Sunday, January 20, 2013

HOLLYWOOD & THE GUN DEBATE


When I was a teenager, I saw DIRTY HARRY and endlessly quoted his “Do you feel lucky?” monologue. To a 13-year-old, it sounded pretty cool lauding the attributes of a
.44 Magnum. “I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya’, punk?”
Clint Eastwood in DIRTY HARRY (1972)

What are those words really saying though? This gun is not a toy.

To me, that realization is seldom found in the debate over guns. The arguing too often concerns a person’s right to own one. But where is the question of responsibility in owning one? After all, it’s not a sports car or a stereo set. It’s a weapon, one with deadly implications. Ask any cop, or any soldier, and they will tell you - it is very, very difficult to shoot someone. It changes a person. It psychologically ravages a person. And it is a test of character like few in the world.

To use a gun is a very serious action. It suggests that all other avenues have been exhausted. Even for cops, who have to expect that taking their guns out of their holsters could be necessary at any time, it is the last resort. But to hear the gun lobby tell it, we’re all as steely-eyed and righteous as Dirty Harry and Rambo, and an armed citizenry will gladly raise their guns if they have to. I’m sure hoisting a weapon in a real situation is eminently more complex. I think the more accurate take on it is probably something more akin to what Clint Eastwood said towards the end of his anti-violence western UNFORGIVEN. There his hired killer admits, “It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.”
One of the most popular video game series of all time is CALL OF DUTY.


Which brings me to the matter of Hollywood, the video game industry and its portrayal of violence. A lot of folks are pointing the finger at the entertainment makers and saying that they glorify gunplay and killing, and that in doing so are a far greater scourge than any others we’re blaming. Granted, there are a lot of violent themes in our pop culture these days, but there always has been throughout history. Heck, the Bible is filled with slayings, mass murder and ruthless bastards. Still, I'm not sure that anything we read, play or watch can be blamed for this new surge. And reports show that economic problems, mental health issues and the ease of access to weaponry are a far greater reason. Face it, there is a lot of hostility in this nation, and a lot of jacked up people foaming at the mouth. Watch any cable news show and you see them prodding that fury, be it political, racial, social, or environmental. Is there any wonder that people act out?

Still, where does our entertainment come into play in all this? Quentin Tarantino doesn’t believe that movie, TV and video game violence leads to actual violence and I think he’s right. Yet, if we’re being honest about it, there are times when Hollywood, the gaming industry, the NRA, and the gun advocates, are all a bit too glib in making shooting seem easy. We reload so often during video games like the popular CALL OF DUTY series, the biggest frustration is that we don’t have enough artillery at our fingertips. Sylvester Stallone, even in the trailer for his newest movie BULLET TO THE HEAD, smarmily dismisses a bad guy he’s just gunned down with a screenwriter’s caustic wit, talking about them as “taking out stains”. And the NRA thinks that more good guys with guns are the only answer to bad guys with guns.

Is any of that a realistic portrayal of the responsibility of carrying and/or using a gun?

I think Hollywood has actually done a pretty good job of offering an alternative narrative. Most of the DIRTY HARRY movies didn’t shy away from the implications of shooting and killing. Harry is a tremendously lonely figure, a man who’s lost touch with much of his humanity. The audience may have misinterpreted parts of those films, choosing to concentrate on his “Make my day” quotes, but the melancholy is always there. TV series like THE SOPRANOS, the LAW & ORDER series, and JUSTIFIED, just to name three, have always been chock full of dread and fear. Their worlds are not black and white, but nuanced with dark grays of the heaviness of what violence and guns do. Heck, even James Bond broke down and cried when "M" died in his arms at the end of SKYFALL. Violence, shooting and killing – they have serious implications. And the evidence of such is there in most of Hollywood's product. 
Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997)

One of my all-time favorite movies is LA CONFIDENTIAL. And one of the reasons why is that it shows what shooting is really like. It’s not glamorous, or sexy, or easy. It’s terrifying. Towards the end of the movie, the two hero cops have a shoot-out with the bad cops. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is shot in the arm and is about to be gunned down because he can’t reload. His injured arm is limp and worthless to him and he’s a sitting duck. Luckily, Bud White (Russell Crowe) takes out the remaining baddies but he’s then shot at point blank range and is seriously injured. Ultimately, both survive the gunplay, but Exley’s arm is in a sling, and White’s whole body is so f**cked up he can’t even talk.

That’s what happens when you get shot. You don’t keep shooting. You don’t keep running. You don’t keep making smug quips. You likely drop. Stop. And probably die. And that’s what happens if you shoot someone too. There is an extraordinary amount of responsibility in raising a gun. 

Maybe we’d be better off as a nation if we required those who want to own a gun to take more responsibility in doing so. I'd suggest that those who want to have one should have to take a test. They should be required to take target practice, gun safety courses, and then prove that they're worthy of owning a gun by passing a test. Cops have to, why not the average citizenry? We require a license to drive a car or go scuba diving, why not insist on the same measures for a deadly weapon? It also might weed out more of the crazies, the hotheads, and the idiots. You want a gun? Earn it. Clear the background check. Take courses to learn to shoot properly and take care of your weapon. Register them. Then you’ll be a responsible gun owner, rather than just a gun owner.

I applaud the Obama administration for their courage and insistence on doing something about the gun violence problem in this country with its latest proposals. And I hope we can veer away from the debate concentrating on ownership. It’s high time we stopped regarding a gun as a toy or a collector's item or a hobby or a conceit or a symbol of one’s manhood, political party and sense of freedom. It’s a weapon with dire consequences. And Dirty Harry was right - the damn thing can blow your head clean off. It requires, hell, demands a greater responsibility than we're currently giving it.  

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