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Friday, April 20, 2018

Films for the Trump Years: Bowling for Columbine

            There was about a 36-hour period, starting quite suddenly about two days after the Parkland shooting, where I found myself filled with such a raging fury I could barely breath.  I thought Sandy Hook and the utter refusal of Republicans to allow a proper response to the slaughter of children had killed off my ability to get emotional about this particular topic.  Somehow, miraculously, I was wrong; I am not yet so jaded.  But that doesn’t make the suffering of these victims any more bearable. 

            Like everyone, I expected the usual rinse-wash-repeat cycle to happen as it inevitably had for these past twenty, interminable years.  But this time, so far, it hasn’t.  The survivors of Parkland, linking arms with past victims across the country, have been able to push back against the cycle and seem to be on the verge of breaking it (although we’ll have to wait until after the midterms to determine if it really is broken, or just strained).  An unprecedented public focus has been sharpened on gun violence, enhanced by a school walkout last month and the monumental March for our Lives in D.C.

            Today, on the 19th anniversary of Columbine, a second school walkout, expected to be even more expansion than last month’s, will take place, and I feel there is nothing more appropriate I could do this month with my Trump Years series than couple today’s walkout with a look back at Michael Moore’s seminal work, Bowling for Columbine, which remains his most well-known and potent film. 

            The combination of seeing this film for the first time and reading Moore’s book, Stupid White Men, in the summer of 2004, as that year’s election was heating up, was a pivotal moment in my life.  The boldest passages from the book and the most provocative parts of the film were like lightning bolts to my brain, jolting my intellect into an alertness I have worked tirelessly to maintain ever since. 

            Now, of course, as a 28-year-old adult seeing the film again for the first time in at least a decade, it’s much easier for me to see when and where the clear flaws in Moore’s in-your-face narrative style pop up, as well as his occasional weakness for over-simplifications that often hurt, rather than help, his arguments.  There was always a bit of the juvenile in many of his antics, something that has only slightly mellowed in his later works.  I will never forget the chill that ran down my spine the first time I saw the “Wonderful World” montage, but with over a decade of studying history now behind me, I can clearly see the many cracks in that kind of sensationalist approach.

            However, while it is fair to criticize him for the times he overreaches, if he wasn’t as balls-to-the-wall daring as he is, he would never reach nearly as many moments of painful clarity as he does, which are the hallmarks of great documentary filmmaking.  Yes, the movie’s flaws are more salient than ever 16 years after it took Cannes by storm and netted Moore his Oscar.  But its most powerful moments, and its clearest damnations of the American psychosis surrounding guns, are even more so, and have never been more relevant than now; Moore highlighted a ream of uncomfortable truths and problems within America that have only worsened since the film’s release. 

            The recurring topic of fear, and how it can be and is used to manipulate people, is central to the movie, but while Moore seemed to believe then that those first few years after 9/11 were the apogee of American fear, we now know all too clearly it was merely a paltry prelude to what was to come, the first stirrings of a darkness in the American mind that has now lasted nearly two decades. 

            Moore and his cinematographers have always had a special talent for capturing images, moments, and exchanges that perfectly encapsulate the paradoxes and contradictions of the American character, and Bowling for Columbine is chock-full of them.  A guy buying guns “just to be safe” wearing a “Fuck You” baseball cap.  An employer of Lockhead Martin standing in front of a massive, uncompleted missile from the US nuclear arsenal opining how you can’t just shoot or bomb someone every time you get upset.  Two survivors of Columbine going to the headquarters of K-Mart to try and return the bullets, purchased at a K-Mart store, still inside their bodies.  And my personal favorite; a conspiracy theorist, after showing off the loaded gun he sleeps with and talking about his friendship with the Oklahoma City bombers of 1995, admits that SOME materials, like weapons-grade plutonium, should not be in civilian hands, because, quote, “there’s wackos out there.” 

            Then there’s the racial aspect that the film sometimes, but not always, touches on; both then and now, it’s inevitably white people extolling the virtues of firearms and of uncontrolled private gun ownership.  It’s whites who, according to the Hestons and LaPierres of the world, that have the God-given right to stroll around with loaded assault rifles at the ready, while anyone black, brown, or otherwise only has the right to die, whether or not they had a firearm on them.  These people claim universality for their twisted, perverted worldview, but it’s merely window dressing for old-school, boilerplate racism.  And we keep letting ourselves forget that, time and again. 

            It’s amazing how much the film now works as a time capsule of those last few, precious years where school shootings were still rare enough to spark genuine outrage and sadness, not apathy and resignation.  When the 90’s were dying, yes, but still had a few breaths left in them.  When “Columbine” was a singular event with a singular meaning in the English language.  There was no talk of “like Columbine” or “since Columbine.”  Just “Columbine.” 

            From the speeches Moore shows in Littletown in 1999 to the March for our Lives just last month, the parallels are chilling and at times overwhelming, as is any serious effort to understand just exactly how much two decades of inaction have cost us.  A recent Washington Post study, an absolute must-read, estimates that nearly 200,000 current and former US students have been exposed to gun violence and struggle with the various after-effects and traumas associated with being a survivor.  What that has cost us as a nation and as people is beyond money, beyond numbers, beyond quantification, and above all else, beyond excuse. 

            We are, each and every one of us, complicit in this senseless slaughter.  We can all choose to be part of the solution.  But it requires our active choice, today, tomorrow, and forever. 

-Noah Franc

Previously on Films for the Trump Years:

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th

Part 4- Get Out

Part 7- Human Flow

Part 9- Black Panther

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