Fri, Nov 21, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Seeking the smoking gun in American violence

If it weren't for Michael Moore's tendency to overstate his case, `Bowling for Columbine' would be even more disturbing and powerful in its portrayal of a country racked by fear and armed to the teeth

By A. O. Scott  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Michael Moore's film, Bowling for Columbine', tackles America's love affair with guns and the violence that is that passion's corollary.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Michael Moore's new documentary, Bowling for Columbine, rapturously greeted at the Cannes Film Festival in May, opens tomorrow in Taipei after screening for over a year in other parts of the world to considerable controversy. Not that Moore, a cheerful rabble-rouser and author of the best seller Stupid White Men, would have it any other way. But in times of political anxiety and global insecurity -- most times, in other words -- arguments have a tendency to turn into shouting matches.

The most disappointing -- and the most likely -- response to Moore's disturbing, infuriating and often very funny film would be uncritical support from his ideological friends and summary dismissal from his foes. The slippery logic, tendentious grandstanding and outright demagoguery on display in Bowling for Columbine should be enough to give pause to its most ardent partisans, while its disquieting insights into the culture of violence in America should occasion sober reflection from those who would prefer to stop their ears.

I hope the movie is widely seen and debated with appropriate ferocity and thoughtfulness. Does that sound evasive? I'm sorry if it does, but at the moment, political certainty seems to me to be a cheap and abundant commodity, of much less value than honest ambivalence.

Moore, in the good-natured, confrontational style familiar from Roger and Me and TV Nation, his sadly short-lived series on Fox, tracks his subject far and wide: a little too far and a little too wide perhaps. His starting point is the horrific massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Like everyone else, he wonders how such a thing could have happened and what it says about contemporary US society.

Film Notes:

Bowling for Columbine

Written and directed by: Michael Moore

Starring: Michael Moore, Dick Clark, Charlton Heston, James Nichols, Marilyn Manson, John Nichols and Matt Stone

Running time: 119 minutes

Taiwan Release: tomorrow


These questions quickly lead to larger ones: Why do Americans shoot one another so much more often than the citizens of other developed countries? Why do our lives seem to be governed by fear? The recent string of killings around Washington provides a grim reminder that these issues are always timely.

These are hardly simple questions, and Moore vacillates between acknowledging their complexity and giving in to his own urge to simplify. He dismisses a number of possible answers out of hand. Is violent popular culture to blame? No, because in a country like Japan, with a tiny fraction of our gun deaths, people consume super-brutal movies, video games and comic books with even more voracity than we do. Poverty? No, since Canada and many European nations have much higher unemployment rates and much lower homicide rates. Is it our history of warfare and brutality? Compared with imperial Britain and Nazi Germany, he suggests, we're downright pacific.

But each of these assertions rides roughshod over some obvious doubts and qualifications. Unemployment, in countries with more extensive welfare states than ours, is not necessarily the same as poverty, and the wholesale brutality of states and empires engaged in wars of conquest is not the same as the retail mayhem of armed individuals.

But though he seems to be hunting for a specific historical cause for events like Columbine, Moore, when it serves his purposes, is happy to generalize in the absence of empirical evidence and to make much of connections that seem spurious on close examination. Several times he notes that the Columbine shootings occurred on the same day as the heaviest US bombing of the Kosovo war. The more you think about this coincidence, the less it seems to mean.

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