Easy Chair — From the March 2013 issue

Blood Sport

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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.

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