Published on Friday, July 2, 2004 by the Guardian / United Kingdom
Bring It On
Violent Movies - And War Movies - Give us the Thrill of Victory. But What Happens When War Becomes a Reality?
by David Mamet
We humans love to kill. We enjoy, both as fantasies and as histories, stories of murder.
We are particularly enamored of that fictive or non-fictive exploration of a "just war." What is a just war?
If one's home were invaded, would we call resistance to the aggressor "justified violence", or, simply, "defense"?
"Just" is not a description of a war, but of our enjoyment of its contemplation.
If the violence can be construed as "just," our perverse entertainment is less despicable. Our enshrinement of "the Greatest Generation" is an attempt to co-opt what we, their descendants, perceive as their licence to kill.
Any actual contact with violence creates an abhorrence of violence.
Ex-fighters, policemen and soldiers are, indeed, identifiable by their absolute lack of belligerence; to the contrary, those displaying arrogance or combativeness have, generally, never experienced or seen actual violence - their belligerence masks their fear, and displays their ignorant belief that battles are somehow won by intimidation.
Violent encounters are won only by those putting themselves at risk of violence.
Though the film hero does so, in his fictional setting, the audience does not. They, thus, experience what they perceive as a real thrill of victory, without risk.
This is the thrill of the war movie, and its pervasive influence has infected and perverted American foreign policy: e.g., a non-combatant president sends young women into combat by quoting a cinematic taunt: "Bring it on."
The illusion of impunity has pervaded the US's national conflicts since Korea - as if it were possible to prevail against a foreign country without killing and being killed. The misconceived false antisepsis of the Vietnam air war, of Grenada, of Iraq One and Two, reveal a view of impunity like that of the moviegoer.
The viewer is presented with this paradigm: the hero (i.e. you, the viewer) is good. The hero will undergo various struggles in which you, the viewer, will be able to vicariously enjoy his stoicism while, of course, undergoing no pain. Your desire to do violence will be pandered to by an incontrovertible presentation of the justice of the Hero's cause, and by a (ritual) period of restraint on his part.
This false glow of triumph, of untried, and false (in the case of the moviegoer), of proxy triumph is the drug of the bully. It seduces the weak-minded, and emboldens the arrogant.
Murder has always been the theme of the dramatist, and its mythologic explanation is cathartic, e.g.: The Scottish Play, The Iliad, Crime and Punishment, and, in fact, Paths of Glory, The Ox-bow Incident, A Place in the Sun. These are not advertisements for, but warnings against, violence. As such they are cleansing. They exhibit artistically, they reveal and acknowledge the human capacity for evil. By so doing they strip from the viewer the burden of repression.
The fiction - I am good, I am incapable of violence, and, if I were, I know for a fact that my cause would be just, and, further, that as it is just, my crime would have no psychological (let alone criminal) consequences - is the drug of the violent film. It represses human feelings of rage, and our shame at them. As such it is a drug, of which increasingly larger doses must be taken for increasingly smaller effect. Its effect is anesthetic. Art, bypassing the conscious mind, and, so, both its protections and pretensions, bypasses the protective mechanism, and speaks direct to the truth of the soul: that we need not fear, but we must be conscious.
The OJ Simpson show-trial was a corruptive entertainment. The probity, the care and decent aversion of interest necessary in a civil society were replaced with lurid insatiability for retelling what the viewing audience quickly forgot was an actual human tragedy.
Reaction to the verdict split, in the US, largely along racial lines: the whites appalled, the blacks content.
This was a political reaction: white juries had, for centuries, dismissed open-and-shut cases of white assaults on blacks. Police, defense and prosecutors historically colluded to enforce apartheid in the criminal courts. So blacks content with an absurd verdict, in which the colors of the major players were switched, was and is understandable. White rage and depression was, to a large extent, compounded not by incredulity, but, in fact, by an understanding (conscious or unconscious) of the black point of view: white society had just been mugged by the same vicious, transparent mechanism it had used against blacks.
Whites had been asked: "How do you like it?" And they were forced to answer: "Not at all."
Similarly, Americans, white and black, got all puffed out and happy at war films, the recruitment posters of the 1940s: Back to Bataan, the rather Stalinist patriotism of the cold war, Retreat, Hell!, Strategic Air Command; and wondered at the discrepancy between our enjoyment of this merchandising of violence, and our lack of glee at the body bags of Vietnam, and, now, of Iraq.
The unfortunate, and inevitable, concomitant of "Bring it on" is: "How do you like it, now?"
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004