Are Violent Movies to Blame for Mass Shootings?

BySteven Paquin

Gangster Squad is a forthcoming crime flick that follows the LAPD's 1950 street war against Mickey Cohen’s mob. It features Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn. The release date is  January 11. After the Oscar season, and far from the next awards circuit, January is reserved for assumed flops.

Marketable genre; bankable stars … why wait for January?

Well, it used to look like this.

Catch that sequence near the end, when gunmen open fire in a crowded theatre?

This trailer played when Gangster Squad was scheduled for a September 7 release. That was before the July 20 Aurora, Colorado theatre shooting. Catch that sequence near the end, when gunmen open fire in a crowded cinema? Sources at Warner Brothers indicate that this scene will "either be cut completely or at least extensively reworked." After pulling the trailer from silver screens and the web, Warner Brothers rescheduled the premier for 2013, assumedly to allow for reshoots.

Hollywood responded similarly to the Connecticut elementary school massacre.

Though probably sensible business decisions, these changes are overwhelmingly trite. Talking-heads like Joe Scarborough and Bill O'Reilly demand more. They support substantial reforms to greatly reduce the violence depicted in "mind-numbing … gruesome Hollywood movies." This is equally banal.

To debate censorship and gun control as solutions to mass shootings ignores the problem. Imagine every morning you trip on the way out the front door. Falling, your knee crashes onto the cement walkway. Your friend tells you to carpet the footpath, but you firmly stand by your desire for cement. Regardless of the material, you will continue banging your knee into the ground.

Violence in film, let alone general storytelling, does not foster the environment or mentality for mass shootings. Gratuitous or not, violence has been an essential characteristic of cinema, since the medium's inception. In his infinitely impressive essay Violence and the Media, writer-director Michael Haneke points out that "the western, crime, war, adventure, and horror genres define themselves in no small part through violence," and that "the word 'action,' which precedes the filming of every take, has fused with the word film … as a synonym for violent spectacle." To try and remove aggression from motion pictures is both futile and foolish.

Of course, cinema does help cultivate a culture of violence; however, responsibility falls more with theme than aggression. In short, movies control the human mind. That is the purpose of storytelling. It creates myths that instruct audiences in their society's mores. Film is particularly influencing because, as Haneke notes, visual storytelling "reflect[s] and simulate[s] an almost complete impression of reality." For passive viewers, who do not engage the moving picture, separating fiction, even simple, escapist entertainment, from reality, becomes near impossible. Specifically, Haneke points to an early piece of cinema, to illustrate the medium’s tradition of powerful persuasion.

When viewers first saw the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895), they leapt from their seats, away from the screen, for fear the train would crush them. Haneke, along with cinephiles, historians, critics, and artists cite this story, as an example of the motion picture's spectacular potential.  

That's all it is though. A story. Probably.

"Martin Loiperdinger, Tom Gunning, and other film historians have made a variety of convincing cases against it." The myth most likely comes from cinema itself. In 1902, Edison Studios released Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show, a brilliant short flick, utilizing clips from an earlier production entitled New Diamond Express (1900), which was nothing more than a carbon copy of La Ciotat.

When Uncle Josh first sees New Diamond Express, he leaps away from the screen, for fear the train will crush him. The theme of this obscure picture, rarely discussed in film history, is that only the ignorant believe the moving pictures are real. Uncle Josh is a country bumpkin, who along with "other rube stories…trained [early film audiences] against the wrong way to respond to illusions." However, the visual is so potent that viewers, critics, and historians believed it must have happened, in reality, at the La Ciotat premiere. Uncle Josh made generations of cinephiles just like him – simple-minded, easily-tricked fools. Essentially, Haneke's historical mistake only proves his point about the formidable impression cinema leaves in the mind.

So, why do we keep tripping? Look to our modern myths.

Cowboy Cops break every rule, regulation, and sense of moral decency to get the bad guy. They are depicted as heroes, and badge excuses all their vices.

Most Cowboy Cops also have Hero Insurance which allows the protagonist, often a Cowboy Cop, to destroy everything in his path, as long as he is being, or at least depicted, heroically.

Parental Abandonment often leads to the earlier tropes. The hero's parents are either dead or absent, leaving the protagonist both embittered and liberated. He releases his frustration by punishing the corrupt, which excuses the unresolved psychological trauma left by the loss of his parents.

What do these myths teach? Violence is beautiful, masculine, empowering, and emancipating. Fear, anxiety, distrust, confusion, weakness, anger, hatred, justice, and the greater good are all acceptable reasons for aggression. Thievery, murder, torture, and kidnapping are tolerable, if the person is a "hero" or "authority."

Is there any wonder why there are school shootings? Does this explain the massive military and prison industrial complexes? Are the War on Drugs, War on Terror, War on ... comprehensible now?

The culture of violence is populated by orphan "heroes" like Luke Skywalker, Bruce Wayne, Harry Potter, Peter Parker, and James Bond, who find the best way to grieve for the physical and/or moral desertion of their parents is by fighting others, and using a warrior's code, mask, popularity, special abilities, or a license to kill, as a shield from responsibility.

Unfortunately, by the time a viewer sits before the silver screen, it is too late. If film were responsible for real world violence, then the most recent log starts an already burning fire. Those who cultivate sociopathy are closer than you may think, and censorship only improves their efficiency.

Better stories will help. Audiences need unique and intelligent myths that challenge society’s assumptions about violence. Unfortunately, these flicks only come from independent circles, and obviously Hollywood will not change. As Haneke tells us, "the salesman who defines and produces film as a commodity knows that violence is only … a good sell when it is deprived of that which is the true measure of its existence in reality … fears remain non-consumable and are bad for business."

Does rescheduling Gangster Squad make Hollywood sensitive and responsible? Regardless, the picture will still be "inspired by a true story" about Cowboy Cops, with extensive Hero Insurance, who "save the law" by "break[ing] it." Hollywood simply put a six-month buffer between this familiar myth and "the true measure of [violence’s] existence in reality."