On Sandy Hook, Movie Violence, and 'Jack Reacher'

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Any time there’s a senseless, random mass shooting, the responses come in waves — and senseless, random mass shootings have become so common that you can all but set your watch by those responses anymore. First, there’s shock. Then, there’s the insistence that “now is not the time” to talk about guns, or to “politicize a tragedy.” And then the anti-gun people either wait a while or don’t, and start talking about gun control, and then the pro-gun people start talking about arming everyone, and comparing outlawing guns to outlawing cars and spoons and fertilizer. And then the blaming starts: of parents, of a deficient mental health system, even (this time) the lack of men around. Alex Jones will lead the charge of tinfoil hat-sporting nutjobs claiming that the whole thing was a government operation enabling them to “come git our guns.” And, at some point in the midst of all that, it will be time to blame pop culture.

This time, pop culture saw the laser-sight coming, and lept on a grenade instead. Paramount cancelled last Saturday’s premiere of the Tom Cruise action movie Jack Reacher, “out of honor and respect for the families of the victims whose lives were senselessly taken” on Friday. Quentin Tarantino’s Antebellum-era revenge fantasy Django Unchained’s Los Angeles premiere was scheduled for Tuesday; the Weinstein Company downgraded to “a private screening for the cast and crew and their families and friends.”

Indulge me a moment while walking through this, but when I first heard about these fumbling overtures, I was skeptical — and a little angry. Frankly, the cancellations seemed less about honoring and respecting victims than they did about avoiding PR disasters. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to promote their movies (which they’ve continued to do, full bore); it’s that they didn’t want to answer questions about their movies and Newtown on the red carpet, a theory given more credence by the fact that the Weinstein Company went ahead and had a private premiere. That’s a decision no doubt informed by Tarantino’s long-held and frequently stated views on movie violence: “I make violent movies,” he announced in December’s Playboy. “I like violent movies. I’m on record about how I feel there is no correlation between art and life in that way.” At a junket Saturday, he reiterated that stance: “I just think, you know there’s violence in the world, tragedies happen, blame the playmakers… It’s a western. Give me a break.”

Having seen Django Unchained, I agree with him — yes, sure, there’s a Peckinpah/Woo-styled blood-splattered shoot-out at its climax, but that’s about the only way to get from Tarantino’s “Candie-Land” to Sandy Hook, and it’s a stretch. This is a film about a former slave exacting his revenge against the vilest of men, not a disturbed monster killing children. By drawing a connection from their movies to the Connecticut shooting, weren’t the distributors of Django and Jack Reacher implicitly acknowledging that the culture warriors were right — that violent movies like theirs were to blame, were part of the problem, or (at the very least) one of the symptoms?

But that argument gets trickier when you see Jack Reacher, which I did last night. It is a film that opens with, and is primarily centered on, an act of random, horrifying, public gun violence — a Whitmanesque shooter who sets up in a parking garage, aims his sniper scope, and takes out five people on a promenade in about five seconds. It is impossible not to think about Newtown when that scene unspools or when director Christopher McQuarrie revisits it later, this time from the ground level, showing the victims being cut down, the last of them a young woman running with a tiny girl in her arms, assuring her “We’re gonna be okay, we’re gonna be okay” before a chilling cut to black.

The unfortunate timing of Reacher’s release, and how events off-screen color our perception of what is on it, recalls the experience of seeing The Dark Knight Rises after Aurora, its acts of anarchy and public terror all the more troubling. But that was a film strong enough to carry the weight; Reacher is, on the other hand, a slam-bang action movie that uses its sniper opening for cheap thrills and spends most of the time engaging in ridiculously over-the-top tough-guy posturing and tongue-in-cheek dialogue. (At least, I hope that dialogue isn’t meant to be taken seriously, considering what a parade of clichés it is.) The seriousness of the Newtown echoes throw the whole thing out of joint, and does the movie no favors.

Should Paramount have considered a Collateral Damage/Big Trouble -style postponement? Doubtful; at the rate these things are happening lately, there’s no guarantee that any given week won’t produce yet another mass shooting. But maybe — and I’m just spitballing here, as someone who has spent most of his life strictly arguing that damnit, artists make art and to hell with what anybody says — if this kind of violence is going to be the new norm, and if our legislators turn out to be as spineless on even the mildest forms of gun control (i.e., assault weapons and high-capacity clips) as I think we all know they are, then maybe there is something to be said for toning it down, just a little bit. Not via legislation, but out of the kind of courtesy and common sense these studios claim to be displaying by cancelling their big premieres. This is just one person’s thinking here, and I’m not trying to go soft, and claim we should all subsist on a diet of Garry Marshall movies and Dora the Explorer. But James Poniewozik’s thoughtful, soul-searching post over at Time — a piece which, by the way, makes the too commonly overlooked distinction between pop culture influence and causality (“Arts and entertainment affects people,” he clarifies, “but it doesn’t follow from that that it programs people”) — comes to a compelling, albeit somewhat utopian, conclusion.

(A) heartbreaking crime like the Sandy Hook shooting could remind us that we want something other than mayhem in our culture, without our having to claim that it leads to real-life mayhem. It could just be an occasion to ask: hey, isn’t there something besides this? Aren’t there interesting subjects for ambitious cable dramas besides charismatic brooding men killing people? And maybe your “escapist” torture-porn movie is never going to make anyone torture someone else – but doesn’t it make the world more grim and unpleasant?

It’s an interesting point. I’m still weighing all of this. And, hopefully, we all are.