Way Of The Gun: Hollywood's Culture Of Violence
, July 1st, 2013 07:20
Following Jim Carrey's refusal to promote his latest film, Kick Ass 2 following the Sandy Hook massacre, Tony Mckiver ponders the connection between real-world violence and its Hollywood portrayal
Jim Carrey has waded out into dangerously gun-lobby and geek-infested waters with his denunciation of the levels of violence in his latest film, Kick-Ass 2. Taking to Twitter, Carrey said, "I did Kickass a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence." Carrey’s unusual decision will undoubtedly cost him professionally, both with the studios, which will not look kindly on the idea of hiring someone willing to criticise his own film, and in terms of the support of fans of movies based on comic-book superheroes, a growing segment of the cinema-going audience. The kind of fans capable of rejoicing loudly and uncritically in Zack Snyder’s toe-curlingly awful Man Of Steel are certain to take umbrage at any slight on a comic-book-related artefact. As if some parent figure still remains outside the door waiting to confiscate any item that offends against good taste, their reaction will probably be crudely territorial and reflexively defensive, rather than a thoughtful response to the suggestion that violent fictions could in any way contribute to the problem of gun violence.
Ironically, the career-kryptonite potential of Carrey’s tweets might be the ultimate endorsement of his superheroic credentials. It is highly unusual for someone directly involved in this kind of movie to denounce it so publicly, at the very least implying a link between fictional depictions of violence and real-world acts. Purveyors of violent entertainments usually find an argument to defend their work, if only the undiscriminating, spaghetti-armed embrace of the First Amendment.
Naturally, Mark Millar, the author of the original Kick-Ass comics and an executive producer on the resulting movies, has responded quickly to Carrey. While Millar expresses respect for the actor, both as a professional and for his stance in relation to gun control, he dismisses any link between Kick-Ass 2 and real violence. His particular defence is mounted on a number of different, yet equally shaky foundations. He is sceptical about the idea that violence in fiction leads to violence in the real world, "any more than Harry Potter casting a spell creates more Boy Wizards in real life." Ignoring the low meaning-value of that defence, we can move on to consider his argument that curtailing the use of guns in an action-movie would "sabotage" storytellers’ "toolbox." In essence, this is a free speech, or First Amendment, appeal. Such a defence certainly does support the widest range of expressions, including graphic violence, but it makes no claims about the expressions’ value as tools or, more relevantly, the effects they might have on people. In other words, it does not allay Carrey’s concerns.
Millar’s principal defence, however, is respectable precedent: "This is fiction and like Tarantino and Peckinpah, Scorsese and Eastwood, John Boorman, Oliver Stone and Chan-Wook Park, Kick-Ass avoids the usual bloodless body-count of most big summer pictures and focuses instead on the CONSEQUENCES of violence [.]" Two arguments conjoin awkwardly in this sentence. There is an appeal to a canon of classic films and, by extension, whatever arguments served to legitimise their graphic violence against the disapproval it surely provoked. Millar’s emphasis on "CONSEQUENCES" would suggest that the fictional violence of Kick-Ass is encoded with a moralising function, as if to instruct the viewer that violent actions, however entertaining, produce terrible real-world outcomes. Sadly, this line doesn’t square at all with Millar’s later insistence that "Our audience is smart enough to know they’re all pretending and we should just sit back and enjoy the serotonin release of seeing bad guys meeting bad ends[.]"
It isn’t, however, Millar’s job to provide the definitive argument on behalf of movie violence. Just as well because it’s eludes him as much as it does some of the moviemaking icons he invokes. During his recent publicity tour for Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino adopted a standard line of deflection that rested on suggesting that the actual levels of violence involved in slavery were unimaginably worse that what he depicted, implying a kind of tasteful restraint on his part. Drawing from the same serotonin pool as Millar, he identified a second kind of violence that his film happily indulges, "movie violence, and that’s fun and that’s cool, and that’s really enjoyable and kind of what you’re waiting for." During an interview for Channel 4 News, Krishnan Guru-Murthy pressed him more strenuously on this issue, asking "Why are you so sure that there’s no link between enjoying movie violence and enjoying real-world violence?" Tarantino refused to address the topic, declaring that "I’m shutting your butt down." In a sense, Tarantino pleaded the Fifth over the possible unforeseen (or foreseeable, but deemed acceptable) consequences of First and Second Amendment privileges.
One difficulty for Tarantino, however, is that one of his own films enthusiastically makes the case for at least some kind of connection between violence on screen and violence on the streets. In Jackie Brown, gunrunner Ordell Robie reflects on the popularity of the .45 among his clientele, citing the direct influence of Jon Woo’s crime film, The Killer.
"When those Hong Kong flicks came out, every n***a in the world had to have a .45. They don’t want one – they want two, cos all them n****s want to be The Killer. But what those flicks don’t tell you and what they don’t know is that the .45 has a serious fucking jamming problem…You can’t tell them shit. The Killer had a .45. They want a .45."
