Unexamined Premises

A History of Violence

Writing early in the aftermath of the evil — not tragic, evil — events in Colorado, Roger Simon has laid out some challenging thoughts on Hollywood’s philosophical culpability in such horrific crimes of violence:

Given the horrifying death toll, rare as the likes of Holmes may be, we have to account for the similarly deranged and aberrant. We owe that to the dead of Colorado and elsewhere. Moreover, we should not encourage these events, wittingly or unwittingly. And by we I mean the people who make films (which includes me).

I am not calling for censorship here, nor for gun control laws, but for a modicum of self-censorship on the part of the filmmakers and the film and television industries. They should ask themselves to what end is the violence they are portraying and whether it need be so explicit. Can they make their points as effectively, perhaps more effectively, without the endless splatter and gore?

Allow me to take this argument in a slightly different direction. If you glance to the right of this column, you’ll see the three (so far) books in my “Devlin” series, about a top-secret and very lethal operative for the Central Security Service, as well as the great Irish-American gangster Owney Madden’s own personal memoir (channeled through me) of the most violent days of Prohibition, And All the Saints.  To wrap up this orgy of literary ultra-violence, there’s As Time Goes By, my prequel/sequel to Casablanca, which finds Rick and Ilsa wrapped up in the assassination plot against the architect of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich, the Hangman of Prague.

So you’re not going to find me arguing against violence per se. Violence, alas, is a part of life, and a history of civilization is also a history of violence  — of force met with force, of great armies clashing on the plains, or two special ops waging a secret war in the back alleys of Berlin. To those who say that violence never solved anything, I say: ask Hitler. As Al Capone famously observed, in his neighborhood (Brooklyn), you got farther with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word.

Saving Private Ryan is violent. 300 is violent. Enemy at the Gates is violent. But they are about men at war.

What happened in Colorado was not “violence,” it was murder. The murder of unarmed, defenseless young people, caught by surprise by a malevolent, conscience-less killer who could not distinguish between fantasy and reality and who clearly expected no meaningful opposition as he executed his juvenile dark nightmare. This was not even “suicide by cop,” since he quickly surrendered to police once the director inside his head yelled, “Cut!”

“Let’s just say he hasn’t shown any remorse,” a jail employee told the Daily News. “He thinks he’s acting in a movie.”

A released inmate said Holmes’ behavior behind bars was increasingly irrational.

“He was spitting at the door and spitting at the guards,” the inmate told The News. “He’s spitting at everything. Dude was acting crazy.”

Halloween is violent. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is violent. A Nightmare on Elm Street is violent. Hell, even Chucky is violent. And, yes, they are about murder. But they are also genre convention pictures, in which the audience knows going in that, come what may, the Final Girl will outwit the monster and destroy him — for this picture at least. Morally, there is both pushback and payback.

Movies like Saw and Hostel are also about murder but, unleavened by an oppositional moral force, they become sadistic, brutal torture porn. One cannot claim they are simply throwbacks to Grand Guignol, or that they’re mean to be humorous. They’re meant to be desensitizing. And — this is crucial — they take place in a world largely or entirely absent countervailing authority.

And this, I think, is where Hollywood is culpable. Even in some first-rate action movies — and that includes superhero movies — there is almost never any consequence to murder. Heroes and villains alike leave a trail of rubble and corpses all over town, and yet they wake up the next morning as if nothing’s happened. The cops, apparently, are perpetually clueless and congenitally unable to follow a trail of evidence where it leads. And nobody ever seems to miss the dead people.

A movie like The Long Kiss Goodnight, a fine example of the pre-Bourne paranoid thriller, is all in good fun — the bad guys get what’s coming to them, even if some of the good guys get what they didn’t deserve, and things sort themselves out in the end. But Charly Baltimore can only live happily ever after if everybody agrees to the convention that there cannot be consequences if the mayhem is not real.

Moral responsibility is the fourth wall of cinema, something we must willingly suspend in order to enjoy the show. In the aftermath of Aurora, as Roger quite correctly points out, that’s something that all of us in the entertainment business need to think about.


Related at PJ Tatler: Aurora Mass Murderer’s Self-Description of His Political Views Revealed  

Authorities Searching for ‘Person of Interest’ in Colorado Massacre