Year of the Gun
I had plans for a Christmas-themed blog post, but all that went out the window with the stomach flu. On the upside, however, when I wasn’t in the bathroom getting sick, I had plenty of time to lie in bed and think about the year in film. Yes, once again, superhero movies made a kajillion dollars, Bond returned on the franchise’s 50th anniversary, the hobbits are back and apparently there was another Twilight movie. But my feverish thoughts kept returning to one thing: guns.
Violence, particularly gun violence, has overshadowed everything in 2012, due to the shooting at a Dark Knight midnight screening in July, in which twelve people died and 58 were wounded, and the Newtown school shooting, in which 26 people, mostly children, were murdered, prompting the NRA (National Rifle Association) to both call for armed guards in school and blame violent movies and video games for the tragedy. Blaming movies for the ills of society goes way back; for example, the Motion Picture Production Code (a.k.a. Hays Code) from 1930, which laid out guidelines to censor things such as “brutality and possible gruesomeness” and “the use of firearms.” In the wake of the Newtown shootings, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) promised, in a vague press release, that it is ready to take action. The NRA, meanwhile, went on the offensive against cries for gun control, and in a press conference, spokesman Wayne LaPierre blamed “blood-soaked” video games and, ironically, Natural Born Killers (1984) and American Psycho (2000).
I say ironically because these films aren’t pro-violence at all. The former is a cartoonish – and very prescient – look at violence and the media, how one fuels the other and glamourizes death dealers. The latter is a dark comedy satirizing 1980s Regan America (made by Canadian director Mary Harron). The NRA was obviously making a very important statement to the world, so why pick those films? Why not choose something contemporary that glamourizes violence, such as Skyfall or The Expendables 2? No film series in the word has done more to make firearms sexy and cool than the James Bond movies; the stylized credits for every film feature a mix of tuxedos, beautiful women, killing and Bond’s Walther pistol. The Expendables 2 is an orgy of tough guy gunplay and one-liners, completely glorifying extreme brutality.
Well, as this Business Insider piece points out, the most important product placement (out of many) in the Bond franchise is the gun, and the NRA certainly doesn’t want to alienate one of the companies that manufactures guns and most likely supports its organization. Given the buffet of weaponry in the Expendables films, the problem would be tenfold. An EW article from 1999 titled Where Hollywood Gets Its Guns details the close relationship between gun companies and Hollywood, noting, “In fact, for years now, the adversarial gun and film industries have indirectly been in business together, using each other to sell their products even as they cudgel one another on the op-ed pages” – and there’s no reason to think that’s changed. American Psycho is a safer one for the NRA to pick because main character Patrick Bateman’s weapons of choice are things such as a bat, a hatchet, a chainsaw and a nail-gun. And Natural Born Killers has long been accused of causing violence, including the Columbine Massacre.
The movie is clearly a reaction to violence, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a trigger. Then again, Charles Manson was murderously influenced by Beatles’ lyrics, so do you blame the Manson Family’s crimes on “Helter Skelter?” While violent media can, with certain individuals, exacerbate violent tendencies and fuel violent fantasies, most of the time it serves the opposite effect. One of the best books on the subject is Jeffrey A. Kottler’s The Lust for Blood: Why We Are Fascinated by Death, Murder, Horror and Violence. It’s an intelligent, fascinating and well-reasoned looked at humanity’s savage side and how we deal with it. As he points out, we’ve evolved socially and technologically much more quickly than we’ve evolved physically and emotionally, which means that we’re still driven by those animal instincts that allowed us to survive and flourish. Yet we’re not a Klingon-like warrior society, and that’s because we’ve learned how to supress and channel those violent tendencies into things such as sports and other adrenaline-releasing activities such as riding rollercoasters, video games and movies. So, while The Expendables films are mindless celebrations of violence, they serve an important purpose.
We need our violent fantasies as an outlet to avoid violent realities. And if you think we’ve become more violent, as Kottler notes, consider that before cinema, people entertained themselves by throwing Christians to the lions, with fight-to-the-death gladiator sports and attending public torture and executions.
This brings us back to 2012, though, and these horrific mass shootings. There’s always going to be a desire and a need for violent entertainment, so laying blame and censoring entertainment is pointless, especially in an age where most kids know how to download anything online. The obvious solution is more gun control in the U.S. In a piece for Deadlie.com, Mike Fleming Jr. makes a very important point about the issue. “Those ‘blood-soaked films’ the NRA refers to are now digested by worldwide audiences. Spend five minutes on Google and you come away with some interesting questions. Why is it that in 2008, for instance, there were 12,000 gun homicides in the U.S., compared with 42 in Great Britain and 11 in Japan, where kids are watching the same films and playing the same games.”
Speaking as a former gun owner, from a family of gun owners, who loves going to the shooting range and looking at the museum pieces at gun shows, some of the gun control efforts in Canada have been ridiculous when it comes to things like excessively policing things such as farmers’ rifles and shotguns. But there’s no reason that assault rifles, the weapon of choice for mass shootings, should be easy to obtain. The numbers don’t lie: gun control works. As this article from the December 4 Vancouver Sun points out, this year, the number of Canadian deaths related to firearms hit its lowest point in 50 years. Yes, 50 years... that is astounding.
When it comes to the U.S., though, firearms are so commonplace that even if they were banned for sale tomorrow, there would still be more than enough to allow them to be obtained easily for generations to come. Currently, it’s estimated that there’s more than one gun per person in the U.S. but it’s hard to say definitively because you don’t have to register them in most states.
But guns have been around a long time, so what’s behind this spike in mass-murder over the past fifteen years? I think Roger Ebert hit the nail on the head in his review of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (a movie about a Columbine-like killing spree), which was recently linked to on Boingboing.net in the wake of Newtown:
[I]f they are influenced by anything, [they] are influenced by news programs… . When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory.
To prove his point, I stumbled across this “news” story, published months after the Dark Knight theatre shooting, about a romance the (alleged) killer had with a grad student. It has a huge photo of the (alleged) killer, his name in the headline and link to a gallery of pictures of him. This is the kind of irresponsible tabloid reporting usually reserved for the actors in Twilight. The murderer is given the same kind of attention as an A-list celebrity, so no wonder others of a similar mindset would latch onto murder sprees as a way to leave their mark on the world. The media is complicit. It works.
Most newspapers have policies about reporting on suicides; they either don’t report on them unless it’s someone notable, or they don’t print the person’s name. There needs to be a similar set of guidelines laid out for these types of mass killings, to curb the cult of celebrity surrounding them. I didn’t mention either of the shooters names here for good reason; I don’t want to give add to their notoriety. Discuss, don’t sensationalize. Even if it is human nature to obsess over violence, it’s also human nature to self-preserve, so let’s stop encouraging more shooters. Let’s evolve.
This year brought with it some heart-wrenching, pointless violence, but to blame movies is to fail to understand the problem. Violent films keep violence in the fantasy world; idolizing murderers brings it into the real world.
Here’s to a safer 2013.