The Gun Fever Is Bad

Niels Strandskov

Paranoia is a funny thing. Take the National Rifle Association – please! A group of gun-owners, overwhelmingly white, male, middle-class and politically active, they have access to far more civic and physical power than the average American. And yet their lives are dominated by fear – fear of the government, fear of thieves and desperados, fear of anti-gun activists and fear of losing their privilege. They are in short, a microcosm of American society, jealously striving to protect their own freedoms, yet contemptuous of other people’s aspirations to happiness.

Michael Moore’s new darkly satirical film, Bowling for Columbine, examines that paranoia in the context of the Littleton, Colo. high school shooting and the broader pattern of violence in American society. The documentary stretches this expansive theme to include not only the recent spate of school shootings, but also such diverse influences and effects as U.S.-backed coups d’etat, the laconic Canadian view of American excess, the subtext of COPS, Michiganian losers, the Oklahoma City bombing and the historical antecedents of white racism.

Bowling for Columbine is largely presented in the style that will be familiar to fans of Moore’s previous films Roger and Me and The Big One and his television series TV Nation and The Awful Truth. Moore, dressed in his traditional baseball cap, jeans, nylon jacket and plaid shirt, shambles bear-like towards his interview subjects, making acerbic asides to the camera. His subject cornered, Moore displays an uncanny ability (no doubt enhanced by his unprepossessing appearance) to catch them off guard, immediately discerning the questions that will undermine their confidence and undercut their ability to deliver canned sound-bites in response. This probing is gratifying when directed against public relations people – beleaguered K-Mart and immovable behemoth Lockheed Martin offer up sacrificial flacks this time around – but it can be somewhat disturbing when used against others. For instance, Moore interrogates two hooligans who were former classmates of Columbine shooter Eric Harris in small-town Michigan. But the utter pointlessness of their lives evokes such sympathy that it is hard to take them seriously as psychopaths at one remove.

Moore also makes clever use of appropriated images in this outing. After the film wonders what historical events have led up to our current ultra-violent epic, we are treated to a montage of news footage that starts with the U.S.-backed coup against the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, and continues through wars, coups and other police actions up through Clinton’s bombing of Serbia. Coincidentally, the biggest one-day U.S.-British bombing run in the Balkans took place on April 20, 1999, the same day Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 fellow students, one teacher and themselves in Littleton.

We are treated as well to an animated South Park-style segment which details the connections between white American racism and imperial objectives and the prevalence of guns and violence. Although it plays fast and loose with some details – and obscures the 500-plus year history of resistance to the racist state – the segment is certainly amusing. As an added bonus, it will no doubt annoy the elements within our society who would prefer that white supremacy remained inviolate.

Much of the Moore’s ire is reserved however, for the NRA, and its charismatic but tactless president, actor Charlton Heston. Moore details Heston’s disturbing, even confounding, practice of showing up to host NRA rallies in cities recently shaken by high-profile shootings. In his interview with Heston, Moore presses for, but does not receive an answer to the question of what purpose these goading visits serve. Is it a function of the organization’s paranoia? Or mere insensitivity? We never find out. Other than Moore himself, we are never introduced to any rank-and-file NRA members. Despite receiving a heap of scorn from Moore, the NRA’s motivations are shrouded in mystery to the casual viewer.

Moore is no stranger to discussions of racism and violence. In addition to his in-depth coverage of the Michigan Militia, Moore was one of the interviewers for the film version of James Ridgeway’s Blood in the Face, a chronicle of Nazism in the US. Despite this grounding in far right ideology and his willingness to explore the institutional background of racism, Moore stops short of actually naming the enemy in this or any of his other work. Clearly, Michael Moore is a leftist. It is hardly a complex analysis to say that the climate of fear, created by fringe elements and given credence by the media and the state, is conducive to keeping the wheels of capitalism turning. The U.S. economy is massively dependent on weapons production, both for its own sake, and for use in ensuring a continued flow of oil. Yet Moore balks at taking capital to task directly. We are left to ask why this must be. Can’t U.S. audiences be trusted with a bit of leftist analysis? Apparently, Moore and/or his backers believe that the answer is no.

Bowling for Columbine starts Oct. 25 at the Uptown Theatre, (612) 825-6006.