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Deeper Into Columbine

The settlements. The spin. The remaining secrets.

Those familiar with Moore's previous work -- his scathing appraisal of corporate greed in his breakthrough 1989 film Roger & Me, the cheap laughs exacted from bullying petty bureaucrats in his television shows TV Nation and The Awful Truth, the rambling screeds attacking callous conservatives in his best-selling books -- will find much familiar ground in his latest documentary, Bowling for Columbine. The film is Moore's most ambitious work to date, a sprawling attempt to explore the undercurrents of violence in American society, the nation's historic attachment to firearms, the racial bias of crime coverage in the media, possible links between economic and foreign policy and school shootings, and much more.

It's also, like its creator, a huge, unsightly mess.

As Moore readily admits, his movie has little to do with Columbine. But not only is the title a come-on, it's also flat-out wrong. It's based on the premise that, since Harris and Klebold went bowling on the morning of April 20 before shooting up their school, one could just as easily blame their rampage on bowling as, say, rock music. Actually, the evidence is clear that the gunmen skipped their bowling class that morning -- a detail Moore's researchers surely uncovered, just as surely as he chose to ignore it. Facts never matter to Moore when he has a good motif to milk. (In failing to throw Brooks Brown's "freshman bowling" claim into the mix, he missed an opportunity to give the motif some actual punch.)

Talking out of school: Once targeted by Eric Harris, Brooks Brown has written a book about Columbine.
John Johnston
Talking out of school: Once targeted by Eric Harris, Brooks Brown has written a book about Columbine.
Unsettled: Parent Brian Rohrbough declined to join in the settlement with the killers' parents.
John Johnston
Unsettled: Parent Brian Rohrbough declined to join in the settlement with the killers' parents.

Some sequences work well. Interviews about Columbine with "celebrity experts" Marilyn Manson and Matt Stone, co-creator of South Park (South Park, Littleton -- what's the difference, really?), prove unexpectedly insightful. The trip to Kmart headquarters with Columbine survivors to protest sales of handgun ammo is a classic piece of Moore mau-mauing, showing the power of the media to alter corporate behavior. Much of the film, though, is preoccupied with oddball linkages that may be coherent only to Moore, such as his attempts to insinuate that the Columbine massacre owes something to the fact that Eric Harris's dad "flew planes during the Gulf War" or to the strong presence of the defense industry in Colorado.

"I'm not saying that because Lockheed Martin is the number-one private employer in Littleton, there's a direct A-to-B correlation to the mass murder at Columbine," Moore explained during a brief press conference between film festival appearances. "What I am asking is that Americans take a look at all the little pieces of the threads of violence that permeate our society. I could plop my camera down in any area, not just Denver, and show the things I showed here."

But Moore did plop his camera down here -- and came away with surprisingly little for his trouble. Perhaps he found himself in over his head with the subject of Columbine (though a triple murder in a Littleton bowling alley months later helped to keep his motif alive). In any case, as the film lurches on, Moore's off to Canada and his familiar stomping grounds in Michigan, pursuing correlations that aren't A-to-B but A-to-Z, with steps B-to-Y missing. Moore's tortured cause-and-effect logic has him chasing down poor Dick Clark, of all people, to try to scold him about his policy of hiring welfare moms for his restaurants as part of a welfare-to-work program. If Clark wasn't doing such a disgraceful thing, Moore reasons, then he wouldn't have hired one Flint mother...who could no longer properly supervise her six-year-old son...who took an uncle's handgun to school and killed a classmate. Clark, to his credit, flees the scene before Moore can work up a proper froth of indignation.

Bowling for Columbineadds a new layer of ambiguity to the blame game that Americans play over its eruptions of violence. The usual suspects targeted after the Columbine shootings -- video games, death rock, violent movies -- have changed little in the past three years, and Moore suggests that their influence is far less insidious than the nation's casual attitude toward guns and its unblinking embrace of the military-industrial complex. But Moore's own list of culprits is so broad, his rap about "collective responsibility" so glib, that it verges on gibberish. When everything is everybody's fault, it's nobody's.

The most revealing moment in Moore's documentary comes when he's jerking around a Littleton home-security expert. The man mentions Columbine -- and suddenly chokes up. For several seconds, he can hardly speak, let alone continue with his sales pitch. "There's something overwhelming about that kind of viciousness, that kind of indiscriminate killing," the man says.

Yes, there is. Some events defy easy explanation, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying to understand them. Sadly, the word "Columbine" has become a buzzword for something dark and inexplicable, while much of what happened at Columbine, and why, has yet to be told.

For related stories please see the Columbine Reader

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