Turn on the TV and you’ll see an ad for the latest Mad Max film, “Fury Road”. It looks exciting in the trailer – lots of explosions and impossible stunts. The trailer has been edited for family viewing, so nobody dies.
But the film itself is filled with death. The simplest way to create drama is to threaten death, and Hollywood usually goes for simple. To keep up the tension for 120 minutes, the threat of death must be constant, which means lots of killing.
I didn’t see the earlier Mad Max films, because I think that Mel Gibson is a creep, and I won’t see this one. I’m not a big fan of killing as entertainment, and that puts me out of the current mainstream. The movie reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Colin Covert, loved “Fury Road”. He said something about the film that surprised me – all that killing was “playful fun”. Although the plot is based on “knocking off supporting characters by the hundreds” and “endless carnage”, it’s “uproariously funny”. Colvert is not alone. The reviewer for the New York Times, A. O. Scott, was slightly more critical of “Fury Road”, but he gave the film 5 stars out of a possible 5, applauded the “enormous pleasure” of watching the mayhem, and ended by saying, “It’s all great fun.” Seeing people die onscreen is a good time.
Mass killing in movies is not new. Just the other day I saw the first spaghetti western with Clint Eastwood, “A Fistful of Dollars”, from 1964. I like westerns and I like Eastwood’s laconic and nameless character. Dozens of men are killed before our eyes. One scene shows the bad guy machine-gunning a whole company of Mexican soldiers, and we see them die one by one. Later he and his henchmen shoot their rivals as they emerge from their burning home, one a time even more slowly, perhaps twenty of them. The bad guys laugh, but they’re Mexicans, a bit of racism that was acceptable in 1964. Although Clint himself shot about a dozen people, he always let them draw first.
Fifty years later, killing is fun for everyone. Buy some popcorn, say the reviewers, watch a lot of people die, and have a great time.
I know the rate of violent crime in the US has been falling. But I can’t help thinking that we are systematically anesthetizing ourselves, especially our young, to the real horror of death. Video games, which began with colorful little men running around on screen, now feature eternal warfare. Make a kill, get a thrill, do it again a hundred times.
Back when Clint Eastwood was shooting Mexicans, our media and government said our culture was superior, because, for example, Asians didn’t value life as we did. Our methods of warfare in Vietnam demonstrated the irony of that claim. Now we don’t even pretend to value life.
I haven’t lived everywhere, but I have seen no other culture where killing people is so ubiquitously presented as entertainment.
Turn on the news and there’s more killing. Reporters put on serious faces, but they and their media bosses pounce on any murder, any time, any place, to splash all over our screens. This televised taste for blood assures any potential killer that he’ll get his 15 minutes of fame or more. The dominance of crime stories over all other types of news was already documented in studies in the 1990s. Since then murder has come to dominate nearly all types of TV programming.
In 1993, the group National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children launched an attempt to “alert society to its insensitivity towards murder”, using the acronym MINE, Murder Is Not Entertainment. That effort has been a dismal failure. Marketing murder makes millions. I can’t predict the long-term effects to our society of the ubiquity of murder on screen. But they can’t be good.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 19, 2015