At the end of the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, an actor dressed as a cowboy fires a gun directly at the camera. It has nothing to do with the rest of the action of the film; it’s a moment of spectacle in a medium that at the time was almost nothing but spectacle. Film had only just begun to progress beyond entertaining single subjects and into proper storylines, continuity editing, and all the rest. It’s one of the most famous shots in film history, referenced in Goodfellas among others. And an interesting comment on guns in the movies.
As Justin reported, Warner Brothers first decided to pull the ads for its film Gangster Squad in the aftermath of the Aurora shooting, then to recut the film entirely to eliminate a scene in which the gangsters (or is the cops? I honestly don’t know because I’ve only seen the ads once) come out from behind a movie screen with guns blazing. Too close to a terrible reality for comfort is the reason given. But I must admit that I view this as deeply problematic, and not just because Gangster Squad is one of the dumbest titles I’ve ever heard.
We’ve already seen something like this happen in the aftermath of a tragedy. Following 9/11, a number of films pulled images or recut scenes to avoid showing the World Trade Center, even going so far as to edit it out of the New York skyline. While I understand the desire to be sensitive to national tragedies, at the same time I wonder what the reasoning is behind these kinds of edits. None of these films had anything to do with terrorism, with the bombing, or even with planes. They were edited images because … why? As a nation we did not want to look at the World Trade Center? We wanted to be sensitive to victims, but where does sensitivity cross the line to outright self-censorship? Where do we give into fear?
The edited images of the World Trade Center and the editing of Gangster Squad are two different forms of self-censorship; the one we can argue is an issue of sensitivity. The other I’m little more uncertain about. The gangsters coming from behind the screen and firing into a crowd might be too close for comfort in the wake of the Aurora shooting, but this is not a film about a lone gunman shooting a lot of people in a movie theatre. It’s about, y’know, gangsters and cops and the 1940s. It has nothing to do with James Holmes or what he did. So what is Warner Brothers up to? It’s very easy to throw around words like ‘sensitivity’, but what are they being sensitive about? Movie-theatre violence? Or is it as vague as movies + guns = no? If that’s so, we’re going to have to censor an awful lot from now on.
What begins to dawn on me is that Warner Brothers seems to be tacitly admitting that violence in cinema has a direct relationship to violence in reality. That because a film depicts something that might be close to a real-life tragedy, it must be eliminated, cut-out. Forgotten. It never happened. But it did. We might want to cut it out of the collective consciousness; we might want to forget it. But really, we can’t. The media is a reflection of our world; it relates to it, it contributes to it, but it does not make psychos into psychos, it does not cause people like James Holmes to fire into a crowd. James Holmes pulled that trigger; the guy on the screen did not. Re-editing films gives into the terror that Holmes wanted to create. He wanted to hurt people, to scare them, to give himself power. So now we’re giving him all the power he wanted. Not only over life and death, but over what we can and cannot see. He’s in our movie-theatre still. Shouldn’t we be running the little bastard out?
I find it odd that we’re perfectly comfortable about making tragedies into heartfelt dramas, yet want to censor films that have only a minor relationship to a tragedy. So we cut out images of the World Trade Center from Spiderman 2, but are comfortable to have that event melodramatized in United 93, World Trade Center, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. We don’t want to see 1940s gangsters firing guns in a movie-theatre, yet we are all right with Gus van Sant making Elephant, a film closely connected to the Columbine shootings. We will willingly turn our tragedies into melodrama, disconnecting them from ourselves, making them into entertainments, but we balk at a similarity, at an image, at a reminder. I think it might be because if we turn our tragedies into entertainment we can maintain a critical distance, while if we are reminded of what we lost through an image or a reference, we remember too well how we actually felt.
At the end of the day, no amount of media sensitivity will change what happened in Aurora. We can blame whatever film we like, censor whatever we want, but the fact will remain that a psycho made a decision to kill people for no reason. It was his fault; not the movie that he watched, or the one that he never saw. Instead of looking to the gun on the screen, instead of turning away from the image, we need to turn towards it. The gun on the screen is not real. We’re the ones who instill it with importance, who seek to blame it for something it never did. We have to stop being afraid of those images. The only way they can hurt us is by reminding us of something we promised never to forget.