Real-life mass shootings: The subject Hollywood dare not touch

In America, our idealism is matched only by our bloodlust. We are a nation hopelessly and endlessly addicted to violence, and as such look for the same in our television shows, our books, and, of course, our movies. That’s why our multiplexes are filled each year with a cavalcade of big-budget shooter flicks and apocalyptic action fare, both real and fictionalised. 

We (myself included) crowd into theaters and cheer on the pornographic gore of Mad Max: Fury Road and Lone Survivor, the bloodless brutality of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the quasi first-person shooter fantasy of John Wick.

Yet despite that brutality, there has been curiously little space in film devoted to real-life mass shootings. Save for a handful of small indie flicks – the most notable examples being Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin – gun – wielding American-bred slaughters are basically non-existent on screen. This is strange, considering how much money Hollywood contributes toward depicting violence.

A  2013 study found that in the last 30 years, gun violence has tripled in PG-13 movies, with 94% of the most popular projects containing at least one violent scene. And while tragedies like 9/11 receive the big screen treatment (Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, United 93) – getting mined for every bloody detail, wrung from it every last drip of emotional juice – none of that cash is being devoted to portraying our society’s gun epidemic.

Has the Harvey Weinstein influence taken effect? Some background: in 2014, the studio head behind such fare as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs condemned gratuitous use of violence in movies and said he would avoid making those types of films in future. Though that won’t stop his company from releasing a new Tarantino flick this December, in The Hateful Eight, which is sure to have its fair share of gun battles; nor does it account for the lack of gun massacre movies pre-2014.

Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin 

Trotting around dark subjects
Whether Weinstein keeps his word or whether others follow suit is beside the point. In the interest of self-preservation, the lack of a true-life gun massacre film genre is a net positive. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, no one wants to witness a fictionalised version of college students or kindergarteners getting brazenly gunned down by a madman. Why spend money on that when you can turn on the local news?

But the mystery remains. Trotting around dark subjects has never stopped directors before. In fact, if there is one thing American entertainment does well, it’s bloodshed. And when it comes to mass shootings, we certainly don’t lack for material. As the Washington Post notes, during President Obama’s second term, a calendar week hasn’t gone by without another terrible tragedy; another group of lives perished, another round of sadness and frustration and anger and, eventual apathy.

Why do we feel the need to mine our darkest impulses on screen except the one that is staring us right in the face? Today, the next mass murder isn’t as surprising as it is inevitable – something Obama spoke to last week during his speech in the aftermath of yet another tragedy, this time in Oregon. He and all of us have a right to feel numb – and, to put it in blunt, storytelling terms, numb is no real way to end a studio movie, with no retribution and no lessons learned.

That lack of a positive outlook could leave storytellers in a rut. Even in World Trade Center, there was redemption – the heroes, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, head home after being trapped underneath the rubble. But school shootings have the ability to leave us blank and hollow. Van Sant’s Elephant, which received critical acclaim, still ends as one would expect: dozens of students shot in the head and … that’s it. 

A scene from Elephant

Art is still part of the violence equation
Hollowness was certainly the point of the film, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to box office success. Making a movie like this isn’t a complication of logistics so much as people’s unwillingness to explore something truthful with no concrete or positive resolution nor any guarantee of a return on investment.

Today, art is still part of the violence equation. Newspaper headlines get puked out onto computer paper, stapled and put through the Hollywood sausage machine, while fictionalised violence gets consistently programmed and projected on every screen in America – a bombardment of bullets, blood and brawn. 

It’s why after every mass shooting, we are quick to blame the things that are popping up in front of us. It’s easy to put a terrible tragedy squarely on Hollywood’s shoulders instead of the parents, gun laws or mental illness, when in truth it’s some deceptively twisted version of all four. Making a film based off Newtown or Aurora or Littleton is just asking to be thrown into the middle of that debate, one studios are likely not eager to enter.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. And when the ball drops, will we finally confront our greatest fears, our biggest obstacle, our darkest depths through the medium in which we fantasise about all things violent, both true and fictionalised? Who knows? For now, we’re taking bets as to whether Hollywood addresses it before Congress does. – Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015


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