Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In the Aftermath of Tragedy

I was at work in the video store when I first found out about the shooting at Virginia Tech. My dad had just seen it on the news and, knowing that I don’t really watch television or listen to the radio, called to tell me about it. As I listened to him briefly re-cap what had happened, there were several things that I immediately knew, just instinctually, were going to be the case:

1) That the killer was probably going to be dead by suicide.
2) That this tragedy was going to dominate the cultural consciousness for the next several weeks/months, particularly in the form of round-the-clock coverage by the 24-hour news channels, as details get revealed regarding the killer’s identity, how the exact events of that day unfolded minute-by-minute and family/friends of the victims are paraded in front of the camera for interviews.
3) That certain questions were going to be asked about what was "behind" the event; questions like “Why did this happen?" and "What were the signs that we should've seen it coming?" and "How could it have been prevented?” with emphasis being placed on finding someone or something (beside the gunman himself) to direct anger at; in other words, that people are going to be looking for someone/something to blame.

I remember only too well all of these things being true in the case of the Columbine massacre that occurred eight years ago and the second two things being true when the shooting took place at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon a few years back (at the time of which, incidentally, I was attending college in Eugene, which is more or less “right next door” to Springfield;” a couple of my friends actually knew some of the victims). In the case of the latter, fortunately, the assailant was eventually subdued before he could inflict too much more damage or take his own life. Otherwise, I suspect all three things would have been true of that shooting as well. At any rate, it is the third realization in particular that I would like to talk about right now.

In America when sudden, random acts of violence like this are perpetrated not by terrorists but by “ordinary” people in seemingly innocuous environments, some very familiar arguments get resurrected about what might have “caused” it. Fingers are almost always pointed at certain potential “contributors” to the problem: namely, parents, guns and, of course, the media. Some politicians will most likely launch into some rather passionate criticisms of the way violence is portrayed on television, in movies, in video games and in music. I vividly remember, for example, movies like The Basketball Diaries, Natural Born Killers and The Matrix, as well as the music of Marilyn Manson and the video game Grand Theft Auto, being mentioned in past dialogues on this very subject.

There is also often a “circling of the wagons” in Hollywood wherein age-old responses are reiterated: “The media does not cause violence, it reflects it,” and “Violence has been around as long as human beings have” and “Violence in art can actually serve as a kind of catharsis for individuals who might have such tendencies,” etc. (It did not surprise me at all to see Nicolas Cage and Julianne Moore utter these exact words at a press junket for the Lee Tamahori film Next which is coming out soon). Understand that I am not necessarily refuting these arguments, I am just trying to describe the “pattern” that I see emerging whenever something like this happens.

Sooner or later you know that the “D-word” will get mentioned, the one that seems to anger and frighten people in equal measures... de-sensitization. Questions like “How de-sensitized are we as a culture really?” and “What effect (if any) do violent images, words and sounds have on us?” I don’t think one can deny that here in America we are saturated with violence on a daily basis. Whether that violence takes the form of entertainment (movies, video games, music) or of information/education (journalistic photographs/videos in newspapers, magazines and on the television/internet), it just feels like it is surrounding us to a point where it is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid. We seem to be unwillingly bombarded with violence at an almost constant rate. Again, I am not saying that this is necessarily a good or bad thing. I am just trying to point out that it is a reality that exists, an undeniable fact of living in a media-dominated society.

I have to say that all of this has transpired at a rather interesting point in my life given that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “zeitgeist” of our culture and the part that I personally play in it. I only recently announced my intention to avoid any more Eli Roth movies (based on my general concern for what I consider to be a lack of “moral perspective” on the sexual sado-masochistic violence in his films) as well as expressed my utter contempt for Michael Bay, who is essentially one of the “masters” of the high-octane, ultra-violent action genre (to be fair, my disdain for him has nothing to do with any moral convictions; just the fact that I think he makes crap). I have also been following a rather fascinating dialogue over at House Next Door on Quinten Tarantino and, as fate would have it, it touches on the character of the violence depicted in his films. It has provided some good food for thought since, as people here probably know already, I am not a big Tarantino fan. However, I also wrote a post in which I expressed my excitement over the fourth Die Hard film that is being released this summer. Oddly enough, my anticipation for the film has not diminished one bit in the light of this tragedy. Am I being hypocritical here? Am I talking out of both sides of my mouth?

