Killing as a cinematic art form

The media seem to move on from mass killings more quickly nowadays than they used to, and within three days of the Aurora, Colo., cinema massacre the killer’s first appearance in court didn’t make the front of The New York Times. Denying him notoriety was fine with me, but once the stories of heroism and sacrifice were told and the dead were memorialized, there seemed little interest in learning anything from the shooting of 70 people who had little in common beyond the movie they had come to watch.

Once, slaying 12 innocents would have touched off a national wave of introspection and debate, and it’s hard to resist the scary conclusion that such horrors have quietly come to be accepted as part of our society’s overhead, a cost of doing business. Still, what’s remarkable is that so little attention has gone to the obvious irony that the killer was acting out much the same slaughter that was being portrayed on the multiplex screen.

Raising the issue of media violence feels like indulging in some ancient controversy from the 1970s, and that’s too bad. I think we need to foreground the pop-cultural side of the killings, specifically the ways that Hollywood has drifted in recent years toward sanctifying firearms as the most powerful means of self-validation in action films, the go-to remedy for most wrongs, real and imagined, the universal vehicle of catharsis, cleansing, rectification.

Face it, the most dangerous promoter of gun violence in contemporary society isn’t the gunmakers or the National Rifle Association, it’s Hollywood. Movies are how guns are exhibited, marketed and sold. When did you last see an advertisement from Glock or Ruger or Smith & Wesson? Unless you read a specialty magazine, never.

That’s because the market for firearms isn’t widened and regenerated through consumer advertising. They’re marketed through lurid, breathtaking portrayals of gun violence, lovingly depicted in harrowing detail, as plot elements pivotal to the contemporary action film. 

Cinematic technique has made huge advances in depictions of all violence, from dismemberment to fist fights, but the achievement with guns has led the field. The visuals, as the shooter blazes away, are almost a cliché: Lyrical, slow-motion close-ups of the slide of the semi-automatic pistol spitting out the spent shell and chambering the next round, the viscous drop of the now-empty magazine from the grip, the snap of the new clip as it’s shoved home, the cutaway to the cascade of shells hitting the floor. There’s a grim pornography to the camera work. And then the money shots as the bullets hit bone and flesh.

What was in the mind of the Aurora shooter during the weeks of planning and calculating, while he was figuring out which weapons to buy and how much ammo he’d need, waiting for the shipments, building his bombs, picking out his commando wardrobe?

Do you need to ask? A 24-year-old American lad, marinated in revenge fantasies—how many cinematic montages has he feasted on, the quietly determined protagonist fashioning his straps and holsters, lubricating and reassembling his weapons, squeezing cartridges into clips, DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Jean Reno in The Professional, Keanu in The Matrix: “Guns, lots more guns.” The essence of cool.

There’s a suspicious synchronicity between the guns most lovingly featured in the movies and the guns that make the industry the most money. Once, Dirty Harry packed a .44 Magnum, “the most powerful handgun in the world.” But it was a mere revolver, and it has now given way on screen to semi-automatics and assault weapons, which the industry prefers because they cost more than six-guns and invite owners to burn through bullets by the boxload.

In what has likely been the winningest—and least transparent–campaign of product placement in Hollywood history, those weapons became the norm on the big screen, and back home the punk who might have settled for a snubnose .38 was so tantalized with the far more devastating .45 or AR-15 or 9mm that they became the streetwise norm. (It was a 9mm that the killer of six Sikh worshippers used last week in a suburban Milwaukee temple.)

Hollywood didn’t cause the Aurora slaughter, but it’s impossible to imagine Aurora without Hollywood. And now that action films have become the most reliable money-makers of our fully globalized movie industry, we should look at comparable massacres abroad not as reassurance that gun violence isn’t some pathology unique to U.S. society, but as a sickening reminder that it’s not just here that violence spills off the screen.

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12 responses to “Killing as a cinematic art form

  1. What is most ironic in my mind is that Hollywood and its denizens comprise the spiritual home of the anti-gun folk. Yet, and your essay here makes it obvious, Hollywood is the best thing that has ever happened to the NRA. A shame that all these stars put money ahead of their principles when making these violent movies.

    • edwardwasserman

      A good point, but my own suspicion is that there’s a robust gun culture in Hollywood, its liberalism notwithstanding. There’s no way you could have so many movies that pivot on detailed knowledge of weaponry without having screenwriters and directors and the like who are intimately familiar with guns.

  2. You write: “Raising the issue of media violence feels like indulging in some ancient controversy from the 1970’s, and that’s too bad.” I am not sure that I agree.
    Sometime in the middle ’70’s when I was in academia (professor of history and popular culture), I attended a Pop Culture symposium. I wound up in a rather heated discussion/debate with one of the producers of the “Dirty Harry” series. As I recall, my statements were very reminiscent of your arguments today. What I do remember clearly is the complete and total denial by the producer of any involvement, let alone responsibility, of the film industry with violence in our society.
    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Larry Murray, Big Pine Key, FL

    • edwardwasserman

      Actually, I think we do agree. What I was trying to say is that it’s too bad the issue seems so outdated, since, as you say, it’s just as urgent now as it was 40 years ago. Just another matter that gets kicked around and discarded without ever being resolved.

