Watching the live television coverage of the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado, I was struck by a statement made by one of the survivors, who saw a young girl covered in blood with apparent bullet wounds in her legs. "I don't ever want to see something like that again," he said with tears in his eyes. Yet he had gone to the theater to see precisely that, and much worse, on the movie screen.
If there is one thing that the motion picture has proven itself to be particularly adept at, aside from what James Agee called "illuminating the bottoms of the souls of human beings", it is the realistic representation of violence. The American film in particular has shown an alacrity for guns and explosions. One of the most memorable scenes in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, which turns 100 in 2015, is a Civil War battle scene in which a Confederate army wins.
One Hollywood studio, Warner Brothers, made crime and violence its staple in the 1930s with films like Little Caesar and Public Enemy. The violence of these films helped establish the Hays Office, which thereafter, and until the 1960s, censored Hollywood films. When such censorship was dropped, and filmmakers began to explore formerly taboo material, critics began to wonder if there was any correlation between movie violence and violence in society.
It is by now a very old argument that simply won't go away. Does the film like Bonnie and Clyde, which was one of the films that started the ball rolling, inspire violence in society? At the time (1968), Wilfrid Sheed noticed the pandemonium in that Los Angeles hotel when Sirhan Sirhan opened fire on Bobby Kennedy. The people there had no difficulty recognizing the difference between the guns blazing away on the movie screen and the one handgun pumping lead at a candidate for president, and anyone else standing close by. Sheed concluded that "A kick in the groin is quite different from a pretty picture of one."
The audience in Aurora that had gathered to watch a special midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises last Friday was slow to react to the man who kicked open the exit door in the front of the theater and started shooting. Some said that they mistook his appearance for a stunt staged as part of the show. Then the teargas canister - or whatever it was - exploded and real shrapnel and bullets started flying. I imagine the crowd would've reacted more quickly if they had come to see Eat Pray Love. A television news anchor asked a movie critic if the slaughter in Aurora would affect ticket sales for The Dark Knight Rises. He said he didn't think that it would. Today it was announced that it had the highest-grossing weekend opening of all time.
I have been critical of filmmakers who choose to explore the lives of sociopaths - people who are very far removed from their experience. Martin Scorsese has led a circumspectly civilized life, and yet he makes films about unhinged murderers, and many critics, vicarious murderers themselves, praise his work unreservedly. The first two Godfather films are routinely voted into Top Ten lists of all-time great films, alongside Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane. The Godfather(s) explore the hierarchy of the Sicilian-American Mafia with a degree of familiarity and sympathy that for their director, Francis Ford Coppola, had to have been an act of pure imagination (unless you want to attribute it to the trash novel on which it's based) - the same way a science fiction writer might describe life in the distant future.
It isn't so much the influence that violent films inflict on society that bothers me so much as the estheticized violence one finds in them. Sam Peckinpah, who had what John Simon a "Wagerian sense of violence", was one of the first directors to take a fresh look at violence in films. He didn't invent the slow-motion, almost balletic representation of violent death that one finds in abundance in his masterpiece The Wild Bunch, but he certainly raised it to its highest level. But in later interviews he regretted this, and feared that, in looking at such violence so abstractly, he may have glamorized it to some extent.
It's one thing to glamorize violence, to make it look strangely beautiful, and to glamorize the monsters who inflict it on one another, which is what The Godfather(s) do. In Goodfellas, to Martin Scorsese's credit, there is a great emphasis on murder, but there is never a suggestion that any of the people doing the murdering are anything but the most deplorable criminals. Bonnie and Clyde had to get close to its subjects, but in so doing showed us what a pair of stupid losers they really were, and quite deserving of their bloody fate.
The new Batman movie wreaks havoc on a humanity that is meant to resemble the real thing. As the makers of these desperately silly movies have discovered, it is only the extent to which they approximate to real people that the audience cares what becomes of them. Bruce Wayne is so manifestly psychotic that it is only his vast wealth that enables him to live in actual castles in the air. He can give substance to his insane fantasy life in ways that some of the worst fans of these movies can only dream of. If there is an act of identification going on in the audience, I shudder to think about it.
In the days immediately following the shootings in Aurora, experts were giving parents advice about how to explain the event to their children. Unless their children are very young, in which case it's a bad idea to even try to explain it to them, I suspect that children, who are exposed to such violence in films, on TV, and in computer games all the time, have already figured it out. This is a world, after all, in which Anders Breivik, who shot and killed 69 people a year ago in Norway, has been certified sane.