Violent acts happen every day in every country in the world, but whenever an act of this magnitude occurs “so close to home,” it has a tendency to shake us up a bit and heighten our awareness to things that we are otherwise not quite as bothered by. I was struck by something Ross said in a brief post over at Rued Morgue. He wrote: “I was set to go see Grindhouse this afternoon, but simply couldn't bring myself to sit through three hours of imaginary, violent mayhem." I suspect that this phenomenon is probably occurring with a lot of people here in America right now. I know that I myself am feeling similarly. Without trying to sound crass (again, I am merely trying to analyze/predict the sequence of events that typically ensue at a time like this), I highly doubt that this is going to do much to help the box office intake of films like Grindhouse, Vacancy and Next over the coming weeks.

So, what am I saying with this post? Truthfully, I don’t know. I just felt compelled to say something. For some reason, I can’t help but feel that in some way I am part of the problem, that I need to think very seriously and very honestly about what effect (if any) this will have on my own movie-viewing philosophy and if so, whether that effect will be short-lived or long-lasting. I am not trying to offer any profound insights with this post and I am certainly not making any definite claims about the relationship between violence in the media and violence in real life (that’s a debate that I am sure will continue to the end of time). I think such gestures might be arrogant, futile and ultimately unimportant in a period of REAL people enduring REAL pain, suffering, grief and mourning. Perhaps it is best for me to simply offer my condolences to the families and friends of the victims, to express my sadness and sorrow for their losses and to keep them in my thoughts and prayers in this dark period of their lives.


Ross Ruediger said...

Damian -

Great words, mah friend. Your writing style often reminds me of my own – especially when you get to a place like “So, what am I saying with this post? Truthfully, I don’t know. I just felt compelled to say something.” I end up there a lot myself.

Inspiration from both you and Edward Copeland led me to write a little something at the Morgue.

Check it out when you get a chance. It actually started out as a reply here on your blog, but eventually got so long I thought best to just use it as an entry.

Damian said...

Thank you, Russ.

As I mentioned here it was your initial reaction, combined with my own recent thinking, that compelled me to say something on the subject. I will read your post when I get the chance and perhaps comment on it too.

God bless.

Edward Copeland said...

The media at least has toned it down a bit today, concentrating on actual developments and letting other news (the Supreme Court ruling, a particularly deadly day in Iraq) get through. Brian Williams even spared a few seconds to note the passing of Kitty Carlisle. I do understand your concerns, but I don't think you should feel any blame yourself Damian. In the end, only one person is to blame and that is the killer. We can ask why people didn't do more to help him or stop him, but no one but Cho loaded the guns and fired it.

Damian said...

Thanks, Ed.

You are absolutely right in that the person ultimately responsible for this is the shooter himself; not the man who sold him the gun, not the police didn't who "didn't act quickly enough," not the parents who didn't raise him right and not the society that "created" him. It was he and he alone.

Obviously I do not blame myself for what happened. It's just that it happened at a time when I was already thinking about some of these things. I know I am innocent of this crime, but (given the timing of it) I think it would be foolish of me if I didn't at least pause briefly to reflect on the fact that I freely, willingly (and with great enthusiasm) participate in a culture that seems to embrace and celebrate violence on a very committed level.

I am reminded of that poem by John Donne: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Ross Ruediger said...

Damian -

It's clear to me that you're profoundly disturbed by this topic -- which is understandable.

Don't lump yourself in with anything resembling "responsible".

The problem here isn't exposure to excessive violence or sex or drug & alcohol abuse or all you can eat buffets...these things are America and they're a big part --for better or worse-- of what we were built on.

The problem is "not thinking". That's the biggest problem facing our country (perhaps even the world) today - the inability for people to think for themselves. The willingness to be led, the acceptance of the status quo and the belief in what's fed to us.

I don't see that happening on this blog. Keep up the good work.

Damian said...

Truth be told, Ross, I am not really THAT disturbed by this tragedy... and that's part of the thing that disturbs me.

Rest assured, though, I am not severely depressed or anything like that; just pensive and since, as you said, thinking is what's important (as Hamlet said "For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so"), I don't want to neglect my responsibility to at least reflect on this.

At any rate, thanks for the kind words, buddy.

Ross Ruediger said...

You know, right after I posted those words, I headed to and found all this new info about the package he sent to NBC.

Clearly this guy did an awful lot of thinking - the sad part is that he didn't arrive at a reasonable conclusion...which immediately made me question what I posted - or rather the way I phrased it - on your blog.

Ross Ruediger said...

Um, to lighten the mood a bit...

A) What's your favorite Shakespeare play?

B) And your favorite Shakespeare movie?

