Days of Violence and Horror: How Did We Get Here?

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Littleton, Colo., took a bizarre turn recently when the irrepressible Rosie

O’Donnell used her clout with the Tony people to propose changing a song from

Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun to

eliminate the offending lyric: “I can shoot a partridge/ With a single

cartridge.” This is one of the cleverest rhymes in the English language, and it

deserves more than First Amendment protection. I wish I could say as much for Natural Born Killers (1994) and The Basketball Diaries (1995), two

bang-bang movies currently embroiled in high-stakes litigation over their

alleged encouragement of pre-Littleton killers.

One can argue that movies and guns are as quintessentially

American as ham and eggs. But when, if ever, is too much too much? In the

deepest and darkest recesses of my soul, I tend to be libertarian to the point

of libertinism, but only vicariously. Yet is the liberty I endorse ultimately

the license for others to kill, maim and rape their neighbors? Littleton has

made all of us in what is euphemistically called the entertainment industry

take more than a casual look at what is being ingested by the eyes and ears of

the population, particularly its younger and presumably more impressionable


To get back to Natural

Born Killers and The Basketball

Diaries , does the fact that I find little or no esthetic or moral value in

these allegedly incendiary provocations make a difference in their

constitutional right to exist without undue legal harassment? In my gut I would

say not, Littleton notwithstanding. But we are talking about pictures that were

released theatrically four or five years ago. In that period there have been 2,000

or 3,000 new movies, 8,000 or 9,000 hours of television programming, and

hundreds of video cassettes, laser disks and DVD’s, not to mention the

limitless traffic on the Internet. So let us stop scapegoating individual

works, which can be cynically exploited by defense lawyers and their homicidal

clients. The legal process requires specific targets against which to litigate.

No one can sue a social atmosphere or a collective frame of mind. So what is at

stake is not this movie or that one, this video game or another, this

outrageously costumed rock act or its rhetorically raging rap rival for the top

spot on the charts. It is all of them put together as continuous noise and


When I prepare my decline-and-fall cocktail in the evening,

I occasionally become depressed by such grotesqueries as the revival of

professional wrestling fakery as a popular though moronic spectator sport. I

had assumed that professional wrestling had died a thousand years ago in the

early stages of television along with Gorgeous George’s hair formula. I must

hasten to add that I do not consider myself a qualified authority on any of

society’s depravities apart from movies, and I have no practical suggestions to

try to prevent future Littletons by changing kiddie movie diets. What I do

propose to do is provide some perspective on movie violence now and in the past

from the confessional vantage point of a lifetime of shameless voyeurism.

Though there is no solution I can imagine, I still remain very much a part of

the problem.

First, there is, of course, nothing new about the complaints

of movie violence and licentiousness, nor of violence and licentiousness in all

of the arts. We don’t have to go back to Plato and Tolstoy to find fulminations

against socially disruptive artists such as Sophocles and Shakespeare. Movies

were thoroughly disreputable attractions from the very beginning of their

existence. Sex preceded violence as the major bugaboo of political and

religious leaders and even as late as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976, people in Hollywood were startled to learn

that the movie was having ratings problems for its violence rather than its

sex. Few Americans have been aware in this century that American movies were as

heavily censored abroad for their violence as foreign movies were censored over

here for their sex. Pope Pius XII once remarked ruefully that Americans were

far more censorious toward lust than toward avarice as a deadly sin. He might

have made a similar distinction between the contrasting attitudes toward sex

and violence in American movies.

Actually, the Supreme Court for a long time denied to movies

any of the protections of the First Amendment granted to the press and to print

culture. Still, while the outcries against movie sex remained fairly constant until

very recently, the outcries against violence rose and fell with the public

hysteria over crime both on and off the screen. A poll in the 30’s revealed

that Americans considered John Dillinger a greater danger to America than Adolf

Hitler. The subjective gangster hero of the early 30’s was supplanted in the

mid-30’s by the deified G-man with the resultant legitimization of ever more

rat-a-tat tommy-gun fire, and all the while married couples on screen were

forced to sleep in twin beds. An imbalance developed on the screen between the

increasing sophistication in the use of firearms and the fakery and coyness of

completely sexless courtship.

