Newtown, Django Unchained, and Jack Reacher

Yesterday in The Independent, Robert Zak wrote about the movie studios’ decision to cancel red-carpet premieres of two upcoming violent movies – Django Unchained and Jack Reacher – in the wake of the shooting in Newtown. Here are his words:

[S]uch actions are more than just harmless or pointless gestures that answer to prim ideas of social correctness. In bending film and TV around such tragedies as Newtown, society orbits around them, entrenching these tragedies into our cultural make-up, and building antagonistic associations between the arts, entertainment, and real-world violence. Yes, we should reflect on the tragic loss of life, and use it to conceive of ways to prevent it from happening again.

Let celebrities speak out (because, for better or worse, we value their bland opinions), let tributes happen, but do not let the tragedy bring culture to a standstill, because its effect becomes tainting. Whenever Django Unchained finally premieres, itis now blemished with the memory of a tragedy, hovering over the fact that it’s a comically violent homage to classic spaghetti western films. The film’s escapism has been undermined.

I couldn’t disagree more. Canceling the premieres is a pointless gesture because these films are still opening on schedule (Reacher premieres today, and Django, as a symbol of something I can’t quite figure out, opens on Christmas). Apparently, the studios expect our collective grief about the Newtown tragedy to pass in a few days. By canceling the media swarm that surrounds an official premiere but refusing to delay the nationwide release of the film, they have made clear that their only motive is PR.

This is a shame because Hollywood has signaled that is ready to have an internal discussion about limiting violence in their product. After the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, Harvey Weinstein called for an industry-wide summit to discuss the impact movie violence may have on real-life bloodshed. Just a day after the recent tragedy in Newtown, Jamie Foxx stated that Hollywood cannot say that “violence in films…doesn’t have a sort of influence.” Both Weinstein and Foxx are closely linked with Django’s writer/director, Quentin Tarantino, who has exploited movie violence with more glee – and more success – than any filmmaker working today. Tarantino, of course, is impervious to pleas that he make his films any less violent.

But this brings us to Zak’s final comment: that the escapism of Django has been undermined by its association with the Newtown shooting. His assumption is that we need escape from our violent society more than we need to reflect on it. But does a movie so in love with killing even offer an escape right now?

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There is no doubt that Tarantino knows how to entertain. His movies are cinematic masterpieces; no other filmmaker can build tension as well as he can, and few have his ear for dialogue. But when we escape from the violence of the real world into a movie with an even higher body count and even more blood, we are living in a world from which there is no escape from violence. The natural and understandable response is for people to become desensitized to it. This is not a recipe to create a more peaceful world.

As I have previously noted, not every movie with violence embraces it so gleefully. In fact, with the exception of Django and Reacher, most violent films this year at least put their bloodshed in a political or social context. A short list of these films would include The Hunger Games, Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, Looper, Seven Psychopaths, and Killing Them Softly. These movies show that there is a way to both titillate and contemplate, and they should be praised for at least giving the audience an opportunity to consider the full impact of their mayhem.

This is a discussion that has been going on since the birth of movies themselves – and it’s unlikely to end anytime soon. Violence is part of our society, and the movies reflect the society in which they are created. The onus is on the filmmakers and the studios to consider their responsibility, and there are two things that need to happen. First, the MPAA needs to update its rating system to make it more difficult for children to see graphic violence. Second, commercial filmmakers need to grow a conscience. I’m skeptical that either will happen, but we have to advocate for the world we want to live in.

For my further ideas on movie violence and how to change the MPAA Ratings System, you can read my post-Aurora post here.

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