Film: The Unreal Presence

In the anxious hours following the Columbine High School shootings, America’s television screens repeatedly showed a slow-motion film clip in which a black-clad, shotgun-toting boy bursts into a classroom and fills his fellow students full of buckshot. The gunman was teen idol Leonardo DiCaprio, the star of Titanic, and the clip came not from a surveillance camera but from Scott Kalvert’s The Basketball Diaries, the 1995 movie said to have been a favorite of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the black-clad, shot-gun-toting boys who strolled into their school one bright April morning and murdered a teacher, twelve of their classmates, and themselves, leaving behind 51 homemade bombs for the police to defuse.

Though The Basketball Diaries was promptly pulled from video stores by the studio that released it, the long-simmering debate over graphic portrayals of violence in the media had long since boiled over. Not that anything new was said—the only difference was the glib immediacy conferred by the shedding of blood. The argument itself remains as agonizingly familiar as a family quarrel: Did movies and television make us what we are today, or do they merely show us what we have become?

In the case of The Basketball Diaries, the thing speaks for itself. To watch that horrific clip is to know in your bones that Harris and Klebold must also have seen it at some point in their short, sad lives, and felt the dark urge to go and do likewise. Whether Kalvert and DiCaprio are thereby to blame for the deaths of 13 innocent people (not to mention whether they should be hauled into a court of law and sued for cinematic malpractice) is another matter. I suspect—I hope—they have spent more than a few sleepless nights asking themselves that very question, though I’d be surprised to learn that many other movie stars have lost sleep over the Colorado shootings. If they have, a hefty check made out to their friendly neighborhood gun-control PAC will ease the bite of it, for few in the entertainment business are prepared to seriously consider the possibility that they themselves might be at least as responsible for making the world a more brutal place as are Smith & Wesson or the National Rifle Association.

But it is not enough simply to say that violent movies drive young men mad, since people have been killing other people on the silver screen ever since The Great Train Robbery. Neither is today’s violence uniquely explicit. When Lee Marvin hurls scalding coffee at Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat—and when, later on, you see her hideously scarred face—the effect is as shocking as anything in Pulp Fiction. Yet no one has suggested that such films permanently warped the psyches of Eisenhower-era children. Clearly, there is something fundamentally different about the way violence is presented in contemporary movies. But what?

As it happens, Marvin himself offered a partial but nonetheless compelling answer to that question. “When I play these roles of vicious men,” he told an interviewer, “I do things you shouldn’t do and I make you see that you shouldn’t do them.” Today, any actor or director who dared say such a thing would sound hopelessly naive, but Marvin had earned the right to speak plainly; an ex-Marine who was grievously wounded in combat in World War II, he knew that violence has consequences. Not so his jejune successors, in whose morally weightless films violence is an unreal presence and acts of butchery are no more consequential than Wile E. Coyote’s eternal pursuit of the Road Runner. Automatic weapons are emptied blithely, BMWs driven off cliffs, handsomely coiffed heads blown to pieces—but there are no funerals, no weeping widows, no innocent bystanders imprisoned forever in wheelchairs because they happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A week before the Colorado shootings, I saw Doug Liman’s Go, a fast-moving comedy about the unintended consequences of a drug deal. Liman’s last movie, the wry, sharply observant Swingers, was one of the best independent films to be released in recent years, and I was eager to see what he would do with a bigger budget and a larger canvas. The answer was not altogether surprising—and not altogether satisfactory. Go consists of three self-contained but overlapping sequences. In the first, Ronna (Sarah Polley), a tough young checkout girl at a Los Angeles supermarket, takes over a drug buy from her fellow cashier, Simon (Desmond Askew); runs afoul of the dealer; and is left for dead in a parking lot. In the second, Simon and a carful of his friends go to Las Vegas for the weekend and run afoul of the bouncer at a massage parlor. In the third, the action shifts back to Los Angeles, and we learn the fate of the other participants in the original deal.

Most of the critics who praised Go called it a “black comedy,” by which they apparently meant that it treats serious matters frivolously. In fact, black comedy is anything but frivolous. “I suppose I’m a believer in original sin,” the English playwright Joe Orton once remarked. “People are profoundly bad, but irresistibly funny.” Therein lies the distinction between true black comedy, whose subject matter is the formidable power of evil, and what used to be called “sick humor,” which merely skates atop the hard surface of human depravity. Not long after the Colorado shootings, Howard Stern remarked on his radio show that several of the young women who escaped unharmed from Columbine High School were “really good-looking,” going on to speculate as to whether Harris or Klebold “tried to have sex with any of the good-looking girls … if you’re going to kill yourself and kill all the kids, why wouldn’t you have some sex?” Presumably some assistant professor of cultural studies has since come forward to declare Stern a latter-day Swift, but he is nothing more than a trousered ape whose loutish jeering is to black comedy what the transcript of the O. J. Simpson trial was to Othello.

While Go is never as puerile as this—and some parts are quite funny indeed—to call it a black comedy is to ignore, among other things, the clumsy way in which John August’s screenplay fails to resolve the dramatic conflict implicit in its opening sequence. The hard-bitten Ronna, a burned-out waif who knows too much, is an uncomfortably believable character (especially as played by Polley), and the sight of what we assume to be her corpse is at once jolting and pitiful. The action then jumps to the madcap antics of Simon and his buddies, a smart piece of editing indicating that something excruciatingly awful is going to happen to these sex-crazed near-adolescents. But what follows instead is an hour’s worth of increasingly witless slapstick, at the end of which we learn, abruptly and incredibly, that Ronna is not dead after all, just badly bruised. The air quickly hisses out of the film, and what started out as a cold-eyed satire about the way we live now collapses into a morally meaningless farce in which everybody gets away with everything.

No doubt Doug Liman would beg to differ. I could easily imagine him arguing, for instance, that the moral vacuity of Go is a faithful reflection of the prevailing nihilism of American popular culture—in which case he would have a good point. One of the most striking aspects of the Colorado shootings was the fact that so many journalists, seeking to explain what drove Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to do what they did, made pointed reference to the existence of a “culture of death,” a phrase coined, as readers of Crisis will scarcely need reminding, by Pope John Paul II. This philosophically trained pope is not given to shallow sound bites, and when he speaks of the culture of death, he has in mind a deep- seated, collective nihilism of which illegal drugs, idiot shock jocks, and mindlessly violent movies are mere symptoms.

How to break its stranglehold? We all know the answer, but rarely is the question put so starkly to any of us as it was to 17-year-old Cassie Bernall. Trapped at gunpoint in the library of Columbine High School, she was asked by one of her attackers whether she believed in God. “Yes, I believe in God,” she replied, and then he shot her dead. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic scene—and harder still to imagine that anyone in Hollywood, least of all Doug Liman, would dare to put it into a movie.


  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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