In a more recent Channel 4 interview conducted by Guru-Murthy, Samuel L. Jackson, who played the role of a house slave in Django Unchained, did a far more convincing job of defending depictions of violence in films from the charge that they somehow inspire violence in the real world. He discussed his own childhood spent playing cowboys, his own acquaintance with real weapons, and the fact that none of this resulted in violent outbursts in his own life. Instead, he laid the blame for violence at the door of parents unwilling to take responsibility for their kids, as well as the failures of the social and moral structures needed to instill in children an appreciation of the value of human life.
One eminently sensible reason for filmmakers to avoid publicly considering a possible link between movie violence and real-world violence is the fact that a lot of politicians with censorious impulses are already occupying that piece of turf. Giving succour to that group on this issue helps the gun lobby – an important funder of politicians of both the Republican and Democratic parties – which is more than happy to find a scapegoat (anything other than automatic weapons and gun ownership) in the aftermath of mass shootings. Jim Carrey recently performed a sketch on Funny or Die mocking the National Rifle Association and its former president Charlton Heston, suggesting that the last thing he wishes is to lend any aid to the gun lobby; unfortunately, that may be an indirect outcome of his stance in relation to Kick-Ass. People who are happy to see assault rifles sold without even the most cursory background checks could demand that Kick-Ass 2 be pulled from cinemas. Second Amendment defenders would mount just enough of an attack on the First Amendment to ensure that everyone backs off and no changes occur. Censorship of Kick-Ass or anything else should not be entertained. The presence of these opportunistic latter-day book-burners, however, does give filmmakers a convenient excuse to avoid considering whether they have responsibilities to bear when depicting violence.
No great effort is required, however, to point out at least one way in which the relationship between fictional violence and real-world violence can be at least problematic. There is a clear doublethink at work in some of the stories told by Hollywood, often by avowed liberals who personally support gun control. For example, Lethal Weapon 4 prominently features posters in support of the Automatic Weapons Ban, but this series of films has already fetishized the Baretta 9mm handgun ("Takes 15 in the mag, one in the pipe"), celebrated the marksmanship of Martin Riggs, the film’s eponymous Lethal Weapon ("When I was 19, I did a guy in Laos from a thousand yards out") and made every criminal a problem that can only be solved with a bullet.
Even fictional scenarios that are at the extreme fantastical end of the spectrum create an imaginative climate that sustains the appetite for weapons as necessary protection against desperate situations that have not the remotest possibility of arising in the real world. More recently, TV’s The Walking Dead paints a suitably cautionary picture when it comes to addressing the impact of violence or intimidation within and between groups of people. At the same time, however, the show fetishizes weapons as the only reliable defence against the hordes of shuffling zombies. Consider the following: If an episode of The Walking Dead was to open with Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors discovering a shipping container filled with AR-15 Bushmaster automatic rifles (the kind used in the Sandy Hook killings) this would be framed by the show – and received by viewers – as a glorious bonanza. The drama of such an episode would surely arise from our anxiety that these weapons would be taken from our heroes. If only for the 45 minutes the episode lasts, we would be defenders of the Second Amendment with no patience for the idea of restrictions on gun ownership. In fact, a similar scenario arose during the third season of the show, when Rick encountered Morgan, a kind face from the past who had transformed his hideaway into a kind of armoury. The two men fought and eventually Rick claimed the weapons for himself. For we viewers, this was a happy outcome. Certainly, The Walking Dead doesn’t find a way to square its emphasis on the value of life with its presentation of weapons and violence. The mayhem of this show is like a dramatization of the wing-nut NRA fantasy that "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." In a Žižekian interpretation of ideology, it is little different from 1984’s Red Dawn, which gave ridiculous militias across the United States a justification for weapons hoarding and drilling against the improbability of Soviet invasion.
Recently in an article for The Nation, Ron Capshaw identified precisely the doublethink mentioned above in the work of Stephen King, who has declared his support for gun control. Capshaw rightly argues that "despite King’s liberal politics, his books show the dangers to civil liberties and safety that can occur when law-abiding citizens are rendered weaponless." The existence of this contradiction between the writer’s stated politics and the fictional scenarios he devises would be more acceptable if there were much tighter control on access to weapons in the real world. Clearly, the solution is not to shut down fictions such as The Walking Dead, Kick-Ass 2 or Tarantino’s films, but if the creators of these fictions believe in greater gun restrictions – and they may not – they surely have to find a way to incorporate such a philosophy in their narratives. Jim Carrey’s Twitter denunciation of the violence in Kick-Ass 2, stemming from his support for gun control and his thoughts on the Sandy Hook tragedy, is the sign of someone striving honourably to square these conflicting issues in his own conscience. A wider consideration of the relationship between fictions and real violence will undoubtedly be seized on and exploited by the conscience-free gun lobby, but it should still occur.