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Film asks provocative questions about U.S. culture of violence


After the D.C.-area sniper attacks startled the nation, the Columbine High School massacre seems like history long past. But the shocking murder of 12 students and a teacher by two troubled teens on April 20, 1999, caused anguish for the parents, students, teachers and residents of Littleton that is as real today as ever.

The Denver premiere of “Bowling for Columbine” concluded with filmmaker Michael Moore acknowledging an extended standing ovation in the packed theatre. He said, “During the three years making this film my wife and I often wondered what it would be like to be here in Denver watching this film.” He added, “I hope the parents and students of Columbine will see this film and realize it is made by somebody who never wants to see the likes of Columbine happen again.”

Moore had reason to worry about the acceptance of his film in the Denver area. Parents of Columbine victims were offered an advanced screening by Denver’s Starz International Film Festival organizers. Several refused to see it and criticized Moore for trying to capitalize on the tragedy.

Moore is no stranger to criticism. “Roger & Me” was his 1989 critique of corporate America; his best-selling book, Stupid White Men, explains itself in the title. With “Columbine” -- appearing on the heels of the Montgomery County, Md., shootings -- Moore has created a stimulating documentary that ought to produce widespread discussion across the United States regarding our use of guns and violence. This film is a combination of unsettling ambush journalism, brilliant interviewing and humor.

R-rated “Bowling for Columbine” (violent images and language -- mostly real-life violence from news videos and journalistic reports) uses security-camera video from Columbine High during the attack. Defending the use of this footage, Moore said he did not intend to single out Littleton or create “freaks.” He said the video shows just how normal things were -- a normal community, normal high school, a normal cafeteria, and then “normal” kids walked through with guns and bombs, wreaking havoc. “The normalcy is the most frightening thing about it,” he said.

The question that initially motivated Moore to make the film remains unanswered. Why would two upper middle-class boys from apparently normal families go bowling one morning, then go to their high school and massacre 12 of their classmates and a teacher? This original question moved Moore to examine broader issues of fear and violence in the United States.

The movie offers mostly questions: Why are there so many forms of violence in our country at so many levels? Does listening to heavy metal produce murderers? Does the sport of bowling produce murderers? What makes us arm ourselves? Does our fear of the “other” (blacks, Hispanics, Arabs) feed into the U.S. love of guns? Does our callous disregard of the needs of the poor result in violent crime? Does government-sanctioned violence, such as war, the death penalty and covert military activities lead individual citizens to justify violence and murder?

While offering no specific answers to these questions, Moore makes several suggestions. The movie shows comedian Chris Rock asserting that one round of ammunition should cost $5,000. Rock’s idea that a murderous thug would need a second job to buy a bullet is truly funny. Moore springboards from this to suggest that cheap, easy-to-obtain ammunition feeds America’s gun hunger. The Columbine killers bought their ammo at a nearby Kmart. Before the screening, Moore told reporters that the Columbine killers’ rifle rounds cost about 17 cents apiece. He said, “A pack of gum costs more than it costs to kill a child.” Indeed, one of the film’s more moving scenes shows two students wounded at Columbine traveling to Kmart headquarters to successfully convince the nationwide chain to limit ammunition sales.

Moore suggests that our country should systematize better treatment of the poor. He claims that financially comfortable Americans often blame the poor for being poor, arming ourselves to make certain “they” don’t take what “we” have. He said, “If someone is poor we believe they deserve to be trashed, not embraced.” Seeking to show the connection between poverty and gun deaths, Moore examines the tragedy of a 6-year-old boy in Flint, Mich., who shot a classmate to death with a gun found at his uncle’s house. The boy was unsupervised in the house because the mother was at a low-paying job as required by Michigan’s “welfare to work” system.

Moore suggests that we reject the country’s prevailing culture of fear. The film shows a rollicking cartoon sequence glibly showing how America was built on fear. It explains: The pilgrims came here because they feared persecution. When they got here, they feared the Indians, so they killed them. When the Indians were gone they became afraid of each other, so they burned witches. After winning the Revolution someone wrote the Second Amendment saying, “Let’s keep our guns because the British may come back.” Then the Brits did come back, and everybody said, “Damn good thing we kept those guns!”

And those guns were handy during other periods of U.S. history -- the Western expansion (more Indians!), slave rebellions, and uppity civil rights movements in the South. This segment gains deeper meaning toward the end of the film when Charleton Heston invokes the Constitution’s Second Amendment and praises it as a grand creation of “those wise, dead, old white guys.”

Moore also blames the news media for propagating fear by focusing on the sensational and ignoring serious, chronic problems. When asked by the media what he thought about the Beltway sniper killings, Moore responded, “Forty people a day are killed by guns in the United States. Why doesn’t that lead the news every day?”

Finally, Moore floats the unrealistic but interesting suggestion that the U.S. government should give the country a “time out” and curb our culture of violence by placing a moratorium on gun sales. He said if parents give little Johnny a time out for hitting his sister, shouldn’t we take a time out from buying guns until we learn not to kill each other with them?

“Columbine” has set box office records for documentary film attendance in New York and Los Angeles. However, whether viewers take the film’s suggestions to heart remains to be seen. Recently, county records were released that documented a court-ordered anger management class Columbine shooter Eric Harris attended before the massacre. In a letter describing what he had learned from the class Harris wrote, “I learned that the thousands of suggestions are worthless if you still believe in violence.”

Melissa Jones is a freelance writer living in Littleton, Colo.

National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002