Violence Unchained

On 14 January, the day after the one-month anniversary of the Newtown massacre, the National Rifle Association launched a free iPhone and iPad shooting game. The virtual guns include a Beretta M-9 handgun, a Colt M-16 assault rifle with 15-round clip and a Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun.

For 99 cents extra, players can “unlock” higher-capacity guns, similar to the one Adam Lanza used, including AK-47 assault rifles and M-11 sniper rifles.

Apple initially approved the manufacturer’s recommended age rating of four and up (the NRA later bent to pressure and changed it to 12).

But, no worries—after all, the game includes advice on safe-shooting practices.

I think violent videogames and movies probably allow for the vast, vast majority of (mostly male) players to indulge in fantasy rather than act out aggressive instincts in reality. I realize there are cultures with a tradition of making and viewing very violent movies (Japan, South Korea) and yet have a tiny fraction of the real-life murders that occur in the States. My own son and all his friends played shoot-‘em-up videogames from a young age and I’ve never seen them so much as squash an ant.

But, I have to admit that watching Daniel play these games always made me queasy. I never knew what to say when, as a young boy, he’d be playing and every now and then shout out, “I killed another one, Mom!” Yay? Good for you? Go get ‘em?

Now, years later, I’m still struggling to keep an open mind. And so I saw Quentin Tarantino’s latest bloodfest, Django Unchained, with him.

Django Unchained, obviously, is not my kind of movie. And maybe it was simply too soon after the Newtown killings to feel okay about witnessing so much carnage onscreen. Or, it might have been the fact that I felt held hostage by a full 25 minutes of shoot-em-up previews prior to the over two-and-a-half-hour bloodfest. But, midway through the movie, I wanted to crawl out of my skin. In fact, I started to get up three different times, relieved to think the movie had ended, before it finally, finally did.

What was it about this movie, in particular, that made me so uneasy about violence on the big or little (or mini) screen?

For me, there were two repulsive, nauseating, nightmare-inducing scenes that made me question Tarantino’s intent as a filmmaker. Plantation owner Calvin Candie (played with relish by Leonardo DiCaprio) enjoys nothing more than forcing certain of his slaves to engage in the “sport” of mandingo. One scene focuses in on one such death match, where two of the slaves are forced to tear each other apart with their bare hands. Then, to finish the job, one has to bash in his opponent’s skull over and over again with a hammer. In the second scene, one of the slaves begs to not have to compete anymore and, as punishment, Candie sets salivating killer dogs on him to chew and demolish him, bite by bite.

One could argue that Tarantino was simply showing us the worst possible type of slave owner to elicit our horror at American history and shame at human nature and sympathy for what slaves had to endure, and to make us want to cheer Django when he exacted his revenge.

But, there’s a fine line between showing violence and fetishizing it, and I believe Tarantino crossed that line. Django Unchained, ultimately, was an ode to cruelty and sadism.

There’s a way of handling representations of violence that cause us to wrestle with the meaning of our aggressive natures rather than simply celebrating—or even encouraging—them. I’ve been re-watching The Sopranos, and while there are some scenes that go into Django Unchained territory, for the most part, I’m impressed once again with the way in which creator David Chase gives us complex characters, like Tony Soprano, who allow us to go beyond a black-and-white view of violence and question what’s moral or immoral and in what context.

And, so, I’m not arguing against portrayals of extreme violence in our media per se. I’m saying there’s a way to grapple with violence rather than simply glorify it.

I value freedom of artistic expression. I’m not in favor of censorship. Filmmakers and videogame creators are not directly responsible for people’s behavior. But, they very well may be responsible for contributing to an empathy deficit in our culture.

And that’s something we can live without.