In an NPR interview last month, host Terry Gross asked Quentin Tarantino if he finds violence in movies any less “fun” after incidents like the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The annoyed filmmaker responded that “[movie violence and real violence] have nothing to do with each other ... [and] I think it’s disrespectful to [the memory of the victims] to talk about movies.” While it seems perfectly logical to draw a line between cinema and “real life,” film’s emotional power can make it difficult to distinguish the effects of one from the other.
Gross’s question inevitably spills into the broader issue of artistic tact. So when independent filmmaker Jonathan Bucari travelled to Connecticut last week to do preliminary work on his film Illness, which allegedly touches on the Sandy Hook murders and their aftermath, it begged the question: how soon is too soon? The answer isn’t so simple when we consider the artist’s role in society, and the cinematic ways Americans have traditionally dealt with our national tragedies.
Some of these horrific events have been easier to deal with than others. Prominent war films like They Were Expendable (1945) and The Hurt Locker (2009) were already in production during the conflicts they represented. Apocalypse Now (1979), Elephant (2003), and United 93 (2006), on the other hand, came years after the events they detailed. It’s clear that the perceived appropriateness of these films’ existence varies from case to case, and any attempt to state a definitive time when it’s OK to make them is difficult.
Yet most would likely agree that two months feels “too soon” to talk about a Sandy Hook movie. It’s especially difficult when one imagines how the town’s residents might feel seeing something so painful and personal, an event they’re still processing, made available for public consumption so quickly. One could argue the same can be said of the massacre’s extensive news coverage, but most draw a line between news and cinema. But, that's a conversation for another time.
What’s largely at issue here is the artist’s right to subject matter. Artists occupy a unique place in our society as purveyors of truth, whether through music, comedy, drama, or what have you. We expect them to say things others can’t or won’t, and to entertain and challenge us in creative ways. Considering these duties we’ve bestowed upon them, how can we rightfully tell them what topics they can or can’t cover?
Quentin Tarantino is dealing with a similar debate surrounding Django Unchained, and whether it’s his right to make a film about slavery in the stylized way that he did. Clearly, it’s our right as audience members to love, hate, protest, or celebrate an artist’s decisions, as much as dealing with these reactions is the price one must pay for being an artist.
So whether or not we like Bucari’s choice to make a Sandy Hook film, we must nevertheless defend his right and responsibility as an artist to do so. No matter how tactless or insensitive it seems, it is his job.