6:11 a.m. April 2, 2013

The Gun Stays In The Picture

In all the talk about gun control lately, the left-wing agitating for weapons bans and universal background checks, and the right-wing finger-pointing at “violence in the media” as the real problem, you notice how nobody’s calling for gun-free movies—not seriously, anyway.

And that’s odd when you think about how a determined group of people can do a lot to “free” movies from things that once seemed indispensable.

For example, there’s already an established “Smoke-free Movies” organization that makes sure lots fewer characters smoke in films these days than used to in the “Golden Age” of Hollywood’s long love affair with tobacco. Once upon a time, it would’ve been impossible to imagine movies—or American society—without smoking. It was everywhere: in homes, officers, bars, restaurants, theaters, airplanes, public restrooms, etc.

But that’s all over now, because, as part of the enormously effective anti-smoking campaign in the US going back to the 1960s, there’s a group of activists on guard over the movies. They’re always agitating for further regulation, and they’ve got the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association and all sorts of big shots cooperating with them. Right now they’re trying to get the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to mandate an R rating for any movie that “shows or implies tobacco.”

Admittedly the MPAA has been dragging its feet over that smoke-related R rating for quite a while now. That’s business as usual for the MPAA, which exists to defend the movie industry from exactly this kind of do-gooder meddling. Created in 1922 by the Hollywood studio system bosses to keep the American government from either censoring its films or busting up its flagrantly illegal competition-crushing oligopoly, the MPAA represents a fox-guarding-the-hen-house defensive strategy that has worked brilliantly ever since.

Former US postmaster general Will Hays was the first and best MPAA president, because he looked like somebody sent over from Central Casting to play the part of a snaggle-toothed, jug-eared, spineless little toady. It was Will Hays’ job to reassure the church groups and outraged reformers who’d been calling on the federal government to clean up the movies, by presiding over the enforcement of the studio-generated Production Code of censorship, soon to be known as the Hays Code.

Most people know about the draconian standards ultimately imposed by the Code in 1934, but few know that Hays was initially intended to act merely as a reassuring figurehead. He was supposed to prevent the government imposition of any harsh censorship system that might cramp the style of studios making big money on films loaded with brandished weapons and semi-nudity and vice of every description. Hays presided over a comically toothless effort in 1927, a list of recommended “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” for studio filmmakers to follow, that tamped down the controversy for a little while.

But then the studios really pushed it with the sensational new “Talkies,” including the ultraviolent gangster film genre and the stardom of bawdy Mae West, who exemplified the lurid Pre-Code era by saying ripe lines like, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”

If the Catholic Legion of Decency hadn’t gotten right up on its hind legs threatening a boycott that would’ve required the entire Catholic laity to shun films the Legion rated “C” for “Condemned,” the Code might never have been enforced. You didn’t want to mess with the American Catholic Church in those days. Lotta money, lotta muscle.

But there’s nothing like that kind of activism burgeoning over guns in movies now. There was a little flurry of Hollywood activity for a while, shortly after the Newtown massacre and President Obama’s announcement of pending gun control legislation. A bunch of stars including Jamie Foxx, Jeremy Renner, and Cameron Diaz did a “Demand a Plan” PSA in favor of gun control. It was promptly parodied with a “Demand a Plan—Demand Celebrities Go Fuck Themselves” video featuring split-screen images of the star-advocates alongside the same stars firing assault weapons in Hollywood films. Thereafter, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and any other action film star with a movie opening had to go on record with his stance on gun violence and then reconcile it with his guns-blazing performance in Last Man Standing or Bullet in the Head.

And of course the Hollywood conglomerates put out their typically platitudinous statement via Christopher Dodd, ex-senator and current chairman and CEO of the MPAA:

"I have reached out to the administration to express our support for the president's efforts in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. Those of us in the motion picture and television industry want to do our part to help America heal. We stand ready to be part of the national conversation."

That’s vintage MPAA talk, all right! That mild-as-milk tone, those meaningless reassurances about Hollywood wanting to do something vaguely benevolent if called upon for whatever unknown reason!

And in fact, the MPAA is already doing something about gun violence in films. Chris Dodd’s taking meetings with Joe Biden and other old political pals. They’re talking about forming a well-funded committee to look into the effects of media violence, which will be inconclusive, of course. There’s probably an old MPAA list of “Gun Violence No-Nos” lying around somewhere that they could dig up and publish and never enforce, if things got really dire.

As a last resort, maybe Dodd himself would announce the addition of a new rating to the G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17, and X line-up. Maybe a W for “Wow, that’s a lotta Weaponry.”

But that’ll be about as close as we get to gun-free movies in America, where so many of our genres are defined by the gorgeous gunplay we love: the action film, the war film, the gangster film, the Western. Would we even know how to make popular films without guns?

Though there’s a lamentable lack of real affect in many gun-crazy films, the wielding of weapons in movies is always at least potentially arresting, defining, interesting, serious. We must face it: a gun is a wonderful prop. It gives the inventive actor a huge chance to be impressive with it. Lee Marvin, for example, used to do brilliant things with a gun, like giving it all the power, so his whole body seemed to be hanging weakly off the gun, held up and steadied by the gun. It was a great trick he pulled in different comedic-dramatic registers, in his hilarious flailing drunk scenes in Cat Ballou and his gorgeous death struggle at the end of the 1964 film The Killers.

