Political Film Society - Newsletter #146 - October 15, 2002

October 1, 2002


Still outraged that the world's largest corporation, General Motors, closed down operations in his hometown, Flint, Michigan, Michael Moore tries to assign responsibility for the death of a six-year-old to the effrontery of the corporate closing in Bowling for Columbine, which he writes, produces, and directs much in the manner of his Roger & Me, which won a Political Film Society award for best film exposé of 1990. Full of facts and figures, anecdotes and aphorisms, Bowling for Columbine asks one fundamental question: Why are there some 11,000 gun-related deaths in the United States each year? His quest to find the answer takes him to Littleton, Colorado, the home of Columbine High School, and to the Beverly Hills estate of Charlton Heston, but much of his documentary is filmed in Michigan. As a boy, he grew up within the "gun culture" of his native state not far from a town in Michigan where Heston grew up. Also among Michigan's native sons are Timothy McVeigh and the two responsible for the deaths at Columbine. In a previous reincarnation, Moore learned how to shoot a gun, won a medal for marksmanship, and became a life-member of the National Rifle Association, that is, before Flint became a depressed city. But across a Great Lake (and in the case of Detroit, across a river) is the great country of Canada, where 70 percent of the households have guns yet gun-related deaths are about one-fourth as common as in the United States. Seeking an answer to his question, he uses the Sherlock Holmes technique of developing several theories, and then ruling out all but one. Theory #1 is that the widespread presence of guns in the United States is responsible for all the carnage. He rules out Theory #1 because Canadians have more guns; they just shoot wild animals, not people. Theory #2 is that the United States has a violent history, so there is a culture in which guns are used more often than elsewhere. Moore responds that Britain and Germany have violent histories, but they have few gun-related deaths; Moore even persuades Heston that Theory #2 is not a satisfactory explanation. Theory #3 is that violence in the media is responsible, but Moore points out that filmgoers all over the world flock to America's violent films but do not bring to their streets what they see on their screens. Theory #4, articulated by Heston, is that the United States has a high percentage of minorities; Moore counters that Canada has 13 percent minorities. (The theory of Heston's National Rifle Association, however, is that police are at fault for not enforcing existing laws.)

Theory #5, that Americans buy and use guns because they live in a crime-infested country, is refuted by the fact that gun purchases went up in the 1990s as violent crime went down. Then Moore comes up with Theory #6, thanks to social scientist Barry Glassner's thesis in The Culture of Fear (2000), namely that Americans are trigger-happy because they are conditioned by the media, including advertising, to be fearful of all sorts of things, from bad breath to African American males. But why are children doing some of the shooting? Moore invokes Theory #7, based on the death of a six-year-old at Buell Elementary in Flint, namely that the six-year-old murderer was a son being reared without much parental supervision, as the income from the welfare-to-work program required her to commute far away from home during most hours of the day. But my review is tidier than the film, which occasionally contradicts its own thesis, even diverting attention to some muckraking of American foreign policy. The title of the film, however, suggests Theory #8. Moore points out that the two responsible for the Columbine massacre were bowling together (for course credit, no less) just prior to taking aim at their classmates. Moore evidently did not examine Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (2000), which argues that American society has become so fragmented and distrustful that the poor have little time to devote to politics, and social conflict is increasingly resolved by confrontation rather than negotiation. But Putnam's theory needs to be informed by Moore, whose analysis of the mother of the Buell murderer suggests that social fragmentation is a deliberate policy to keep the poor bewildered. (I might add, based on the circumstances of the Buell mother, that the poor cannot be mobilized politically to make American society more humane if they spend most of election Tuesdays a long bus ride from their voting precincts.) Moore's main triumph in the film comes when he takes two Columbine victims to Troy, Michigan, the corporate headquarters to K-Mart; both have bullets inside their bodies that cannot be surgically removed. Moore asks the company to stop selling bullets, and twenty-four hours later K-Mart agrees to do just that. Never retreating from filming the absurd, Moore goes to a Colorado bank where a free gun is the incentive for buying a certificate of deposit and to a Utah town that requires all citizens to own a gun. In any case, regardless of which theory is correct, Moore has asked an important question and has provided a lot of thoughtful information that will infuriate the villains whom he depicts so vividly. MH