Ira Lacher: Why does Hollywood continue making movies with gun violence? Because Americans are in love with guns.
Everyone is still talking about actor Alec Baldwin’s apparently accidental shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and director Joel Souza on a movie set in New Mexico. Baldwin’s been a jerk on and off set, but he’s never remotely been accused of doing anything intentionally life-threatening. And indeed, no charges have been filed in the fatal shooting.
But in the wake of the sensational coverage emanating from the story, one article jumped out at me: a report in The New York Times about how movie-makers regularly use similar “prop guns” — real, functioning firearms, perhaps loaded with blanks — because they provide realistic effects. The Times quoted a piece from American Cinematographer written by Dave Brown, a firearms instructor who has worked with a number of movie crews:
[E]ven with all the advancements in visual effects and computer-generated imagery, we still fire guns with blanks. The reason is simple: We want the scene to look as real as possible. We want the story and characters to be believable. Blanks help contribute to the authenticity of a scene in ways that cannot be achieved in any other manner.“Filming With Firearms,” American Cinematographer, published July 18, 2019
You may ask, why would a director want such a realistic gun effect? Because Americans are in love with guns.
It is estimated that there are 20 guns for every American. And Americans own guns to a far greater extent than any other country’s inhabitants, twice that of our closest competitor, the Falkland Islands.
Confession: Like most American boys of the Sixties, I played with toy guns; all my friends did. Cowboys and Indians. Cops and robbers. I cherished my Mattel Snub-nose .38, and Fanner 50, both of which fired “Shootin’ Shells” — plastic bullets that attached to cartridges you inserted into the chambers, just like the real thing. My TV watching favored shoot-em-up Westerns, cop shows, and war programs: Gunsmoke, Kojak, and Combat. And I collected Golden Guns, by Louis Marx & Co.: miniature non-functioning replicas you could fondle, and dream of the day you were old enough to buy the real thing.
I started to sour on firearms maybe when I viewed the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, with its climactic execution scene, and the 1969 gorefest The Wild Bunch, with its five-minute scene of non-stop bloody mayhem. But critics who prophesied that this film would put an end to egregious movie gun violence couldn’t have more widely missed their targets. On-screen gun violence escalated grotesquely throughout the latter part of the twentieth century. And while the right wing pontificated that increasing depictions of sex in movies supposedly promoted rape, they were silencers on whether cinematic gun violence on screen resulted in gun violence in fact.
Spoiler alert: It did, and it does. The journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded:
By including guns in violent scenes, film producers may be strengthening the weapons effect and providing youth with scripts for using guns. These findings are concerning because many scientific studies have shown that violent films can increase aggression. Violent films are also now easily accessible to youth (eg, on the Internet and cable). This research suggests that the presence of weapons in films might amplify the effects of violent films on aggression.American Academy of Pediatrics, “Gun Violence Trends in Movies”
Given that make-believe gun death has resulted in actual gun death, how can we justify that movieland is debating merely whether it’s better to depict gun violence realistically, with prop guns, or shoot people dead the way sandworms attack desert planet inhabitants, i.e., with computer graphics?
Shouldn’t they and we be asking: Why does Hollywood need to continue making movies with gun violence at all?
Silly question, right? If America can’t go cold turkey on our gun addiction after children are mowed down in an elementary school, or concertgoers in a Las Vegas hotel parking lot, then will this little mini tragedy change our hearts and minds about our mass weapons of destruction? Or will deleting the prop gun and its oh-too-realistic recoil, muzzle flash, and “BANG!” be the single step that starts us on the proverbial long journey to gun sanity.
We can hope. Often, accidents bring progress. Sure as shootin’.
Top image of Western movie vintage card or poster by Nikolai Kir, available via Shutterstock.