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Making a Killing

[ Edited ]
An interesting read in the New York Times by writer-director Mike White. What do you think? Does violence in movies lead to violence outside of the theater? Does life imitate art or does art imitate life?

New York Times
May 2, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
Making a Killing

Los Angeles

THE first movie I ever made was called “Death Creek Camp.” It told the age-old story of a group of teenage guys who set out on a fun-filled wilderness excursion only to be stalked and murdered by a psychopath disguised in a hockey mask and a blue kimono. It was no masterpiece of cinema.

Most of the scenes played out the same way — one of the fresh-faced hikers would get separated from the group. He would hear a noise in the bushes. “Bob? Jerry, is that you? Charlie?” Suddenly, from behind a tree, the stalker would pounce and blood would fly.

Why the killer wore a blue kimono was never explained nor why he wanted these nice campers dead. He was a deranged monster and that’s what monsters do. As the filmmaker, I was more interested in how the ketchup would drip off the victim’s cheek and where to plunge the retractable knife. I was 12.

The inspirations for this home movie (and the centerpieces of many Saturday night sleepovers) were slasher films like “Friday the 13th,” “Halloween” and “Terror Train.” My friends and I would eat junk food, drink soda and watch these cinematic bloodbaths until we dozed off, visions of gore and mayhem dancing in our heads.

Even though we all came from religious families — my father was a minister — it was rarely questioned whether our adolescent minds should be exposed to this kind of gruesome material. And clearly, we were the intended audience. My parents never sat and watched, nor did my sister, for that matter. The movies were titillating, shocking and dumb — and we teenage boys thought they were so cool. We devoured them and they, in turn, juiced us up.

After the horrific events at Virginia Tech, the relationship between violence in our movies and violence in our realities is being examined once again. Was Seung-Hui Cho inspired by a movie (the South Korean revenge flick “Oldboy”) when he murdered 32 of his classmates and teachers? Was Mr. Cho a deranged predator in a horror film, or was he a lost kid who could have been reached?

Hollywood and defenders of violent films dismiss Virginia Tech as a “unique” event, arguing that Mr. Cho was profoundly alienated from our culture, not at all a product of it. They assert that there are law-abiding, sane American moviegoers who love the thrill of a visual bloodletting, and then there are mentally disturbed people like Mr. Cho, constitutionally wired to do damage — and never the twain shall meet.

These commentators insist there’s no point debating which came first, the violent chicken or her violent representational egg, since no causal link has ever been proven between egg and chicken anyway. Besides, violent images can be found everywhere — on the news, in great art and literature, even Shakespeare!

For those who believe that violence in cinema consists of either harmless action spectacles or Martin Scorsese masterpieces, I might suggest heading down to the local multiplex and taking a look at some of the grotesque, morbid creations being projected on the walls. To defend mindless exercises in sadism like “The Hills Have Eyes II” by citing “Macbeth” is almost like using “Romeo and Juliet” to justify child pornography.

The notion that “movies don’t kill people, lunatics kill people” is liberating to us screenwriters because it permits us to give life to our most demented fantasies and put them up on the big screen without any anxious hand-wringing. We all know there’s a lot of money to be made trafficking in blood and guts. Young males — the golden demographic movie-makers ceaselessly pursue — eat that gore up. What a relief to be told that how we earn that money may be in poor taste, but it’s not irresponsible. The average American teenage boy knows the difference between right and wrong and no twisted, sadistic movie is going to influence him.

My own experience as a teenager tells me otherwise. For my friends and me, movies were a big influence on our clothes and our slang, and on how we thought about and spoke to authority figures, our girlfriends and one another. Movies permeated our fantasy lives and our real lives in subtle and profound ways.

It’s true nobody ever got shot in the face in my backyard, but there were acts of male bravado performed in emulation of our movie anti-heroes that ranged from stupid to cruel. And there were plenty of places where guys my age were shooting one another all the time. There still are. Can we really in good conscience conclude that the violence saturating our popular culture has no impact on our neighborhoods and schools?

The calamity at Virginia Tech is unfortunately not as unique an event as we’d like to think, but the sheer number of victims has grabbed our attention and inspired some collective soul-searching. As responsible Americans put their heads down on their desks and reflect, should the scribes of popular entertainment be excused to the playground? We screenwriters may be overgrown teenagers who still want to be cool, but we aren’t 12 years old anymore. Maybe we’re not responsible for Mr. Cho’s awful actions, but does that abrogate our responsibility to the world around us?

Most of us who chose careers in this field were seduced by cinema’s spell at an early age. We know better than anyone the power films have to capture our imaginations, shape our thinking and inform our choices, for better and for worse. At the risk of being labeled a scold — the ultimate in uncool — I have to ask: before cashing those big checks, shouldn’t we at least pause to consider what we are saying with our movies about the value of life and the pleasures of mayhem?

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Message Edited by Jessica on 05-24-2007 02:48 PM

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Re: Making a Killing

Mr. White raises a question that has been around since the dawn of pop culture - there's nothing new here. Comic Books raised an uproar in the late fifties to early sixties for their violent content. A man in one of my old neighbourhoods in Toronto shot it up and killed policemen after seeing Rambo (the man was dressed like Rambo, too). This issue will always be debated.

Mr. White straddles the fence like any journalist should but, as an opinion piece he conveniently leaves the question unanswered. I expected his opinion and was disappointed that he didn't give it.

There are far more pressing issues in the Virginia Tech incident that need addressing. Response times for one. A man under the care of a psychiatrist was able to purchase two hand guns in a matter of minutes. There were a lot of near misses, that if caught could have changed a tragic event, however, if that film had not been made the evening news would have been sufficient inspiration for this deranged killer.

Films entertain and as long as audiences want gore, thrills, chills...that's what they'll get. It's simple supply and demand.

I'm currently writing an article dealing with marketing tie-ins to television and film. You'd be surprised at the age of the marketing machine. We understand the implications of marketing using film characters and even the actors who play them, and we also have made great strides in the film industry to keep content targeted at the right audience.

For me, I'll tell whatever story is struggling to get out of me - violent or not. It's all in the delivery. The Accused has never been targeted as a film that promoted rape. Saving Private Ryan won't encourage war. If anything, we have to look at the delivery of the message - is the violence accepted or seen as unforgivable/intolerable within the film.

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Re: Making a Killing

I think the levels of violence and madness in society has little to nothing to do with TV, movies and pop-culture influences; I think it's all cyclical in a way, but every iteration tends to want to out-do or out-shock the last go-round. I don't know, were there any mass-murders on schoolgrounds and college campuses before 1970 (before I was born)?

These days, when something like that happens, the media hearkens back to Columbine, not any further back in history than that. Same as terrorist acts all lead back to 9/11/2001; sure, there were terrorist acts around the world before 9/11, but media and society only ever seems to dwell on the last, latest or most-violent of a series of incidents, and the psychos out there use those incidents as benchmarks for their own insane acts. Not so much drawn from movies or TV shows other than the nightly news and those special reports on such madness, I would say.

Maybe the media should be the ones to stop glorifying and glamourizing all the nastiness in the world, but then what would be news-worthy??

It's sort of 'the chicken or the egg' debate, really, which can be argued and debated endlessly; like Ian says, as long as the people want violence and madness plastered across movie- and TV-screens, they will find it, but the psychos will only just keep getting nuttier, regardless what's playing at the local multi-plex.
I no longer regret that I have no quote, quip or anecdote to share with my countrymen... how about all y'all?