Movie violence chic

The journalistic buy-in to Hollywood hype

In recent weeks, while watching baseball games, The Daily Show, and (I admit) some Seinfeld reruns, I saw what seemed a never-ending reel of trailers for The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Savages. And I became disgusted by the wall-to-wall violence in them—by the countless scenes of shootings and slashings, explosions and car crashes. Such interminable images of violence broadcast at all hours to a general audience could, I thought, only have a warping effect on society.

Then came the massacre in Aurora at the screening of Dark Knight on July 20. In response, there’s been the usual tide of commentary about the mindset of the murderer and the source of his weapons. These are of course important questions, and the revisitation of the madness of our gun laws is especially welcome. But I’ve been struck by how little attention has been paid to the movie itself. Among the news outlets I followed (including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and All Things Considered), The New Yorker was one of the few that really grappled with whether there might be a link between the violence in the movie and the carnage in the theater. Anthony Lane rejected such a link, flatly asserting that “no film makes you kill.” Disagreeing, David Denby argued that violence on the screen inures us to actual violence. In forgetting that violence causes pain and death, we become “connoisseurs of spectacle.” Denby expressed special concern for the ironic, detached attitude toward on-screen violence that has captured the smart set:

The sophisticated response to movie violence that has dominated the discussion for years should now seem inadequate and evasive. An acceptance of dissociated responses as normal should not be the best we’re capable of. Movies may never change, but we can change.

After the massacre, I went back and read the review of The Dark Knight Rises in The New York Times, and it illustrates what Denby is talking about. Manohla Dargis’s references to violence are knowing, urbane, and highly attentive to style. “In a formally bravura, disturbingly visceral sequence that clarifies the stakes,” she writes of the film’s villain, “Bane stands before a prison and, in a film with several references to the brutal excesses of the French Revolution,” delivers “an apocalyptic speech worthy of Robespierre.” She added, “If this image of violent revolt resonates strongly, it’s due to Mr. Nolan’s kinetic filmmaking in a scene that pulses with realism and to the primal fear that the people could at any moment … become the mob that drags the rest of us into chaos.”

I was struck, too, by the play the Times gave her review. It covered much of the front page of Friday’s WeekendArts section, with a giant photo of Batman filling the right-hand side; the review’s jump on page eight, which included a still from the movie, took up another half page. Sandwiched in between was a full-page ad for the film (with a blurb from Newsweek blaring at the top, “A Monumental Conclusion to the Epic Trilogy. Audiences Will be Blown Away”).

It’s hard to imagine that there’s no connection between the space the Times gave its review (which was very positive) and the advertising for it. Hollywood is a huge source of revenue for the Times, and the paper compliantly gives blockbuster treatment to blockbuster movies. Both The Amazing Spider-Man and Savages got equally prominent review coverage, and both movies had large ads in the paper. The advertising does not guarantee a positive review—Dargis’s review of Spider-Man was anything but—but it does seem to assure prominent and respectful treatment.

That treatment almost never involves discussing the level and nature of violence in these movies in any but an ironic, technical, and detached way. It’s all about cinematography, visual effect, sequencing. In both its movie reviews and its many articles on the movie business, the Times rarely stops to consider the effects all this violence might have on the minds of individual moviegoers or on the national psyche as a whole. All of that advertising, I think, has the effect of co-opting the paper and making it a tacit (though, as I said, not always uncritical) arm of the movie industry, in which these types of issues are deemed either irrelevant or uncool.

The Times is not the only publication doing this. Anthony Lane’s own review of the movie in The New Yorker falls into the violence-as-aesthetics camp. In his post on the Aurora massacre, however, he had some revealing things to say about the disturbing promotional campaign that accompanied the movie. It was not just a film, he noted; it “had become, as the studios like to say, and as the press is only too happy to echo, a `movie event.’” Hence the midnight screenings all over the country and the well-advertised marathons that gave fans a chance to watch all three films in a row, the first two “raising the temperature of the third.” It has been “a fever, of alarming—and, we can now admit—foolish proportions. The fuss surrounding this movie did, and does, have something fevered and intemperate about it, something out of proportion to its nature.”

In an arresting detail, Lane reported that, in the days before the film’s release, the film website Rotten Tomatoes had to suspend its user comments:

because the pitch of resentment, directed at critics who had dared to find the movie less than wonderful, had tipped into fury; Marshall Fine, of Hollywood and Fine, was told by readers that he should “die in a fire” or be beaten into a coma with a rubber hose.

Such aggression, Lane added, came from those who, by definition, could not yet have seen the film; they were watching the same trailers I was.

So, even apart from the question of whether the shooter was somehow affected by the violence in the movie, the fever stirred up by the marketing around the film created an atmosphere so nasty that commenters were calling for the death of a reviewer. (See Lorenza Muñoz’s thoughtful reflection on this in The Daily Beast.)

These violent films and the packaging surrounding them seem both to reflect and to stoke the violence afoot in our land today, and I’m not just talking about physical violence. The bombings, murders, and attacks on the screen, together with the marketing campaigns promoting them, seem inseparable from the ugliness of contemporary American discourse, with its anti-government extremists, raging talk show hosts, cable-news polemicists, fanatic gun lobbyists, angry xenophobes, and seething birthers. That so few film reviewers and journalists covering the industry bother to explore such connections attests to the effectiveness and shrewdness of the Hollywood PR machine.

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Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.