As is the case with any inexplicable tragedy, a million pundits and armchair psychoanalysts have emerged to “explain” what would turn a person into someone who would enter a darkened theater and methodically open fire on a crowd. Tim Geigner ran down a few of these earlier, and so far the blame lies at the combined feet of opponents of bullying, opponents of Judeo-Christian lifestyles, Star Trek, video games, Occupy Wall Street, and the easy availability of weapons and ammo.
Two editorials have been added to the mix, pointing the finger at violent movies in general, and even more peculiarly, at Warner Brothers Studios itself. Michael Cieply’s editorial for the New York Times never comes out and states explicitly that Warner Brothers is responsible for the Aurora shooter’s actions, but its opening anecdote seems to think that such a connection should be made.
For decades Warner’s films have frequently put the studio in the middle of a perpetual and unresolved debate over violence in the cinema and in real life. That debate has been revived after the deadly shootings last Friday in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater at an opening night showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” from Warner.
While the box-office success of “Dark Knight” seems assured — the opening weekend produced $160 million in North American sales — Warner executives have decided to delay the planned Sept. 7 release of another film, “Gangster Squad,” according to a person who was briefed on the studio’s plans on Tuesday and spoke anonymously because the change has not been officially announced. The film is a hard-edged cinematic portrayal of the police war on mobsters in mid-20th-century Los Angeles.
Trailers for the movie, which showed gunmen firing into a movie theater, were pulled after the shooting last week. Executives have further debated whether to go so far as to reshoot portions of “Gangster Squad,” according to published reports. Warner executives declined through a spokeswoman to discuss their plan or the studio’s posture in general toward screen violence.
To go forward with “Gangster Squad” as is might trigger revulsion at scenes that seem to recall the movie-theater slaughter in Colorado. But to change it substantially or delay it for long (no new date has been set) might seem to acknowledge an otherwise debatable link between movie violence and real events, breathing life into a discussion that is perhaps more familiar at Warner than at any of Hollywood’s major studios.
It’s quite a stretch to contend that an unreleased movie somehow “acknowledges” the “link” between movie violence and actual violence. Unless James Holmes was part of the “Gangster Squad” crew, this is simply unfortunate timing, much like the terrorism scenes that caused several films to be delayed following the 9/11 attacks.
Branching out from this dubious start, Cieply retells the story of Warner Brothers’ fascination with violent movies, stopping to discuss copycat rapists/killers “inspired” by “A Clockwork Orange,” “Natural Born Killers” spawning imitation acts of violence and a few others before winding up at “The Matrix,” tenuously tied to defendants trying to cop an insanity plea by claiming they were trying to “escape from the matrix.”
A few “copycat killers” may emerge for the Aurora shooting or from the movies themselves, an unpreventable byproduct of evil people with limited imagination. In many cases, the copycat aspect is simply a convenient scapegoat for the killers to use themselves: “The devil made me do it.”
After this history lesson, Cieply just lets himself out the back door without drawing any real conclusion:
Three decades earlier, however, a Newsweek writer, in a review that derided the “lethal ugliness” of “Dirty Harry,” also registered the futility of worrying about the bad effects of a movie. Good-hearted pictures, the magazine reasoned, rarely seemed to do much good. “There is little chance that this right-wing fantasy will change things where decades of humanist films have failed,” the review said.
True enough. If positive, non-violent films aren’t resulting in copycat altruism, it’s just as likely that even the most dark-hearted film won’t have much of an impact.
Peter Bogdanovich, director of “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon,” has an op-ed of sorts as well over at The Hollywood Reporter laying the blame for the Aurora shooting at the feet of violent films. Bogdanovich probably has a more relevant take on the shootings considering his film, “Targets,” ends with a sniper attack at a drive-in, as well as having lived through a very violent experience when Dorothy Stratten was killed by her estranged husband.
Unfortunately, this piece (credited with “As told to Gregg Kilday) isn’t it. He sounds completely dismayed and genuinely angered by the shooting, but emotional reactions rarely make for the best logical arguments.
Violence on the screen has increased tenfold. It’s almost pornographic. In fact, it is pornographic. Video games are violent, too. It’s all out of control. I can see where it would drive somebody crazy.
I’m in the minority, but I don’t like comic book movies. They’re not my cup of tea. What happened to pictures like How Green Was My Valley or even From Here to Eternity? They’re not making those kind of movies anymore. They are either making tentpole pictures based on comic books or specialty pictures that you pray someone will go see.
The fact that these tentpole movies are all violent comic book movies doesn’t speak well for our society.
Today, there’ a general numbing of the audience. There’s too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible. Back in the ’70s, I asked Orson Welles what he thought was happening to pictures, and he said, “We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.” The respect for human life seems to be eroding.
Orson Welles make a good, if inadvertent point: compared to the actual violence that was used for entertainment in the past, today’s movie violence is a very pale imitation. And the level of violence in major motion pictures is nothing compared to the violence displayed in theaters elsewhere in the world. If movie violence were truly driving people to this sort of behavior, one would expect Japan and Korea to be epicenters of mass killing. What Cieply lists (and Bogdanovich echoes) is truly kids’ stuff compared to the imagery conjured up by Takashi Miike and Park Chan-Wook.
The problem with all of these theories is that the variables are common to the entirety of the US population. If these are all creating killers, we should be suffering from an epidemic of violence rather than dealing with isolated tragedies. And the issue with violent movies is nothing new either. Concern about the level of violence and portrayal of villains and anti-heroes goes all the way to the Hays Code. Read this stipulation from the Code and see if you don’t find that echoed by the implicit statements in Cieply’s and Bodanovich’s editorials:
Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron)
These editorials argue that homogenization or repression (or at least a return to the “good old days”) is preferable to the current cinema’s taste for violence in light of the Aurora shooting. The deplorable actions of a single individual somehow makes the case that the general public should be denied access to portrayals of violence, because “there but for the grace of God, go…” well, not these authors anyway, but certainly everyone else. Whether its movies, video games or music, the “answer” to violent tragedies is always the same: the public cannot be trusted with questionable material. This sort of punditry is the worst kind. It willingly throws personal responsibility out the window in favor of mass scale condescension.