William J. H. Boetcker once said that ‘it is better to displease the people by doing what you know is right, so as to retain your self-respect, rather than to temporarily please them by doing what you know is wrong’. Michael Moore, the director of the Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine chooses to do what he sees as the right move, at the risk of upsetting a nation. Through the use of humour and irony, Moore delves into different aspects of the violence that is deeply embedded in the American society.
Released in 2002, in the United States of America, Moore uses this documentary to awaken a ‘sleeping’ society to the harsh realities around them. He uses the massacre at the Columbine High School that occurred in 1999 as his premise to investigate the phenomenon i. e. : ‘why does the US have such a high number (11,127 for a year) of gun-related deaths? ‘. Though Moore seems to be very opinionated on various matters, his goal is not to make the audience think the way he does, but only to make them think. The movie is successful in fulfilling its purpose.
This is hugely due to the excellent direction. The content, on the other hand, though extremely hard-hitting is limited to Moore’s outlook on matters. Though it does not seem to be his intention, he does not leave any scope for the audience to form an opinion of their own. However, he cannot be blamed for this, because after all, a movie is a director’s form of expression. Starting off from Flint, Michigan, Moore travels through numerous cities and observes many violence-related issues, in his search for answers as to why the Columbine High School massacre happened.
After studying possible reasons such as violent movies, destructive games, heavy metal culture, parental negligence, a violent history, poverty and multi-ethnicity (all being prevalent in the American society), Moore narrows down the list of excuses to the brainwashing of the American population. According to him, the roots of all violence in the US seem to grow from the dominating functionaries in the American society- the government and the multinational organisations. Moore continuously reinforces the theory of purposeful instilment of fear in people’s mind by the above-mentioned groups.
Right from his interview with James Nichols (the third person arrested in connection to the Oklahoma bombing besides Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols), where Nichols talks about revolting against a tyrannical government, to the incorporation of the advertisement selling security metal detectors after the massacre at the Columbine High School, Moore puts forth a strong case. He also brings up an excellent point about the often-despotic behaviour of the American government in matters of other nations and how that affects the minds of common people.
The most interesting part of the movie though, has got to be the steady unveiling of the concept of controlled consumerism. Moore has excellently conveyed the message that all of America is imprisoned in a cage of fear and ignorance, where the people believe what they hear and see, without questioning the authenticity. Moore convinces us that this is exactly the way the government wants the society to work because of the financial benefit that it results in. In an interview with Moore, Marilyn Manson (a famous music artist in the genre of metal) talks about the spurning of fear in the American public.
He states that if the media ‘keeps everyone afraid, the public will consume’. It is amazing how much sense that makes if you have ever watched American television. The programs usually talk about social problems such as crime, AIDS, psychological disorders, etc. while the advertisements create stereotypes about how you are supposed to look and behave. Obviously, when a person with pimples watches on television, someone in a similar position not being accepted by his/her friends until he/she uses a certain product to get rid of the acne, the viewer will want to buy that product.
This concept is clearly brought up again when Moore talks about the aftermath of the September 11th event. If you look at in retrospect, the events that followed the attack generated a lot of money. For instance, Lockheed Martin received an order for a record number of fighter-jets for George Bush’s war on terrorism. At the same time, on the home front, people bought dozens of chemical suits, gas masks and weapons for precautionary purposes. K-mart reduced prices of ammunition claiming to ‘care about the community’. All other social problems such as poverty, pollution, etc.
took a back seat while military became #1 priority. Moore effectively shows us how easy it is for human emotions to be played with and fears to be capitalized on. All praise to Moore for tapping into the average American’s life and pinpointing the effects of politics in there. However, all honours done, it is time for the loophole of the movie. The content presented clearly evades from a greater truth and simply points all fingers on one society- the American one. The larger reality is that many other nations of the world are totally or nearly in the same position as the US.
Yes, the number of gun-related deaths is much higher in the US when compared to other countries but that is not to say that they are non-existent. Fear is not an American concept nor is the American government the only government to play with the human sensibility. The US might definitely be an extreme case but who is to say that other nations will not move in the same direction. One may argue that there was only so much Moore could do- his intention was to expose the American reality and not to deal with global issues.
However, by comparing the US to other nations, Moore makes it a universal issue. Since he displays Canada as a model country, Canada is the country I will address. Great, so Canada has only 165 gun-related deaths in a year when compared to the US’s gigantic 11, 127. There is a huge difference. Could it just be because Canadians don’t find a need to kill one another? Where ‘politicians talk funny’ (ha-ha! Good one Moore! ) and everyone, no matter what race, culture or economic background, can benefit from the social welfare system, why would anyone want to kill anyone?
