Is it macabre, in the wake of VaTech, to rent a documentary about American shooting rampages? Maybe. But it's hard to resist the depressing relevance of Bowling for Columbine (2002).
Say what you will about Michael Moore -- and this DVD has him at his compelling best and sanctimonious worst -- he asked the vital questions about American violence that are, eight years after that bloody day in suburban Colorado, more pressing than ever.
We really have no excuse for failing to heed the film's warnings, or engage on its challenges. It's not as if Bowling for Columbine went unnoticed, like some underground anarchist polemic. In 2002, it was the highest grossing documentary ever released -- surpassed in '04 by Fahrenheit 9/11 -- and received heaps of publicity and accolades (Oscar: Best Documentary, Cannes Film Festival: Grand Jury Award). For those willing to sift Moore's irritating chaff from his journalistic wheat, Bowling for Columbine rewards by jumpstarting crucial conversations.
For starters, What types of laws could prevent the next Cho Seung-Hui, Charles Whitman, Lee Boyd Malvo or John Allen Muhammad from acting on their worse impulses? What can be done about the 30,000 Americans killed each year by guns?
There's Chris Rock's solution (aired in the opening minutes of Bowling for Columbine): set the price of bullets at $5,000 apiece. "People would think about it before they killed someone for $5,000," is Rock's simple brilliance. It would take an awful lot of forethought -- I'm gonna get another job, start saving some money, then you're a dead man! -- for someone to kill at those prices. Instead, under current law, I can go online and order a box of 50 9mm bullets at 20 cents apiece, without leaving the comfort of my own home.
Or there's the Fox News-Tom DeLay solution: More Guns! This video game outlook says that if not for Virginia's concealed weapons ban on college campuses, the tragedy could have been lessened: when good people with guns outnumber bad people with guns, the bad people will get shot before they start killing too many people.
Moore attempts to address the root causes -- our culture of fear and consumption, of racism, of the quiet desperation for men to validate their "manhood" -- but he often gets sidetracked on specious political tangents: the fact that NORAD is nearby must have numbed the Columbine killers to violence on a mass scale. And then there's the somewhat gleeful pursuit of Charlton Heston.
Not that Moses doesn't deserve some flak. As the President of the National Rifle Association in the '90s, the golden boy pushed the limits of good taste and sound judgment. "From my cold, dead hands!" he bellowed, rifle aloft above his head, at a rally held in nearby Denver just two weeks after Columbine.
Meanwhile, our national press corps is all too happy sensationalizing insane gun violence. What, besides ratings, could have driven NBC News to such depravity? As the cable news racket picked up the snuff, we were all privy to a marathon of this sick kid's manifesto: a Technicolor nightmare for parents, friends and relatives of the victims, courtesy The Responsible American Press Corps.
The news cycle has moved on. Media has chewed on its mistake and spat out the gristle of guilt. Just another day at the office.
But for the millions held hostage by cable news, the damage is done.