For a time in December, it looked as though the nation was finally ready to take on the gun culture. Perhaps you recall the moment: twenty grade-schoolers, along with their teachers and their principal, had been added to the roster of 30,000 people killed by guns in America each year. The details of the massacre were at once terrible and familiar — indeed, you could have guessed them as soon as you heard the first sketchy news bulletins. A murderer lost in some sanguinary fantasy. High-capacity magazines. In the starring role, one of our society’s prized slaughtering machines: an AR-15 assault rifle. And for the families of the six- and seven-year-olds whose bodies were blown apart, there would be teddy bears, support groups, wooden messages from the secretary of education.
On December 21, a week after the shooting, began the second obligatory chapter in this oft-told tale. Wayne LaPierre, the lavishly compensated face of the National Rifle Association, stepped up to a podium at the Willard Hotel in Washington and twisted his features into an expression meant to indicate sorrow. What came gurgling from LaPierre’s throat, though, was righteous accusation mixed with a heavy dollop of class resentment. It was the assembled men and women of the press who were somehow to blame, droned this million-dollar-a-year man who had apparently not bothered to read his script in advance. Gun owners were victims, you see, who had been demonized by the media and the “political class here in Washington.” Oh, pity the man with a MAC-10!
Next came the other parts of the traditional catechism. America’s leaders were soft on crime, unwilling “to prosecute dangerous criminals.” They gave too much money away in foreign aid. They miscategorized certain weapons as Thing A when they were obviously Thing B. Each of these grievances you could have heard, almost word for word, back in the 1970s. They are specimens of a chronic paranoia that never dissipates, no matter how many millions we imprison or how respectfully journalists learn to speak of the M16 and the sexy SIG Sauer.
But this time around, these bullet points were missing something. Matters had gone too far, and the NRA was desperate to escape the blame. But how? Well, if you are a prominent conservative lobbyist and one day there’s a catastrophe that stems pretty directly from your cherished policy initiatives, what do you do? You insist that the world hasn’t gone far enough in implementing your demands. So the solution to the massacre culture must obviously be more guns in more places than ever before: universities, churches, strip clubs, hospitals, tanning salons, bowling alleys.
And should something go wrong in this weapon-saturated world — for example, should someone use one of those weapons in precisely the way it was designed to be used — we may seek answers only within the narrow parameters of the ideologically permissible. Which is to say: We must meet every fresh mass murder with the conclusion that the United States, already home to some 300 million firearms, isn’t weapon-saturated enough. The task before us is to arm not only the guards in our elementary schools but also the teachers, the custodians, the cafeteria workers, the hall monitors. And on and on until the arms race is the preeminent logic of civilian life. Only then will the streets of Dodge City be safe.
I worry that I have not made sufficiently clear where I stand on this issue. For the record: gun control works. It seems obvious to me that, when considering the towering difference in murder statistics between the United States and other industrialized lands, the most relevant factor is the ready availability of certain kinds of firearms. I believe that the ideology of libertarianism, with its twin gods Market and Magnum, is not just bankrupting us; it is killing us. And I believe that Wayne LaPierre bears a certain moral responsibility for the massacre culture, regardless of his intentions or his exalted stature in Washington.
The reason I want to be clear about this is that I also think Wayne LaPierre got something right. In his Willard Hotel address, he tried to get the assembled media types to acknowledge their own culpability for our pandemic violence. “Media conglomerates,” he intoned, “compete with one another to shock, violate, and offend every standard of civilized society by bringing an ever more toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty into our homes — every minute of every day of every month of every year.”
Coming from the NRA, of course, this was pretty base hypocrisy. It doesn’t take much skill with a remote to confirm that some of the most sadistic entertainment ever filmed follows the line of none other than the National Rifle Association. Over and over, we are shown spineless liberals with a soft spot for the murderers and rapists in our midst, who leave society’s dirty work to the big man with the big gun. Indeed, Wayne LaPierre basically gave the genre a shout-out when he reasoned, all too cinematically, that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
But as a description of the world we live in, what LaPierre said was . . . well, correct. Media companies obviously do compete to project violence into our homes. And why is that? Because the American film industry is the second great pillar of the gun culture.
