There was another theater massacre last weekend. Casualties ran to nearly 200. Victims were incinerated, bludgeoned, beaten, stabbed, pulled apart by cars (really) and, oh yes, gunned down by the dozen.
It all happened on the screen, to fictional characters. But when Hollywood stars begin demanding gun control for the rest of us, as many have in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, it’s worth taking a hard look at the violence they portray and often glamorize.
The five top grossing box office movies for the weekend of Jan. 11 were “Zero Dark Thirty,” “A Haunted House,” “Gangster Squad,” “Django Unchained” and “Les Miserables.” Even with the presence of the PG-13 musical “Les Miserables” and the spoof comedy “A Haunted House,” it was a violent, bloody weekend at the movies.
How bloody was the weekend? Between those five films, there were 65 scenes of violence, with 185 individual victims, most but not all of whom died as a result. What’s more, 38 of the 65 scenes depicted gun violence. Movies being what they are, the number of victims is probably low. In fast moving scenes of mayhem, with explosions, car chases, multiple shooters, etc., it’s often impossible to know how many people were hurt or injured, and prudence dictates erring on the low side.
To be sure, a lot – perhaps most – of the violence was committed by good guys pursuing justice or other noble ends. In “A Haunted House,” the violence was for comedic effect, and “Zero Dark Thirty” was purporting to show a historical event (the hunt for and killing of Osama Bin Laden.) “Les Miserables” is set in part against the backdrop of revolution. But since assault weapons bans, new laws limiting the capacity of magazines and other gun control measures don’t distinguish good from bad or divine intent, violence in Hollywood films should be held to the same standard.
Two of the films stood out, accounting for a massive share of the violence. In “Gangster Squad,” a period piece about 1940s Los Angeles cops fighting organized crime, eight of the 12 violent scenes involved gunplay, and 65 people were killed or wounded on-screen. In just the first 10 minutes, a man was pulled in half by two cars, another lost a hand in an elevator fight and an attempted rape was narrowly averted.
The mob henchmen of villain Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) fared especially badly. Failing the boss resulted in being locked in a fire-bombed building for some. Another was killed with a power drill to the head. (Cohen: “You know the drill, boys.”)
“Gangster Squad” has the distinction among the five films as the only one actually impacted by real-world violence. The film’s trailer debuted along with “The Dark Knight Rises” last summer. It played before that movie the night the gunman opened fire in the Aurora, Col. theater in August. The trailer featured the film’s original climax scene , in which men with Tommy guns rampaged through a movie theater, murdering patrons. Wisely, the studio shot a new ending for “Gangster Squad.” In it, nearly 25 people are shot. But they’re not in a theater.
Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was the other high-body count offering. Of its 19 violent scenes, 12 included guns, and there were at least 69 victims of violence in the film.
The title character of “Django Unchained,” played by Jamie Foxx, is a slave turned bounty hunter in the antebellum South. Offered the job, Django said, “Killing white folks and getting paid for it? What's not to like?” Hosting “Saturday Night Live” in December, Foxx included a variation of the line when discussing “Django” in his monologue: “I kill all the white people in the movie. How great is that?”
But less than a month later, Foxx appeared in a video among other celebrities called “Demand a Plan to End Gun Violence .”
(Foxx is far from alone in his hypocrisy. The trailer for “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” features star Jeremy Renner telling an actress how to recognize his signal: “It’ll be me blowing one of these bitches’ head off.” Renner is very prominent in the “Demand a Plan” video.)
Tarantino, who’s stock in trade is lovingly depicted, over-the top violence, recently dismissed the notion that on-screen mayhem can spur the real-life kind. To question the link between entertainment and violence is, he said “totally disrespectful to [the Sandy Hook victims’] memory. Obviously, the issue is gun control and mental health.”
But it’s not that obvious to everyone. In the Jan. 15 USA Today, Robert Simmermon, “a psychologist who specializes in media,” was quoted on violence on TV. The graphic bloody depiction “desensitizes us, and in a sense dehumanizes us.”
“Criminals toting AK-47s are ‘the equivalent of old cowboys,” he says, “and that’s very dangerous. It appeals to a very primitive part of us.”
Tarantino’s derision to the contrary, when five contemporary films show nearly 200 people victimized by violence of one kind or another – but especially highly stylized gun violence, there just may be something to the idea that society is impacted by culture.
(It should be noted that two very violent films, “Jack Reacher” and “Texas Chainsaw 3-D” were among last weekend’s top five. Further, prior to the screening of “Gangster Squad,” five of seven trailers were for violent action or suspense films, including the “Hansel and Gretel” movie mentioned above.)