Damian said...

A) That's an easy question to answer: Hamlet, the Bard's masterpiece.

B) This one's a little tougher. In fact, I've been thinking about this very topic lately too in preparation for the "Shakespeare Blog-a-thon" at Cofee, Cofee and More Coffee. As of yet, I haven't decided, although several possibilties spring immediately to mind: Zeferelli's Romeo and Juliet, Branagh's Hamlet, McKellen's Richard III or Radford's Merchant of Venice (this is not including parodies, pastiches and other "clever" adaptations like Looking For Richard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, "O" and, of course, Shakespeare in Love).

I also have to give special mention to Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing because it is essentially the film that made me "fall in love" with Shakespeare in the first place.

Ross Ruediger said...

I don't actually have answer for "A", but I am pretty fond of both MACBETH & RICHARD III.

"B"? TITUS! I loooove TITUS. Never read or seen the play, but the movie rocks.

Did you catch any of the "Shakespeare Re-Told" movies that played on BBCAmerica last year? Those were great fun.

Damian said...

A) Yeah, Macbeth and Richard III are indeed two of Shakespeare's greatest works. I actually went back to teach a class (as a substitute) on Macbeth at my old high school and loved doing it. Incidentally, as a lover of Richard III, did you ever see Richard Dreyfus' portrayal of the "flaming" hunchback in Neil Simon's Goodbye Girl? Speaking as an actor who's had to work with a director like the guy in the film, i.e. someone who has no clue what they're talking about (perfectly played by "not-Guffman" Paul Benedict), I can totally sympathize with Dreyfus in those painful but hysterical scenes.

B) Now, how could I forget about Titus? A fantastic cinematic treatment of a relatively mediocre play. I think the job that Julie Taymor did with that story was probably about as good as any director can do with it. Great film!

Damian said...

Also, I forgot to mention in my last message that I have yet to see any of the Shakespeare Re-Told movies you're referring to, but they do indeed look interesting. I'll have to check them out. Thanks! :)

Ross Ruediger said...

Damian said:

did you ever see Richard Dreyfus' portrayal of the "flaming" hunchback in Neil Simon's Goodbye Girl?

I ~worship~ THE GOODBYE GIRL. 'Nuff said.

A fantastic cinematic treatment of a relatively mediocre play.

So I've been led to believe...which has pretty much kept me from seeking out the play.

I have yet to see any of the Shakespeare Re-Told movies you're referring to

I've got copies of all of them, but only ever got around to watching MUCH ADO, mainly because Billie Piper and Sarah Parish were in it. It rocked -- really it did...and it gave a cool, modern spin on the ending that really worked for me.

They're not expensive productions, so despite their modernization, they ultimately have to rely on the script...which of course is never a bad thing.

Damian said...

I ~worship~ THE GOODBYE GIRL. 'Nuff said.

Indeed. :)

So I've been led to believe...which has pretty much kept me from seeking out the play

It's not a "bad" play. It's still worthwhile. It just pales so badly in comparison to Shakespeare's great plays. It was, after all, one of his earlier attempts at tragedy and so it doesn't have quite the depth or maturity as some of his later works. He manages to copy the "form" of a tragedy but not the "function." Like Macbeth, it's very dark and the violence is plentiful, but it all feels rather "empty" and devoid of meaning (it's interesting to me that that in the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), one of the characters describes the play as Shakespoeare in his "Tarantino" phase; even though he was essetially making a joke I think that is an incredibly astute observation),

So, should you ever read/see Titus Andronicus, don't expect something at the level of, say, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Hamlet or even Richard III. Just take it for what it is: a fledgling writer's admirable attempt at doing a great tragedy.

Piper said...


I'm a little late on this but this is a great post.

I myself did not acknowledge this on my blog. But I certainly have some thoughts about it.

I still love the movie OldBoy. This tragedy isn't going to make me love it any less because some guy is wired wrong or was picked on too much. OldBoy is a violent movie, but it is a very good movie. I don't like it because of its violence, I like it because of its story. And your points are good on Eli Roth. There has to be a responsibility for this. If you love film, I think you have to have a responsibility to it.

As a film student, I protested Terminator 2 because the budget was so crazy. I felt it my responsibility to make a statement albeit a small one.

Although I did not acknowledge this on my blog, I have acknowledged it in my everyday life by being a good father, a good husband, a good friend, and a good neighbor. And despite what has happened and what will happen in the future, I will still trust as I did and still expect good things from people because that's the way I prefer to live life. It's much more fun that way.

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