Hollywood and violence

I love the Deseret News, especially the editorial pages, which is this wonderful, free window into Mormon Utah.  And lately, the DN has been on this amazing Hollywood-bashing kick.  See, the gun violence problem in this country hasn’t anything to do with how many people own guns or how easy it is get hold of one.  It’s Hollywood.  It’s violent video games and above all, it’s all those violent movies.  Hollywood consists entirely of limousine liberals who love to support gun control, but who purvey violence through all those excessively violent movies. And so on.

I live in Provo, quite probably the most conservative town in America, and certainly the most Mormon.  There’s a big movie complex three minutes from my home.  They have twelve screens.  My wife and I see movies there all the time, and we’ve never yet seen the place empty.  I saw Taken 2 at that theater, one of the most violent films made this last year, and easily the dumbest.  Went to an 11 AM weekday matinee.  Place was packed.  To say that ‘Mormons reject violent Hollywood films’ would not, uh, describe what I see happening.

But the larger point is this: Hollywood doesn’t make violent films. That is, Hollywood (whatever one means by that problematic term) doesn’t load films up with violent images because they’re intent on corrupting America or something. For that matter, people don’t go see violent movies–I mean, nobody says to their friends “let’s go see that!  I heard it was really violent!”  They say “I heard good things about the story.” Hollywood makes action movies.  Movies tell stories, and sometimes (often), the stories told in movies involve violent, action filled conflict. Conflict is the basis of all drama, and movies happen to be a medium where stunts and special effects and camera tricks can make really preposterous action sequences look realistic.

And the stories mainstream Hollywood movies tell are generally pretty formulaic and predictable.  It’s mostly built on the conventions of 19th century melodrama: good guys facing off against really colorful but indisputably evil bad guys.  Anymore, a whole lot of action films aren’t even about human beings.  The ‘bad guys’ nowadays are likely to be space aliens, or zombies, or mythical monsters, or ginormous robots capable of transforming into cars (or vice-versa).  Among the most violent films I have ever seen are the Lord of the Rings movies, which are also wonderful films; the bad guys being killed in those films were mostly orcs.  And the good guys aren’t often all that recognizable either, what with the tights and capes and fancy masks.  It’s hard for me to see how a disturbed kid who watches a movie in which The Hulk and Iron Man fight against Loki is thereafter primed to pick up his Mom’s Bushmaster and shoot up a kindergarten.

Movies do not purvey violence, they purvey heroism.  In fact, they purvey completely unrealistic notions of what constitutes heroism. I do think movies and violent video games contribute to the current debate over gun control.  We see it in gun advocates insisting that an armed teacher could have stopped the shooter at Newtown, or that an armed citizen could have protected Gabby Giffords.  It’s the whole fantasy that says ‘if I had a gun, I could have stopped the bad guy.’  And it isn’t true.

Check out this ABC news special.  The reality is, very few people have the training to deal effectively with an armed emergency.  Movies make it look easy; Liam Neeson taking out fifty bad guys to get his kidnapped daughter back.

Horrible incidents like Newtown are news because they’re so exceedingly rare. To spend a lot of time buying a gun and learning how to shoot effectively in case you’re threatened by an armed predator makes as much sense as spending time and money attaching some kind of lightning rod to your clothing.  But it’s a potent fantasy.  I spent huge amounts of time when I was as kid sitting in church imagining what I would do if our ward were attacked by terrorists.  It passed the time.  Then I turned fourteen.

So what about the children?  Are children affected by violent movies? Well, sure.  Watch kids as they leave the theater after seeing The Avengers or something.  They’re all psyched.  Jumping up and down, karate chopping the air. They’re excited. It lasts maybe fifteen minutes.  My wife and I knew this; knew if we took our kids to an action flick, they were gonna be a little hyper for a few minutes afterwards.  That’s about it.

I have a cousin, a doctor, who worked for awhile in an inner city ER.  He said that most fights lasted two seconds, and involved one punch.  Guys had all seen movies, and they think they can take out the other guy with a big haymaker to the chin.  So, one punch, and then both guys would come into the ER, one with a broken jaw and the other with a broken hand.  The hand usually took longer to heal.

Because Django Unchained just came out, and because it’s a Tarantino movie, and really violent, essentially all the Deseret News anti-movie-violence articles have at least mentioned it, entirely unflatteringly.  And that makes sense.  If you believe that seeing violent images promotes violent attitudes (“as a man thinketh, so is he”) and that graphically violent movies also desensitize people to violence, and also that bad language destroys spirituality, then yes, it makes sense that they would hate that movie, that they would consider it immoral.

But Quentin Tarantino is hardly a standard Hollywood director.  What Tarantino does is deconstruct standard Hollywood genres.  In Django, Tarantino highlights the violence inherent in slavery, by exploding the myth of the ‘noble cause’ of the romantic and romanticized South.  By embodying the archetypal Southerner with the vicious, sociopathic and incestuous character played by DiCaprio.  And he opposes that myth with an equally potent American myth, the Lone Cowboy, the western myth. It’s an excessively violent movie, to be sure, but hardly one that promotes violence.  I understand why the Deseret News hates the movie; personally, I found it brilliant.  And moral.

Personally, I think these attacks on Hollywood are a smoke screen.  Gun violence is a problem that the President seems intent on addressing, and he’s made a number of common sense proposals that might actually make some difference.  But those proposals do involve making some kinds of guns illegal.  For political purposes, it makes sense to point fingers elsewhere. And ‘Hollywood’ is an easy target, especially for cultural conservatives who don’t like pop culture anyway.

One Deseret News article called for a ‘violence tax.’ That is, movies would be charged a tax based on how many frames of ‘violent images’ were included in the film.  That’s about how sensible the debate has gotten.  I’m not a huge fan of stupid action movies, though I rather like clever ones.  I wish the American film industry was more known for intelligent and thoughtful movies than for big dumb movies with lots of car chases and ‘splosions.  In the meantime, we can and should work reduce the incidence of firearm violence.  The obvious, and easiest solution, is gun control.

3 thoughts on “Hollywood and violence

  1. Pingback: Robert

  2. Michael Van Orden

    Great points Eric! It is because of people like you, that stand up for the arts and morality, that I still feel like I can have a place in continuing to be an active Mormon. If all Mormons proliferated their message like the writers of the Deseret News articles that you reference, I am not sure I could find a way to feel welcome in the faith and gospel that I was raised in, and that I love.

    In addition, you are very good at helping me to be less judgmental of the opposing viewpoints, and to help me realize that there is place for those sorts of views as well.


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