Violence & Tinseltown

Does film violence generate school shootings?....
John Wohlstetter
Letter From the Capitol
January 15, 2013
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On the day that Vice-President Biden is expected to announce his recommendations on how to reduce gun violence, hark back half a century, to 1963.

School shootings were rare, with mass murder of students unheard of.  Indeed, mass murders were virtually unheard of.  In 1966 came one outlier case, when at the University of Texas a mentally ill sniper shot four dozen people.  Almost another quarter century passed before the next major school mass killing, in 1989.  A 1988 - 2012 mass US shootings timeline shows that America's shooting-spree tempo picked up in the 1990s, and accelerated dramatically in the first decade of the 21st century.

Guns were far less regulated--minimally at best--in 1963.  Since 1968 there has been a vast web of gun laws placing restrictions on what people may lawfully possess, and what kinds of hoops they must jump through to be authorized to own a gun.  Thus more gun laws seem unlikely to alter the current mass-murder trajectory.

What has changed dramatically that may well be responsible for the

new phenomena are mental health laws making it hard to got treatment to those needing it; family support networks & civil institutions badly frayed; and a steady decline from the late 1960s onward in the quality of America's culture, driven by Hollywood and other mass media like the Internet. Consider the new hit film Django Unchained, a tale of slave revenge set in the South before the Civil War, featuring myriad scenes of explicit inter-racial violence.  The violence-ridden DU trailer (1:28) includes this grotesque gem from star Jamie Foxx, who plays an ex-slave turned bounty hunter: "Kill white men and get paid for it, what's not to like?"

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan sees potential race war incited by DU--a war he has long sought to incite.  Said Farrakhan: “If a black man came out of that movie thinking like Django and white people came out of that movie seeing the slaughter of white people and they are armed to the teeth, it’s preparation for a race war.”

For his part, DU director Quentin Tarantino defends his film's hyper-violence--slavery was far worse, seeing real animals die on film--including the killing of insects--is worse. At Sunday night's Golden Globe awards Tarantino uttered the "N-word" backstage & dismissed all criticism of his pictures, as reported by The Hollywood Reporter:

"They think I should soften it, that I should lie, that I should massage." Tarantino said, referring to writers and filmmakers such as Spike Lee, who have criticized his use of the slur in the film. The film's setting of 1860 antebellum south, he said, made that impossible, as did his artistic integrity. "I would never do that when it comes to my characters," the director added.

THR noted earlier comments of Tarantino it had reported:

"Not one word of social criticism that's been leveled my way has ever changed one word of any script or any story I tell," he told THR late last month. "I believe in what I'm doing wholeheartedly and passionately. It's my job to ignore that."

And here is an astonishing Tarantino UK interview (see 4:30 - 7:30 segment) in which he adamantly refuses to discuss the impact of DU's violence.  A collection of previous Tarantino statements re film violence reveals a filmmaker utterly indifferent to what impact violence in his films might have upon viewers.  He told Newsday in 1994:

Violence is just one of many things you can do in movies," he said. "People ask me, 'Where does all this violence come from in your movies?' I say, 'Where does all this dancing come from in Stanley Donen movies?' If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It's one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it.

That same year he told the Orlando Sentinel: ''I have no problem with screen violence at all, but I have a big problem with real-life violence.''

He told Nightline in 2007:

I have a little joke, but it actually is kind of true, that kids who watch violent movies -- again, who like them, not that you force them -- but if the kids will respond to that naturally, it won't make them a violent human being when they grow up, but it could very well make them violent filmmakers when they grow up.

He told Fresh Air earlier this month that he sees gun control & mental health as important issues.  The unanswered question is what impact Tarantino's film might have on mentally ill people who see it.  Do not expect Tarantino to address this.  He will remain--all too conveniently--in denial.  (Tarantino won a Best Screenplay Golden Globe Award; given the favorable reference by his main protagonist re the joy of killing whites, count this another new low for Hollywood.)

Radio host Larry Elder noted on his radio talk show that Tarantino had recently said his purpose in making DU was to give blacks a hero.  Elder responded:

How incredibly condescending. You know, there are real heroes — not to make them up. First person to be killed in the Revolutionary War was a black guy: Crispus Attucks. You ever heard of Sojourner Truth? You ever heard of Harriet Tubman? You know what the Underground Railroad was? You ever heard of Frederick Douglass?

Add this to the mix: If only Hillary had given Hollywood bigwigs the imaginary 1999 speech Peggy Noonan aked her then to give.  In PN's imaginary oration she has Hillary telling Tinseltown to clean itself up or others will, noting that Tinseltown moguls & actors insulate their kids from much of the trash they foist off on other kids whose parents will not or cannot protect them from raw, untreated cultural sewage.  (A well-stated contrary conservative view is presented in Jonathan Tobin's Commentary Blog post defending First Amendment protection for violent video games & films, and rap music.)

