“Why are people scared?” This question lies at the heart of Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore’s filmic essay on gun violence in the United States. Taking Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s 1999 assault on their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School as a point of departure, the documentary considers a range of contexts — legal, cultural, political, and media — in order to complicate this profound and difficult question. That it comes up with no simple answers is to its credit.
At first glance, the reasons for fear seem numerous and overwhelming: images of violence pervade U.S. media (news, fiction, videogames, etc.); ideals of masculinity are premised on aggression and possession; guns are readily available, as well as a “right” granted by the Second Amendment. Moore’s film notes each of these reasons, yet argues that they don’t constitute definitive answers. In fact, Bowling for Columbine, the first documentary in competition at Cannes in 46 years, and awarded a special 55th anniversary jury prize, offers up yet another possible, disconcerting, and compelling reason, one that has not been privileged in its promotional campaign: race and racism continue to divide and frighten Americans.
Partway through the documentary, Moore offers up an animated “Brief History of the United States of America,” by Harold Moss of Flickerlab, which outlines the ways that racial fear has shaped U.S. sensibility. The story goes, briefly, like this: Pilgrims cross the Atlantic to escape persecution; in the New World, they run into scary Native Americans whom they proceed to massacre. Importing free labor from Africa (“the genius of slavery”), the New World denizens find more reason to be afraid, arm themselves against rebellion, and soon the U.S. is “the richest country in the world.” Increasing internal resistance to this particular economic system is met by the invention of multiple shot weapons, and when the KKK is declared illegal (a “terrorist organization”), the NRA is born. As blacks migrated to cities, “whites ran in fear to the suburbs, and once in the suburbs, still afraid, they bought millions and millions of guns” in an inevitably failing effort to preserve their property, privilege, and sense of “order.” And so on.
As antic as the images may be — crowds of little white folks running from one section of the cartoon map to another, waving their weapons, with stricken looks on their flat little faces — the point is made. Much fear in the U.S. is racially based. Moore goes on to point to a variety of examples, some more clearly related than others — “Africanized” killer bees, racialized designations of the “evildoers,” Willie Horton, Susan Smith (who accused a “black man” of carjacking the children she killed), Charles Stuart (who accused a “black man” of murdering his pregnant wife), and the ongoing fear of perps “of color” inculcated and promoted by the long-running series Cops.
As is his custom (see his previous films, Roger & Me and The Big One), Moore’s own story is interwoven throughout his consideration of the nation to which he declares serious loyalty. His response, for example, to Columbine begins with himself, a lifetime member of the NRA, and native to Flint, Michigan, “a gun lover’s paradise.” He recalls his own childhood interest in guns, both toy (Sound-O-Power) and real, used for hunting.
In and around his immediate environs, Moore finds alarming and mundane links to the broad-based gun culture he’s investigating: he comes on a savings and loan that gives a gun to anyone who opens a new account (“Do you think it’s a good idea, handing out guns in a bank?”), and heads out into the fields with members of the Michigan Militia. He also spends time with former Militia member and current “tofu farmer” James Nichols (brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols), a visit that ends with Moore agreeing to an off-camera retreat to Nichols’ bedroom, to get a look at the .44 magnum he keeps under his pillow (inside, you hear Moore saying, with understandable distress, that Nichols has cocked the gun and put it to his temple).
Descending on Littleton, Moore observes that Harris and Klebold went bowling, for a class, on the morning before they started shooting. On that same morning, the U.S. launched its most devastating air attack on Kosovo. He also observes that Lockheed Martin employs many of the kids’ parents, that they make a living building weapons of mass destruction. When he asks one employee to comment on the apparent irony of this situation, the man is incredulous, unable to see a connection.
Moore, however, sees connections everywhere, tracing the U.S. culture of fear, seeking corroboration from a range of interview subjects. Littleton native Trey Parker, co-creator of South Park, observes that the NRA committed an act of astoundingly bad taste when it refused to alter its plans for a convention in Denver, days after the Littleton shootings. Marilyn Manson, heaped with blame for this and other episodes of school violence, intelligently (and in full “scary” face makeup) remarks on the perpetual “campaign of fear and consumption,” by which people are convinced to buy products in order to stave off rejection as well as attack. To exemplify the danger of this connection, Moore brings a couple of Columbine survivors down to the local K-Mart to convince the chain to stop selling ammunition: much to everyone’s surprise, Moore included, the managers agree to stop.
As startled and grateful as he is at this moment, there’s no question that Moore has an agenda. He’s never pretended to be objective, but instead sees his filmmaking and tv work as a kind of pop-cultural agitprop. He pursues his subjects — GM’s Roger Smith, Nike’s Phil Knight, and here, NRA president and voluble spokesperson Charlton Heston — with a relentlessness that is sometimes funny, sometimes grating, and always disquieting for someone (usually the subject). Here, Moore finally talks his way into Heston’s L.A. gates, whereupon he asks him pointedly about his NRA speechmaking (in the wake of Columbine and again, during a rally in Flint just after the shooting of 6-year-old citizen Kayla Rolland by another first-grader). Heston insists he didn’t know about Kayla’s murder, and refuses to apologize.
Moore pushes on, pressing Heston to come up with possible reasons for the States’ inordinate rates of gun violence, Heston hems and haws, suggests “historical” proclivities (until Moore points out that Germany and Japan have violent histories and remarkably low gun violence stats), then finally blurts that it must be bound up in American “mixed ethnicity.” Moore doesn’t wait, but repeats the phrase back to Heston, who blanches when he hears his own words come back at him. He cuts off the interview and shambles off, his back retreating from the camera as Moore asks him to look at little Kayla’s photo.
Certainly, Heston, virulent and nonsensical, is an easy target, and hardly worth the amount of time that Bowling for Columbine spends on him. But his slip speaks to the slippery workings, unconscious or hyperconscious, of U.S. culture, politics, and morality, an inexorable campaign of fear and consumption.