Bowling for Columbine (review)

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Fear Factor

(Best of 2002)

Michael Moore is pissed off.

Not exactly a newsflash, I know, but nobody is as entertaining when he’s about to bust a gut as Moore is, so his rants are always cause for celebration. Though this may only be true if you’re predisposed to agree with the substance of his rants.

This time it’s guns in America, and the most demented PR genius on the planet could not have developed a more effective promotion for Bowling for Columbine than what’s going on in Maryland as we speak: Some crazy nut is running around the D.C. area gunning down citizens at random. What the hell is wrong with America, anyway, that we breed idiots like this?

Moore, of course, thinks he knows the answer, and with the shooting gallery of Colorado’s Columbine High School as his launching point, he takes a ramble through American culture, a hothouse of interpersonal violence unlike any other on the planet. With devastating ease and, heh, disarming humor, he knocks down the standard arguments about Americans’ predilection for harming our fellows: our supposedly brutal history (what? worse than Germany’s or Japan’s?), that allegedly more guns are available here than anywhere else (Canada’s 30 million people share 7 million guns), that our entertainment is supercharged with explosions and shoot-’em-ups (they loved The Matrix in France, too). And the explanation he ends up with is both shocking and blatantly obvious at the same time: that ours is a culture that cultivates fear, from the street crime that leads the evening news to the trumped-up warmongering of the current presidential administration, as a convenient distraction from corporate crime committed on an enormous scale. And all of it is based on lingering racism, a giant national hangover from slavery.

If it sounds like a bit much, it’s only because you haven’t yet let Moore explain it all to you. And you must. Bowling for Columbine, as exhausting as it is entertaining, is the most significant American film I’ve seen in ages, perhaps the only important one this year, angrily, forcefully demonstrating that social criticism is still alive someplace other than on the Internet and that at least one American has the balls to speak his mind. Disagree with him, of course, if you like, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the NRA’s Charlton Heston, with whom Moore snagged an interview, can’t open his mouth to talk about guns without putting his foot in it, and that Dick Clark — whose restaurant chain benefits from an ultracheap get-’em-off-welfare workforce and gets a tax break because of it to boot — runs away from Moore’s camera, refusing comment. And yet Columbine scapegoat Marilyn Manson comes across as intelligent, thoughtful, and philosophical about the American culture of conformity (and fear of nonconformity) that helped push Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold into their killing spree.

South Park‘s Matt Stone — who attended Columbine High School, which he dubs “horrible,” in the 1980s — wonders, in his conversation with Moore, why Harris and Klebold, just weeks from graduation, couldn’t hang on a little bit longer. I couldn’t help but wonder what makes some angry kids turn to murder while others, like Stone and his pal Trey Parker, turn to satire — a snippet of the South Park movie, offered for our ironic amusement, is suddenly heartbreaking, placed in this context. Moore doesn’t pretend to have an answer to this conundrum, but on the bigger issue — why are Americans in general so afraid that they resort to violence to make themselves feel safe? — he’s in no doubt. And you may not be either, by the time he’s finished with you. This is a shattering film, one that should be seen by everyone who loves America but acknowledges that it needs some fixing.

Watch Bowling for Columbine online using LOVEFiLM‘s streaming service.

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