And it’s not just Clint Eastwood’s Smith & Wesson from Dirty Harry, which, as everyone who lived through the 1970s knows, was then “the most powerful handgun in the world,” able to “blow your head clean off.” Hollywood’s cameras adore weapons of any kind, and pay them loving heed in movies of every political persuasion. Think of the close-up on Rambo’s machine gun as it spasms its way through an ammo belt in the 1985 installment of the series, or the shell casings tinkling delicately on the floor as cops die by the dozens in The Matrix (1999), or the heroic slo-mo of Sean Penn’s tommy gun in Gangster Squad (2013), or the really special Soviet submachine gun that everyone lusts after in Jack Abramoff’s 1989 action movie Red Scorpion. It’s the mother of all product placements, and as far as we know it doesn’t cost the arms makers a dime.
Even more delectable is the effect that guns have on human flesh, a phenomenon so titillating for moviemakers that it often surpasses the pleasures of plot and dialogue. Discussing the many, many graphic shootings in his recent Django Unchained, for example, director Quentin Tarantino identifies screen violence as the reason most viewers go to his movies in the first place. “That’s fun, and that’s cool, and that’s really enjoyable,” he told NPR. “And kind of what you’re waiting for.”
In Tarantino’s pseudohistorical revenge fantasies, humans are oversize water balloons just waiting to be popped, so that they can spurt their exciting red contents over walls and bystanders. The role of the star is relatively simple: he or she must make those human piñatas give up their payload. Yes, there are plots along the way, clever ones wherein Tarantino burnishes his controversial image by daring to take on such sacred cows as Nazis and slave owners. But the nonstars in his movies mainly exist to beg for their lives and then be orgasmically deprived of them, spouting blood like so many harpooned porpoises.
Okay, I got carried away there. Let me catch my breath and admit it: Tarantino would never show someone harpooning a porpoise. After all, a line in the credits for Django Unchained declares that “no horses were harmed in the making of this movie.” But harpooning a human? After having first blasted off the human’s balls and played a sunny pop song from the Seventies while the human begged for mercy in the background? No problem.
The movies I describe here are essentially advertisements for mass murder. You can also read them in dozens of other ways, I know. You can talk about Tarantino’s clever and encyclopedically allusive command of genre, or about how the latest Batman movie advances the “franchise,” or about the inky shady shadowiness of, well, nearly everything the industry cranks out nowadays. And to give them their due, most of the movies I’ve mentioned take pains to clarify that what they depict are good-guy-on-bad-guy murders — which makes homicide okay, maybe even wholesome.
In decades past, let’s recall, there was a fashion for viewing the gangster film as a delicate metaphor, interesting mainly for the dark existentialism it spotlighted in our souls. But today, as I absorb the blunt aesthetic blows of one ultraviolent film after another, all I can make of it is that Hollywood, for reasons of its own, is hopelessly enamored of homicide. The plot is barely there anymore. Good guys and bad guys are hopelessly jumbled, their motives as vague as those of the Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza. A movie like The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is nearly impossible to make sense of; only its many murders hold it together. All the rest shrinks, but the act of homicide expands, ramifies, multiplies madly.
And what can we read in this act itself? Well, most obviously, that ordinary humans are weak and worth little, that they achieve beauty only when they are brought to efflorescence by the discharge of a star’s sidearm. Also: killers are glamorous creatures. And lastly: society and law are futile exercises. Whether we’re dealing with vigilantes, hit men, or a World War II torture squad, nobody can shield us from the power of an armed man. (Except, of course, another armed man, as Wayne LaPierre and Hollywood never tire of informing us.)
For the industry itself, meanwhile, so many things come together in the act of murder — audience pleasure, actor coolness, the appearance of art — that everything else is essentially secondary. Hence the basic principles of Hollywood’s antisocial faith. A man isn’t really a man if he can’t use a shotgun to change the seat of another man’s soul into so much garbage. Or if he doesn’t know how to fire a pistol sideways, signifying that thuggish disregard for who or what gets caught in the spray of bullets.
[*] Yet few of them complained about Tarantino’s 2009 slice of war porn, Inglourious Basterds, since the people being tortured so graphically and so hilariously by a U.S. Army hit squad were Nazis.
