Kurt Russell is wrong about violence in the movies

12.22.15 1 year ago

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While making the press rounds earlier this month for Quentin Tarantino's “The Hateful Eight,” Kurt Russell entered into a heated debate with Hollywood Elsewhere founder Jeffrey Wells over the issue of gun control (he doesn't believe in regulations) and violence in the movies (he doesn't believe it influences real-life violence). You can listen to the audio and read a transcript here for the full context of their conversation. 

HitFix is an entertainment site, so I won't be tackling Russell's comments about gun control, which I disagree with. His opinions on violence in the movies, however, are fair game.

First, here's the relevant portion of his conversation with Wells:

Wells: “I think there”s a feeling about shootings and violence right now…I think it”s different in 2015 than it was in the mid “90s. But Quentin is still playing the same game more or less.”

Russell: “Well, Quentin does what he does. He”s painting a picture, writing, telling a story…like a filmmaker. But to mix and match reality with fantasy is something I don”t understand but that”s just me. I think we should understand the difference. To mix today”s politics with, in this case, a tale about, uh, a fictional tale about the Civil War…”

And later: 

Russell: “So what has [gun control] got to do with movies? Nothing! Movies are movies. They”re like a painting, like a song, like a book…he”s doing his Quentin Tarantino world, which I think belongs on film. I don”t think it has anything to do with anything outside of film. The music, the manipulation of the screenplay. So I can”t connect the dots. It really is hard for me to connect the dots.”

The actor later reiterated his stance after being asked about the controversial exchange on ABC's “The View,” stating in part:

“My personal feeling is that there's a big difference between fantasy land and reality. Fantasy land is what we do. You're either writing something — writing a song, writing a book, doing a movie, doing a television show — that's fantasy land. And that's where that stuff belongs.”

First off, Wells deserves credit for attempting to engage a meaningful discussion with Russell about the hypocrisy of a Hollywood system that champions violent entertainment on the one hand and consistently touts their liberal credentials on the other. It's an issue that doesn't receive nearly enough attention, and Tarantino is arguably the most high-profile (and critically-acclaimed) purveyor of ultra-stylized screen violence.

To his own credit, Russell engaged with the question — something that Tarantino, stubbornly persistent in his belief that absolutely zero connection exists between real-world violence and movie violence — stopped doing a long time ago. If you want the A-list director's opinion on the matter, which has not changed in over two decades, this quote from a 1994 “Observer” interview should suffice:

“To say that I get a big kick out of violence in movies and can enjoy violence in movies but find it totally abhorrent in real life – I can feel totally justified and totally comfortable with that statement. I do not think that one is a contradiction of the other. Real life violence is real life violence. Movies are movies. I can watch a movie about the Hindenberg disaster and get into it as a movie but still feel it's a horrible real life tragedy. It's not the same thing at all.”

The strange thing about Tarantino and Russell's shared position on the (supposed non-) link between real-life violence and movie violence is how absolute it is. Both of these talented men have proclaimed, in multiple interviews, that art does not in any way, shape or form contribute to violence in the real world. Or, as Russell put it during the Hollywood Elsewhere interview, [Tarantino is] doing his Quentin Tarantino world, which I think belongs on film. I don”t think it has anything to do with anything outside of film.” 

This viewpoint is not unique to the director and star in question. In so-called “liberal” Hollywood, the “never the twain shall meet” argument has been used for decades to defend stylized violence in films and on television. Cries of “censorship” arise in the attempt to link any sensible plea for social responsibility — i.e. not censorship — with Nazi-era book burnings and Orwellian oppression. In fairness to Russell and Tarantino, to my knowledge neither has made the case — as many in Hollywood have and continue to do — that film can be a powerful force for the social good while denying its influence in the opposite direction. Unlike many of their peers, both men have seemingly remained quite consistent in their adherence to the belief that art simply has no effect on the action of human beings in the larger world.

The bottom line in this bottom line-oriented town is that violence sells — and as long as it continues minting money for the studios, they're going to continue churning out big-screen fantasies that encourage audiences to thrill in brutal displays of carnage. It's no wonder that Russell and Tarantino, both of whom have made their fortunes in films that cater in hyper-masculine aggression and fantasy violence, would take the same perspective.

Still, I wonder how they would explain this 2005 Lancet meta-analysis which, after surveying 217 scientific studies, found that “exposure to media violence leads to aggression, desensitization toward violence and lack of sympathy for victims of violence, particularly in children”? Or this one from the Journal of Adolescent Health, which concluded: “…exposure to electronic media violence increases the risk of children and adults behaving aggressively in the short-run and of children behaving aggressively in the long-run. It increases the risk significantly, and it increases it as much as many other factors that are considered public health threats”? Or this one from the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, which “showed that there were overall modest but significant effect sizes for exposure to media violence on aggressive behaviors, aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, arousal levels, and helping behavior”?

