Trying to Make Sense of a Tragedy | Bowling for Columbine at 15

It’s been 15 years since Bowling for Columbine was released and 18 years since the Columbine High School Massacre. Twelve students and one teacher died in the shooting perpetrated by Columbine students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Ten days ago, on October 1st 2017, Stephen Paddock murdered fifty-eight people and injured nearly five hundred others in Las Vegas in America’s worst mass shooting on record. I don’t mention Las Vegas here to be crude or controversial but it is telling that 15 years have passed and so little has changed.

Bowling for Columbine is a Michael Moore film. It is a biased, liberal-oriented documentary that appeals to those inclined towards rational moral outrage. All documentaries are biased and Moore’s are very biased. He has been criticised for staging certain portions of his films, misleading or misrepresenting his subjects and even ambushing them with unexpected questions. All this flies in the face of the frankly mythical definition of a documentary as a cinematic display of objective truth.

Documentaries are films and like all films they tell stories. They represent these stories the way the filmmakers want them represented. They might be factual but there’s no stopping the filmmaker bending the facts in whatever way they see fit. Documentaries like Blackfish, Making a Murderer and Capturing the Friedmans are all guilty of this but that doesn’t stop them being great films. Moore makes documentaries to further what his opponents would call his ‘bleeding heart, liberal agenda’. And thank God he does because few others have dug so deep into the rotten heart of America and shown it for the nightmare it really is.

Bowling for Columbine seeks to answer the unanswerable. Why is America such a violent, gun-obsessed nation? There is no real answer. Part of the film works like a checklist ruling out violent movies, video games, and music. Instead it indicts the government, the school system, and the media for generating a culture of fear around America. But still why? That single word goes around the viewer’s brain like something circling a drain. Why? Why? Why? Why have I had to hear about America’s worst shooting on record three times in my lifetime? It’s easy to blame it all on mental illness, violent media or even a sinister reptilian global conspiracy but those aren’t the answers. There are none.

Bowling for Columbine is incredibly hard to watch. The film waits a half an hour before it shows footage of the titular event. Emergency service calls are played from concerned parents to panicked teachers inside Columbine High School. Silent CCTV footage of the massacre is shown. Students run in a crazed mass from the cafeteria as Harris and Klebold begin shooting. One student throws himself out of the way of a pipe bomb tossed by Harris. The footage and recordings are raw and real. The reality of it all makes them even harder to stomach. But Moore is a filmmaker and he brings many filmmaking techniques to bear to make Bowling for Columbine that bit more horrifying.

Moore makes use of animation, statistics, and guerrilla tactics to get the effect he needs. In an animated segment called “A Brief History of the United States of America”, Moore outlines America’s history with guns from the Second Amendment to modern day. This segment famously drew the ire of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker who felt the segment was too similar to their own cartoon. They hit back by depicting Moore as a hot-dog gobbling suicide bomber in their puppet film Team America: World Police. Moore also edits footage of real life shootings aired on TV as well as evidence of United States “intervention” in foreign countries that ended in disaster to cheerful songs like ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ by the Beatles and Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’. These parts are effective in elaborating on Moore’s culture of fear thesis but certain parts of the film are brought down by Moore’s shock tactics.

As much as Bowling for Columbine did for the conversation about violence and gun control in the United States it wasn’t enough and it never will be.

Both Harris and Klebold, the Columbine shooters, were avid Marilyn Manson fans. Michael Moore interviews Manson and asks him what he would have said to the two young murderers. Manson’s response: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them; I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.” A fine soundbite but ultimately dismissive. Harris and Klebold were two young men filled to the brim with hate. Listening to what they have to say would have given them a platform for their hate-speech. Just as many young people today are being radicalised whether by Islamic State or the Alt-Right so were Harris and Klebold radicalised by others who came before.

The legacy of Columbine is burned into our collective global consciousness. It’s hard not to feel outraged about such a tragic event. A tragic event that is ultimately one of many in the modern history of the United States. But fifteen years after Bowling for Columbine’s release and run-away success what’s happened to that anger? Like a pot left to boil over it’s evaporated. Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Pulse Nightclub and now Las Vegas. All burn bright in the lexicon of modern tragedies. The anger is still there but not to the same degree that it was instead a sense of jaded tiredness has replaced it. On 19 June 2015 Dan Hodges, a political commentator for the Mail on Sunday said on Twitter In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.

That just sums it up. As much as Bowling for Columbine did for the conversation about violence and gun control in the United States it wasn’t enough and it never will be. There is a slow tectonic shift in the opinion of the American people away from guns but there is not enough public will to drown out the coffers of the weapons manufacturers. There is sickness deep in the core of America and for now there is no cure.


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