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Culture of Fear: Review of "Bowling for Columbine"

Danny A. Lesh
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

Bowling for Columbine
Directed by Michael Moore
United Artists, Alliance Atlantis, and Dog Eat Dog Films 2002

Michael Moore’s latest film, Bowling for Columbine, is not so much a documentary about violence in America as it is about the construction of emotional responses to that violence, namely, fear. As such, the slippery ethics pointed out by various critics are entirely off the mark.

Yes, he catches poor old senile Charlton Heston off guard when he turns a friendly “I’m a life time member of the NRA and have a few innocent questions for you” –type interview into a laughable but horrifying illustration of a profound ignorance the man has for world history and American violence. And yes, most Canadians probably do lock their doors, despite Moore’s failed attempt to find any (on screen, at least). Finally, the statistical comparisons between violence in America and in other countries would have been fairer if Moore had included factors like population or regional mores.

Moore, however, does not assume his audience is composed of middle class academics or international relations professionals. Instead throughout the entire film Moore maintains the “average person” position, asking fairly simple questions that retail clerks, school teachers, or recently laid off factory workers would love to ask if they were in his shoes.

For example, when he visits South Central Los Angeles, he first asks his informant to explain if they’re in danger at the moment, and then asks him why he can not see the famous “Hollywood” sign that is hidden behind a thick layer of smog.

The movie opens with Heston at a National Rifle Association rally uttering those cliched words, “From my cold dead hands” and clenching some old hunting rifle above his head, while a crowd of mostly white men cheer like junior high kids at a Britney Spears concert. From there, Moore takes us through a clever dance around American cultural fear that simultaneously challenges the idealized innocence of past generations and helps construct an easily accessible critical history.

This focus on history throughout the film, including the hilarious cartoon that explains the last 600 years of racial violence in just over three minutes, establishes a basis for the film’s credibility for popular audiences, which are not likely familiar with many of the complex issues at hand. He retells history by acknowledging one that he wants to remember, where the milk man comes in the morning, where the rural farmer was the height of respectability, and where TV was safe for all.

K-mart’s bullets

But he is critical of this history, pointing out the toy gun commercials he saw as a boy, and that suburbs grew simultaneously as the quintessential Americana and a miniature Mecca of reactionary conservatism.

This is that “magic” that is so often attributed to Moore: his simplicity and “average person” logic cut straight through monotonous myths that come from corporate media and their defenders. Even his political gestures invite his audience to sympathize with this simplicity. When he coerces K-mart into dropping their bullet sales program, he is also respecting the fact that some people have to shop at K-mart, because they are cheaper than the locally owned boutique.

What’s troubling is Moore’s reluctance to identify the construction of fear as a particularly cultural problem. Instead, Moore has opted towards terms like “The American Psyche.” The difference may be semantic, but it is important given that Moore is a political filmmaker, and is interested in changing the world he lives and works in.

“The American Psyche” suggests both staunch individualism and thus individual solutions. The problem, however, is certainly a cultural one, and he only asks about it: “What is it?” “Yeah, what is it?” “What is it...?” he and an anti-gun advocate ask each other repeatedly at a children’s football game. A cultural problem cannot be solved individually by particular filmmakers or by “enlightened” politicians for whom we can all vote.

Cultural problems can only be solved through organization and mass action that threaten the very roots of the problems. Moore is clearly aware of this, but is also, for good reason, reluctant to call his audience to revolution before the closing credits. Instead, he wants to help foster their awareness so that they may come to that conclusion (among others!) themselves. Perhaps this is his fatal flaw, from a revolutionary anti-capitalist perspective, but perhaps it is also our call to meet his audience on similar terms.