There is something to be said for Russell's consistency. The actor is a self-described libertarian, which makes him something of an oddity among his Hollywood peers, who tend to lean left even as many of them star in, direct, write, produce and greenlight films that make violence look fun and cool. “My generation couldn't stand me and I couldn't stand them,” the actor was once quoted as saying. “In high school I was to the right of being straight. I believed in the work ethic, making money, and they all had this beef with the nation. Vietnam disappointed me because we didn't win.” You have to give the man this: he's no hypocrite.

To deny that films and other forms of media can influence the human brain and human behavior is to reject basic human psychology and years of scientific studies demonstrating a positive correlation (see above). Cinema, as Hollywood is so wont to remind us, is a powerfully persuasive art form. In the most extreme circumstances, “music [and] the manipulation of the screenplay” (Russell's words) have even been used to aid murderous regimes in their quest to commit genocide.

Many would argue my points by citing recent statistics on gun violence in the U.S., which show a sharp downward trend over the last two decades despite the fact that film, television and video games are more violent than ever. I would counter by stating that a) a decrease in the rate doesn't diminish the fact that gun violence remains an unconscionably common occurrence in the United States, and it doesn't mean that we should stop investigating its root causes; b) increases in aggression and decreases in empathy can have damaging societal effects in other ways, from playground cruelty to widespread corporate fraud and political corruption; and c) just because gun violence has decreased doesn't mean that violent media has no effect on violent crime; indeed, the downward trend can be chalked up to any number of other factors, from stricter gun-control legislation implemented in the mid-1990s to mass incarceration.

I would be curious to ask Kurt Russell if he has ever felt transformed, inspired, moved, impassioned, enraged or otherwise emotionally stirred after watching a good film. I would be curious to know whether he has ever copped a swagger from one of his favorite stars, or felt a rush of adrenaline after viewing a high-octane action film on a giant screen. If the answer was “yes” — the only reasonable answer — I would also be curious to ask him if these takeaways stopped at the cineplex door, or whether he brought them out into the world with him. If the answer was “no,” I would be curious to ask him whether he thinks it impossible that someone else with a different, perhaps more impressionable, mind could potentially carry an idea with them out of a darkened theater into the realms of their homes and workplaces and school campuses. Maybe even a dangerous idea?

I can say without qualification that on countless occasions I have internalized characters and attributes and attitudes from films that I have watched and loved, particularly when greeted with these entertainments at my most emotionally vulnerable. I have affected speech patterns and been moved to apathy and even aggression. Even now, as a reasonably healthy-minded individual, I am affected by cinema, and that is its insidious power. A talented star or director can wend their way through the cracks of an otherwise solid brain, and even knock down the walls we have erected to protect ourselves. 

Violent, macho fantasies of the sort so skillfully mounted by Quentin Tarantino and the like may not create murderers, but they can certainly contribute to a violent mindset and even serve as inspiration. In Joshua Oppenheimer's powerful 2013 documentary “The Act of Killing,” we watch as the members of a Sumatran death squad — perpetrators of the U.S.-backed Indonesian genocide that took place between 1965 and 1966 — gleefully recreate the murders they committed in the spirit of their favorite Hollywood gangster films. In Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday's insightful commentary on the 2014 mass shootings perpetrated by Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista California, she describes the troubled young man's final videotaped message as

“remarkably well-made,” before going on to write: “…as important as it is to understand Rodger”s actions within the context of the mental illness he clearly suffered, it”s just as clear that his delusions were inflated, if not created, by the entertainment industry he grew up in. With his florid rhetoric of self-pity, aggression and awkwardly forced 'evil laugh,' Rodger resembled a noxious cross between Christian Bale”s slick sociopath in 'American Psycho,' the thwarted womanizer in James Toback”s 'The Pick-Up Artist' and every Bond villain in the canon.”

I could cite countless other examples: James Holmes' 2012 mass shooting in a theater showing “The Dark Knight Rises,” inspired by a plot perpetrated by the Joker in Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns”; the 2009 case of 17-year-old Andrew Conley, moved by the title character in Showtime's popular serial-killer drama “Dexter” to strangle his brother with his bare hands; the murder of a Belgian woman by truck driver Thierry Jardin, who donned the “Ghostface” mask popularized in the “Scream” films before stabbing his victim over 30 times. That these are anecdotal doesn't mean we should ignore them.

Do we hold these films and filmmakers responsible for the crimes they inspired? Of course not. But there's an argument to be made that an industry that consistently touts its left-wing virtues at star-studded luncheons should walk the walk by taking a good, hard look at the product they put out, and perhaps begin to acknowledge the power it has to inform the actions and attitudes of vulnerable people, from children to individuals suffering from mental illness (not to mention the citizenry at large, whose actions and attitudes are inevitably shaped by the media they consume).

I harbor no illusions about Kurt Russell or Quentin Tarantino. Neither of them is likely to change their stance on film violence the way that Jim Carrey did around the release of “Kick-Ass 2,” a hyper-violent film he chose not to promote following the firearm murder of 20 children and 6 adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, because both men are toxically beholden to the idea that movies don't contribute a lick to what happens in the real world. But here's the thing: they're wrong.

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