11/10. Bowling for Columbine/Elephant: ‘Have Fun’
How do I keep getting myself into a spot where I have to talk about such sensitive subjects? Why couldn’t I just have claimed my most disturbing scene in film history was, I don’t know, that bit in Charlies Angels where Cameron Diaz dances in her underwear?
But here we are. School shootings. Oh boy. Who’d have thought at the time of the Columbine Massacre that 16 years later there would have been a further 31 school shootings in America? Hell, as I am writing this the news reports there has been a shooting at an American University. A blog post where I talk about pop music and Disney does not seem like the most appropriate place to express my sadness that this is the case but since I am here: Nobody should have to die like that. Nobody should think it is ok to kill like that. The terrible things humans are capable of doing to each other is the hardest thing about being alive.
Obviously a lot has been said about gun control in America and about how the news pursues and portrays these tragedies. Back in the early 00’s, one of the loudest voices opposing the ease in which people can buy guns in the US was documentary maker Michael Moore. His film, Bowling for Columbine, made quite the noise when it was released. He is one of the most divisive film makers I can think of, incurring the wrath of Republicans to the point that many of them would write books and make films designed to besmirch his reputation.
I don’t see anyone doing that for the guys who made the Katy Perry movie is all.
I am not going to lie: The main thing satirists seem to be able to throw at him is that he is fat. He eats a lot of sandwichs and his T Shirts don’t fit. Good one I guess.
But Republicans who like wars and guns are not the only bullies here. I have to admit the first time I saw Bowling for Columbine, Moore’s exploration of the tragedy of Columbine and the role gun control had in it, seemed like a work of certain genius. Looking at it now, I am uncomfortable with some of Moore’s techniques and choice editing.
Some of it is just sloppy story telling, like using Louis Armstrong’s beautiful song ‘What a Wonderful World’ over footage of violence. It really hacks me off when people take such a sincere ode to the small acts of joy we all can experience and trying to be all cutting and sarcastic with it. Ok we get it. The world isn’t wonderful ok?! We all drop bombs on each other and therefore all that hand shaking is nonsense! South Park co creator Matt Stone also criticised Moore’s decision to place his interview next to an animated section of the film, fully suggesting he had created the short for the film. A scene where Moore buys a gun really easily is said to have been heavily edited to create the illusion that some stores will just hand firearms over when this wasn’t the case. But he is not the first or last documentary maker to play hard and fast with the structure of his film so I can get over most of this…
But it is the scene near the climax of the film where he is granted an audience with the very old and very ill Charlton Heston that makes me squirm. I mean, what is he doing? Heston was a gun enthusiast who made the poor choice of appearing at gun rallys as the president of the NRA in more than one community that had recently suffered terrible losses due to gun violence. Moore enters his home, as I recall under false pretences, and demands an apology on behalf of these communities and when he doesn’t get one leaves a photo of a six year old girl who was murdered by another young child by way of a guilt trip.
It is clear Heston is confused and unsettled by Moore’s onslaught and it just seems odd for a guy who spends a lot of the film mocking politicians who tried to blame the likes of Eminem and Marilyn Manson for the attack to build up to this clash of the titans against a dying actor. Hell the title of the film comes from the idea that we could hold anything responsible for the actions of the two young men who opened fire on their classmates, such as that they studied bowling at school. So even if Heston’s life choices in this context were extremely poor does that justify barraging a man dying of alzheimers and forcing a confused interview from him? It seems insufferably self righteous and cruel. This is a criticism levelled at Moore a lot.
Having said that, the reason Moore’s weight and obnoxious personality are often lampooned is because he makes an uncomfortable amount of sense quite a lot of the time. I would still recommend the film to most people as it is an interesting exploration of America’s obsession with guns, made all the more apparent by the recent run of stories where people have died: young, old, accidentally or via a deliberate attack, due in part to how easy it is to access firearms in that country. Moore may have had the power to edit a film together to make the world look how he wanted it, but you can’t ignore the data-feel free to look up the number of deaths via guns in America compared with other high income countries…How many children have to die before the whole ‘right to bear arms’ thing gets another pass?
There are many scenes to choose from that could disturb the ol’ psyche but I’m going for the footage of the Columbine murders themselves. Played over the images of student after student taking cover as the boys with guns (I don’t want to name them and I won’t) and a shit ton of bullets stalk the school are the calls from the teachers to emergency services/help lines begging for help and trying to protect the children and the voices of frantic parents including the Father of one of the killers. I still remember sitting in a classroom not so different from the one on the grainy CCTV footage and trying not to put my head on the desk and cry.