There’s a vague critical consensus that it’s bad for audiences to regard guns and gun-violence in films and other media unless we’re doing it to condemn them outright. One exception to this consensus is the late, great American pop culture critic Robert Warshow, who was all for watching gun violence in our movies and considering thoughtfully and at length what we might be getting out of it. For example, in “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner,” Warshow argues:

The two most successful creations of American movies are the gangster and the Westerner: men with guns. Guns as physical objects, and the postures associated with their use, form the visual and emotional center of both types of films….

…[The Western] offers a serious orientation to the problem of violence such as can be found nowhere else in our culture. One of the well-known peculiarities of modern civilized opinion is its refusal to acknowledge the value of violence….

We train ourselves to be shocked or bored by cultural images of violence, and our concept of heroism tends to be a passive one: we are less drawn to the brave young men who kill large numbers of our enemies than to the heroic prisoners who endure torture without capitulating...

[I]n the criticism of popular culture, where the educated observer is usually under the illusion that he has nothing at stake, the presence of images of violence is often assumed to be in itself a sufficient ground for condemnation.

These attitudes, however, have not reduced the element of violence in our culture, but, if anything, have helped to free it from moral control by letting it take on the aura of ‘emancipation.’

For Warshow, the Western hero is the embodiment of an American fantasy notion of perfect freedom, and the gun is just one guarantor of his freedom. An entirely self-sufficient figure, he appears to need nothing but the swift horse he already owns, the fine guns he already draws quicker and shoots straighter than anyone, and the dusty clothes on his back. Warshow defines the Western hero as a “figure of repose.” It’s important that we never dwell on this figure working, even if we are informed he has a ranch somewhere, or he’s been made the town sheriff.

Just look at the sheriffing Henry Fonda does in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, sitting at his ease out on the front porch of the general store, with his feet up on the rail, but fully alert and ready to deal in flash with any threat. The Western hero, for Warshow, is defined by both his personal code of honor, which is the only thing that binds him, and which necessitates his violent encounters, and by his austere, laconic, relaxed, controlled style, which is on display always and is the key to the genre’s fascination.

Contemporary viewers who no longer respond to this display of style have a hard time watching classic Westerns, which tend to contain very little action or violence. Waves of revisionist Westerns up to the present day always add a great deal more violence than the old high noon shoot-out on the main street of town that used to content audiences from the 1910s through the 1950s. Warshow again:

[T]he drama is one of self-restraint: the moment of violence must come in its own time and according to its own special laws, or else it is valueless. There is little cruelty in Western movies, and little sentimentality; our eyes are not focused on the sufferings of the defeated but on the deportment of the hero. Really, it is not violence at all which is the ‘point’ of the Western movie, but a certain image of a man, a style, which expresses itself most clearly in violence. Watch a child with his toy guns and you will see: what interests him is not (as we so much fear) the fantasy of hurting others, but to work out how a man might look when he shoots or is shot. A hero is one who looks like a hero.

Whatever the limitation of such an idea in experience, it has always been valid in art, and has a special validity in an art where appearances are everything….[The Western hero] is there to remind us of the possibility of style in an age which has put on itself the burden of pretending that style has no meaning….

In perhaps his finest essay, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Warshow indicates that this other quintessential American genre represents an opposing set of values and stances related to gun violence, compared to the Western. For Warshow, the classic gangster film represents the anxious American experience of capitalism “in a dark mirror.” We Americans identify with the tense struggles of the gangster to work his way to the top of a competitive system, via a series of effortful, aggressive killings. It’s a rigged game, though, because the gangster isolates himself further with each kill, and the moment he is truly alone at the top, he himself will be gunned down, falling from the penthouse apartment that represents his false victory back to the dirty working-class street where he started.

In keeping with this argument, note how those early gangster films feature small-statured, edgy men (James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Muni, George Raft) clutching gleaming black little snub-nosed guns tight to their sides, as if their arm muscles wouldn’t unclench enough to let them extend the weapons toward their targets. This manner of gripping the gun attests to the close quarters and constant anxiety of the Depression-era urban world of the gangster.

Still, the classic gangster cuts a tough, graceful figure in his ugly world, and he has a graceful end, creating that perfect, tragically symmetrical rise-and-fall. His life is a cautionary tale—ultimately he must lose everything he won, and none of his spoils ever contented him. But it’s also a source of envy and admiration. We’re all going to lose everything in the end, but without ever experiencing the gangster’s gaudy spree and glorious vengeance on a world that seems gratuitously harsh and bad from birth onward.

Contrast that with big, easy movements of tall men wielding shotguns or rifles in the wide-open spaces of the Western—young John Wayne doing that superb star-making swing of the shotgun in his epic introductory shot in Stagecoach—and we see the range of American fantasy in response to social pressures of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.

It would be an admirable thing, in the ongoing discussions of gun violence in the movies, if we decided to consider seriously and in detail what we want with images of gun violence in the range of our currently popular genre films. We might learn something.