Let it bleed. That's been the traditional route movie moguls have taken to win the public's heart. In mayhem-happy Hollywood, it's become axiomatic that the road to big box office is paved with dead bodies.
But what becomes of this cinematic bleed-motif when the blood being spilled is all too real -- and the film being screened is a withering indictment of America's culture of violence?
We're about to find out, thanks to the eerie synchronicity that has the nation's attention riveted on the capture of two suspects in the sniper shootings at the same time that Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" begins its run in movie houses across America.
The horror in Maryland, Washington and Virginia over the last three weeks makes every frame of "Bowling," Moore's blistering exploration of America's obsession with guns, resonate with relevance, frustration and rage.
If you've ever found yourself watching the news and wondering what kind of insane country makes it so easy for a madman to arm himself with weaponry that allows him to blithely mow down his human prey from up to 500 yards away, take a look at this film. Featuring Moore's trademark blend of provocative social satire and deadpan humor, it's filled with memorable moments that, in their own absurd way, make a dent in the formidable task of answering that question.
These moments include: a stop at a Michigan bank that gives away high-powered rifles to customers opening a new account ("Don't you think it's a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?" Moore reasonably asks a bank employee); a barbershop that sells ammo; and an ambush interview with National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston.
Indeed, the most trenchant -- and timely -- aspect of the film is its look at the NRA's in-your-face tactics, brought chillingly to life with footage from a pro-gun rally the group defiantly decided to hold in Colorado just 10 days after the Columbine shootings. Standing in front of a cheering crowd, Heston raises a vintage rifle over his head and bellows: "From my cold dead hands!"
The NRA's mind-set is particularly pertinent today as we watch the organization -- and its gun-loving pals in the White House -- use every weapon in its arsenal to try to derail the sniper-inspired push to create a national database of ballistic "fingerprints."
Despite powerful evidence that such a system would be a boon to law enforcement, the NRA has adopted a scattershot, drive-by-shooting approach to mowing down the idea. The technology isn't foolproof, the organization's mouthpieces argue. Ballistic fingerprints can be tampered with. Guns get stolen. What about the 200 million guns already in circulation? And the always popular: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer parroted this bumper sticker cop-out when he helpfully explained why the president didn't support a federal ballistic fingerprinting database: "In the case of the sniper," he said, "the real issue is values." Yeah, like the value of being able to pick off unsuspecting victims at long range with a military-style weapon vs. the value of sending your kids to school without having to worry about whether they'll come home.
The debate over a bullet-tracing system has quickly turned into what the NRA wants: a case of dueling studies. But making the case against a bullet database is getting harder and harder. Even opponents of the system concede that it is effective in matching up bullets to the guns that fired them at least some of the time.
If such a system were only able to save one innocent person from being blown away by a crazed killer, wouldn't that be worth it? Why not give the idea a fighting chance by committing whatever resources are necessary to improve the promising technology? Does the NRA's paranoid brain trust really believe that millions of innocent sportsmen will have their hunting rifles confiscated if they make this tiny, public-spirited concession?
No matter, Team Bush would rather consign the program, which has the support of many elected and law enforcement officials -- including the governor of Maryland (one of two states that have gone ahead and established statewide bullet-tracing databases on their own) and the former head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' crime gun analysis division -- to the political graveyard of "further study." Maybe by delaying it, the president can give his NRA chums time to find the increasingly rare "expert" willing to risk his reputation by claiming there's still a reason not to start this program.
It's funny how the president turns into a raging Luddite when the technology in question runs counter to his -- and his financial benefactors' -- political aims. I'll be sure to remind him of that the next time he asks for another $7 billion to fund his pie-in-the-sky missile defense shield. "Mixed results" don't seem to have given him many qualms there.
The nexus linking art and a breaking news story can be a very volatile thing. In the wake of the D.C. attacks, Fox wisely decided to pull "Phone Booth," a sniper-themed thriller, off the fall release schedule. But those same attacks have made "Bowling for Columbine" essential viewing for anyone who thinks schoolchildren should be able to play outside at recess without fear of being gunned down. I understand the White House has a very comfortable screening room.