This Felt Different

I recently attended a screening of Jack Reacher, the new Tom Cruise movie. Early in the film, a sniper aims his rifle at a public area. You see from the sniperís point-of-view as he moves from one target to the other. Soon the sniper opens fire, killing a few random victims. Iíve watched these types of scenes in many films before. In the past I may have felt scared, and I may have felt my heart pumping a little harder. But in that screening, and with that scene, I felt differently. I was sick to my stomach.

As you might have guessed, the Jack Reacher screening came only a few days after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. My wife and I had watched the memorial service and learned about the victims. This was hardly the first mass shooting that had captured Americaís attention. Sadly, it was not even the first one in 2012, that dubious distinction going to the July movie theater shootings in Colorado. But it was the first one that had targeted young children. That so many of the victims were little kids underscored just how random these killings were. The children were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Looking back, I think that the randomness of Newtown and the seeming randomness of the killings at the start of Jack Reacher made a painful connection. We have already observed a debate about the relationship between violence in mass media and real life violence. I have always been wary of blaming violence depicted in movies, TV, music or video games for the horrific actions of deranged people. Other Western nations partake of the same pop culture, but have nowhere near the level of gun crime that exists in the U.S. Nevertheless, as Mark Harris observed in Entertainment Weekly, pop culture should at least be part of the conversation when discussing how to address gun violence.

So for now I will leave the role of movie violence vs. real violence question to others. But what about the flip side of that question: Does real life violence impact how we see violence in the movies? For me it did, at least that one time.

Most often my reaction to movie violence depends largely on the victims. Josef Stalin stated that ďA single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.Ē That quote does not always hold true in real life. For example, the six million Jews and eleven million total dead in the Holocaust will never be just a statistic for most Jews. Nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11 will never be a statistic to most Americans. But Stalin definitely had a point when it comes to film violence. The examples are too numerous to count, but, for the sake of clarity, letís look at two films. With Forrest Gump, I, and Iím guessing many filmgoers, were very sad when Forrestís friend Bubba was killed in combat. We had gotten to know and like Bubba, and could share in Forrestís sorrow when Bubba died. Contrast this with Independence Day, which shows New York City, Washington, D.C., and much of America destroyed. Millions, if not billions of innocent lives were lost. Yet, much of the reaction focused on how ďcoolĒ it looked when the Empire State Building and the White House were blown up. Most of the victims were anonymous.

OK, you might be thinking, Independence Day was science fiction. Yes, thatís true, and certainly reactions to more realistic killings prompt more heartfelt reactions. Still, even there itís often one victim, or a few victims, and not the many, that most grab an audience. In a couple of key scenes in Schindlerís List, director Steven Spielberg colors one little girl in red, which contrasts her with the black-and-white surroundings. This girlís journey and death pack as much of an emotional impact as anything in the film.

So if itís generally violence against one person or a few people you get to know that has the most impact in films, are there exceptions? Of course, with the most obvious one being any audience memberís life experiences. I would imagine that most combat veterans were extremely more impacted by the battle deaths in Saving Private Ryan than I was.

Thankfully, most people do not have direct experience with violence, at least not on the level that is portrayed in many films. For those of us in this category, does the real world impact what we see on screen? For the most part Iíd say no. People are killed with guns every day in the U.S., yet we moviegoers eagerly view films with plenty of gun killings. We enjoy the killings on screen, especially if we believe those killed ďhad it coming.Ē

Why is this so? I cannot say for sure, but let me offer one theory. While people are killed every day in the U.S., we generally donít think about it much. If we stumble upon the news of one of these murders, we may feel bad for as long as we are hearing about it. Shortly afterwards we usually move on to something else. So when we view a movie with gun violence, it does not resonate because we are not bringing that part of the real world with us into the theater. How sad it is that it takes a crime this tragic, with victims this young and innocent, for gun crime to stay in our minds, as it did in the Jack Reacher screening.

Jack Reacher, to its credit, did not take a cavalier attitude toward the sniper victims in the opening scene. Quite the contrary. The film takes an unusual turn away from the basic plot. Jack Reacher (Cruise) insists that another character learn about these victims. She, and, by extension, us in the audience, get a glimpse into the victimsí lives. We see them as full three-dimensional people, and get a sense of what was lost. Even though Jack Reacher was made well before Newtown, the filmís focus on the victims, however brief, felt incredibly relevant. Somehow, it was just what was needed.

The debate about how to respond to and prevent real life gun violence will continue, as it should. But itís inevitable that the emotional reaction will dissipate somewhat for those not directly impacted by the shootings. Someone seeing Jack Reacher for the first time on DVD six months from now may not feel much of anything during the opening scene. Many filmgoers, including me, will continue to see movies featuring gun violence. Is that possible without minimizing or trivializing gun violence in real life? I sure hope so. I want to be able to enjoy these films while at the same time wishing that the violence, particularly the gun violence, was confined to the movie screen.

Adam Spector
January 1, 2013

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