21 February 2013

Violent entertainment: if it's the disease, what's the cure?

Thomas Frank has a problem with Hollywood. The Baffler founder and current monthly Harper's provocateur followed up his attack on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and the corrupt politics it allegedly praises with a more sweeping attack on the movie capital's contribution to America's "massacre culture." It was something of a sneak attack, since Frank opened with a more predictable rant against NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre, only to note that "I also think [he] got something right" when he denounced "media conglomerates [that] shock, violate, and offend every standard of civilized society by bringing an ever more toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty into our homes." Frank was quick to add that LaPierre was a hypocrite, though he was so, as far as Frank was concerned, because, as Frank sees it, Hollywood sadism "follows the line of none other than the National Rifle Association." The columnist goes on to blast Quentin Tarantino for denying any causal relationship between violent media and violent acts and applaud wire-service movie reviewer Mick LaSalle for urging his colleagues to speak out against cruelty and nihilism and cinema. You can't read Frank's piece in full online, but Salon columnist Andrew O'Hehir has started a rather angry debate over the merits and implications of Frank's opinion, focusing on the supposed moral responsibility of reviewers.

Frank writes, "To insist on a full, pristine separation of the dramatic imagination from the way humans actually behave is to fly in the face of nearly everything we know about cultural history." He admits that "I carry around in my head a collection of sights and sounds that I will never be able to erase, no matter what I think about Hollywood. To this day, those bits of dialogue and those filmed images affect the way I do everything from answering the phone to pruning my roses." He doesn't claim ever to have acquired an urge to kill from movies, of course, but he implicitly takes a consistent zero-tolerance stand in favor of what civil libertarians and reactionaries would characterize as punishing the innocent majority for the acts of the guilty few. For all that Frank hates the NRA, he appears to have given up on seeing "effective gun control" enacted, while seeing Hollywood as a more vulnerable point of attack on "massacre culture." He does summon critics to the front line, encouraging them to follow LaSalle's resolution to combat "nonstop cruelty and destruction" in print, on TV and online. Almost charmingly, he thinks, or at least hopes, that such a concerted rhetorical assault might make a difference.

Something annoys me about Frank's line of argument, but I'm slightly uncomfortable with my own annoyance. As I've mentioned elsewhere, people have been denouncing violent cinema, or movies that allegedly glamorize crime, just about since cinema began. As one person commenting on Salon notes, the demoralizing effects of the arts in general have been debated for more than 2,000 years, dating back at least to Plato's argument for the suppression of poetry portraying the gods in an irresponsible manner. No matter how far you go back, you can almost certainly argue that there was violence in life before there was violence in art. But as other Salon posters note, the fact that the argument has gone on so long doesn't make it pointless. You can't say absolutely that violent art has done nothing to make real violence worse or the real world more violent. But what if it does contribute, however slightly? If I say the media hasn't made me more violent, and claim it never will, am I any better than the gun-rights zealot who demands from everyone else an unquestioning faith that he'll never become a murderer?  While one important distinction should be made right away -- guns themselves kill, the famous bumper-sticker disclaimer notwithstanding, in a way movies can't -- are free-expression absolutists similarly irresponsible in ending the discussion about art's (or the mass media's) responsibility with affirmations of their personal innocence?

The part that really annoys me about Frank's column is one I really read into it. While the columnist himself calls only for a form of moral suasion from critics, no one can debate the potential violent influence of media without raising the specter of censorship. That subject gets a lot of us defensive in a sometimes irrational way. What gets me defensive is more a matter of my inference than Frank's implication. I feel tempted to jump to the conclusion that, by denying me my occasional screenings of  (for me) harmlessly violent movies, Frank would compel me to watch other kinds of movies by limiting my choices. I'm probably not the only reader who impulsively asks whether Frank wants all movies to be about hand-holding, hugging, kumbaya, etc. If so, I hope I'm not the only one who instantly questioned that impulsive response. Thinking back to my favorite movies of 2012, I find such films as Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, in which (arguably) the most violence is inflicted on the furnishings of a jail cell, and the essentially unviolent Moonrise Kingdom from Wes Anderson. I might also mention Michael Haneke's Amour, for while its climactic murder might strike some viewers as something the director insidiously advocates, its degree of violence, as opposed to its degree of emotional distress, is far below the Hollywood standard. With such films in theaters, do I need Django Unchained or Zero Dark Thirty or The Dark Knight Rises? I might want them, but would I need them -- do we need any kind of movie in a way that justifies our threatened feelings when someone suggests that certain kinds of movies shouldn't exist? That "lure of the forbidden" thing that keeps the Garden of Eden story resonant without religious feeling is probably in play here, as may be an all-American yearning for the maximum freedom of choice and resentment of limits. Ironically enough, our liberal tradition has something to do with it, too, since it inspires us to value means (choice) over ends (the good). For many reasons, that aspect of the liberal tradition may be a luxury we can't entirely afford anymore. But I can't help still seeing Frank's campaign against Hollywood as a matter of spite, a taking out on the movie business of his frustration at the left's failure to conquer American gun-culture. On the list of things that have to change in this country, it's hard to rank Hollywood very highly. But this is a free country, so it's Thomas Frank's prerogative to pick a fight against freedom of expression wherever he pleases.


Anonymous said...

So in the 18th 19th century, were we committing violence against native americans because we saw it on tv? Was it those John Wayne westerns that led to generations of violence and intolerance towards the natives?

Should we assume that John Dillinger and his colleagues in crime became career criminals after watching Cagney and Bogart on the big screen?

Exactly what is the psychological method by which "Hollywood" causes it's mediocre entertainment to rile up random members of it's audience into audacious acts of amorality?

Personally, I'd love to see scientific evidence that the brain rot produced en masse in Hollywood is the cause of the vile, vulgar and violent culture that dominates the scene.

Does the entertainment industry force us to spend money in their cinemas? Do they create a desire in us to watch talentless trash? Or is this a case of capitalist corporate America merely giving the people what they want?

Maybe these losers should grow the balls to tell it like it is: the United States is a violent country, founded in violence by violent people. If our culture is sinking so low, WE ARE TO BLAME. Hollywood is nothing more than another capitalist construct, formed to create product in order to produce profit. We cannot indict Hollywood without indicting capitalism.

Samuel Wilson said...

In the 19th century they blamed violence on dime novels and in the Thirties some said that Cagney movies glorified or glamorized crime. No one would dare say we'd be placid and docile except for the arts, but people always want to claim that the arts can make things worse. To test your point, I'd like to see a comparison with Italy and Japan. Both countries have produced movies far more violent than most American product -- Tarantino wouldn't exist without their exports -- yet no one presumes that they're more violent cultures, at least in the 21st century. While writers like Thomas Frank would probably agree with your points about our foundational violence and its ties to capitalism, this sort of comparison might still be instructive to him.

Anonymous said...

Japan once was far more violent, although it was more class violence than anything else. But my point is that the US is a nation that has had a problem with violence since it's inception. If there were no heavy metal/rap bands and no movies or television back then, whose fault was the violence?

I wonder how long [if ever] before people begin to understand that there are a few major causes for the violence and until those causes are rooted out and stamped out of existence, the violence will continue.

Poverty, intolerance, social inequality. These are three of the root causes of violence. Until we grow the moral character and testicular fortitude to deal with these issues, things will only deteriorate further.