Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Mike White, Violence in the Media and Personal Responsibility

Isaac Butler pointed out an interesting op-ed piece by screenwriter/actor Mike White (who wrote and acted in the films Chuck & Buck, Orange County, The Good Girl and School of Rock) about considering violent films in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings. I'm actually in agreement with Mac that it's a terrible piece, mainly because it's simultaneously self-righteous and evasive (full disclosure: I am a fan of Mr. White's work), simply arguing "We Have A Problem" without coming even close to addressing what the problem is or what steps should be taken to fix it.

Now, I don't want to seem flippant about this "violence in the media" debate, as much as it annoys me (since it is so much in the Far Too Little, Far Too Late Department). I have pretty strong thoughts and feelings about the subject, being both a writer and as a fan of movies/television shows/books that feature violence (sometimes very graphic violence - I am a dyed-in-the-wool fan of horror films and Stephen King novels). I've also been very reluctant to comment on the Virginia Tech shootings, since even I find having a playwright from New York (read: some schmuck) offer his two cents to this tragedy to be in poor taste. Still, it's something that is going to be discussed no matter what and it is something worth discussing.

(I'm also not much of a, "Blame The Culture" kind of guy. I'm much more of a, "Blame The Mass Murderer" person.)

Should artists be responsible for their work? Absolutely. But just writing that doesn't really mean anything, so I'll use my own work and myself as examples.

My play The Adventures of Nervous-Boy features an act of horrific violence in its climax. Pete and I tried to make it as clear as possible that this act of violence is not a good thing (in other words, the character making the violent actions has Made A Bad Choice). I very much hope - and we tried to make this as clear as possible - that I am not condoning this behavior.

However!

What if (say) someone in the city was recently arrested for murdering a streetwalker and, upon being cuffed and put into the police car, yelled out to passersby or reporters, "I AM NERVOUS-BOY!" (and later admitted in a statement that he was referencing my play and that the outburst wasn't some sort of unnerving coincidence), how would I feel about this? Would I feel responsible?

Yes and no.

I mean, on a very personal level, I obviously would. Honestly, I'd probably lock myself in my room for days and consider never writing another sentence ever again. I'm not joking or being hyperbolic. The guilt I'd feel would be damn near crippling.

Having confessed that, if I were to retain or regain any of my rational objective faculties, I would realize I have no legal responsibility (any more than John Woo has for making The Killer or Stephen King for writing The Shining after someone killed a person and wrote "REDRUM" in the room). Wondering if a violent psychopath I don't know will get a hold of my work and that he'll be inspired to behave violently and that he'll actually act on that inspiration is no way to live and no way to work. (In other words, I won't be wondering every minute of my life if I'll spontaneously combust.)

The fact remains that it was the act of a violent psychopath.

What is my responsibility for giving a violent psychopath inspirational fodder for his means of his violent psychosis? How responsible is an artist for the actions of violent psychopaths?

What irritates me with Mr. White's column and the attitude he expresses is that he admits that he grew up watching trashy horror movies for cheap thrills, but doesn't cite any specific examples as to how this corrupted...

(And corrupted is the operative word. We're not talking about being influenced. We're talking about being corrupted. We need to acknowledge that it's not a "fine line" or a "slippery slope" or anything like that. There's a huge - HUGE - difference between talking and dressing like Han Solo or roughhousing in a friend's backyard and murdering people.)

...him or his peers.

I'll put it another way. What if a statistic came out revealing that 99% of all NAMBLA members owned a copy of Star Wars? (I just made that up; I have no idea if that's true or not.) What would this say about our culture? What would this say about the correlation to child molesters and popular culture? What would this tell us about George Lucas and his responsibility? Nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Should artists take responsibility for their work? Absolutely. Most worth their weight in salt already do. And again, I think this is a subject worth discussing. But self-righteous posturing gets us nowhere and talking about the influence of media doesn't really get to the root of things. It's not about influence. It's about corruption.

Perhaps in a bit I'll go into my thoughts and feelings on horror films, but that, as the kids say, is another topic for another time.

Still feeling uneasy about commenting on even
super-peripheral subjects near the VT tragedy,

James "Let's Keep To The Subject of Art As Close As Possible Here" Comtois

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4 Comments:

Blogger Dan said...

There actually was an article in the LA Times a couple of years ago, where a police investigator claimed that a vast majority of pedophiles he caught were Star Trek fans.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Philucifer [aka Charlie Willis] said...

It's always been my feeling that when someone goes off the deep end and commits an atrocious act of violence, the violence is the important part of that equation; not the way the act was perpetrated. What was it that brought that person to a point where they believed an act of violence, or an act of stupidity, was an appropriate response? And what is it that they're responding to?

In most cases when the media or art or artists are blamed for -- or at the very least implicated in -- someone else's actions, the only reasoning behind it is that the act resembled an act portrayed by the media, art, or artist. That's like saying a malfunctioning submarine is all the fault of Jules Verne.

I'm a little amazed that, over the years, there hasn't been a backlash of artists talking in detail about catharsis. That we use fantasy and imagination to deal with darker impulses in a healthy way. We show it so that people can experience that WITHOUT having to act upon it. It's when there's a deeper malfunction in a person's ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality, or simply have no reference with regards to what's right and wrong, that things start going haywire.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Goose said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Goose said...

Over the past few, reading articles and hearing about this, I just go back to a very simple and easy lesson my parents taught me via Mr. Roger's Neighborhood when I was around 4 or 5 years old.

When you're watching a movie, you are on the trolley, going to make-believe land. When the movie is over, the trolley has brought you back. You are now in reality again.

In other words, when the person who sees or reads said art piece and doesn't get off the trolley at the end - there is a flaw in that persons psychosis.

Saying hi to Ms. Kitty!

11:13 AM  

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