The debate knowingly rises (sadly, again)

In 1999 at the time of the Columbine tragedy, The Matrix was released. Since that film depicted extreme violence and since the characters sported “cool-looking” dusters — long black trench coats that the Columbine killers also wore — many pointed to pop culture (violent video games, movies, heavy metal music, rap lyrics, etc.) as a source of the blame for the murders and mayhem.


As the alleged killer of 12 people at the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises sported red hair and used that film’s screening to perpetrate murder and mayhem — both traits akin to the Joker from The Dark Knight — no doubt there will be similar cries that our culture tolerates violent entertainment to the detriment of society by seducing a mentally unstable (ill?) person to emulate what he has seen and susceptible to being indoctrinated into the ego-gratifying mythos that he can somehow experience the allure of what it’s like to be one of his idols. After all, it worked for the fictional character — even if that character is evil and vanquished in the end. Such depictions might suggest to impressionable and disturbed minds that the ease and vicarious release that is relayed when a fictional character visits murder and mayhem may be just the thing that will provide him with whatever it is that he finds missing in his own real life — attention, respect, empowerment, vengeance for wrongs, inflicting pain, etc.

In response to the tendency to blame the entertainment culture and the implicit (explicit?) messages that such entertainment suggests to an unstable mind, I wrote a column about the attacks on The Matrix as a causal factor. Now that we are grieving again the losses from yet another mass killing (again, purportedly influenced by and emanating from movies), it seemed appropriate to repeat that column.

The column did not provide any easy answers, but it did suggest that we should not rush to snap judgments about what may influence someone to commit such atrocious crimes. However, it should make us all reflect on the culture we create outside the fantasy world of virtual entertainment (such as a university that allegedly casts a blind eye to sexual abuse to protect the people who have built a winning football program perhaps?), and focus our efforts on ways we can prevent people like the Columbine killers and The Dark Knight murderer from needing to act out in such brutally vicious ways.

The desire to “do something” so as to prevent a replication of these mass killings is laudable and natural. The locus of that desire is usually focused on the weapons used, the need to beef-up security, and the pop culture. Although these all deserve serious and vigilant examination, the more difficult and yet arguably more telling aspects — the family life, the personal troubles, the mental instability, the lack of support and assistance, a belief we all have to make it on our own and be free to be left alone, etc., are much harder to address. However, focusing on these dynamics sounds too “socialistic,” “nannystate,” or exorbitantly expensive to many. Yet, clearly, these elements are as deserving of as much focused and serious attention as gun control, metal detectors, body scans, and yes, even The Dark Knight Rises.

From The Colorado Statesman; May 7, 1999, page 8:

The Matrix

Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantollano; Directed by The Wachowski Brothers (Bound); 1999

Events like the abhorrent Columbine High School killings have an uncanny ability to freeze a moment in time — to wake us up and force us to look around at the society and culture we have created or have allowed to be created. And, with predictable precision, one phenomenon is routinely singled out as a pernicious and overwhelmingly negative influence that is inexorably and crassly leading our kids and our society down the tubes. That element is the entertainment industry in all its vagaries.

Day in and day out, television, movies, music, the Internet, and video games are an established and ubiquitous presence in society — the veritable background of our daily lives. The content of this cacophony typically goes unnoticed until some brutality manifests itself. Then, all of a sudden, the background “stuff” that passes for entertainment becomes magically complicit in individual violent acts and the concomitant downfall of western civilization. Take, for example, The Matrix. If this film did not just happen to be playing in theaters at the same time these shootings occurred, its violent predilections wouldn’t have garnered much attention. But because Keanu Reeves, the lead character in the film, happens to sport a long black duster (similar in style and appearance to the black trench coats worn by the Columbine killers) and is armed to the teeth, then this movie must have been a contributing influence in the vicious rampage. It’s axiomatic.

There are the usual cadre of responses to this simplistic view that it’s the entertainment industry that is to blame, including: (1) that violence is part of the human condition and thus has been and always will be a part of our culture and media; (2) that millions have passively absorbed the carnage depicted in the multifarious forms of entertainment and yet not become correspondingly violent; (3) that entertainment reflects the times in which we live — not necessarily influencing behavior but holding up a mirror and showing us what we have become; and (4) that emulating violence from things viewed is a reflection of a complete lack of other countervailing influences and personal values such as empathy, caring, self-esteem and self-respect.

All of these arguments are persuasive and yet elusive — we will probably never get to the bottom of this debate. However, what is annoying is that in the fog of grief and anger, the latest entertainment phenomena becomes a convenient scapegoat for larger social and personal ills. This is unfortunate because we invariably get ill-founded cries for censorship, and films like The Matrix get swept up in the frenzy. It’s ill-founded because the target for censorship is usually misdirected or is not the sort of violence that really should be more closely examined.

The Matrix is an exhilarating movie. It’s a visceral experience that uses dazzling special effects to envision a menacing future world where humans are slaves to technological masters. Every generation conjures its own deep-seated horrors from the out-of-control changes that occur around them — from the nuclear menace to the latest disease. Today, that menace is cyberspace. It’s a mysterious, intangible realm that lurks just out of reach into which we pour all of our primal fears.

Reeves becomes aware of what is occurring to the human race and joins a rag-tag group of saviors fixated on overthrowing the computer matrix that has enslaved humankind. It’s just not possible for this kind of movie to not use some form of violence to tell its story. It’s essentially a live action computer game. Because computers function in the abstract, some form of mental gamesmanship is required. And that is in fact what happens. Reeves reenters the world of the matrix through cables that are connected to his brain. The virtual battles necessarily involve recognizable tools of the trade — guns and fisticuffs. Sure the violence is cartoonish. But that’s because this is essentially a sci-fi cartoon.

It’s not the fact that violence appears in movies like The Matrix that is necessarily the problem, but how that violence is portrayed and how it advances the overall themes. Violence for violence sake — as it typically appears in countless Schwarzenegger/Stallone films — is much more troubling because the slaughtered victims are simply blown off the screen and forgotten. There is no depiction of the agony, the pain and suffering, or an appreciation that the person being blown away had a family or a future. And yet, these entertainment forms are ubiquitous and widely accepted. However, films that endeavor to show the real horror of violence are considered too intense and disturbing and thus usually don’t make it past the censors. Witness the outcry over the showing of Schindler’s List at high schools, for example. That’s too bad because violence should make the viewer squirm and feel uncomfortable. We should be repulsed by it.

Which leads us back to The Matrix. The violence in The Matrix is no more or less disturbing than other films of its type. But if we are to single it out, we need to also include shows like “The World’s Deadliest Police Chases” and evening news coverage of local crimes and death. Over time, when the sting of Columbine fades, we will slip back into a complacent mode when it comes to media violence. And when something atrocious happens again, I’m afraid that we will fall into the same traps — deriding all forms of media violence without distinguishing between more sophisticated attempts to explain our violent culture from the more mindless and mundane.

Doug Young is the film critic for The Statesman. His columns have won first place in the Colorado Press Association Better Newspaper Contests.