At times, my erudite liberal colleagues have no problem understanding this. They’re quick to characterize Zero Dark Thirty (2012) as an advertisement for torture and other Bush-era outrages.[*] It’s sadism!, they cry. But the larger sadism that is obviously the film industry’s truest muse . . . that they don’t want to discuss. Bring that up and the conversation is immediately suspended in favor of legal arguments about censorship, free speech, and the definition of “incitement.” Movies can’t be said to have caused mass murders, they correctly point out. Not even Natural Born Killers (1994) — a movie that insists on the complicity of the media in romanticizing murderers, that itself proceeds to romanticize murderers, and that has been duly shadowed by a long string of alleged copycat murders, including the Columbine massacre. No, these are works of art. And art is, you know, all edgy and defiant and shit.
Not surprisingly, Quentin Tarantino has lately become the focus for this sort of criticism. The fact that Django Unchained arrived in theaters right around the time of the Sandy Hook massacre didn’t help. Yet he has refused to give an inch in discussing the link between movie violence and real life. “Obviously I don’t think one has to do with the other,” he told an NPR interviewer. “Movies are about make-believe. It’s about imagination. Part of the thing is we’re trying to create a realistic experience, but we are faking it.”
Is it possible that anyone in our cynical world credits a self-serving sophistry like this? Of course an industry under fire will claim that its hands are clean, just as the NRA has done — and of course a favorite son, be it Tarantino or LaPierre, can be counted on to make the claim louder than anyone else. But do they really believe that imaginative expression is without consequence? One might as well claim that advertising itself has no effect — because the spokesmen aren’t really enjoying that Sprite, you know, only pretending to. Or that TV speeches don’t matter, since the politician’s words are strung together for dramatic effect, and are not themselves a show of official force.
To insist on a full, pristine separation of the dramatic imagination from the way humans actually behave is to fly in the face of nearly everything we know about cultural history. For centuries, people misinterpreted the reign of Richard III because of a play by Shakespeare. The revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was advanced by D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. In our own era, millions of Americans believe in the righteous innocence of businessmen because of a novel by Ayn Rand.
And here is why I personally will never believe it when the film industry claims its products have no effect on human behavior. Like every American, I carry around in my head a collection of sights and sounds that I will never be able to erase, no matter what I think about Hollywood. To this day, those bits of dialogue and those filmed images affect the way I do everything from answering the phone to pruning my roses. I can’t get on my Honda scooter without recalling Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, or look out an airplane window without remembering The Best Years of Our Lives. When I shot at paper targets in the Boy Scouts, I thought of Sergeant York, and should I ever become an L.A. cop I will probably mimic the mannerisms of Ryan Gosling in Gangster Squad.
I doubt very much that we will see effective gun control enacted this time around. Oh, the rules have already been tightened in New York, and the president will gamely joust with the House of Representatives over renewing the ban on assault weapons. But it won’t go much further. The political arm of the gun culture, headquartered at the big NRA building in northern Virginia, is still powerful enough to block any meaningful change.
However, the other pillar of the gun culture — the propaganda bureau relaxing in the Los Angeles sun — is much more vulnerable. Its continued well-being depends to a real degree on the approbation and collaboration of critics.
Which is to say that my colleagues in journalism are, in part, responsible for this monster. We have fostered it with puff pieces and softball interviews and a thousand “press junkets” — the free vacations for journalists that secure avalanches of praise for a movie before anyone has seen it. This refusal on the part of critics to criticize is what has allowed Quentin Tarantino to be crowned a cinematic genius of our time. (When a journalist refuses to grovel, however, Tarantino gets awfully peevish. “This is a commercial for the movie, make no mistake,” he recently told an interviewer bold enough to ask him an uncomfortable question.)
It is time for the boot-licking to end. Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, recently recalled how he self-censored a review of The Dark Knight Rises, declining to say in print that he found it to be “a wallow in nonstop cruelty and destruction.” But in the wake of the Connecticut school massacre, LaSalle explained, he had come around to a new understanding of critical responsibility. “If movies are cruel and nihilistic, say so,” he wrote. “Say it explicitly. Don’t run from that observation.”
It’s a lesson that every one of us in journalism ought to be taking to heart these days. It is our job to say it explicitly — to tell the world what god-awful heaps of cliché and fake profundity and commercialized sadism this industry produces. The fake blood spilled by Hollywood cries out for it.