I got fired from a job once because of office politics. Ironically I’d probably never worked harder or accomplished more for any other firm, but the man who engineered my departure had been against my hiring 13 months before. He wanted to promote someone from within his team, and it took him a year to convince the higher-ups in New York that in our small satellite office in Ann Arbor, I didn’t belong.
In my mind, I’ve probably punched that man in the face a hundred times – shooting him would be too quick and easy of a death. The number of creative ways that I could torture him is endless. It’s been nearly twenty years and still I take pleasure in the thought of seeing him slowly flattened by a pavement roller, or dropped from a plane without a parachute, or painstakingly dismembered piece by piece while keeping him alive for as long as possible. Luckily for him I don’t have any mob connections or powerful friends, and I’m too fearful of prison and too squeamish at the actual site of blood and gore, so his dismantling will have to remain locked up inside my obviously disturbed mind.
Maybe I should have taken out my vengeance by writing a script, revenge being a common theme in the movies. Quentin Tarantino is making a career out of it, from Kill Bill to Inglorious Bastards and now Django Unchained, and has become a favorite target for those blaming Hollywood and its movies for the sickness within our society, and a reason for avoiding any discussion on controlling guns. I don’t doubt that in the minds of maniacs, revenge is a highly motivating factor for letting their imaginations escape into a brutal reality. They probably see themselves as heroic figures, as Rambo with an automatic rifle mowing down the bullying society that hasn’t accepted them.
Certainly movies and TV shows produce tons of fodder for the religious right and others to rail against and call for censorship, and movies like Django Unchained don’t help the cause.
It’s an entertaining film, if you don’t mind the gore. But that’s all it is. In the theatre I was in, the audience applauded at its conclusion, and I understand they were glad to see the hero get the girl and kill all the bad men, but haven’t we seen this formula before? What makes it a candidate for the movie of the year? Because it depicted the brutality of slavery? It didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. It didn’t explore human nature and the inhumane things we do; it just displayed them in an almost cartoonish way. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie, it is well made, and censorship only causes more problems (and it is so much better than the typical gun-slinging revenge movies by Stallone or others that deserve such harsh scrutiny), but for whatever Django teaches – that slavery was inhumane – it also feeds the soul’s lust for revenge. For the right mind, it makes you feel sick about humankind and the things we have done, and hopefully makes you want to do better; in the wrong mind – one that feels wronged by the society it lives in – I have to wonder if it provides license for being the vengeful hero it thinks it is.
Zero Dark Thirty is a much better movie, forcing you to question the pros and cons of torture and revenge. The man doing the torturing eventually can’t take it anymore and calls it quits, and detective work proves to be more vital in finding Bin Laden, but in the end, killing the man in front of children potentially provides more than just justice. To those children, Americans will always be the terrorists. When 9/11 happened, I remember having an absurd thought. A part of me was chanting with everyone else about waking a sleeping giant, and now it’s our turn for payback. Another part wanted to bomb them with tons of cut flowers in memory of our dead. I wanted to make them change their minds about who we were, instead of feeding into our evil narrative with bombs from hell. If I had been president and put that flower power plan into play, I would have been tarred and feathered – everyone would have been shocked and awed (or appalled), in one way or another.
Not that Bin Laden didn’t have to go, just that Zero Dark Thirty makes you think about the consequences of revenge, while Django Unchained seems to glorify it for the benefit of making a cool movie. Censorship, however, does more harm than good, covering up what needs to be told, with no place to safely draw the line. The only line that can be drawn is a judgmental one: was it good or not. We have no choice but to let the market decide, something the right-wing favors in almost everything except the arts. Unfortunately the market (the masses), are going to flock to the shallow blockbuster more often than not if their minds have not been better prepared for what constitutes quality, preferably from an educational focus on the arts and music and a balanced life. Instead we get fear-based movies and TV shows and newscasts, more cop shows and serial killers and rapists and zombies, so we shouldn’t be surprised that we have a fear-infected society clinging to their guns as a result. I think gun enthusiasts have been watching too much TV. Listen to them for too long and you’ll start to wonder if we all live within a Mad Max world.
On the south side of Chicago, maybe they feel that way, though it’s usually the few causing all the problems, not the majority. We’re leading the pack in gun deaths despite our strict laws, a frequently used argument by gun enthusiasts who fail to understand that Chicago doesn’t live in a bubble – guns are easily purchased legally just outside the city and then resold to gangs on the inside. So this argument against gun control is actually an argument for gun control, for stricter federal laws, though I’ve yet to hear a journalist point this out. Despite where we live, we’re all on the same planet and must find a balance between how we live. If it was up to me I’d eliminate all guns. But I can’t have it my way. I can’t expect hunters to relinquish all of their firearms when hunting is so much a part of their culture, and yet they can’t expect their toys – their assault rifles – to not find their way into the city or the hands of madmen. We have to meet half way. Improvement in our society, and the art it creates, can only come about through better education of all and a balanced approach to our problems. Otherwise we end up letting the crazies – the extremists – run the show.
And we create the Mad Max society we fear, or become a country that’s lost its soul and resorts to torture. Zero Dark Thirty is an excellent, intense drama that challenges our views, and it or Lincoln are better than the rest of the movies I’ve seen (sorry Les Miserable fans, but I just can’t get into musicals), but if I had a vote for picture of the year, I’d be tempted to give it to Silver Linings Playbook. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t as well made as Zero or Lincoln or Argo; it has its flaws and over-the-top moments (sort of like Little Miss Sunshine), but it’s emotionally moving – beyond just situational scenes - and of the nominated films, it’s the one I’d want to see again. It’s a movie without weaponry – though there is a fist fight and other skirmishes. Mostly it’s about human relationships and overcoming the mental obstacles that many of us have struggled with, to one degree or another. As someone who grew up a sports fan, thanks to my father, and struggled to relate to him through anything other than sports, I could easily identify with the father-son relationship depicted by Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper. Cooper’s character, understandably, is more interested in the budding relationship with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) than in watching another football game with his father.
Today I’ll watch the Super Bowl, almost out of habit, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the game as entertainment, but the older I get, the less interested I am in sports. Life and the arts have so much more to offer to the mental and spiritual evolution of humankind. And near his end, I believe my father felt the same way. I could see it in his eyes whenever I brought up our Detroit teams. Although he continued to watch the games up until his death, and might get excited about the outcome and enjoy the entertainment, he’d realized how meaningless it all was. He wanted to connect to his son in a more meaningful way. Whether our team wins the Super Bowl or World Series or not, it is not what we’ll be thankful for or care about when lying on our deathbeds.
Just ask the characters in Amour. It isn’t an easy film to watch, unless you enjoy watching the indignities of old age, relentlessly and mercilessly leading to a slow death (balanced only by love), but nothing will stay with me longer, or make me question how I live more. Today’s game can’t do that. That is the power of quality work over relatively pointless, money-making endeavors such as revenge films and their cousins: violence-based sports, in which the heroes take out their frustrations on their opponent. If movies and television and other activities had offered me more of a life-affirming influence while growing up, maybe my mind would be a little better at letting go of those revenge-based thoughts directed towards the silly little man who refused to shake my hand when we first met so many years ago, because he was already planning my demise.