Tarantino’s aestheticization of violence on the road to Newtown

Monday, 17 December, 2012

The US premiere of the new Tom Cruise action film Jack Reacher has been postponed after Friday’s shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, of 26 people. Paramount Pictures says the decision was made “out of honour and respect for the families of the victims whose lives were senselessly taken”. The studio did not mention that Hollywood is committed to a rising body count in an effort to increase profits. Nor did it allude to the fact that the film opens with a sniper shooting several people dead.

Background: Jack Reacher is a fictional character created by British author Jim Grant (who writes under the pen name of Lee Child). Reacher is an ex-military policeman, a loner, who travels around the US. He’s also a skilled marksman. In One Shot, Reacher uses his advanced knowledge of weapons during a long range shooting scene. He is, after all, the only non-Marine to win the Marine Corps 1,000 Yard Invitational rifle competition. He also won the US Army Pistol Championship, which makes sure that the novels are filled with scenes involving Reacher demonstrating his talents in the use of various types of small firearms.

Is there a connection between gun crime and the glorification of killing in Hollywood films? No, said the respected critic Roger Ebert. In fact, in his review of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a fictionalized account of a Columbine-like school shooting, Ebert fingered the real culprits: the media.

“When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of ‘explaining’ them.

This, however, exculpates the likes of Quentin Tarantino, who has become rich and famous from the aestheticization of violence with Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and the upcoming Django Unchained. It’s only art, say the liberal directors and actors, who engage in these screen orgies of horror and trouser millions in the process. Three years ago, writing in The Daily Beast, Lee Siegel nailed the lie behind Hollywood’s protestations of innocence: “As Tarantino’s Basterds and his Nazis shoot, scalp, strangle, and incinerate their way through the film, you think of real guns, real Americans going berserk, real wars, real pain. And it occurred to me that there is a gross disconnect between the proprieties of movie criticism and the assumption behind Tarantino’s work, which is that horrendous violence is casual, manageable, and pretty cool.”

Time for Tom Cruise, Jim Grant, Christopher McQuarrie and the rest of the Jack Reacher crew to address the real impact of their casual, cool portrayal of horrendous violence.

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