my favorites, the Maysles brothers, who deliberately stayed out of the movie, refused to stage anything or ask questions and tried to use their cameras to milk The Truth out of the real world, are by the nature of the medium being manipulative. Listen to the commentary tracks on their dvds and hear how the editors took hours and hours of footage and figured out how to sculpt them into a story, manipulating time and molding it into a movie. That’s what film is, there’s no other way to do it, and there shouldn’t be.

Of course it will never occur to the knuckleheads who make this argument that it’s even a major theme of the movie, because it explores which stories the news decides to show, which criminals COPS decides to follow, etc. Of course this logically extends to movies and everybody who is watching this movie understands that Mr. Moore is making a conscious decision to show you certain images and soundbites in a certain order to convey a certain idea. But the more cynical critics like to pretend that everybody besides them is too stupid to understand what a movie is.

oh my god that man is pointing a gun at me! Oh wait, no, it’s a movie. I forgot that a movie was only an illusion projected onto a movie screen.

I think, despite the undeniable greatness of BLADE II, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE is the best movie of the year. The fact that this movie is coming out RIGHT NOW is just astounding. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this movie, if it is seen by enough people, could potentially change the course of our country. Because it forces you to look at Columbine, and Oklahoma City, and 9-11, and miscellaneous wars not as spectacles or encounters with incomprehensible evil, but as an intersection of many complicated factors, some of them not pretty or easily explainable. Moore goes and talks to people on the sidelines of some of these events, people and stories that you’ve never heard before, that really make you think WOW, that’s not what I thought was going on there. And what could be better than a Coloradan talking about the incomprehensibilty of violence on the scale of Columbine, while standing in front of the missiles he and the killer’s parents manufacture for a living?

Please see this movie and tell me, what the hell IS causing this? This is a question our entire country must ask itself. If not, we can go fuck ourselves.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Saturday, October 12th, 2002 at 3:51 pm and is filed under Documentary, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Bowling for Columbine”

  1. Great review Vern. I’ll never forget, a couple years after the tragedy, taking my then eleven year old daughter to a community group here in Sydney who were were hosting a talk from the father of one of the teenage victims (can’t remember her name, Anna I think?). It was heartbreaking, hopeful and sobering to hear his story.

    I love Moore’s way of cutting through the bullshit to reveal stark naked truths. The questions he proposes about violence in America (also shootings in Australia have escalated rapidly in the last decade) are more relevant today than ever. It seemed ludicrous at the time when Moore showed the media fear-mongering in the US. News reports about stupid things like how you could be maimed or killed while riding the escalator at the local shopping mall. But presented with such portentous dreadery so as to create fear.

    But then I started paying closer attention to our own media and saw similar crap, though nowhere near as drummed up. A lot of Australians have pretty good bullshit radars anyway. I got to a point about ten years ago where I stopped tuning in to commercial TV so I didn’t have to sit through marketing propaganda about why my breath would taste fresher with Listerine or how complete my life would be with the new Audi 600, which I could never afford, so I must be an arsehole.

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