Gun-Loving Criminals

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Review of 'Bowling for Columbine', director Michael Moore

A spokesman for Lockheed Martin is lost for words. The biggest employer in Littleton, Colorado cannot explain why two students at the local Columbine high school massacred their own classmates. But his condemnation of violence rings hollow--for Lockheed Martin is an arms manufacturer, and behind the spokesman sits a deadly US missile.

Michael Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine' is full of sharp, witty attacks on the absurdities and hypocrisies of the status quo, converging around the singular obsession of the US right--gun ownership. Attempting to explain the extent of US gun crime--last year there were 11,127 gun deaths compared to 68 in Britain--he takes aim at the K-Mart superstores (who sold the ammunition that was used in the Columbine shooting) without letting other 'evildoers' (as George Bush might put it) out of his sights.

'Bowling for Columbine' is not essentially an argument for gun control. Sure, the Michigan militia, which proclaims gun ownership a civic duty, is effectively ridiculed. They don't exactly make the job difficult--a real estate negotiator crawls around in fatigues while another boasts about the sexist calendar he's produced. But Moore argues there is a far deeper problem--a culture of fear nurtured by the media, harbouring barely concealed racism.

In one particularly engaging scene a barrage of news reports on black 'suspects' is pasted over the quickening thump of a heartbeat. Even a report on invading bees takes on a racialised, menacing tone, as the audience are told that 'Africanised' bees are naturally more aggressive than their friendly European counterparts. In a period when violent crime fell by a fifth, coverage of it rose by 600 percent--and the subtext of the fearmongering is that black people pose the danger. As the National Rifle Association's Charlton Heston lets slip while trying to explain gun crime, it's a question of 'ethnicity'.

Moore challenges the director of the TV programme 'Cops' to produce a show that tackles white-collar criminals rather than reinforcing stereotypes about desperately poor people. He admits that he wouldn't know how to make such a show an attractive proposition for the networks. Moore's rebuttal--mocked-up credits for the 'Corporate Cops'--is worth the entry price alone.

The film is energetic and acerbic, full of memorable twists of narrative. One highlight is a 'South Park' style history of the US (in which a recurring motif is white Americans shooting people). The only significant weakness is a baffling idealising of Canadian society. Moore's gift is managing to move from commenting on tragedies such as Columbine to using humour to illustrate the absurdity of, for example, the hysteria that gripped US schools in the wake of the shooting. In this climate a child was expelled for playing cops and robbers with a paper gun, and another for waving a biscuit at a teacher.

When six year old Kayla Rolland was shot by a (black) boy in her first grade class there was a venomous reaction whipped up, including threats of lynching. Rather than throw his hands up at an inexplicable horror, the best that many liberal commentators can offer against a conservative witch-hunt, Moore traces a story of grinding, destructive poverty. The boy's single parent mother, coerced by a welfare-to-work scheme to travel 80 miles by bus to do two jobs for a pittance, was still unable to pay her rent. Forced to leave her son with his uncle in a crack house, it was there that he found the pistol. The leading corporate proponents of welfare-to-work? Step forward, Lockheed Martin.

Which brings us to US foreign policy. The day of the Columbine shooting was also notable for being the heaviest day of bombardment of the former Yugoslavia. Clinton came on screen to proclaim his regret at the deaths of the former but not, of course, of the latter. In homage to such breathtaking double standards, Moore provides a montage of 50 years of US imperialism. Grim images of militarism and death are accompanied by Louis Armstrong's breezy 'What a Wonderful World'. We need more film-makers like Michael Moore.