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Violence and Hollywood
Copyright 1999, 2014,
Dorian Scott Cole
Editorial Commentary
on currents events

"I'm too young to die!" This is a true story. The sixteen-year old standing in the dark at my door was very frightened and nearly incoherent. I wondered if he was full of booze, and he did smell like alcohol. "There are five men with guns chasing me. Please let me come in. They're going to kill me. I'm too young to die." I looked the young man over - something didn't quite add up. I looked around and didn't see anyone close, so I let him in. I suppose this should have been exciting or fear generating. This kind of thing doesn't excite me or upset me - I would make a poor adrenaline junkie. Other things do excite me.

At first his story was targeted at "them." "They're trying to kill me," he repeated over and over. "Please don't hurt me. Please don't call the police." Drug related - it had to be. I began questioning him, knowing that he was being elusive. Slowly the pieces began to come forth. He was at their house and they were drinking beer. Then they threw him out and told him he had five minutes to get off their property or they were going to kill him. He ran like the wind. "And please call my father and make up a story about why I am visiting you, and ask my father to come and get me." Umhmmm. I declined getting creative on the phone.

I glanced out the window for any sign of the five guys with guns. "Why do they want to kill you?" I asked. "What did you do to them?" They were nowhere to be seen. Again the pieces of the story came out in unconnected fragments. Basically he had been one of their pushers and when the police caught him, he squealed on them. They probably thought that a good scare would silence him. "If they were going to kill you, you would already be dead." I offered him a ride home.

Outside as we were about to get in the car, a car raced up the street and stopped near my property. A couple of guys got out and looked around. The young man hid behind the deck until they left. It took him home. Later I watched out my window as the car raced around the neighborhood for hours, and the men beat through wooded lots looking for the young man. I wished they would quit so I could go to bed and not worry about them tearing up the neighborhood. I didn't bother calling the police.

Notice how the first words, "I'm too young to die," made you read the rest of the story. It has long been realized that life and death openings get people to buy or read books. You want to know how it turned out. In many books and in Hollywood it has turned into an art form called the action movie, the epitomy of which is the thriller. They are chock full of life and death situations - keeping you on the edge of your seat. I like many thrillers, but not a steady diet of them. We all read or go to see them. Some are almost too intense and I leave the theater feeling bashed and shaken. Odd, I don't react the same to movie violence and real violence. That's telling - more later.

Thrillers are also filled with violence. Violence doesn't do anything for me. Even situations that might end in violence don't do anything for me. It is the threat of a life ending, I think, that grabs most people, not the violence. But some people do identify with the violence, and we are feeding them a growing diet of it.

Violence on TV and in movies doesn't inspire audiences to do more crime. It has nothing to do with gun violence. Endless research for decades has borne this out. But movies do have a psycho/social effect. The movie Psycho, had a paralyzing effect on women, who became so fearful that they wouldn't take showers in motel rooms.

"Americans' fear of crime is statistically related to the level of violence portrayed on primetime TV," claims a recent study by The Annenberg Public Policy Center, at the University of Pennsylvania.

This editorial is about two things:

  • A look at what impact stories have on people.
  • A look at other types of stories that potentially can sell well, but deemphasize violence.

Editorials are opinions. The thrust of this editorial is to pose questions - are we stuck in a quagmire of movies that will become steadily more violent, with more people pointing the finger of blame at the media as violence increases in our society, or is there a profitable way for Hollywood to make other kinds of movies?

What kind of world are we creating for ourselves? This is the overriding concern of this site. This thought is borne of my judgment that creative people (writers) and the visual medium (movies) are more influential than any other type of communication medium. The Annenberg study begs the question, "What effect does the news media have on its audience, particularly news media that is especially biased?"

Yet it is also my judgment that stories have little actual influence on people, but can be reflective of the values of some people - some people seek out in communication and in action what is already in their minds. It is their choice what to dwell on, and stories assist what they are becoming. But for most people, stories can be a way of dancing with life. More recently I have concluded that art does not reflect life, and life does not reflect art. Entertainment is simply about making money, and shock and awe are a big part of the formula.

If I thought that the previous paragraph was the end of it, I would have no reason for writing the next paragraph. Life is complicated. What does it matter?