What of the trope about violence in Shakespeare's plays, where, in the tart lyric of Irving Berlin's "That's Entertainment"?:

Some great Shakespearean scene
Where a ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat.

Here's what is different.  The Bard used violence instrumentally to advance the plot, & theatrically, as with swordplay showcasing player skills.  He did not dwell obsessively on blood & gore; surely he did not think, as Tarantino does, that violence is "cool."

What about violence in all those American Westerns of the Golden Age?  Never in the great films did the hero act like killing was fun--that was for the bad guy(s).  Actors who played both heroes & villains played them differently--compare Burt Lancaster's swaggering villain in 1954's "Vera Cruz" to his 1957 "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" reluctant lawman, Wyatt Earp (not historically accurate, the latter).

Many heroes were reluctant dragons--think Gary Cooper in "HIgh Noon" or Alan Ladd in "Shane"--who finally rise to the necessity of confronting evil.  Violence was not glorified, as it was in the classic "The Wild Bunch" (1969), whose final shootout scene (4:31) is an orgiastic ballet of sanguinary gunplay.  Nor were outlaws romanticised, as in "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967).

For his part, Tarantino also said that he liked the "spaghetti Western" label for his film (Tarantino's 20 favorite SWs):

I knew that when I decided to throw my hat in the ring with a western that it would be a spaghetti western....I like how they tell their stories, how violent, how nihilist, and the operatic stage that they play their stories out on.

Mark Steyn called out Tarantino on the Hugh Hewitt radio show last Friday, as reported in The Daily Caller:

Tarantino is an idiot .... I think in a sense he’s the Mantovani of violence. He kind of makes it into easy listening music. And if you look at what he’s done with the Civil War — this latest film, he’s not in the least bit interested in the Civil War, because that would require reading a book [and] would require doing something other than watching other movies. So he’s used the Civil War as a pretext for his kind of homage to spaghetti westerns. And that’s kind of cute, in a sort of post-modern joke-y kind of way.”

Steyn went on to say Tarantino should not be so quick to dismiss critics who suggest the themes in movies like “Django” are tied to mass shootings.

“But of course in doing that, you utterly trivialize the actual living experience of 19th century America,” Steyn continued. “He’s utterly trivializing that in order to make a film about how he feels about other films. And that kind of ironic pose is not disconnected to the kind of twerps you see deciding they’d like to go out in a blaze of glory shooting up a schoolhouse. That is a film about nothing. And when you have films about nothing, then suddenly you start having violent school shootings about nothing, where people are prepared to kill people, not for any cause or anything, but as an act of theater. I think that is worth pondering, and he should be defensive about it.”

Steyn captures the essence of Tarantino-style violence: its nihilism--Tarantino himself uses "nihilist" to describe the violence in his films.  QT's comment that there is a lot of dancing in Stanley Donen movies (a reference to golden age musicals like 1951's "Royal Wedding" with Fred Astaire & Jane Powell) is the kind of flip wiseacre talk one would expect from him.  It is a sick form of deflection that juxtaposes the gentle with the brutal in film art, as if the two were equivalent in their societal impact.

As the QT quotes above indicate, Tarantino positively boasts about his movie & focus on violence.  What makes Django Unchained even worse than the typical SW is its romanticised racialist violence focus, potentially lethal in 21st century America.  And it is unleashed upon an increasingly fragile American society.  I suspect that even Tarantino knows this.  He simply does not care.

Back in the 1960s American society was mostly intact families, stable--strong enough to absorb shifting cultural currents.  But in 2013 America's polity is fractured, with unprecedented levels of family fragmentation.  Many people, even in this toxic environment, can handle anything Tinseltown serves up.  But increasingly there are myriad at-risk youth who likely cannot.  Exposed to the likes of Tarantino flicks, some percentage--it need not be large to cause major trouble--can go over the edge.

Contrast "Zero Dark Thirty" using violence purely instrumentally, without celebration of any kind.  The harsh interrogations are presented as necessary to glean every scrap of information that might indicate bin Laden's whereabouts.  Acts of terrorist violence committed by Islamists are brutal, but are countered by renewed resolve to find bin Laden.  Seal Team Six carries out the bin Laden raid with grim purpose & due regard for sparing innocent human life when possible.

Bottom Line.  Tarantino's paean to racialist violence is akin to pouring a lighted cultural match on societal gasoline.  Hollywood has bequeathed us a trashy culture, riven with violence (and much else, outside the scope of this posting).  Once upon a time we could fall back on plain common sense, but with societal & familial fragmentation comes lack of the commonality necessary for there to be a "common" sense.  So we drift, and the Tarantino types craft more violent ballets, get insanely rich & scorn accountability for any impact their work may have on their audience.

Alas, for those golden days of Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, and a cast of artistically elegant players.