Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about violence in movies and the affect it has on the populace, specifically children. Film violence is something that I find very interesting; in fact, I wrote my senior thesis on the history of American filmic violence. I happen to have strong feelings on the subject, and my beliefs are simple: movies don’t kill people, guns kill people. I think the only bodily harm that has ever occurred as a direct result of viewing a violent movie is a bruise to the head, an injury sustained by an actor paid to faint during a Roger Corman film. Still, after every massacre, the finger is inevitably pointed at Hollywood, the left-wing smut peddlers who poison the minds of our children, rather than the God-fearing NRA members who think it’s a right—nay, a duty—to own a firearm capable of disabling an armed personnel carrier from a thousand yards.
I don’t want to turn this into a political rant, but I think even the most ardent gun advocate has to admit that gun deaths in this country have reached obscene levels. The whole world watches Hollywood films, yet no other developed nation has the rate of gun violence we do. Why do we still blame Hollywood films? Something tells me that if James Holmes shot up a book signing rather than a theater in Aurora, the blame would still be placed on films, television, and video games. No one ever complained that War and Peace was too violent, but it contains just as much violence as Django Unchained. So why is there blood on the hands of Quentin Tarantino but lot Leo Tolstoy?
I suppose the obvious way to understand this is on the terms presented by Marshall McLuhan in his seminal work Understanding Media. McLuhan describes films as a “hot” medium, meaning they provide all the visual cues needed for a viewer to glean understanding of the author’s intent, leaving little for the viewer to fill in with his own imagination. Books, in contrast, are a “cold” medium. Unlike a movie, the reader is left with minimal visual cues and must fill the rest in with his mind. Therefore, the battle sequences in War and Peace can be “G” rated or “NC-17” depending on the depravity of the reader’s imagination.
Hot medium or not, minimizing gun violence on the screen won’t have an affect because American cinema holds a mirror to society, not vice versa. The violence in films reflect the violent culture that we life in. Sterilizing the violence from Platoon won’t make the Vietnam War any less violent in history or the memory of those who survived it. Yes, violence does sell tickets and put asses in seats, but more than that it makes us question things about ourselves and our society. How do these scenes make us feel? Is it gratifying to see people get revenge? Does it make us ill? I wrote in my review of Katheryn Bigelow’s excellent film Zero Dark Thirty that the torture scenes, when juxtaposed with the horrifying recordings of 911 calls from the Twin Towers on September 11th, felt good at first, then slowly made me feel sick. I think this response was intentional, and mirrored the nation’s response towards counterterrorism operations post-9/11. At first, as our wounds were still raw, we’d stop at nothing to catch the men responsible for this national tragedies. As we healed and regained our humanity, we started to question the cost we’d be willing to pay to bring the terrorists to justice.
Good film raises questions, and I think if a director doesn’t leave us with questions as we exit a theater, he’s done a poor job. Violence—aside from entertaining us— elicits strong emotions and can get us thinking about some of the things that occur in our country and beyond. Filmmakers are generally intelligent people with something to say. Instead of yelling at them, maybe more people should listen.