The gap between sex and violence on the screen narrowed

during and after World War II with the advent of the more realistic film noir in contradistinction to the

increasingly strained optimism of the still dominant film blanc . What made noirs

and the subjective gangster movies with their tragic heroes (to borrow Robert

Warshow’s phrase), was their comparatively low estate and rarity. These morally

marginal characters with often lurid sexual appetites were not in the

mainstream. These were not the people who won Oscars or became box office

champions. The tough guys and their hard-eyed dames had a following, but they

were the exception rather than the rule.

Life was no picnic off the screen what with the Great

Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, but on screen there was a perverse

optimism about the future. The 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens,

celebrated the World of Tomorrow. Myrna Loy, Norma Shearer and Greer Garson

were Metro’s great ladies of the screen. Louis Pasteur, Thomas Edison and

Madame Curie were honored for their services to humankind. Admittedly, most

inspirational cinema of that period is truly sickening to look at today, while

the dark, devious, doomed figures back then are now in their glory in

retrospect and in retrospectives.

Nowadays, however, it is hard to think of a non- noir project. Try to imagine a happy

family on the screen. Mom is preparing a hearty breakfast for Dad and their

adorably photogenic children. A whole reel may go by before the audience

becomes murmuringly restless. In the second reel there are several

possibilities. Aliens may invade the house en masse, and terrify the family,

and I don’t mean green card aliens. That would be politically incorrect.

Monsters may rise from under the floor or under the stairs. The house itself

may start behaving strangely. If the movie cannot afford special effects, a few

escaped convicts with a homicidal maniac among them will invade the house, and

rape the mother. Other possibilities include tornadoes, hurricanes, a plane or

car crashing into the house. Vampires, werewolves, zombies or stoned rock

musicians might just be passing by.

The one thing that is certain is that the family cannot

remain happy and contented for very long. Today’s first-week target audience

yearns for the gross and the ghoulish. For all their fame and popularity, Boris

Karloff and Bela Lugosi never won Oscars for Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula

(1931), respectively, but Anthony Hopkins did as the cannibalistic Hannibal

Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

(1991). And people can’t wait for another serving with the sequel. This is what

has changed from the past. Violence and horror have become not only popular and

respectable, but virtually omnipresent. It is hard to imagine a big-budget

superproduction without any deadly weaponry. Even the kiddie-oriented Phantom Menace shows a precocious

8-year-old wiping out a whole army with Desert Storm firepower.

Oh, there will be the usual gestures and protestations of

innocent intent. The television series Buffy

the Vampire Slayer will postpone its season-ending classroom violence show

for a week or so, but then the drive for violence-induced ratings and grosses

will resume as if nothing has happened-and perhaps nothing has. Perhaps

Littleton was just another manifestation of virtual reality from the media

matrix that controls us all, and makes us succumb sooner or later to compassion

fatigue, whether over Rwanda, Bosnia or, currently, Kosovo.

I am moved to these musings by the endless succession of bad

genre dreams I have been having lately. When I channel-surf late at night, I

keep finding one hellhole after another with people torturing and killing each

other as slowly and as tauntingly as possible. I never see a peaceful, pastoral

scene of first love, only the most jaded quasi-pornography available at that

time in the morning. It isn’t any one particularly pernicious movie, but a

steady stream of relentlessly malignant sounds and images, a virtual continuum

of malice and murder. Kickboxing duels go on and on with only the most

fragmentary connection to a coherent plot. If so much degenerate detritus can

creep into my busy and well-rewarded brain, what chance did the two losers from

Littleton have?

Days of Violence and Horror: How Did We Get Here?