OK. From the time of Abel and Cain, we've had murder. And from the time of Abel and Cain, we've had stories with violence.
So, what do we do with that?
You'd have to be a pretty cold person not to feel great sympathy for the parents of the children slaughtered at the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut. The slaughter was an extraordinarily vicious act visited on defenseless children. An incalculable loss.
It's the coverage of these kinds of stories that irritate me. The variety of folks who have access to big media pull out what feels like a prepared script. Mr. A talks about the need for gun control laws. Ms. B replies that we don't enforce the laws we already have, and rhetorically inquires why we need new laws – hinting that even the idea is stupid. In a big cast script, variations on this theme can be unleashed. Then the whole cast nods sagely and blames Hollywood – those damn violent movies and video games that make us all so much more violent than we used to be.
It's so easy to blame Hollywood. "Hollywood" (as a concept) obliges so willingly to pretty much any kind of story-telling excess you want to pin on its huge collective chest. A-movies, B-movies, C-movies, movies that even make direct-to-video look good. Schlock and art in huge giant amounts. Will it sell a ticket or a unit? Can the producers make back their investment, and maybe, just maybe earn a tidy profit? Put the A-list movie that bombs up against the D-list garbage that sells thousands of dvds on the foreign market – "Hollywood" can like the D-list seller as much or more than the A-list bomb that lost a bucket of money. Ask Michael Cimino on your way out the door.
I hate it when the punditocracy start the media lamentation. I've been on the wrong side of strong moral outrage. Past readers of this column might recall the story of a mother of a college-age woman who came to see a production I'd directed of Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others. The mother came to the play and was shocked by the frank language used by the characters whilst conversing about sex. The mother called me a pornographer. I don't blame her.
But we always get in this quandary about the stories we tell as story-tellers. Violence and conflict are parts of what we call drama.
What we in the West call drama essentially comes to us from the Greeks. The Greeks had an agon – a contest. You pit person against person. There's a winner and there's a loser. It tends toward a "zero-sum" conclusion. Thus we conventionally think of a protagonist and an antagonist. The earliest plays we have deal with people who had known war – war with the Persians and the legendary war of Greek against Trojan. Regardless the theatre history conundrum about showing violence, the stories certainly came out of the experience of war. And the culture that gave us Spartans and the Peloponnesian War certainly knew from violence.
The same could easily be said of the Romans. The Romans ritualized murder and violence in civic life and in entertainment. Going to "games" and animal slaughters were a regularized feature of the entertainment fare for hundreds of years.
The whole, long, bloody history of mankind is mirrored rather smartly in the history of entertainment. The ends of Hamlet and King Lear have piles of "dead" bodies on the stage. The end of Macbeth includes the display of the main character's severed head.
So I get a little discomfited when the pundits start to rail against violent movies and tv shows and video games. Violence and conflict are part and parcel of what we do.
But that's not entirely the end of the story.
Yes, it can be tough to distinguish between good and bad displays of violence. For example, probably most people would agree that there's a categorical difference between Hamlet and a snuff film. OK. We agree. But how do you describe that difference? Moody university student who might be mildly schizophrenic (hears voices, sees "ghosts"), detached from his family, kind of a loner, turns into a mass murderer. A contemporary shooter or Hamlet? How can you write a law to distinguish one from the other?
And should we? Should we distinguish one from the other? Don't artists have the right to express whatever is in their pea-pickin' hearts? Isn't that a First Amendment right?
And yet. . . . and yet. . . .
The snuff film is a gross example. Most examples aren't that clear cut. Most of the time we're not talking about Hamlet, and most of the time we're not talking about a snuff film.
Private Ryan starts with one of the bloodier days of 20th century violence – D-Day. Mr. Spielberg works very hard not only to show us the events of that day, but to get us to viscerally feel like we're part of the action.
That's the key isn't it? That's the miracle of what we do. That's what theatre and film rely upon. Somehow a mysterious thing happens that takes us as an audience member and places us inside the action of the story.
Most of the readers of this column at one time or another took a literature class or had to read literature for a class. My guess is that some teacher chose works of literature to read that would in some way make you – the student – a better person. In some ways, that's the process of education. We don't want to make people worse through education, we want to make them better. And we believe by introducing people to certain works of literature we can enhance that process of betterment.
Can it work the other way? Certainly if a person eats nothing but garbage, the human will experience illness. A healthy diet promotes physical health.
But, wait! You say to me, "Say, Mr. Writer-man, who gets to judge what is good for me? For example so people think peanuts can be a great part of a healthy diet, but I have a peanut allergy. So nyah, nyah, nyah. There! I've got you, you clever twit. Undone by your own analogy!"
Yes. For every person who loves Joyce's Ulysses there's a person who wants to ban the book and throw it into the fire. Yep.
But let's get back to the main issue. What is the intended feeling we're supposed to have about the people involved in the violence?
Aeschylus was a veteran of the Persian War. And yet, in the Persians he showed sympathy for the Persians.
At the end of Hamlet we see a pile of bodies. But they are the bodies of people we have come to know. We have the body of the title character, a character so beloved that this fictional creation is himself the object of uncounted studies. We have the body of the antagonist – Claudius. Here is a character Shakespeare has gone out of his way to show Claudius' very human guilt, shame, and ambivalence about killing old Hamlet and marrying Gertrude. We have the body of Gertrude, who we're led to believe was killed wrongly in Claudius' trap. And on and on.
In Spielberg's depiction of D-Day, we're led to have patriotic fellow-feeling for these men who sacrifice their lives for the opportunity to bring down Hitler's war machine – something so bad that it still remains a potent symbol of evil.
In short, the violence of these stories includes sympathy for the fallen.
This contrasts from the utter lack of sympathy for gun violence victims in numerous movies and games in which wholesale slaughter is made easier by the anonymity of the victims. In The Matrix two characters show up in the lobby of an office block armed to the teeth with automatic weapons. The victims are nameless non-entities for which no attempt at humanization has even been made. Within the universe of the story, is each victim the one-on-one pair with a human in a pod somewhere? Or, are they even more dehumanized? Are they simply digital constructs entirely a product of the Matrix? Either way, we're not meant to feel any sympathy for them.
When the pundits chatter and gas on, I get irritated. On the other hand, I strongly believe that as creators of stories, we should be responsible in the stories we tell. And we should take responsibility for our stories. Does the story I'm telling today humanize the conflict at the heart of my story? Are the participants recognizably human, so that when a character dies it has some meaning and sensitizes the audience to the awfulness of violence? Or is the violence constructed in such a way so that nameless things just get blown away in a way that desensitizes us to the carnage?
Not foolproof. Not an end. But a decent question to start with.