Why Hollywood Is the NRA's Best Friend
There isn't a direct link between onscreen killing and offscreen deaths — but why is the industry still so quick to promote gun violence to moviegoers?
“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.” That famous piece of advice has influenced writers ever since Chekhov first uttered it in the late 19th century, but never as literally as in Hollywood today.
What the Russian playwright meant was: don’t introduce a plot element unless you’re going to return to it later. He was speaking metaphorically, I assume — certainly, he had no concept of the Uzis and AK-47s and MG3s and M4 Carbines that litter the current movie scene: real rifles, weapons incarnate, with nothing metaphorical about them — the kind whose effect I saw for myself late Sunday night.
These firearms are ubiquitous, as I was reminded that evening when I took some young friends to a theater in Downey, Calif. Guns, pistols, sawn-offs and semi-automatics popped up in half the trailers, held in the firm grip of everyone from Chadwick Boseman in 21 Bridges to Samuel L. Jackson in the new Shaft. They were even present in the apparently innocuous movie I’d paid to see, The Intruder, a thriller about a young couple terrorized by the wacky owner of the house they’ve just bought.
The film, on the surface, was liberal comfort food, if you believe Hollywood should do more to promote diversity. It featured two African-American stars (Michael Ealy and Meagan Good) as well as a biracial couple in support. But I could have guessed trouble was in store from the start, when our heroes visit the bucolic home of a Grand Guignol Dennis Quaid, who introduces himself by shooting an adorable fawn.
There’s Chekhov’s rifle, I thought. It’s going to make a comeback.
And sure enough, it did at the end of the movie (spoiler alert), when Quaid turns his weapon on our likable leads, going on the sort of rampage that would freeze the grin off Jack Nicholson’s face in The Shining, until Ealy turns the tables on him, battering him to a semi-pulp, before grabbing a hold of the rifle and turning it on Quaid. A shiver of horror tripped down my spine as our protagonist, having declared his opposition to guns early on, points Quaid’s rifle in his face and, with his wife’s encouragement, blows him away.
This Sony release may not be out to win awards, but that doesn’t make its message any less clear. “Watch out, wimps,” it’s saying, whether intended or not. “Believe in gun control? You’ll soon be singing another tune.”
I wish The Intruder were alone in conveying that idea. But the same philosophy trickles through a legion of pictures, all greenlit by studio heads who, in person, are deeply against gun violence and appalled by the violence permeating our society. You’d think from all the weaponry gracing Hollywood product that its leaders were card-carrying members of the NRA. It’s one of the supreme ironies of Hollywood that the most liberal colony in the world is funding films that could thaw Nietzsche’s frozen heart. Even as these men and women support a welter of left-of-center causes, they finance pictures that promote the very opposite. Might is right, their confections tell us. It’s the law of the jungle: kill or be killed. And if you need a gun to do the killing, so be it.
Which is all fine and dandy, unless you come face to face with killing itself, as I did when I drove back from the theater. There, lying in the street about five feet from the sidewalk, somewhere in a darkly lit part of South Los Angeles around 9 pm that Sunday, was a human body, immobile, crumpled, lying on its side, face hidden from view. Men, women and children were gathering to observe, inching over the lip of the sidewalk even as they were afraid to get too close. None of them seemed new to this experience; not even the little kids appeared shocked in the presence of death.
Three or four police cars had pulled up and the cops were diverting traffic, but nobody moved the corpse — a young man, I think — whose silence and stillness were haunting, unlike anything I’d seen in the movies. Guns and gangs run rampant in this part of town; murder is commonplace; flowers and candles in jars are piled on the street-corners every few hundred yards. Here weapons are the tools of a war that should only be waged with words.
A few weeks ago, I stood at the side of an Amazon executive as he told a high school class in Compton about growing up in the “hood” and watching nine of his friends die, all before the age of 16. They didn’t die from middle-class or middle-aged diseases — from heart attacks or cancer, the most frequent causes of death in an older, whiter population. They died from bullets. The sort that spatter our screens.
I’m not foolish enough to argue there’s a direct link between an onscreen killing and an offscreen death. But bullet by bullet, semi-automatic by semi-automatic, violence seeps into our society. And unless those who have the power to stop it do so — unless the executives running the studios and networks say no — it will get even worse.
Not long ago, the anti-smoking lobby targeted these men and women by name, to great effect. Maybe we should do the same: shame them before they can further shame us.