Since the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., a considerable amount of energy has understandably been expended on the matter of which guns should be available to whom and when. But it is striking that the president’s comments on Thursday about film and video-game violence have been either derided or glossed over. They are worth lingering on.
Most of us probably inhabit a kind of bubble when it comes to violence on screen. We choose to watch the sorts of films we think we’ll like and, unless we are film critics, get to avoid the sorts of films we think will bore or repel us. Until we become parents, most of us probably pay no particular attention to the drip-feed of blood and gore that now forms the basis of almost all popular entertainment.
As it happens, I’ve had to be on a lot of planes recently, and have used some of the time to watch movies I would never otherwise seek out. Apart from concluding that the Oscars shouldn’t award anyone for anything this year (can’t the whole thing just be called off?), I have mainly been repulsed at the extreme violence (often mixed with the most crass “sexiness”) that seems now to be the cinematic norm.
I could describe the sheer awfulness of Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, a long-legged female spy dispatching her male foes in gruesome fashion between coolly pouring herself drinks, but I didn’t make it to the end. Far worse was a film I did slog all the way through, Kingsman 2. I won’t bother to explain the risible plot, but it is presented as a sort of cooler, wryer, modern take on James Bond. Certainly all the advertising for it, the cast, and the buttons it presses make it clear that it is not aimed at an adult audience. I was surprised at the opening to see that it had an R rating, not least because I had heard people (including an air-stewardess) talking about having taken their children to see it.
A culture that encourages enjoyment of horrific violence alongside a sort of flippant approach to its consequences cannot be helping matters.
Of course the thing was filled with swearing and drugs — but it was the violence that amazed me. The unending, cartoonish brutality. Because the film starred wholesome-seeming actors such as Colin Firth, I had assumed that the limits of any fight scenes would be some stupid martial arts. But the whole thing was in fact an almost endless parade of gore. Several characters, at various stages, get shot in the head through an eye. This is presented – among other things – as something that can be healed. For plot reasons too preposterous to go into, one of the agencies in the film has developed a flat-pack that you can press around the head of someone who has received such a shot and then not only save their life but later help them get back their memory and come back to normal life.
I must say that all this left the ugliest possible taste behind. You don’t need to have seen the effects of a bullet wound entering (and, worse, exiting) a human skull to consider what horrific, dull-witted, and crass people the director and producers of Kingsman 2 must be. But people should realize that these Hollywood entrepreneurs wish only to make money and possibly entertain people, and that one of the ways they have decided they can do this is to make being shot through an eye into a relatively minor and mendable matter. I suppose a lot of audiences would have thought this particular detail cool. But it was just one of the things in an ultra-violent fantasy that made me think something very sick indeed had been planted at the heart of popular entertainment.
Of course it is unlikely that any single movie or video game would make anyone carry out an act of evil and wickedness like the school shooting in Florida last month. Easy access to certain types of guns seems to some of us one obvious part of the problem. But equally obvious is that a culture that encourages enjoyment of horrific violence alongside a sort of flippant approach to its consequences cannot be helping matters.