Do violent films shape or reflect?
To what extent do Americans' views about retaliation, revenge, and warfare come more from decades of popular entertainment rather than from sustained reflections on history and morality?
Hollywood is scrambling to regain its balance in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.Skip to next paragraph
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Arnold Schwarzenegger's thriller "Collateral Damage" has been postponed by Warner Bros. and may never reach the screen. "Men in Black 2," a sequel to the 1997 comedy, is being rewritten to eliminate a World Trade Center climax.
"Big Trouble," a Barry Sonnenfeld production, has been bumped from Disney's slate until its key plot element - a nuclear bomb in a suitcase headed for a plane - might seem more palatable.
And so on, reflecting current anxieties over terrorism and related evils of violence and destruction. Sony has even pulled posters and coming-attractions trailers for "Spider-Man" because they show New York's twin towers reflected in the hero's eyes.
These adjustments make economic sense, and they show moral concern as well. But two larger questions loom:
Are such maneuvers only cosmetic, to be reversed as public spirits rise in coming months?
Could it be that Hollywood's long habit of drawing entertainment value from violence and destruction has helped shape Americans' immediate reaction to the Sept. 11 events - and may also influence ideas about how their country should respond to its actual and perceived enemies?
The answer to the first question is probably yes. Moviegoers may avoid films about political assassinations or towering infernos in the direct aftermath of similar real-life tragedies, but such qualms are quickly forgotten. "It would be insensitive to release such movies now," a studio executive told The Hollywood Reporter after the World Trade Center crumbled, but added, "if movies are to reflect life, they have to reflect the life that's out there." Audiences tend to share this attitude.
More troubling is the thought that public views of retaliation, revenge, and warfare may come more from decades of popular entertainment than from sustained reflections on history and morality.
For every film like "Gandhi," which takes a serious look at nonviolence and spiritually guided thinking, there are hundreds of movies that present war-related fear, hatred, and aggression as inevitable - indeed, thrilling - aspects of the human condition.
This pattern rarely causes much concern among moviegoers or pundits. It's ingrained enough to go largely unquestioned.
Moreover, screen violence is often wrapped in a cloak of historical realism or patriotic virtue. In a list of six "patriotic" films that "capture America at its best," recently posted by a Hollywood.com writer, fully half are movies about war: "The Patriot," one of Mel Gibson's conspicuously violent epics; "Saving Private Ryan," which blends battlefield horror with guts-and-glory clichés; and a picture from the '70s, the Pearl Harbor epic "Tora! Tora! Tora!"
Films that address terrorism directly can be even more disturbing than ordinary war movies, because Hollywood usually treats this topic in simplistic ways.
Consider last year's "Rules of Engagement," with Tommy Lee Jones as a military lawyer defending a Marine officer (Samuel L. Jackson) charged with the wrongful deaths of Yemeni protesters. The film portrays the officer's prosecutors as bleeding-heart wimps and the Arab demonstrators as "vicious, wild-eyed maniacs," in the words of Film.com critic Peter Brunette, who calls this a movie of "deep immorality" that illustrates the presence of ideological bias in supposedly "harmless" entertainment.
Films presenting such shallow perspectives don't just convey misleading impressions of complicated issues. They also paint skewed portraits of racial and ethnic populations that average moviegoers don't happen to identify with.
There's nothing in the nature of cinema that makes this inevitable, and occasional pictures by truly thoughtful filmmakers belie the notion that superficial views are all the screen is capable of giving.