Rethinking Escapist Violence by Nate Blake

I’ve had it. Like many Americans, I had it twenty years ago. These shootings need to stop. I want to preface what follows by saying I don’t believe for one second that violent movies or video games or angry music cause mass shootings. Once again, there are politicians blaming entertainment for mass murder instead of the real cause: access to guns. Yet I find increasingly appealing the desire for entertainment less centered on guns, knives, throwing punches and blowing things up.

I often hear people complain about my tastes in film, saying the kinds of movies I tend to watch and review aren’t fun. I hear that they are work. I hear that they aren’t accessible. These same people almost always say they view films as an escape, that they don’t want to think about things like aging, existential crises, racism, economic inequality and sexism when they go to the movies. They want to escape, so the first thing they run to are the latest installments of franchises like the MCU or Star Wars or Rambo, films where bullets (or lasers) fly and the body count piles up. To me, there is less and less entertainment value, and absolutely zero escapism, in watching supposed heroes solve problems with violence. Fans of these films will respond to my criticism by saying that many of them have anti-violence messages, and that’s often true, but the filmmakers undermine those messages by making fights and weapons look cool.

In July 2012, the morning after the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, I had tickets to see The Dark Knight Rises. My parents tried to talk me out of it. They were afraid of copycat incidents. I went and saw the film anyway. That wouldn’t be the case now. It’s not that fear would keep me home. I’m just tired of the industry’s obsession with violence. I’m increasingly only willing to watch movies featuring violent acts if they are included for historical accuracy, or are brief, unglamorized outbursts that serve to say something important about one of the characters and socially relevant issues they are facing (several scenes in Moonlight come to mind).

These days I’m far more likely to repeat watch something like Lady Bird or Leave No Trace than anything where guns or other weapons are used against other characters, even if they are villains. The loud spectacles throughout today’s biggest blockbusters may be stunning examples of technical expertise, but I don’t find them fun to watch the way other members of the audience do. I most cases, neither the heroes nor villains have any constructive ideas other than stopping each other with kicking, punching or shooting.

Our politicians need to find solutions to gun violence, and blaming media is still scapegoating at its worst. But maybe we wouldn’t be able to move on so quickly from each shooting if we weren’t numb to carnage thanks to the images we immerse ourselves in when we are looking to have fun.  Slashing people up is not fun or cool, neither are car chases or shootouts. Frying brainwashed cult members with a flame thrower or smashing their faces in with household objects isn’t good fun either. Which leads me to the point of this post. With the exception of historical violence (narrative and documentary formats), I will no longer be reviewing or including in any of my lists films that glorify or make light of gun violence (or frame it as a solution) or those that fetishize firearms and other weapons.

Also to be excluded are films that devote a lot of screen time to fist fights, stabbings, or other physically violent elements for escapist purposes. I will exercise discretion. The mere presence of a gun (for example, a character is hunting) is not an automatic disqualification, nor is brief, sporadic violence that appears in films ranging from Sideways to Toy Story. I’m not going to disqualify a thoughtful film  over a slap in the face or a drunken scuffle, but I will no longer be part of tolerating this society’s preoccupation with guns and violence. Spending less time promoting needlessly violent films is a good place to start and a change I can make today.  I hope other cinephiles will join me in championing films that don’t rely primarily on violence to tell a good story. I also hope that someday soon, politicians and gun owners will look at their own attitudes, habits and priorities and make the responsible choices, and sacrifices, for the American people.

When a man carries a gun all the time, the respect he thinks he’s getting might really be fear. So I don’t carry a gun because I don’t want the people of Mayberry to fear a gun.  I’d rather they would respect me.” -Sheriff Andy Taylor, The Andy Griffith Show, season five, episode twenty-three, “TV or not TV.”


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