This week’s double murder of two television journalists in Virginia took the relationship of guns and media to a new level. Deliberately waiting until the reporter and cameraman began their live segment, the murderer videoed himself shooting and killing them both — then uploaded the video to Twitter, where it went viral, as the killer intended.
The tactic of using video and social media to enhance the cultural impact of murderous acts, turning them into a kind of performance act on a global stage, is now widely associated with the Islamic State, but this atrocity is the first time I’m aware of such a tactic being used in a murder case on American soil.
It is horrific to think that it won’t be the last — that this kind of self-publicized form of murder could become, and perhaps is likely to become, grimly familiar. Surely the Columbine shooters, among others, would have done this, had the technology been available at the time.
In sharing his video with the world, the killer invited us all to be complicit in his murder-as-performance-act, to make us his silent partners, as the listener or audience always is in any act of communication. To this, the only conceivable response I can fathom is to refuse to be complicit, to turn away — not to watch the video at all, and certainly not to share it.
Turning away from violence touches on one of the many conversations on America’s unique gun violence problem, which include questions around gun-control laws and the Second Amendment as well as mental health and the American gun culture as a whole. I mean, of course, the relationship between gun culture and the media, especially movies and television.
Cue the obligatory disclaimers. No, Hollywood is not responsible for America’s unique gun culture — and no, obviously I’m not offering any commentary on the specific causes or influences of this particular shooting.
The truth is, American gun culture is part of our national DNA, going back to the American Revolution and the American frontier experience; to the reality, and later the mythology, of the wild West, from the subjugation of the American Indian to gunslinging heroes (men like Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok) who defended law and order against their even more celebrated counterparts (men like Jesse James and Billy the Kid).
Guns and gun violence are integral to countless Hollywood classics: Westerns from Stagecoach (1939) to Unforgiven (1992); war movies from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to Saving Private Ryan (1998); gangster movies from Scarface (1932) to Goodfellas (1990); and a wide range of action, adventure, thriller and suspense movies from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) to Casino Royale (2006).
At the same time, culture is always evolving and changing — and in that respect it’s troubling that gun violence in media has increased dramatically in recent decades. A 2013 study found that gun violence in PG-13 rated films, by far the most popular rating, has tripled since the rating was introduced in 1985, to the point that PG-13 gun violence now equals or exceeds R-rated films.
It is true, and importantly true, that American gun culture is responsible for movie and TV gun violence, rather than the other way around. That doesn’t mean, though, that movies and TV don’t exert a reciprocal effect on real-life gun violence. In 2000 a joint statement co-signed by several national health organizations including the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, stated:
At this time, well over 1000 studies…point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children. The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children.
Predictably, Hollywood’s response to these concerns has generally been one of denial. For over 20 years Quentin Tarantino, one of contemporary Hollywood’s most acclaimed auteurs of graphic violence, has dismissed concerns about any connection between screen violence and real-world violence. “To me, in 20 years’ time it’ll be viewed like these old panic books where people are going against rock ’n’ roll or comics,” he remarked in a 1994 interview. Yet here we are over 20 years later and the issue hasn’t gone away. No wonder Tarantino sounds increasingly irate when interviewers bring up the subject.
In 2013, following the Sandy Hook massacre, Jim Carrey made headlines by refusing to participate in promotional efforts for his own new film, Kick Ass 2, even apologizing on Twitter: “I did Kickass a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence.” Needless to say, that has not been a common reaction in Hollywood.
In June of this year, probably in response to some shooting most of us have forgotten by now, New York Post columnist Sara Stewart issued a quixotic “modest proposal”: What if Hollywood took a year off from movies about guns?
My own proposal is much more modest. I’m not saying boycott or abstain from movies with guns. (I would be a hypocrite if I did; looking over my own recent columns for Crux, with the notable exceptions of my tributes to Aardman Animations and Pixar, there aren’t many that focus on movies that don’t involve guns and other forms of violence.)
What I do say is this: Don’t make a steady diet of violent movies (TV shows, video games, etc.). Don’t immerse yourself in it day after day (or week after week, depending on your viewing habits). Limit your exposure — and, crucially, make nonviolent content a regular part of your diet.
I believe there is a lot of wisdom in the last three words of the dictum, widely ascribed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “We become what we think about all day long.” The biggest problem in our entertainment culture today, I think, is not any one thing, but recurring patterns that become part of the fabric of our lives. A constant diet of violent fare tends toward an unrealistically violent, dehumanizing view of the world.
All violence is not the same. There are obvious, important differences between realistic war violence, violence in a serious social drama, cartoon violence in an action movie, horrific violence in a crime movie, slapstick violence in a comedy and so forth.
Ultimately, though, I think it’s important to give ourselves regular breaks from violence of any kind. Violence is unavoidably part of human nature, but it’s far from the most interesting part.
So remind yourself to turn away from the rough stuff, and look for options showcasing human nature in more constructive modes. And let me offer a few suggestions — more or less at random — all available streaming from Amazon or Netflix.
To further narrow the focus, I’ll stay away from family fare and animation, and generally try to avoid movies in which acts of violence are a significant theme even if they aren’t not depicted (like 12 Angry Men) and films with misanthropic or paranoid premises (like The Truman Show).
That doesn’t mean everything needs to be sweetness and light (not that there’s anything wrong with sweetness and light, in moderate doses). Dramas like The Station Agent (2003), Dear Frankie (2005) and Locke (2014) offer complex, thoughtful takes on the human condition in all its scruffiness and hopeful possibilities. (All are streaming via Amazon.)
Among the best such dramas are my no. 1 picks from 2012 and 2014, both from the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid With a Bike and Two Days, One Night, and both on Netflix. (The Dardennes should be better known to movie lovers of faith, particularly Catholics.)
Many worthwhile options are popular favorites. Take the Best Picture winner The King’s Speech (2010), on Amazon. While it focuses on the inevitability of World War II, it’s an uplifting film that celebrates an entirely nonphysical type of courage and heroism, not to mention the loving, supportive marriages and endearing family lives of its two main characters, Prince Albert (later King George VI) and his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush).
Others are somewhat less widely known. Consider one of my top 10 films from 2014, writer-director Jon Favreau’s crowd-pleaser Chef, on Netflix and Amazon — a delightful tale of creative and personal reinvention after a period of stagnation that is also one of the best American father-son movies in ages. While it’s a much scruffier depiction of family life (in a post-divorce milieu) than The King’s Speech (both films are rated R, mainly for language), by the end it’s hard to imagine many viewers being anything less than thoroughly charmed.
Obviously comedy is a likely genre — and while there are plenty of dark, violent, nihilistic comedies, there are also plenty of more uplifting options, from Golden Age fare like It Happened One Night (1934), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Roman Holiday (1953) to latter-day fare like Groundhog Day (1993) and Return to Me (2000), all on Amazon.
Nonviolent fare can be viscerally thrilling, especially in survival stories pitting man against nature rather than man against man. A pair of very different 2013 films, All is Lost starring Robert Redford and Gravity starring Sandra Bullock, are both worthwhile examples. (Both are on Amazon; All is Lost is also on Netflix.)
Don’t overlook documentaries. To pick two out of a hat, Man on Wire (2008) and Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) are among the most memorable recent documentary celebrations of extreme human dedication and achievement. In a popular subgenre, kid competition documentaries, check out Spellbound (2002), First Position (2011) and Bible Quiz (2013). (All of these are on both Netflix and Amazon except Spellbound, which is only on Amazon.)
Obviously I’ve only scratched the surface, but it’s a place to start.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.