In 1999, Congress was about to consider legislation that would penalize anyone who exposes young people to violence. It was totally impractical, and would not stand before the Supreme Court. However, Congress is always under pressure (or doing political posturing) to pass something related to violence. Since they can't confront the gun lobby, it is easier to point the finger back at the people.

Congressional approval rating hovers slightly above or below 10%. My confidence in the Congress (as a body) to do anything responsible, or even to be able to make a mature inquiry and judgment about an issue, is sadly at an all time low. I have a lot of respect for many Congressmen, but I say this after over 50 years of watching the Congress - do nothing congresses, do everything congresses ruled by veto, posturing congresses, congresses bent on doing absolutely nothing but unseating a President. And mostly political congresses, deadlocked along party lines, cutting deals, adding "pork" to budgets, posturing on issues, courting special interest groups, vetoing legislation that would clean up their act, and conducting very negative campaigns - unable to do the one thing they are hired to do, pass legislation for the good of the people.

While President Clinton's inappropriate personal life deserved some remedial and punitive action, and maybe could not have escaped reprisal, the political inquisition into the President's personal life was a major fiasco that indicted them all for incompetence - especially when public opinion was always against all of it. Politicians have gone on politically motivated witch hunts ever since. If negative politics is the only way certain politicians can win elections, do they have any right to be in office? If the Congress as a whole could be indicted by the people for malfeasance and betraying the public trust, it would be an open and shut case.

In 1999, while posturing on violence, they considered passing some kind of legislation against media violence modeled on pornography laws, that will actually stand. The NRA beat them down, not that it was good legislation - it had nothing to do with the problem. Congress hasn't been able to take a sane position on violence since then because of the NRA's position on the issue and its political influence.

One of the first things people learn is to distinguish reality from make believe. The ones who don't learn this usually have a mental defect. As I previously noted, people react very differently in the real world, compared to what you see in entertainment. Make believe Congress, real Congress - hard to distinguish. Real violence, movie violence - easy to distinguish. People know the difference. The exception is, young children don't know the difference, so they will try to model fantasy wrestling matches and gun violence on TV - these should not be shown to young children.

The US has not always been a country that resolved conflicts without guns. President Andrew Johnson appeared before a political crowd during a campaign with a pistol in his hand. Vice President Van Buren regularly wore two pistols into the Senate. And when conflicts became too heated, elected Presidential candidates were even known to resolve their disputes legally with a private dual in which only one would walk away. These men don't seem as mature as most adolescents today. Most of us know that violence not only doesn't solve anything, it usually makes things much worse.

As a society, we have grown and become better at resolving conflicts. And I see little reason for guns in our current society - perhaps a hunting rifle, or a handgun for personal protection where it is really needed. Most gun violence actually occurs in very limited geographical areas where violence is prevalent and young children learn it early as a way of life. The steep increase in school and other shootings, raises the question, "If a weapon is used to kill a large number of people, when a less capable weapon would have killed far fewer, should these be available at any place other than a shooting range - the only place they can be used anyway?" But there is such fear, created by the NRA, certain media, and certain groups, that "they have to fear the government and the government wants to take their toys away," that it is difficult to do. Remember the impact on the public by the media - indoctrinate people with a message over and over, and they become fearful. Polarization at work.

But I think we have to realize that when these things are so pervasive and seemingly accepted or approved, falling into the hands of everyone, while some learn to deal with those things, others fall prey to their evil, and the result is catastrophe - 32,000 people a year die from gun violence in the US, and many are children. Does it have an influence? In a small island nation, where television had just been introduced, one of the first problems from that introduction was the change in self-image among women who, after watching thin to emaciated women on TV, then thought that they were fat.

When the world is saturated with messages about sex, power, violence, and guns in the media, it has to have some impact. It doesn't make anyone kill anyone, but it makes people perceive some things differently.

The news media and entertainment business responds to where the money is, which is where public interest is, or is manipulated to be. But it isn't really that simple. The challenge is to write captivating, high impact stories that the public wants to see, without putting in the violence. If the same effort was put into trying to write nonviolent scripts that is poured into trying to increase the violent scenes in movies, what would be the result?

 - Scott

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