Think about this, because really, the only difference between the Canadian society and the American society is essentially the government. Canadians are just as locked up in the prison of fear as Americans are. If the US had the Halloween incidents (where children were not allowed to go trick-or-treating because a razor blade was supposedly found in a treat) and the supposed invasion of the killer Africanized bees, Canada had the West Nile virus and the SARS disease. People were not willing to even sit beside a Southeast Asian person because they were scared of catching SARS.
Is that not fear in its most natural elements? Subtle discrimination? Didn’t the Y2K virus affect Canadian minds the same way it affected the minds of our American neighbours? In that matter, wasn’t it the whole world that was tensed about what would happen at the tick of midnight on 31st December 1999? Yes, the answers to all the questions above are yes. Moore talks about how American producers can always depend on the white America’s fear of the ‘black’ man. Canadians basically watch the same television shows that Americans watch.
It is unfortunate, but in reality, American producers can always depend on the entire world’s fear of the ‘black’ man. I am obviously generalizing but prejudice is again, not an all-American concept. About Canadians not locking doors, untrue. I am sure if Moore had actually tried opening doors in downtown Toronto, he would not be able to. Majority of people in cities all over the world must be locking their doors. That again, is not an American-idea. Locking doors is all about anonymity- a concept customary in all large, crowded cities.
People lose their sense of identity. Everyone, including themselves, is just a face in a crowd and no one relates to each other. Basically, no one knows if their neighbour is someone they can trust or not. As such, the Canadian brand of human nature is the same as the American brand of human nature. That brings me back to my original point- if the Canadian society and the American society are not significantly unlike each other, the difference in the number of gun-related deaths has got to be a result of the respective governmental policies.
Food for thought, however, if American citizens saw no harm in voting-in a ‘corrupted’ political party, is it really impossible that other nations could possibly do the same one-day? On the whole, Moore was so caught up with the ‘American crisis’ that he forgot to address the comprehensive nature of politics’ relation to violence. Other than the above-mentioned concern, nothing else can be taken away from Moore as a director. He has intricately blended-in humour with the greater, more serious message of the film.
What takes the documentary to another level is his use of irony. When you see the journalists and cops so ignorant of the human sentiment, you can’t help but laugh out of pity. These seemingly inconsequential scenes are so very hard-hitting that you want to pause the film right there and then and think about it a bit more. Another note-worthy treatment is the way Moore builds upon his case by talking to/interviewing people we can relate to or at least identify. This makes the whole documentary more believable and captivating.
Special mention goes to Matt Stone who solidly questions some of society’s fundamentals and shows that anger can be vented in humane ways. Back to Moore, his use of the ‘back-and-forth’ style of presenting information is commendable. The most notable instance was when Charlton Heston’s speech after the Columbine High School Massacre was inserted with clips of Daniel’s [a student who was killed in the Columbine Massacre] father speaking in favour of gun control. By using this tactic, Moore clearly shows us who he wants to portray as ‘evil’ and he is definitely effective in making us detest it.
Contrast is definitely Moore’s trump card. Another example is his use of the song ‘What a wonderful world’ by Joey Ramone. A song about the beauty of this world set to the images of devastation in this world really sets your mind and heart rolling. Much applause to Moore for his heart-felt inserts at times when humour was just too harsh to be used. All in all, Bowling for Columbine is a must-watch. Though you may not agree with everything Moore says (or even if you do) and no matter what you take from the movie, Moore makes one vital recommendation- we must all think for ourselves.
Blindly believing in all information that is spun out for us is not the right way. Moore leaves us with one important question, i. e. : if Marilyn Manson or violent movies or poverty or anything that the media dishes out to us, are the reasons why the Columbine High School Massacre happened in the first place, wasn’t bowling an equally plausible reason? Especially considering the fact that the boys who carried out the massacre had gone bowling right before they killed 14 people and injured many others.
In reality, it is easier for the government to conveniently construct acceptable answers than to actually expose the truth. Michael Moore and Bowling for Columbine, sadly, make a lot of sense. Fortunately, both Michael Moore and Bowling for Columbine came out and aloud at the right time. Where people (yes, all of mankind and not only Americans) are too scared to question the authorities they believe in and where people prefer not to think about the stereotypes and prejudices they live with, it all comes back to the documentary- Bowling for Columbine.