[This is part one of a two-part essay. View the second part here.]
A character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, observing the ludicrous antics of his fellows, declares: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could / condemn it as an improbable fiction.” Truth is stranger than fiction, reality is funnier or weirder or more awful than fantasy. Real death and destruction are more horrific and heartbreaking than any gory film; no screen depiction of murder, massacre, or war has ever come close to the monstrosity of the event itself. If the violence of this past year were played on a movie screen, it would be far too graphic for public viewing. As Quentin Tarantino said recently (in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross) about Django Unchained: “What happened during slavery times is a thousand times worse than [what] I show.” No scene in Batman: The Dark Knight Rises shows violence as devastating as the shooting at its Aurora premiere; no movie of the Sandy Hook abomination would capture a thousandth part of its pain.
In the public response to a year of at least fourteen mass shootings in America, amidst the debates about gun control and care for the mentally ill, there have been questions about the media’s responsibility for inspiring killers. James Holmes said he was The Joker, and the staging of his crime—“a deranged man in a gas mask opening fire on innocent victims—eerily mirrors a scene” in the very movie his victims were watching (The Daily Beast). There is speculation that Adam Lanza may have been incited by violent video games and movies. Such concerns abound.
While there is some scholarly consensus that well-adjusted individuals will not be inspired to imitate movie violence, Emanuel Tanay told the Psychiatric Times that “some mentally ill individuals are vulnerable to dramatized violence.” Craig Alan Anderson writes: “media violence is only one of many risk factors for later aggressive and violent behavior”—but it is one of the factors. One study by the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that “media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.” Aaron B. O’Donnell of The Chronicle of Higher Education wonders if films like Red Dawn “break down the barriers between violent fantasies and violent action,” and Stephen Marche of The New York Times claims that “real violence and violent art have always been connected.” In other words, cultural observers are divided over whether or not fictional depictions of violence incite real violence.
In this context, I decided to conduct a thought experiment, to ask a hypothetical question: What would happen if everyone in the film industry voluntarily covenanted not to show positive gun violence for a year? If there were no movies, at all, for a whole year, in which gun violence was shown to be funny, cool, sexy, manly, stylish, casual, or inconsequential—what would happen? If shooting people was not shown to be a viable escape from personal problems—would such incidents decrease? If the only gun violence depicted was evil and catastrophic—would this serve as a deterrent to potential shooters? And what would happen to box office sales, movie attendance, the artistic freedom of movie-makers, and the artistry of films, in such an imaginary case?
I put these questions to several people in the film industry. I received thoughtful, thought-provoking responses from Aaron Farrington, photographer and filmmaker; Bob Massey, writer and composer; Nathan Scoggins, writer, director, producer, and actor; Scott Teems, director, writer, and editor; and Chris White, producer, writer, and actor. Their responses included skepticism that such an abstinence could ever happen but an intelligent curiosity about what the artistic and social results might be if it did. There was something like agreement that the movies might be better, and we might all be safer.
Come back to Curator on Friday morning to read their responses.
image from miami.com