(Not great quality, apologies)
As a teenager, I could hardly stand to watch the people cowering in terror under the desks or trying to flee the scene. The interview with the girl who had to beg for her life…I don’t have words for any of them. I want it not to be real so badly. I get overcome with a childish need to change the outcome, but it can’t be stopped. People died. They went to school or to work and they got shot. There is nothing that can be said that can make that an acceptable fact.
Another deeply horrific thing to take away from this clip is the reaction of the media. So many questions: Is your tone appropriate, NBC lady? How do they already have the diaries of the killers? Do you really think talking to the witnesses that soon after the worst day they will ever live through is appropriate? The naked greed for their grief is revolting. As with the Grizzly Man audio, I am of course fascinated by their pain but I don’t like feeding that particular beast in me. The media have a responsibility to be ethical, a responsibility they continue to ignore to this day.
Chances are you have heard of Bowling for Columbine. How about Elephant?
I regret linking the two to be honest. Because even if you take spoiler warnings seriously and stop reading here, chances are if you ever sit down to watch it you will KNOW what is coming at least in part due to my choice to sit it alongside BfC. Sorry. I am sorry. The film works much better if you don’t know what is coming. But here we are. This is my list and I’ll cry if I want to.
Elephant is one of my favourite films and I watched it free from any knowledge of what was to come. I wish I could give everyone the same gift. If I could describe it in a word it would be slow. Very, very slow. Imagine if Eeyore was a snail and that snail was going in slow motion and that slow motion was on pause.
Bet you can’t wait to watch it now!
Gus Van Sant seemingly gives us a glimpse into a day in the life of several high school students. There’s the kooky girl, the geek, the jock, the bitches, the awkward one etc, etc. There is an arty one taking photos wearing a fork bracelet who I like best cause he inspired me to get a fork bracelet.
There is a kid whose Dad has an alcohol problem and he is sad about it. Mozart plays. There are long arty tracking shots as the camera follows a cute high schooler on his way to meet his equally cute girlfriend. Because they chose non actors for the roles there is something authentic about the interactions. Everyone has problems, nobody is really paying attention.
Then the kid whose Dad has the alcohol problem, John, goes outside just as two kids, Alex and Eric, are going in. He immediately realises shit is about to go down. And go down it does. The attempted bombing and shootings (clearly echoing the events of Columbine) play out in a way that feel real. Perhaps it is because the victims are not just empty faces now or maybe it is because Van Sant doesn’t seem to relish the violence like a lesser director might: it is cold, clean and clinical. There is no real drama, despite the horror. After the two separate and then meet up again they discuss their kills casually and without much relish before one shoots the other. The final scene as the remaining gun man chases down the cute couple from before ends before it is over not allowing us any closure or consequences beyond what we have already seen.
There are a lot of great touches that stayed with me. One of my favourite moments is when John’s Father comes up to him as he stands watching the school and they hear the screams and see the chaos. As John explains what he thinks is happening, his Dad keeps touching him slightly, like on his arm and his back. It just strikes me as such a realistic response in that moment, like he needs to keep checking his Son is there and safe.
It is not all great. The deception of teenage girls in films continues to be awful, the quick introduction and sudden death of one character feels clumsy, the scene where the two killers make out seems to be from a different movie and the choice to have the pair be victims of bullying and video game enthusiasts seems a little shallow but I can forgive all that when it comes time for the car scene.
Jesus, that car scene. I am sorry I don’t have it but also I am not because really it deserves to be viewed in the context of the film. Watching Alex and Eric drive to the school with all their weapons in total silence, I was on the edge of my seat. What could they be thinking? Are they nervous? Excited? Shut off from their feelings completely? Then Alex turns to Eric as they arrive and reminds him to have fun above all else and I literally gasped out loud. It is so far removed from my reality that it hurts. I am not trying to sound like I think I am above these people, like it is too terrible for my angelic little mind to even think about, but I have never forgotten the sound that escaped my face when he said that.
The why, why, why, why question…I can’t ask it. I don’t want to. Of course people want to understand the psychology of killers but in our need to understand are we missing the obvious question of how does it happen? Both films, in very different ways, left me wondering what it would be like to die and kill this way and all I know is this:
It shouldn’t be that fucking easy to lay your hands on a gun.
Tomorrow…A master of cinematic violence demonstrates why he deserves two spots on my list…#9/8