From Oliver Stone to Quentin Tarantino to Clint Eastwood, many of our best-known filmmakers have trafficked in extreme, sometimes even gratuitous, violence. It has long been their contention, and those of others, that violence in film does not beget violence in life.
As the mass murder in Colorado has shown, they were wrong. Yes, normal people are able to separate illusion from reality, but for the criminally insane like James Holmes, it is quite clear that ultra-violent films can act as an inspiration for unspeakable acts.
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?
The Greek dramatists, interestingly, kept their violence offstage. Oedipus appeared with his eyes already out. We did not see him yanking them from his face, yet we knew and know the terrifying act that occurred and its import. Shakespeare too was not graphic in modern terms, even in King Lear.
Only in the modern era of the cinema, however, have we had the potential to be explicit in these matters, but great films have exercised restraint in their portrayal of violence. Hitchcock’s Psycho and Fritz Lang’s M (about a serial killer), scary as they may be, are considerably less explicit than Natural Born Killers and considerably better artistically as well, yet it is Natural Born Killers that is said to have inspired copycat crimes. Screen violence always has the potential to glamorize mass murder. After all, it’s on the screen — where so many want to be. It is indeed time to exercise restraint.
But none of this is simple. We are in the realm of the diciest of judgment calls. And some of what I am writing is colored by the events of early this morning. Still, I wouldn’t want to be an executive at Warner Brothers today. Or one of the filmmakers of the latest Dark Knight. If I were, I would have a lot of sleepless nights ahead.