The media seem to move on from mass killings more quickly nowadays than they used to, and within three days of the Aurora, Colo., cinema massacre the killer’s first appearance in court didn’t make the front of The New York Times. Denying him notoriety is fine with me, but once the stories of heroism and sacrifice were told and the dead were memorialized, there seemed little interest in learning anything from the shooting of 70 people who had little in common beyond the movie they had come to watch.
Once, slaying 12 innocents would have touched off a national wave of introspection and debate, and it’s hard to resist the scary conclusion that such horrors have quietly come to be accepted as part of our society’s overhead, a cost of doing business.
Still, what’s remarkable is that so little attention has gone to the obvious irony that the killer was acting out much the same slaughter that was being portrayed on the multiplex screen.
Raising the issue of media violence feels like indulging in some ancient controversy from the 1970s, and that’s too bad. I think we need to foreground the pop-cultural side of the killings, specifically the ways that Hollywood has drifted in recent years toward sanctifying firearms as the most powerful means of self-validation in action films, the go-to remedy for most wrongs, real and imagined, the universal vehicle of catharsis, cleansing, rectification.
Face it, the most dangerous promoter of gun violence in contemporary society isn’t the gunmaker or the National Rifle Association, it’s Hollywood. Movies are how guns are exhibited, marketed and sold. When did you last see an advertisement from Glock or Ruger or Smith & Wesson? Unless you read a specialty magazine, never.
That’s because the market for firearms isn’t widened and regenerated through consumer advertising. That happens through lurid, breathtaking portrayals of gun violence, lovingly depicted in harrowing detail, as plot elements indispensable to the contemporary action film.
Cinematic technique has made huge advances in depictions of all violence, from dismemberment to fist fights, but the achievement with guns has led the field. The visuals, as the shooter blazes away, are almost a cliché: Lyrical, slow-motion close-ups of the slide of the semi-automatic pistol spitting out the spent shell and chambering the next round, the viscous slide of the now-empty magazine dropping from the grip, the snap of the new clip as it’s shoved home, the cutaway to the cascade of shells hitting the floor. There’s a grim pornography to the camera work. And then the money shots as the bullets hit bone and flesh.
What was in the mind of the Aurora shooter during the weeks of planning and calculating, while he was figuring out which weapons to buy and how much ammo he’d need, waiting for the shipments, building his bombs, picking out his commando wardrobe? Do you need to ask?
A 24-year-old American lad, marinated in revenge fantasies — how many cinematic montages has he seen, the quietly determined protagonist fashioning his straps and holsters, lubricating and reassembling his weapons, squeezing cartridges into clips, DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Jean Reno in The Professional, Keanu in The Matrix: Guns, lots more guns. The essence of cool.
There’s a suspicious synchronicity between the guns most lovingly featured in the movies and the guns that make the industry the most money. Once, Dirty Harry packed a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world.
But it was a mere revolver, and it has now given way on screen to semi-automatics and assault weapons, which the industry prefers because they cost more than six-guns and invite owners to burn through bullets by the boxload.
In what has likely been the winningest — and least transparent — campaign of product placement in Hollywood history, those weapons became the norm on the big screen, and back home the punk who might have settled for a snubnose .38 was so tantalized with the far more devastating .45 or AR-15 or 9mm that they became the streetwise norm. (It was a 9mm that the killer of six Sikh worshippers used last week in a suburban Milwaukee temple.)
Hollywood didn’t cause the Aurora slaughter, but it’s impossible to imagine Aurora without Hollywood.
And now that action films have become the most reliable money-makers of our fully globalized movie industry, we should look at comparable massacres abroad not as reassurance that gun violence isn’t some pathology unique to U.S. society, but as a sickening reminder that it isn’t just here that violence spills off the screen.
Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.
— The Miami Herald