ESSAY: THE NUMBING
Part one of our three-part exploration of violence in cinema.
When I was a kid, if I remember right… every movie I watched was one long blood bath, where every man’s head exploded into confetti, while every woman’s tits were ripped from their tees and squeezed and sucked with desperate lust…
I remember begging Mom to take me to Lethal Weapon (1987)… I remember clearly the dark of the theater, my first time seeing a perfect ass and head of hair—a sobbing man’s mouth open up—to suck that final bullet…
Oh would he do it? He couldn’t—we’re only twenty minutes in…
In the celluloid ‘80s, bodies piled up, indiscriminately Asian and brown. Perhaps in an over-reaction to the genocidal frenzy of our Vietnam endeavor—a means of making up with ourselves, as if to justify the senselessness of real world death—we killed those people twice over, and stupidly, even in our protest films we killed an awful lot of Vietcong—
and I loved it
was fascinated by it.
I remember in particular this one Vietnam book I checked out of the library, staring at this picture of this burned up kid standing in the middle of a dirt road—monotonous jungle on all sides, no one else around except, obviously, this photographer, and this kid, his skin charred and flaking off in big pink patches—his tiny body, no bigger than mine…1
But wasn’t there something a little shameful in it too—the wild ‘80s action films?—we got it, the joke, and so we watched these bloodbaths ironically, coolly—it would be this “viewer sensibility” which would pave the way going forward—the smart, and self-aware purveyors of mayhem and murder—
Do you remember how excited everyone was about Scream (1996)…?
For me, there were two action stars in the ‘80s—but in the center was always an Austrian bodybuilder who could never totally hide his completely absent grin.2 But by the early ‘90s I was ready for the shift—and ate up a lot of this faux-Greek sounding bullshit from the directors (always men3).
“We are a violent society, and I reflect that society.” The three time Oscar winning writer and director Oliver Stone said, “That’s part of my job. I don’t want gore, and disgusting stuff, and I try to keep that to a minimum. But you can’t legislate it. You can’t censor it. The United States government tried to prohibit drinking back in the 1920s, end what did that lead to? More gangsters, the Mafia was born, and everybody violated the law anyway.”
Certainly the early ‘90s was the high point of the crime wave. It crested with the Los Angeles riots, and early ‘90s gangster rap—but once the “collective danger” was brutality quelled, the machine ushered in the era of mass incarceration and mass shootings.
It seems now—even despite the very important and very necessary offshoot of Black Power that is Black Lives Matter—the seriousness of the threat posed by collectives and groups of people wrecking havoc in America has disappeared.
The murder rate is at a 30 year low right now—despite the chortling of Trump. All crime indicators are at their lowest. In fact, the social system is fairly total now—the centrality of our nerves extends well beyond ourselves: we’re linked—our faces, ideas, teeth, DNA exist in multiple media, all of which is held in the hands of other people, or in other temporalities, existing and “interfacing” at differing speeds. We’re connected and we’re watching one another.
Yes, we realize crime is down.
Yes, Mechanical production is down in the States.4
Yet we feel like we move faster.
Yet we feel like we do nothing but work.
Yet we feel like we’re more violent.
Like we’ve reached a tipping point…
Most statistical outlets say there is roughly a gun for every person in the US—though the number of people who actually own guns is down. Most gun owners own about eight guns. So there are more guns on the street, but less people have them.
Studies show where there is increased gun ownership there is increased gun violence. Most outlets put “murder by gun” rates at about 30 murders per million people. Most outlets say something to the effect of “compared to other Western Democracies”—this rate is staggering. And, sure it is—if you continue to think of the United States as still being comparable to other western democracies—but come on.
It’s probably more accurate to conceive of America as a simultaneous first and third world country.5 Using economic data to determine “what a country is like” misrepresents the actual on-the-ground-experience of being here.
The notion that movies “reflect” our society seems to have gone out the window. Since 9/11 superheroes have dominated major Hollywood studios. Mass shootings have dominated the social imagination.
The idea of the historically aware movie goer—she who remembers what the Tet Offensive looked like—has given way to the comfortable escapist. To he who is seduced by these superhero types—vaguely plausible individuals (in a human sense) still capable of acting beyond the social context. History doesn’t matter if you can melt steel with your eyes.
There seems to be an inverse relationship—the less we individual people feel we have control over our lives, the more powerful our Hollywood protagonists become. But they’re not cartoons either—not in the way that the ‘80s action film stars were—they’re not atoning for anything, they’re promising something else, something other than you.
This is why you can’t trust anyone—honestly—who buys a gun. Those who do—the deluded who think that when the shit hits the fan, they’re going to save the day… these are the madmen—the ones who an ideology can move beyond passive consumerism… and are everyday actors in everyday structural violence.
The psychology of any of these mass shooters points toward this “superhero” mentality—that they’re the ones who are going to make a difference—start a race war, defeat the police, end taxation.
This is the line Hollywood is walking. For the most part—people know they’re weak, helpless idiots—most people understand “complexity” is difficult—most people seek entertainment to avoid those things… the movies aren’t supposed to be taken that seriously—just seriously enough that you’ll give them your money and time. That’s all.
1Fuck you Obama, Bush, every president, every person who sent people to kill other people for whatever reason. No state should be allowed to kill on behalf of its citizens—period. Moreover, show me the one war in US history that was actually fought in order to save life…and did so—that didn’t become a genocidal frenzy, the war and money machine that we feed like a hog and for some reason reverently believe is necessary to protect “our freedom”—the fact that right now the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is ongoing turns my stomach and it should turn yours too, you, reader of Flaunt, haver of taste, presumable wearer of High Fashion—even if only one kid had died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, it’d still be a fucking travesty.
2Rocky is and has always been the most earnest of actors and thus my favorite; but the Governator always gestured toward his theatrically stiff delivery; he knew and therefore could not help but ironize everything he was in—this all of course ended in Cameron’s creepy hands (btw did you know those close-up shots of Leo’s hands sketching Kate in the nude were actually Jim’s?) in T:2, the most self-serious and sentimental pile of garbage dear to my heart. Sly of course is trying to cash in on this 30 years too late in The Expendables (2010) which I haven’t seen a one of as they look totally humorless. But c’mon, Creed (2015) was fantastic and Sly deserved the Oscar…
3Strange Days (1995) and eXistenZ (1999) seem more prescient and more like outliers today—too bad The Hurt Locker (2008) was crap. Even Point Break (1991)—seemed close to saying something about Politics, Theft, and Violence versus Nature. Though it was too stupid, and too full of stupid people to really articulate that vision clearly.
4Do you know what a Special Economic Zone is? (http://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/goldman-sachs-says-reforms-to-create-110-mn-jobs-for-economy-in-10-yrs/story/204721.html) Do you ever actually consider the labor in the thing you’re consuming?
5David Simon, “There are now two Americas.” Speech delivered at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas, 2013, Sydney.
Written by Randy Lee Maitland
Photographed by Clayton Webster