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Target Shooting: Michael Moore takes aim at gun nuts in his new documentary.

Mondo Blammo

Michael Moore tries to investigate gun violence in 'Bowling for Columbine'

By Richard von Busack

THE TRAILERS for Jackass: The Movie show a game of human bowling, with a crash-helmeted stunt-idiot sliding down the lane, knocking over the pins with his noggin. Weirdly, the technique isn't that different from Michael Moore's own reportorial method. The way Moore aims, you'd never bowl with him--you might end up in the emergency room.

Bowling for Columbine is Moore's investigation of the Columbine High School shooting spree, and the title comes from a keen, sick joke. With all of the explanations for the incident--Satan, Marilyn Manson, violent media, bad karma from previous lives--commentators neglected the sinister fact that both of the killers had, on the morning of April 20, 1999, gone bowling. Could lane-splitting have contributed to the rampage?

That's an idea, but it's not even really the hook for Moore's documentary. In this political satire of the American lust for guns, Moore uses a scatter-gun approach, hitting some of his targets and wounding bystanders.

Moore interviews animator Trey Parker, who knew the Littleton, Colo., milieu and used it as a source for his cartoon hit South Park. Visiting the Denver suburb, we note that the Columbine High School football team is the Rebels, and that their mascot bears a musket. The fact that Lockheed runs a plant nearby allows Moore to draw a connection between gun violence and our own invasive foreign policy since World War II--an outrage all its own but not quite on the subject.

Amid the odds and ends of this movie, Moore zeroes in on our shameful tolerance of the immense number of gun casualties, by paralleling our butcher's bill with the tiny amount of gun deaths in Canada.

Do we have violence because our history is too bloody to overcome, because there are too many different ethnicities to get along? These half-baked ideas get the lampooning they deserve. Moore suggests some alternative reasons: for instance, television news, which avidly covers every bloody homicide in a 500-mile radius, so that people buy guns and hole up, terrified to stick their heads out of their homes at night. Then they curl up and watch more television, which may have been the scheme all along.

One can agree with the roly-poly gadfly on so many points and yet be so very alienated by his methods that it's sometimes too embarrassing to watch the screen. Moore's style in Roger & Me had a broader cinematic scope. Bowling for Columbine, like his various TV shows and specials, works in fits and starts. Take the cartoon of an animated bullet telling a Mad TV history of the United States. likening the NRA to the Ku Klux Klan. This sequence just muddies the waters, patronizing the audience. (It would be way too broad for South Park.)

The worst of this film is the section that Moore obviously considered his best nugget: NRA spokesman Charlton Heston confronted at his home. Moore corners the old man, trying to force him to look at the photo of Kayla Rolland, a little girl shot with a handgun wielded by a fellow 6-year-old in class. It's unforgivable grandstanding. Moore's confrontation demonstrates why Americans keep shotguns at their houses: not to shoot, necessarily, but to have at hand to wave at intruders.

An activist's only hope for sanity lies in following one simple rule: avoid the secondary boycott. For example, a crusading vegetarian would have reason to picket the Harris Ranch feedlot on Interstate 5, a.k.a. "Cowschwitz." However, picketing every Safeway that sells steaks makes you a crank. And the crankiness of Bowling for Columbine is that Moore uses the secondary boycott by pressuring figures like Heston, instead of the NRA lobbyists who actually make some decisions. Or, as Moore also does, by pestering flacks for Kmart, which formerly sold bullets, instead of the bullet makers and gun manufacturers.

Incidentally, I was on vacation in San Diego on March 5, 2001, which was the day a kid named Charles "Andy" Williams shot up Santee High School with his father's handgun, murdering two and injuring 13. My wife and I were at the wharf at Ocean Beach, and we ran into a girl wearing a Santee High School sweatshirt, her face swollen with weeping, as she was steered down the path by an older man. This encounter moved me, but I can't use it to make a logical case that gun nuts are destroying this nation, even if I share Moore's belief that they are.

Bowling for Columbine is passionate. I just wish it were more persuasive, because the people who need their minds changed aren't going to be moved by emotion or ridicule.

Bowling for Columbine (R; 119 min.), a documentary by Michael Moore, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose and selected theaters.

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From the October 17-23, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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