Sunday, July 22, 2012

Guns and movies

There has some interesting commentary at the New Yorker about the cinema shooting in Colorado last Friday.   Anthony Lane made the point that movies don't make people kill; but at the same time, does suggest that if ever there was a movie franchise that suffered from fanboy zeal that was kinda disturbing, it was this one:
 The fuss surrounding this movie did, and does, have something fevered and intemperate about it, something out of proportion to its nature; it is, after all, just a motion picture. suspended its user comments, this week, ahead of the film’s release, because the pitch of resentment, directed at critics who had dared to find the movie less than wonderful, had tipped into fury; Marshall Fine, of Hollywood and Fine, was told by readers that he should “die in a fire” or be beaten into a coma with a rubber hose. Such aggression was issuing, it should be noted, from those who, by definition, could not yet have seen the film.
David Denby then has a piece that is much less sanguine about how violence in movies is now received, and as I have never been a fan of overly violent films,  I find his commentary pretty insightful.   This, I think, is the crucial part:
There was a second element in the old critical defense of violence: audiences know that it isn’t real. Well, some audiences. I’ve sat next to people—often, but not exclusively, elderly people—who squirm with discomfort when vicious or cruel things happen onscreen. They react as if the violence were happening to an actual person—or, at least, their sense of identification is strong enough to make them miserable. But this discomfort has become a minority response. Most audiences, especially young ones, accept violence as illusion, artifice, spectacle—they relish it as play. We are all pop-culture ironists: we know that we’re being entertained by people making pictures and that none of it is real; we enjoy it and forget it the next day. In particular, horror movies with their ghoulish excesses are attended in a carnival spirit. Teen-age girls especially love horror—year after year, they keep it going as box-office phenomenon. The grosser the outrages, the greater the fun. Surviving the movie becomes a kind of rite of passage. They laugh it off and go again.

This willing dissociation of response from violent spectacle has a downside, as many people have said: we become inured to actual violence when it excites us on; we forget that that there’s pain and death, we become connoisseurs of spectacle. This kind of connoisseurship showed up in the response to 9/11, which many people, with obvious relish as well as awe, said resembled a movie, a remark that left anyone with half a brain feeling queasy, if not furious.
He's quite right about the "pop-culture ironists" bit, I think:  it's really the only way to understand how a movie franchise like "Saw" (which I understand to be entirely based on sadistic and gruesomely detailed horror scenarios) can make money.   I accept that the young-ish audience for that series, for example, is not a bunch of wannabe sadistic torturers.   But what I don't understand is this:  why does anyone want to be sufficiently distanced from a movie experience such that realistically detailed gruesome violence washes off them?    This is why I have never been a fan of cinema violence, and can count the number of R rated movies I have seen on one hand: I do not usually have a ready sense of detachment from what's on the screen.   If the movie is not affecting me, it has in a sense failed.    And it bothers me that movie studios, and critics to a large extent, play up to this ironic detachment by making over-the-top films with only rare critical complaint that de-sensitisation to realistic violence is perhaps not really all that good an idea for society.

Denby then goes on to really rip into The Dark Knight.     I had forgotten, but I presume he was one of the critics who first earned virtual death threats from Nolan fanboys for failing to follow the near universal praise for the film.  While I don't have any real grounds for suspecting that I would be bothered by its violence per se, I guess I am always a bit bothered by movies that make bad characters "cool".   (Pulp Fiction is the stand out example where I had a big, big problem with a movie for that reason.)

I don't know if Denby's criticism of the movie is valid or not:  I haven't seen the current Batman series  because, as I have made clear before, I have trouble engaging with the superhero genre at the best of times.   And given that my impression from reviews is that Nolan rarely leavens the bleak atmosphere with any humour or lightness: well, that just gives me all the more reason to suspect I won't like them.  Sorry fanboys, but men (or women) dressing in costumes to fight crime is basically a silly concept;  if you aren't going to have some light hearted fun with it, it's not likely to win me over.

In fact, going back to Anthony Lane, his review of The Dark Knight Rises wittily describes this over-seriousness as follows:
 Be honest. How badly would you not want Bruce—or Batman—to show up at one of your parties? He has no small talk (and Bale, as an actor, has charisma but no charm), although ask him about fear, anger, and other large abstract nouns, especially as they relate to him, and he’ll keep you in the corner all night. He doesn’t eat or drink, besides toying with a flute of champagne. Basic human tasks are beyond his reach; direct Batman to the bathroom, and it would take him twenty minutes of hydraulic shunting simply to unzip. On the rare occasions when Bruce, fresh from his helicopter or his Lamborghini, enters a reception with a girl or two on his arm, he looks deeply uncomfortable, and Nolan, as if sharing that unease, tends to hurry him through the moment. The point—and, after three installments, it seems a fatal one—is that the two halves of our hero form not a beguiling contrast but a dreary, perfect match. Both as Wayne and as super-Wayne he seems indifferent, as the films themselves are, to the activities of little people, and to the claims of the everyday, preferring to semi-purse his lips, as if preparing to whistle for an errant dog, and stare pensively into the distance. Caped or uncaped, the guy is a bore. He should have kids; that would pull him out of himself. Or else he should hang out with Iron Man and get wasted. He should have fun.
Finally, Adam Gopnik writes with outrage about how Americans will likely take no major action regarding any aspect of gun control as a result of the numerous and repeated massacres of this kind:
Only in America. Every country has, along with its core civilities and traditions, some kind of inner madness, a belief so irrational that even death and destruction cannot alter it. In Europe not long ago it was the belief that “honor” of the nation was so important that any insult to it had to be avenged by millions of lives. In America, it has been, for so long now, the belief that guns designed to kill people indifferently and in great numbers can be widely available and not have it end with people being killed, indifferently and in great numbers. The argument has gotten dully repetitive: How does one argue with someone convinced that the routine massacre of our children is the price we must pay for our freedom to have guns, or rather to have guns that make us feel free? You can only shake your head and maybe cry a little. “Gun Crazy” is the title of one the best films about the American romance with violence. And gun-crazy we remain.
By far the most appalling response to incidents like this is argument from the gun crazy that maybe this wouldn't have happened if the cinema didn't have a "no guns" policy for the audience.  That's right, there are a large number of gun loving Americans who would prefer not to think about, say, the wisdom of letting just anyone buy oversized magazines that let scores of bullets be shot off before reloading (as did this madman,)  but instead propose that if there were a dozen armed amateurs firing towards gunflashes in a darkened crowded cinema filled with smoke, well, maybe that would have been a good outcome.   
Just appalling.

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