Hollywood Is the Wrong Target

Entertainment isn’t causing a culture of gun violence--we are.

Michael Atkinson

James Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) takes aim in Bullet to the Head. (Warner Brothers)

Inevitably, the public tumult we’ve been experiencing since the Newtown shootings, as well as the stupefying national argument about why we should or shouldn’t all be armed all the time, seems to have reached its reductio ad absurdum entropic breakdown. Perhaps having exhausted the ways to debate whether the ubiquity of guns in America might be responsible for our ridiculous yearly body count, everyone from Harper’s to The Hollywood Reporter to CNN has followed the lead of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre and begun considering the role that violent media plays in our ongoing crisis.

It’s likely that the proposition has it backward—media is and always has been a symptom, an expression, of our collective will, not its cause

It’s been a panties-in-a-bunch complaint since James Cagney first picked up a tommy gun, and it’s usually made by writers and pundits who know next to nothing about cinema or image culture. Adam Lanza might’ve owned and loaded his .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic and10mm Glock, the logic goes, but it was Quentin Tarantino and the designers of the video game Call of Duty that compelled him toward his morning’s work last December.

This is idiotic on its face, but not for the reasons you’ve been hearing. Yes, the scientific literature has demonstrated over and over again that consistent doses of violent media do increase aggressive behavior in children. But this conclusion is nearly impossible to separate from the quality and sensibility of all other types of media, economics, family structure, education, social support systems and so on. It’s likely that the proposition has it backward — media is and always has been a symptom, an expression, of our collective will, not its cause. A culture-wide phenomenon that entrances hundreds of millions of consumers isn’t a seduction of the innocent,” as anti-comic-book zealot Fredric Wertham called it in 1954. It’s more of a collective lifestyle.

We’ve seen the enemy, and it’s us. Certainly, the conservative impulse to curtail the transgressive stuff kids like — from Wertham’s anti-comic crusade to the moaning about torture porn” in the 2000s — is a predictable jerk of knees. What’s more troubling is the ferocious resistance to suggestions that violent media may require mediation, from those whose main concern is less Guard My First Amendment Rights than Don’t Touch My Xbox.

One may well ask, why should it be so feverishly important to preserve this cultural tendency? It’s as if we prize, in our hearts, the hyperrealistic depiction of bullet wounds, blood, guts, mutilations, automatic-gunfire combat and chilling 9/11-like urban destruction (a paradigm that has accelerated into ubiquity in the last decade, in movies like 2012 and games like Split/​Second). At worst this attitude tends to rhyme with the reasoning and zeal of no-compromise gun advocates — no one, it seems, should ever try to curtail our national enjoyment of high-powered death and mayhem, be it actual or virtual. Dammit.

This is the America that should steal our sleep. That bloody movies mirror our national condition to an alarming degree should give us pause. But it doesn’t. We’re a culture in which, for many, a well-placed head shot is the ultimate solution to almost every earthly dilemma.

I’m not concerned that ultra-violent films and video games exist; I’m concerned that, increasingly, that’s almost all there is. For several generations now, the homicidal reflexes that structure these media entertainments have become second-nature, and other narrative paradigms are being phased out. But the larger reality is that these reflexes are present everywhere in our pathology, in our global politics, our sports culture, our criminal justice system, our weapons policy, our right-wing TV cant, our ignorant myths of our own national history, even in our capitalism, which revels in the conquest over the hapless many by the moneyed few.

Pointing at Hollywood is a joke, when the landscape is otherwise filthy with havoc, and its default philosophy amounts to gunslinger ethos. Why this is so for us — why we as a nation rank number one among developed nations in the number of people killed by guns — is the real question. It’s not the movies, which travel everywhere, from Rio to Monte Carlo. There’s something in the American grain, and it’s got nothing to do with Hollywood.

Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.