It was with a pang of nostalgic irritation that I heard the president of the United States suggest that the ongoing gun violence in America is down to ‘video games and movies’.
I used to watch Much More Music and I remember all that weird stuff about bands like Judas Priest being called devil worshippers because a kid killed himself and mentioned the band in his suicide note. When I was a kid I thought animated classics like The Simpsons were really morally corrupt because of some misguided narrative in the 1990’s news media that begged everyone, in the words of Helen Lovejoy, to “think of the children!” You, and me, and everyone we know probably don’t think that The Simpsons turns you into an amoral sex-fiend, and also don’t believe that playing too much Call of Duty turns you into a spree killer. Though it could turn you into a terrible boyfriend who can’t hear anything another human says to you while in game.
The president, much like the weirdos featured in Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, who blamed Marilyn Manson for the Columbine High School shootings, are signifiers of the change that has not come with respect to America, and military grade weaponry that can mow down a herd of cattle.
To put it plainly: what a cop-out.
In Bowling for Columbine, I found a film that is not dated… at all. Swap out a few details here, a few events there and the documentary could have been made last year. Not surprisingly it’s filled with a lot of cop-outs. In the wake of the massacre at Columbine High School a bizarre campaign took hold. The media and a few school boards begged the question: what incendiary murderers lurk among the lunch trays? For my part, this kind of thinking affected my life when my high school refused to allow me to use a plastic sword from Shoppers Drug Mart in a drama presentation.
Following that we see a strange marketing video from a metal detector company that features a demonstration of a 12 year old pulling a shotgun out of the back of his pants. This kid had so many guns I’m thinking that he might need more than one metal detector. You know that friend you have who turns a blind eye to super important aspects of their life? Like they have an inability to try new things, or see their destructive relationship patterns? America is that friend and many of its citizens are, understandably, pretty pissed about all the gas lighting and nonsense. I mean how can a place exist where actual humans made that 12-year-old-taking-an-arsenal-out-of-his-ass marketing [read: fear] video for serious without their brains breaking?
What I like about Bowling for Columbine, and why it stands now on its own merit, is that Moore never settles on A Reason for all the bad stuff that goes on stateside. The social problems faced by Americans in this documentary are threads in a tapestry sewn on the grid of a nation that is divisive about its own history. That overarching scope, reliant on the pieces that make up the cause of the division, is enough to drive the point home. The details are less important. The tapestry motif is what Moore stylistically evokes in his documentaries and he has been criticized for it.
The most common criticism levied at Moore on Bowling for Columbine is the opening scene where the filmmaker gets a free gun for opening a bank account. Apparently the bank did not generally give out guns on the premises. Instead the guns are sent out later… in the mail. What I don’t understand is how that criticism is meant to neuter the commentary. The outcome of the event is the same – a customer gets a free gun for opening a bank account. The manner in which the gun is delivered is irrelevant! What I mean to say is – Moore likes to stage stuff a bit but that doesn’t mean what he is saying with the stage is without validity. Like all [good] filmmakers [ever] Moore manipulates truth to make a point. A prime example in Bowling for Columbine is when Moore juxtaposes scenes of survivors moments after the Columbine massacre with a cut to Charlton Heston at an NRA meeting raising a rifle in the air and pronouncing, “From my cold dead hands!”. It’s effective, and it carries the thesis. Filmmaking, at its core, is manipulation. What you see is the cohesion of a structure that is designed to say something specific. You care about it because it’s telling you how it wants you to feel about what you’re seeing. You can’t criticize something when an assumption you make about it turns out to be false. We like to think that ‘documentary’ means ‘unvarnished truth’ but those concepts are not synonyms.
In many ways Moore’s style evokes that of Soviet Montage. Bowling for Columbine (and indeed Moore’s oeuvre) is an exercise is blatant image association. You could watch a Moore documentary with no sound and still essentially understand what is going on. Montage theory is something endemic in popular film but Moore does it in the old way. Like how Dziga Vertov captured the sights of the common people in Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Moore takes the commonality of our day (news footage, marketing videos, PSAs) to use them as tools to understand why America is so fucked up. Sergei Eisenstein, who popularized montage theory and application, believed that the essence of a film lay in its association of images. Editing creates meaning. Moore weaves his images together into a rich exploration of how he sees America. He actually does this more effectively in Fahrenheit 9/11: a documentary so filled with muted rage that Moore actually puts his obnoxious stunts aside and just edits together a cacophony of deception and mayhem.
Every day America is grappling with itself. With its prejudice, it’s racism, it’s bloated and corrupt government, and the toxic influence of corporations. I wish people like Moore and other activists against guns and gun violence in America could actually enact the change they need. The Parkland kids are impressive because they know – they’re saavey – that this goes beyond the second amendment and misguided rhetoric about bearing arms and fundamental American rights. They know this is about money and individual interests. In 1776 the United States declared their independence, and the founding fathers signed a document which stated in part:
We hold these truths to be self–evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Those are beautiful words and they have imbibed America with its most pure ideology of democratic freedom. If only, if only, it wasn’t a pack of lies.
Recommended Double Feature Viewing: Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)