Hollywood films follow very easy to read trends. They would be dumb not to, as they only have a few genres to regurgitate the same plots out over and over again: westerns, dramas, teen melodramas and coming of age films, the romantic comedy, slapstick comedy, the action flick (which is further broken down to either the Stallone, the Willis or the Marvel), martial arts / wire work films, social horror, traditional horror, stoner flicks, family friendly animated films (which often double as stoner flicks), the Tom Cruise Vehicle and Lord of the Rings. What allows the movies to be current is not just the stars they choose or the ever increasing quality of special effects, but how they tackle (or avoid) social issues. Looking at a few standout films from 2012, (as well as one from 2010 and one from 2004), a somewhat alarming trend seems to be emerging.
Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, and reprises similar themes as 2010’s Inglorious Bastards, giving history a wedgie, replacing what actually happened with maybe what SHOULD have if this world we lived in was fair. Both films present themselves as fun, which is an accomplishment, considering the gravity of the subject matter. This is the key to its success: it takes history for a ride in what is to be seen as just fantasy, so everything should be taken lightly. At the same time, its treatment of its subject matter (in Django, slavery in the South; and Bastards — Nazi Europe) shames the viewer into being morally supportive of the violence turned against the villains of history. Within these themes, violence can be easily justified: when an actor portraying a slave is viciously abused and beaten, we feel it is our responsibility to witness it, that the atrocity is historical fact and to turn away would be an injustice to those who endured it. When Django (Jamie Fox) unleashes extreme punishment on the slave owners, we can’t help but enjoy every moment of agony they endure, even wanting it to extend further and become more extreme, as no amount of sympathy should be, or could be rendered to them. This occurs throughout Inglorious Bastards as well, all the way up to the gleeful killing of Adolf Hitler by Eli Roth’s character. While watching this in a theater a few years back, there were joyful cheers as Hitler was shot to pieces like a dog. It seemed wrong NOT to cheer. Here at work are elements of the very propaganda films that Bastards condemns in its plot, just twisted a little to be only somewhat satirical. Hitler can be an Osama Bin Laden, as Tarantino’s Hitler, while satirical, is also symbolic in the final months in the search for Bin Laden.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t any value to these films, that the plots to kill Hitler in Inglorious Bastards aren’t an acknowledgement to the many attempts during WWII, or that Django’s revenge isn’t a nod to slave rebellions and their impact on the eventual abolition of slavery, especially considering their erasure from history books and the propaganda to say that they hurt the abolitionist movement. Rightly so, but Django Unchained is primarily Tarantino’s homage to Django, the 1966 Spaghetti Western starring Franco Nero, proving his success lies in deftly adapting great under appreciated films and covering them in magic Hollywood ooze. The attempts to re-appraise history become secondary to entertainment, assuring us the violence is all in fun, but it really means something.
Django Unchained wasn’t the only film to come out in 2012 to morally justify violence, whether imagined or based in reality. While Zero Dark Thirty is a great example, enough has already been said about this film in regards to how it politicizes violence. Many of the comic book adaptations from the past 12 years have used the idea of confronting terror through larger that life heroes that stand up for America. This is especially important in a mega blockbuster like The Avengers. The interesting thing about The Avengers, though, is that even though it was nearly two hours of battle scenes pasted together with horrendous dialogue to move the plot along (just like a lot of super hero comic books), it still involved very little killing, employed relatively few guns, and the guns were no stronger than, and even weaker than many of the other weapons and fighting tactics employed in the film. The guns became knives, billy clubs and even toys compared to other weapons, or against such awesome powers. Is this a message that guns aren’t the answer to ending terror, or is it that only really BIG guns (NOT those on the Hulk) can stop terror? Can any pro – assault weapon propaganda be read from The Avengers? Maybe. But maybe its like trying to get meaning from the back of a cereal box. What if, the idea seeps into our brains subconsciously, like the idea that cereal is good for us because of all the vitamins pumped into it artificially.
Lincoln. Its almost unmentionable: Spielberg, Daniel Day Lewis, possibly the most loved president of all time — a PATRIOT and HERO who freed the slaves with his bare hands — on the silver screen spewing golden kittens at us. If you don’t like this movie you are clearly a racist freedom hating communist who makes baby E.T. cry, right? I am not criticizing the film so much as the psychology behind the film and the mentality of making a movie that few could ethically or morally be against. While not to be compared side by side, lets not forget about Mel Gibson’s barf fest The Passion of the Christ: Many Catholic Church leaders who may normally have condemned the violence in the film urged their parishioners to see it, some even organizing large screenings for their flocks. Making over $370 million dollars, it is the most financially successful R Rated movie of all time.1 The violence in this film, we were assured, was not gratuitous, but the actual bloodshed that Jesus endured. It became a mini pilgrimage for some to see this film during Lent and be touched by Christ’s selflessness. It was only a couple years later that Gibson made an obviously anti-Semitic comment to a police officer. Was the violence really justifiable, or just opportunistic?
Tarantino’s recent outburst to an interviewer regarding his stance on violence in entertainment didn’t help his cause or anyone in a similar position. Kathryn Bigelow did a much better job of laying out the argument against blaming entertainment and art as the source for real life copy cat violence. Artists cannot be responsible for the people who are so out of touch with reality, that they might be inspired to violent acts based on a movie, video game or music. However, we seem to be caught in a loop of real and imagined violent events, both regurgitated to us through the same media outlets, often one right after the other, with little or no break between them. At what point does art become reality? Does it? By producing films that promote the idea of justifiable violence, Hollywood is contributing an opinion to when extreme violence can still be ethical, a suitable time while we have reservations about drone strikes. By not allowing the audience to sympathize to the receivers of violence, they say that the only victims are those justly dishing out the violence. After more than ten years of war on other’s soil, do we still see ourselves as the victims? By making the movies entertaining, they are towing the line of an ethical abyss, conveniently choosing when to take a stand. Make a statement or don’t; people are listening, they are watching, they are in rapt attention.
1 Information courtesy of Box Office Mojo. Used with permission.