- Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt pose with their very special guest star, guns.
We get a lot of e-mailed submissions to I, Anonymous—more than we could ever use in the paper. This one wasn't chosen for print, but it's interesting and passionate and I think people should read it. (Bolds are mine, but it's otherwise unedited.)
You’re a journalist, a liberal, one of the good guys. You call for tougher gun control, point to the links between inequality and violence, and urge your readers to vote in favor of universal background checks. You’re doing an important job writing articles for national magazines offering sensible solutions to the horrible nightmare that is American firearms culture. Thanks for that.
But then you turn around and write glowing reviews of movies that feature horrific gun fights. In the past few months you’ve breathlessly told us to spend money on “entertaining” hijackings, gang fights, and class warfare, all of which feature guns as plot devices. Somehow the same writer that knows exactly where to look when a kid is killed in the Central District doesn’t notice when movie stars are blasting their way through crowds of lowlifes.
Look – I’m not some kind of anti-entertainment bluenose. I know that terrible laws and well paid lobbyists are far more to blame for our gun epidemic than any number of filmed fire fights. But I also know that popular culture is not blameless in all this. When you urge people to see a movie in which the hero is the guy who shoots the most people, then you are speaking out of both sides of your mouth. If we’re serious about reducing the number of guns in our world, then we also have to reduce the number of guns in our movies. As a journalist and critic who can claim some intelligence and insight, you’ve got a responsibility. It’s time you started living up to it.
I don't know who this e-mail was aimed at, but I write about gun control and I review Hollywood blockbusters and I think about this all the time, so I wanted to write out my thoughts. They're after the jump.
First of all: Do I think there's a connection between gun culture and the glorification of guns in popular culture? Obviously, yeah. Teenage spree killers often pose with their guns in open emulation of movie stars. Survivors at the scenes of shootings always refer to how the massacre was "just like a movie." But I don't think that connection is anywhere near as important as gun control laws, and I think there's real evidence to back that up: America exports hundreds of movies all around the world every year, and those movies make billions of dollars in foreign box office. We continue to be the only country in the world where regular spree killings consistently happen. If films (and music, and television shows, for that matter) directly inspired gun deaths, we'd be seeing gun death numbers escalate worldwide. You know what does directly affect gun violence statistics? Gun control laws. That's why I prioritize one over the other.
Second, there's an issue of how you would go about "reduc[ing] the number of guns in our movies." Obviously, there's a huge (global) market for violent films, and a boycott is guaranteed to pretty much fail to make any sort of a mark on Hollywood's bottom line. The Stranger aims for comprehensive arts coverage, so we're not going to stop reviewing certain movies because we disagree with their philosophy. And you will never, ever get me to agree with a law banning firearms (or anything else, for that matter) from art. That's not a discussion I'm even comfortable having.
Third, as a general rule, movies that are smart about guns tend to be better movies. By which I mean that I prefer movies that show real consequences to violence, rather than glorifications of gun culture. Humane movies are better than sociopathic movies; the Expendables movies are total shit, in part, because they glorify guns and do not demonstrate realistic consequences to the moronic violence they glorify. (A movie "in which the hero is the guy who shoots the most people" is not an entertaining movie, because it's morally vacant. Every movie has its own morality. A movie with an irresponsible or hateful morality is not usually a good movie.) Quentin Tarantino depicts gun violence in his movies, but he also often depicts the aftermath of that violence—Pulp Fiction had some serious glorification of violence in it, but it also had a scene where a gun went off accidentally and killed someone; Django Unchained showed real suffering and pain. (And then there are movies like Edge of Tomorrow, where a ton of ammo is used on inhuman aliens. I mark those movies down as pure escapism; I find it hard to believe Tom Cruise blowing up a nest of time-traveling pixelated beasties with a machine gun mounted on his battlesuit is ever going to inspire someone to go on a shooting spree.) And if a movie is exceptionally violent, I will make mention of that in a review, because I know it's a deciding factor for a lot of moviegoers.
Have I written reviews that disprove the previous paragraph? For sure. I'm often a sucker for Jason Statham movies, but my review would note if I felt like one of his movies was irresponsible in terms of representing the hero as just the person with the most guns. His movies are usually very simple morality tales—I'm excepting the Crank movies here because I think they're satirical—and they're not so much glorifications of guns as they are glorifications of Jason Statham. (He's more fun to watch when he's brawling than when he's shooting, anyway.) We don't have time to go case-by-case through every movie I've ever reviewed—Snowpiercer, for example, is about the battle between the wealthy and the poor, and it makes the guns a tool of the oppressors, which sure feels responsible to me—but it's something that I do think of every time I watch a movie.
In the end, a critic's job is different from a reporter's job. Critics have to approach each movie as its own universe, with its own laws and its own moral system. Within that system, we're required to make certain mental leaps, and to follow characters who would often be morally repugnant to us if we were to meet them in real life. That's part of what storytelling is—the manipulation of our capacity for empathy. I think we've all cheered on people and actions in movies that we would never applaud in real life; that's part of what movies are supposed to do. We go into movies with the understanding that in the end, movies are not real life, and we can't treat them as such.