This is no new issue... Just an unglamorous one.
For the past few years, debates from diversity and female objectification to whitewashing and transgender representation have ricocheted around Hollywood and the media industry. The list of political amendments to what goes onscreen gets longer and the moral high ground, higher. So where is the serious conversation on glamourising guns?
Producers, actors, directors are all jumping at the chance to ‘truthfully’ reflect human stories by engaging in the debate of the day. Over the past decade, there has undeniably been a surge of sophisticated, sensitive, and probing narratives on film from a kaleidoscopic array of angles. But does casually shooting at hundreds of people on a regular basis, or pointing a gun nonchalantly in someone’s face really amount to an accurate picture of reality?
That’s not to say that gun violence is not an important issue in reality. That’s also not to dismiss the reality that gunfire is rife amongst many global demographics and war zones. Yet the fact that 10 of the top 20 biggest box office hits of all time, showcase copious amounts of guns to the point of it becoming banal, surely cannot be justified. Furious 7, Skyfall, Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon and all three Marvel Avengers movies take their place comfortably in the rankings, according to Box Office Mojo analysis. And none of these can claim to elicit a truly nuanced debate on gun violence. It’s all about cheap thrills, making money, power trips, and party tricks.
But not everyone is willing to reduce the matter to this. Dustin Hoffman, star of The Graduate and Kramer vs Kramer, famously spoke out against holding firearms onscreen, in an interview with National Public Radio back in January 2013. He joined the debate about gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting a month earlier. Six adults and 20 children were shot and killed at the school in Newtown Connecticut. And hitting 2018, there have been 30 US school shootings so far this year and a 20% increase of guns fire in the UK since 2012.
Hoffman, 80, had tried to avoid films which required him to hold a firearm save Straw Dogs, Hook and Little Big Man. He told Terry Gross that avoiding guns, ‘not only eliminates about 90% of movies. It disallows a gratuitous element in the film. It is very easy to make a point, if the script is lacking something, by just pulling a gun out.’
‘I have always felt passionate about the fact that the audience is identifying with movie violence in a very fraudulent way. I don’t find anything interesting about a gun. A gun is there to threaten or kill. They are rarely used in film in a way that it feels like in life. It’s simplified into being a cartoon experience.’
Hoffman’s is a rare voice against Hollywood’s apparent advocacy of guns. Other big movie figures refuse to accept any link between violence in cinema and real life, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson. But let’s not forget that Harvey Weinstein rebuffed the concept of the casting couch for years. The debate is not new, but real conversations may need to start because the impact is real.
Going back to June 2009, Bowe Bergdahl, a sergeant in the US army, walked off his post in Afghanistan, triggering a Dustwan (a transitory status where a soldier is missing but not confirmed dead). This led to a 45-day manhunt by the whole US army, putting hundreds of soldiers at risk. In the popular podcast, Serial, he explained that he walked away from his platoon to flag up the incompetence of leadership.
Bergdahl said: ’Doing what I did is me saying that I am like Jason Bourne. I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing. You know, that I could be what it is that all those guys out there that go to the movies and watch those movies, they all want to be that, but I wanted to prove that I was that.’
Although this may not be an exact link between gun violence and its effects on real life, it’s a damaging example of just how influential movies are to internalising violence. It becomes aspirational. Many other cultural phenomena may also promulgate violence in the minds of the populace, say gaming or community ties to gang warfare. So although there may not be an exact one-to-one relationship, the glamorisation of guns on screen is certainly not creating to a positive legacy.
Movies and TV shows do perpetuate an illusion that shooting down a hundred surplus henchmen is just another day at work. Take Keanu Reeves in John Wick (2014), who comes out of retirement to mow down an absurd amount of people so he can topple an evil gangster. Or look at Drew Barrymore calmly glaring at Sam Rockwell just before he shoots her through a hilltop window in Charlie’s Angels (2000) only to miraculously hang on to the window sill by the bedsheets she was wrapped in. Having a revolver directed at your head is clearly just another run-of-the-mill experience in movie land.
Characters on screen often react zen-like, even appearing bored or amused as a gun is pointed towards them. But the reality is very different, as Gershon Ben Keren testifies. He teaches Krav Maga, a style of fighting adapted in The Equaliser starring Denzel Washington, telling The Independent’s Christopher Hooton that, ‘nine times out of ten (with a gun in your face), you’re just going to want to comply with their demands and hand over your wallet. It’s not worth risking your safety for a few dollars.’ So even highly trained self-defence experts will be shocked and terrified when they find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun in real life.
In America, any debate about firearms is incredibly incendiary. It easily boils down to Trump-era faultiness between the ‘morally integral cultural elite’ and those who feel their way of life is politically marginalised or patronised, even. There’s finger-pointing on both sides, including Hollywood. In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting in October 2017, Chris Cox, the executive director of the US National Rifle Association called out Hollywood and its hypocrisies.
He told Tucker Carlson of Fox News that: ‘The NRA spends millions of dollars every year teaching safe and responsible gun ownership, and Hollywood makes billions promoting and glorifying gun violence, and then the same hypocrites come in and suggest we’re to blame for this.’
‘This Hollywood crowd makes billions teaching gun irresponsibility to the American public. The hypocrisy is beyond belief. They criticise me for saying people ought to be able to protect themselves from murderers, rapists and robbers, and then they make billions depicting every night in those same situations.’
But this blaming game does nothing to tackle a problem this complicated. It seems to stall any real conversation due to fear of admitting culpability and thus becomes an under-examined controversy. Bullets still invade the everyday consciousness of global citizens as aspirational tools of power.
Despite #Metoo, #timesup, #lilywhiteoscars, Hollywood has placed itself on a precarious moral footing when it comes to rampant gunfire. Too many filmmakers still rely heavily on this violence as a lazy staple that can fill up a movie’s running time. Some would say that guns are just a bit of Friday night fun. They sell tickets and suspend audiences from the mundanity of their everyday lives. So trying to argue against the risk of glamourisation may easily be rejected by populist vote, calling out a prim, kill-joy, ‘Auntie Sally’ mentality. But the damage is done and debate should ensue. So time’s up again Hollywood, the topic is now on the table.
Images: Allied, Paramount Pictures (2016), Kick Ass, Universal Pictures (2010), Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and John Wick, Lionsgate (2017)