Needless to say, that was a solid investment. While all of Moore’s work has retained some degree of relevance (such is the upside of addressing problems that remain unresolved), “Bowling for Columbine” seems hauntingly evergreen. As flawless as the transfer on Criterion’s new Blu-ray might be, this film has been restored on a regular basis ever since it first came out. Watching it now, the dated elements only serve to underscore the forever truths around them.
Marilyn Manson is no longer on the front lines of the culture war, but his analysis of the gun lobby’s “campaign of fear and consumption” is still on the money. Charlton Heston is dead, but his “from my cold dead hands” shtick almost seems quaint now that the NRA has doubled down on his aggressive legacy of paranoid entitlement. The war in Afghanistan has become less of an active distraction from the horrors at home, but that’s only because it’s become one of those things from which the government is trying to distract us.
The scene where Moore travels to Ontario and barges through a handful of unlocked front doors feels even flimsier today than it did back then, but the ultimate takeaway resonates stronger than ever. “When you lock the door, you see it as keeping people out of a place,” one of Moore’s subjects says to the camera. “But when we lock a door, we feel like we’re imprisoning ourselves inside.”
Like so many of the moments that make “Bowling for Columbine” a valuable artifact, this tangent sees America’s gun violence as a symptom of a more profound cancer, and uses the why that underwrites the gun crisis to help explain the how that makes it possible. Those two parts of the equation are fundamentally inextricable, and Moore’s film — unlike so much of the coverage that follows in the immediate wake of a preventable tragedy — has enough perspective not to isolate them from each other.
The most alarming thing about revisiting “Bowling for Columbine” is how the moments that are stuck in time allow us to trace how much we’ve changed; the film now functions like a sun dial that’s always trending darker. It’s something about Moore’s interview subjects that he didn’t have to seek out or manufacture in the editing room — it’s their distinct sense of surprise. Most of the people he interviews for the movie look into the camera like a deer in headlights, a natural effect that’s augmented by the sense that they’ve never really thought about this stuff before.
“Before Columbine,” Moore said, “nobody paid attention to school shootings because they were usually gang-related and white people weren’t dying. The ironic twist is that today, 20 years later, the mass school shootings never occur in our inner cities.” Today — partially due to that inversion, and partially due to the hyper-awareness of social media — all but the most privileged and myopic of white people have to reckon with violence on a daily basis, even if only to disavow it or blame it on the Democrats. “Bowling for Columbine” helped pave the way for the once-private conversations we’re now having in public forums, but those conversations haven’t solved the problem so much as they’ve encouraged us to scream over them. And again, it would seem the film has led us to a dead end.
Worse, it’s possible that the attention we pay to school shootings — and the way that something like “Bowling for Columbine” can help to enshrine them in the media — might actually be fueling the fire it’s hoping to put out. As Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter once argued (and Malcolm Gladwell later popularized in an article for The New Yorker), social behavior is driven by thresholds, and individuals can be persuaded to go against their personal beliefs if other people violate certain boundaries for them (e.g. a law-abiding citizen who doesn’t think themselves a thief might decide to loot a store in the midst of a large enough riot). If, as Gladwell does, you think of the school shooting epidemic as a slow-motion riot, it becomes pretty easy to see a movie about it as an inadvertent way of exciting the mob. If Moore hasn’t made things better, is there a chance that some of his efforts have actively made things worse?
When asked about the dangers of representing violence, Moore responded by emphasizing the dangers of failing to do so. “We must not turn away,” he insisted. “I have said for years now that they should release the crime scene photos of these school shootings. I grew up as a teenager during the Vietnam War, and dead people were on the evening news every night. It was a built-in anti-war movement. It’s why George Bush didn’t want you to see the caskets coming home from Iraq.”
The conversation then naturally pivoted to the inhumane conditions along the Mexican border, and the role that hard evidence has played in the firestorm they inspired: “You cannot turn away from the voices of the children crying and screaming in McAllen, Texas. It’s just like what happened in Europe after someone photographed a dead three-year-old refugee [Aylan Kurdi] who had washed up on the shore — a week later, Germany accepted a million refugees. It’s hard, but we must not turn away.”
So far as Moore is concerned, seeing is believing, but we have to see things clearly. If we can do that, the rest is automatic. “One of the things that makes us different as a species is our capacity for empathy,” he reasoned. “On the flip side of that, it’s not human to be without empathy. We have elected someone to the White House who is seriously devoid of empathy, which means that there’s something wrong here.”
And this, really, is what Moore’s films have always been trying to clarify for the rest of us. Whether the subject is gun violence, or healthcare, or the water crisis in Flint, every single one of his documentaries returns to the idea that Americans don’t feel a collective responsibility for each other. There’s some metastatic blockage that’s interfering with our natural humanity in this country, something that allows us — or even encourages us — to punish the have-nots when we should be embracing them. As Moore put it: “To me, it feels like I’m in the middle of a continuous 30-year film that I present new chapters to every once in a while.”
Maybe, as “Bowling for Columbine” contends, that sinister dynamic traces back to the original sin that European settlers planted in this soil when they colonized the United States in a red mist of slavery and oppression. Maybe, as the paralyzed condition of our gun control laws continue to suggest, pathological self-interest and the fear that it breeds within people are uniquely endemic to this nation, even though racism and economic imbalance have taken root across the globe.
But if these problems are truly as intractable as they feel, and if it’s never been harder to see a meaningful correlation between Moore’s work and the world around it, how does he find the will to keep churning it out? What good is being right if nobody is really listening?
“Well, I want to be wrong,” Moore said, recognizing that his success has stuck him between a rock and a hard place: The value of his voice may be in doubt, but if such a prominent liberal were to throw in the towel, it could be a disheartening blow to millions of Democrats. Worse, it could be something for Republicans to celebrate. “Yes, I think about that all the time,” he said. “I understand a certain responsibility that I have, and I don’t want people to give up. It’s a hard thing to do. It was hard to go make ‘Trumpland’ after I’d just told everyone that he was going to win. Where do I find the motivation to do that?”
He didn’t sound sorry for himself — he sounded like someone being forced to acknowledge the consequences of fighting the good fight to a stalemate. “There’s not a single scene in any of my films that I would want to redo,” Moore said. (However, he regrets not focusing part of “Bowling for Columbine” on masculinity: “The majority gender will not shoot you. If you hear the news and a woman has shot some guy, your first question is always ‘What did he do to her?’”).
Revisiting that film 16 years later, it’s hard to know what he’s supposed to be sorry for. The sky is falling — it’s been falling this whole time. People are annoyed by Chicken Little because they don’t want to believe that what he’s saying could be true, but watching “Bowling for Columbine” in 2018 is enough to make you grateful for anyone who’s shown the courage to look up, and the willingness to shout about the things that most of us won’t notice until they fall on our heads.
Besides, it’s not like Chicken Little is in it for the bragging rights. “I want to be wrong!” Moore reiterated before getting back to work. “I want to contribute as much as I can to make sure that I am proven wrong. So I keep on. I don’t know what else to do other than believe that we’ll succeed at some point.”
“Bowling for Columbine” is now available to buy on Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-Ray.