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Hollywood's Gun Trouble
A spectacle hanging over the culture of a whole industry
I wanted to write a column at this moment on Hollywood and gun violence like I want to be made to rewatch the final season of Nip/Tuck. Trying to express something coherent out of rage and hopelessness is a job I'm happy to leave to others.
But the world of showbiz is the portfolio I’ve chosen, and there's an angle to this that needs to be spoken, that no one else around here seems to be speaking of, so there are things that must be said, unfortunately for me.
The great thing about having a villain like the NRA is the immensity of their obstructionist evil sucks all the air out of the debate that might go towards other angles in this problem. The necessity of getting around the NRA barrier leaves one feeling like bringing up anything else is a distraction from the fight against the NRA; giving aid to the enemy.
There's truth to that but we can't live that way.
The problem of people shooting up schools in this country, on a regular basis, is too horrific, raises too many questions, to not look at some other factors.
Starting of course with our national fetishistic gun culture, which clearly plays some outsized role in this horrific phenomenon.
But that brings us to the question: who is in charge of culture in this country? Who has influence over it? Culture isn't something that we have to defeat the NRA to deal with. We don't have to overturn the filibuster, or appoint extra justices to the court to change the culture.
In fact, now that you mention it, there's a bunch of companies right here in Los Angeles, California that have a toe in the culture business. "Studios" they call them.
And what do these studios have to say about the gun culture? Well, if you listen to their executives, or read their stars' tweets, they are very enraged about it. Pounding on the table, demanding action.
But you know, they say in politics, when the picture and the words diverge, if you want to know what's being conveyed, turn off the sound and look at the picture. The pictures at the top of this newsletter are just a few images Hollywood has put out in just the past couple years of its very biggest stars, its most valuable assets in their biggest productions.
So let's be clear and set aside Straw Man Argument #1 — I'm not saying there's a 1-to-1 correlation here — that anyone who watches Fast and Furious is going to get up off the couch and shoot up a schoolhouse.
But take a step back and eyeball the culture for a sec. Where is the biggest, highest-production-values celebration of gun culture on Earth happening? It's not at an NRA rally; it’s right on your screen, put there by your good progressive friends in Hollywood. Who can’t wait to tell you in the next breath how appalled they are by the gun culture and how Something. Must. Be. Done.
I recognize that many to most of our shoot ’em up actioners have moral compasses in place, more or less — senseless violence is depicted as evil, that the images above are mostly of the good guys trying to stop that senseless violence. Or the portrayal is satirical; or fantastical. Or whatever you want to call it.
I love the John Wick movies. I think they are great, powerful pieces of creativity. I think they work as fantasy release valves rather than conduits to violence.
Mostly. Mostly they do.
But I also have to think about how my 10-year-old is inundated with violent images, constantly, even with parental controls on everything, even with never having been to a R-rated movie, he's probably seen a few million people shot to death on his various screens. And he hasn't even gotten to first-person shooter gaming.
To put it another way — 50 years ago, young people weren't fed these images around the clock, and 50 years ago young people didn't go shoot up churches. I don't think the one directly caused the other — but I don't think it's totally irrelevant either; it's not like saying — 50 years ago, young people didn't have birthday cake-flavored Oreos and none of them shot up schools.
If it's not a 1-to-1 correlation between violence on the screen and violence off of it, I don't buy that it’s a zero-percent correlation either.
Again, to knock down some more straw men, I'm not attacking these movies individually. But we've got a case of competing goods here. On the one side, there is the good of creative freedom and artistic expression using graphic and violent images — and I completely admit that is a good that I haven't just supported but enjoyed in its various incarnations.
But on the other side of that is the good of not having schoolhouses and other peaceful gathering places shot to hell and dozens killed in our society every goddamn week.
And we certainly talk like stopping that is an emergency, but apparently, it's an emergency for someone else to deal with; our responsibility being limited to self-righteous tweets. It’s as though America’s culture had not a thing to do with us.
Two hundred years from now, when they look back on this moment, they are going to have a tough time getting why when schoolhouses were being shot up on a monthly basis, society wasn't completely mobilized to stop that. To put it another way — what did they think was more important than that?
And when you put it in that perspective, the creative freedom of giant corporate entertainment to bombard society with depictions of hardcore gun violence on a daily basis feels like kind of a lesser good in the spectrum of virtues. Kinda like something that you should feel just a little uneasy about selling in a world where schoolhouses are being shot up. Regularly. Something that you might want to pause a second and really reflect on before you recite your knee-jerk response that there's been no studies that have shown Fast and Furious has directly led to any incidents and it's all the NRA's fault.
Again, not letting the NRA off the hook, and I'll sign any petition you got for me on that. But there's got to be more to this level of sickness than just the availability of hardware.
I'm not going to argue whether American society is "sick" or not, but I think we can all agree, whatever the general diagnosis is, there's a strand of sickness running amok now and affecting a handful of young men in catastrophic ways that is inflicting horror on our world. And dealing with that kind of feels like an emergency at this moment.
And the good thing about it is, on those rare occasions when Hollywood has made an issue a priority, it can move mountains; it can change the culture in ways that seem unthinkable. And instead of waiting for public policy to give us a new country, Hollywood can create a new consciousness that public policy will fall in line behind. We've done it.
Smoking was the national pastime, a symbol of cool on-screen and off, and the power of Big Tobacco was untouchable when Hollywood first made an attempt to remove cigarettes from the film and TV in the ’80s. Thirty-some years later, the percentage of Americans who smoke has fallen by two-thirds, with a mere 8 percent of youth smoking cigarettes today, compared to 36 percent in 1995.
The general acceptance of marijuana owes probably everything to the substance's persistent appearance in the hands of screen stars from the 1990s onward.
There has probably been no issue on which public opinion has turned harder and faster than gay marriage, which as recently as the beginning of the Obama administration was an issue that very few even progressive politicians dared touch, to less than two decades later it stands as the law of the land, in most quarters with little controversy. The change owes everything to Hollywood's persistent normalizing of gay characters and stars.
So on guns, there is nothing we can do?
Here's a crazy notion: how about just for say five years as a trial period, we say we're not going to make any films in which the protagonists brandish firearms. How about we try that and see what happens?
It's not even necessarily that hard. Marvel is pretty much there from the start. A movie like Jurassic World... it wouldn't be that hard to clear the bar.
I mean, we've got a lot of creative minds around here. If we put our heads together and focused really hard, there have to be some ways to entertain the masses besides people shooting each other with guns. If you want to make action films... how about karate fights? Aliens with laser vision? Marauding dinosaurs? Sword fights? Motorcycle races? Hitting each other with big sticks if it comes to that.
And as for the question of — if we don't sell gun violence someone else will and you'll lose the business... that's a problem why? This being an emergency with children dying and all.
I know, crazy talk. And yes, it won't change everything all by itself. But isn’t this a nice moment for Hollywood to start thinking of itself not just as the platform, the firehose as our would-be Silicon Valley overlords would have it, but creators of culture and dreams; and acting with the sense of responsibility, the sense of purpose, that that mission implies?
Or we could just pound on the table and feel good about ourselves by pointing fingers at others. That's working pretty well so far.