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.