  3. ‎”All images are real.” — Jean-Luc Godard. It matters what you make and what you watch. Pay attention to what you pay attention to.

  4. Thank you for speaking out on such an important issue. I would add, however, there are also other culprits equally culpable besides Hollywood– nightly news media that focusly mainly on the negative, popular book authors who regularly include the most violence in their novels, and the violent and abusive lyrics of a good deal of young popular song artists. Great applause to you and all socially conscious news media who have the courage to speak out. Let’s hear more!

  5. I read in the Lake Havasu Herald today, your view and I totally agree with what it said.

  6. Richard McHenry

    I read your article about movies and guns in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette today.I am a Marine vet of the Vietnam war.I have seen what bullets do to real people and it is sickening.I have a young son who played those inane video games several years ago. I tried to talk with him reasonably about the real truth of combat. Of course he laughed it off! He is older and wiser now.
    My take on all of this is very simple…somehow, someway we have cheapened the life of another. From the “womb to the tomb “, we are totally unaware of really seeing death administered.
    In Vietnam I watched a family cry after we had killed their son or brother. Just today I saw the increase in suicide in the Army published and the generals are puzzled?!
    Take a look at “War and the Soul ” by Ed Tick. You will begin to see how killing in war literally takes away a man’s soul.
    Keep up your attention on how the movies and games cheapen life. You are on a mission and I, for one, have your “back “.

  7. >>A 24-year-old American lad, marinated in revenge fantasies – how many cinematic montages has he seen, the quietly determined protagonist fashioning his straps and holsters, lubricating and reassembling his weapons, squeezing cartridges into clips, DeNiro in “Taxi Driver,” Jean Reno in “The Professional,” Keanu in “The Matrix”: “Guns, lots more guns.” The essence of cool.<<.

    OH, PLEEZE. What crap. This was a 24-year-old "American lad" with serious psychiatric problems just as the rest of the mass shooters appear to have been… such as Hinkley, the Long Island Railroad shooter, the VA Tech shooter and so on and on. All had serious mental illness which those around them KNEW ABOUT and did nothing. None of these shootings had a damn thing to do with cinematic portrayals.

    • I don’t thnk you read it all, because that was not how I read this essay. He’s writing that “Hollywood didn’t cause the Aurora slaughter”, which is what you’re implying, but he does say that “it’s impossible to imagine Aurora without Hollywood.” And it is.

      I am 100% against blaming movies and video games, but there’s no denying that these lunatics has found _inspiration_ in popular media. Seung-Hui Cho’s favorite movie was Oldboy, and it is obvious that the movie played an important role in how he wanted to “pay back” society. While Oldboy didn’t create Cho’s anger or make him go through with the killing spree, he connected with the main character, just like a teenage girl could have connected with some crushed girl in a teen flick. In Hollywood action movies, guns are usually glorified. They are not “dangerous” to anyone but “the others” and action scenes can often be shot in beatiful landscapes, special angles, slow motion, and various other “cool” ways. People love it. They mimick it, they quote it.

      I’ve never seen a real gun in my entire life, yet I know many manufacturers and models, I know basically how they work and how to handle them. I have some vague ideas of which weapons I would have chosen in various situations. Picking up a handgun I would think “dodge this”, *boof*, just like Trinity does in The Matrix. All for fun of course. I wouldn’t actually point it at someone, I’m not a moron. A lunatic that hates society and wants to kill as many as possible at his work might see it differently. He thinks “dodge this”, *boof*. And when he does he pictures his boss. He then see himself as a cool guy, not the “pathetic guy” that was laid off. It could boost his confidence, just like it boosted Cho’s. Oldboy was the only thing that “got him”, everyone else was against him.

      If you look at the various spree shooters you will probably see that they have serious psychiatric problems, but you will probably also see that they have looked up to the Hollywood action movies. If normal people find it cool when Harry pulls out his .44 and says “Do you feel lucky?”, why wouldn’t the crazies? If I wanted to go on a shooting spree it wouldn’t be caused by a movie, a video game or anything similar, but it would probably contribute to the way that I went through with it, and maybe give me some comfort, like with Cho.

      • Richard McHenry

        My opinion…everyone is quick to say “psychotic”.Then they dismiss it more easily. I believe that life is being cheapened in many ways today and the video games are part of it all. Guns, crowds,etc..were available twenty years ago..yet we are going through an “epidemic” of these mass killings. Why..? To me it is the “big picture”..all the issues coming together now. Want to watch a war..?? Sit tight there may be some news tonight you can watch or take a look at YouTube.

  8. see my OPEN LETTER TO CHRIS DODD AT MPAA in the Wrap.com December search window

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