Violence all around us, and we’re numb
I went to the multiplex the other day to see “Grindhouse”. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things I saw:
A woman’s gored body lying by the side of a road. The splintered end of a wooden leg thrust into a man’s eye. Blood spurting from a double stabbing in the chest. A willful head-on car crash so violent it dismembers the victims. Someone choking to death on her own blood. Several stop- and repeat-action beatings. And shootings — so numerous and various and viscerally specific as to defy any reasonable attempt to catalog and describe all the shattered skulls, gushing blood and fallen bodies.
Directed by the estimable Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, “Grindhouse” is a carefully devised double-feature homage and comic send-up of sleazy schlock cinema, complete with retro 1970s titles and music, scratched film stock and mock previews of gory coming attractions. With some demurrals, most critics were impressed and amused by the three-hour and 11-minute film. A “crazily funny and exciting tribute,” wrote Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly. Ty Burr, in the Boston Globe, called “Grindhouse” a “cheerfully reprehensible ode to ’70s exploitation movies.”
I understand and respect those responses, and might even add that “Grindhouse” could also be seen as a kind of contemporary cartoon critique of the screen violence it “cheerfully” celebrates. At one point in Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” segment, a mother hands her young son a gun and tells him, “You shoot them, just like your video games.” Moments later, after he’s been warned not to “blow your own face off,” the boy does exactly that.
But like so much else in popular culture right now, whether it’s the guns being drawn and fired on “CSI: Miami” or “24,” a fiery NASCAR crash or another episode of “The Sopranos,” “Grindhouse” induces a distinct queasiness and deep-seated unease. Last week’s carnage at Virginia Tech, followed by the surreal broadcast of the killer’s postmortem video footage, cast an eerie and inescapable blue glow. It’s impossible to think about those events, just as it was with Columbine eight Aprils ago, and not wonder about the culture’s routine and thoroughgoing saturation in violence. The audience at the screening of “Grindhouse” I caught was notably subdued. So was I.
The pundit machine has been working in overdrive for the past 10 days, trying to sort out all the media meanings and messages in Seung-Hui Cho’s horrific acts. Many were quick to rush to a summary judgment, linking his deeds to everything from the South Korean film “Oldboy” to John Woo movies to video games. Others, including my colleague Peter Hartlaub, who pointed out in Tuesday’s Datebook that Cho apparently didn’t play video games, argued for a little cause-and-effect restraint.
Speculation about the ethics and potential impact of airing Cho’s rambling, gun-toting farewell may be mulled in TV station boardrooms and media studies classrooms for years to come. And now, predictably, the government will weigh in. Next week Congress will receive a report from the Federal Communications Commission urging new controls over the “excessive violence” on TV, with special attention paid to its effects on children. Expect C-SPAN airtime for the senators and representatives eager to be seen and heard pronouncing on the subject. They won’t really know what they’re talking about. None of us does right now. But we can’t help it. We can’t stop talking — to each other, to ourselves, to the TV screen.
For the second time this month, the culture is having one of those What-Does-It-All-Mean? moments. It happened first when Don Imus ran off the rails with his slur on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, touching off a firestorm of opinion on everything from hate speech to free speech, shock-jock radio to rap music lyrics, misogyny to race and innumerable combinations and reconfigurations of those issues. Now the Virginia Tech tragedy has re-opened the floodgates for discussions on media violence, gun control, mental health policies, campus security and immigrant family life in America.
It’s easy to be skeptical that all this public discourse will ever amount to anything substantive. Drawn to the media in all its forms at times like these, we crave, in addition to the ritualistic repetition of images and sound bites, the comforting chatter of experts, the fire-log hiss and snap of pro-and-con debate, the urgent 90-second calls for this or that thing in society to be changed. And then there’s a commercial, and we flip the channel and move on.
Earlier this week, with the Imus affair still simmering on op-ed pages, two more New York radio hosts were suspended from their jobs after replaying an on-air prank that involved phoning a Chinese restaurant and insulting the staff with ethnic slurs, curses and sexual comments. Four days after the Virginia Tech shootings, an engineer seized and killed a hostage at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston before turning the gun on himself. In a poignant piece on the ABC Evening News Sunday, a man whose 5-year-old daughter was killed at a school-shooting rampage that left 18 people dead in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996 said somberly: “Nothing happened after Columbine, nothing happened after Nickel Mines in the Amish community. After a few weeks, nothing will happen after Virginia Tech. Even the death of 32 people may not be enough to build up the necessary momentum.”
A father’s grief is inconsolable and unanswerable. How many family members, loved ones and friends will carry the Virginia Tech shootings as an unhealable wound? So it was with the 9/11 attacks, with every shooting in Oakland and San Francisco, with all the griefs and injustice a society bears. Despair and cynicism are warmly inviting. Nothing will change. Nothing.
And yet, improbably and highly imperfectly, sometimes things do change. There was a time, back in the gaudy ’70s era that “Grindhouse” invokes, when the culture hadn’t yet had its defining What-Does-It-All-Mean? moments about cigarettes or seat belts. Then those moments did come, lurching and spasmodic as they were, and tens of thousands of people lived longer and better because of them. Right now, in a moment that may well be attributed someday to Al Gore and his movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” we may be having our global warming moment. Employers, homeowners, commuters and schoolchildren — millions who had never thought a thing about it until recently, are thinking green and contemplating their carbon footprint.
And who knows, even the way we talk to and about each other now may be undergoing a gradual transformation. And for that, Imus’ name might be inscribed in the record book. With both Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey joining the chorus to re-examine rap music lyrics, in the wake of the shock jock’s demise, the issue might gain some genuine traction.
As for violence, both actual and in the media, it may just be in our nature, doomed to come out in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. The ancient Greeks were violent, and so were their plays. I don’t believe that Seung-Hui Cho was driven to kill by the things he may have seen on screens or read in books. He was a deeply troubled and isolated man, seemingly launched on a course of self-destruction early on. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about the context in which he lived, with its endlessly streaming mayhem and ready supply of guns. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about the content and style of violent movies, television and video games.
It occurred to me, as I was sitting through “Grindhouse,” that it might be a kind of Mannerist work, a late-stage, extravagantly self-referential indulgence in violence turning back on itself and consuming its own tail. Maybe, I thought, this is a Moment in movie history. I don’t really believe that, but it was pleasing to think about it for a while, when the blood was covering a helicopter windshield or another skull was split wide open by a bullet. Autor: Steven Winn