Wednesday, April 02, 2003

I saw Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore’s scattershot assault on American gun culture, after standing in line two hours for tickets to the 9:30 p.m. show -- the last of a series of sold-out shows at the Nickelodeon, a limited capacity art theatre in Columbia, SC, where it made its debut in the weekend following the Academy Awards and Moore’s widely-read comments. America loves guns, but it loves movies more, and it may love controversy more than either.

Demagogue is the first word that comes to mind after watching it.

As he did in the hilarious – and I think more effective -- Roger and Me, Moore tackles his subject in his usual manner: putting his big, shambling self in the center of a story that knits together goofy montages of raw footage -- news reports, commercials, speeches, idiotic promotional videos -- and interviews that are sympathetic or snide, depending on whether the subject is in Moore’s camp. Granted, Moore's personal, in-your-face bias is part of his charm: he sees no side but his own, shamelessly stacks the deck in his own favor, and no shot is too cheap for him to take. You are with Moore or against him; with him, you sit and laugh at the hinterland rubes he lines up for your smug amusement, against him, you sit there and stew. I can’t help but like Moore, his passion, and his humor; he’s the kind of well-read, wise-cracking know-it-all I could see myself having a beer with; I find him a rather affable pain in the ass to corporate America. Or maybe not; I can kind of imagine his ideas getting a little loonier as the drinks go by. And God knows it doesn’t take a genius to see through the rigging of his thought processes when he’s sober.

Moore initiated the film with a fixed view, goes about justifying it, and may not have learned anything from making it that he didn’t already know. What is that view? Nothing new: that Americans are and have always been a gun-crazed lot, domestically and internationally. Moore is very much the conspiracy theorist type, with a more or less liberal domino theory as to foreign wars, coups, puppet governments and massacres – all of which are apparently part of some long-term covert government agenda. But what was interesting to me is that along the way he stumbles onto an arresting inquiry: America is not the only nation of gun nuts – there appear to be at least as many in Canada – nor is it the nation with the greatest history of sustained violence; there will always be Nazi Germany. So why are there more annual homicides in America than anywhere else?

Moore doesn’t really know the answer, but he takes a crazy stab at it: America is run by fear. Boiled down, the idea (as a cartoon explains) is that the country was founded by white people who lived in fear of revolt (by Indians or blacks), and that despite any changes along those lines it is still fear that rules the day, particularly when it’s fanned by the media. The country is so paranoid that it shoots first.

Given the effectiveness of Moore’s montages – one involves the sound of an increasing heartbeat, thumping menacingly over a series of news reports covering everything from killer bees to murder to flesh-eating bacteria – this is one of those ideas that makes sense more while you’re watching it than after the film is over. It doesn’t take long before the film itself seems more paranoid than the culture it aims to depict.

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