Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Killer

Interesting article by Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post today about some of the violent films that may have influenced the Virginia Tech killer. Hunter mentions Oldboy based on the photos of Cho Seung-Hui brandishing a hammer, and the films of John Woo based on the two-gun thing, as major cultural references behind the massacre. Curiously, he doesn't mention Scorsese's Taxi Driver, despite the photos of Cho in classic Travis Bickle poses.

(I had a really Travis Bickle-y photo picked out that I was going to post here...but we don't really need to celebrate this guy...You all know what the pictures look like, and if you don't, it's spectacularly easy to find them via Google.)

The bleak Taxi Driver and its grim conclusion occured to me immediately upon seeing that photo, though I suppose it's possible 23 year-old Cho had never seen the 30+ year old film.

It's a well-written and provocative read, though I'm not 100% positive I concur with all of Hunter's analysis. He brings up Oldboy because of that one photo of Cho with the hammer, but doesn't really know what to make of the connection. I'm a bit perplexed as well. Really, there wouldn't be much for a psychopath, even one who had cast himself as a vigilante, to latch on to in Oldboy. All of Park Chan-Wook's films make violence look unappealing and ill-conceived. They do not celebrate murder, but lament its presence in our otherwise-sane lives.

John Woo's films essentially invented modern action style, making them the go-to reference points when discussing film violence.

The first gunfight in Woo's most famous movie, "The Killer," is an almost eerie anticipation of the Cho attack. Chow's professional assassin moves stealthily down a corridor, approaches a door, knocks. Once it is opened, he dispatches the opener, then steps in to confront seated human figures. He darts among them, a gun in each hand, blazing away as they rise and flee. They're playing cards, not sitting in a classroom, and the setting is a nightclub backroom, not a school. But the kinetics of the remarkable encounter are strikingly similar to what must have happened Monday.

That's really perceptive, I think. This connection hadn't even occured ot me, even though I've seen The Killer at least four or five times. (And even pretty recently!) So, agreed, Cho very well might have been playing the part of Jeffrey Chow in his mind (or any other action hero or the dude from "Grand Theft Auto" or any number of gun-toting pop culture protagonists).

See, I find that observation interesting, but that's pretty much where the discussion ends for me. "Hey, you know what's weird? That Virginia Tech asshole might have been a big movie fan who was imitating The Killer and Oldboy." That's about it.

Hunter grasps for relevance at the end of the piece, but it's a fairly futile effort.

These similarities between fact and fiction, of course, raise striking issues that all creative artists -- but especially those who deal in stories that offer visceral violence as part of their pleasure principle -- must deal with. Woo built engines of excitement and stimulation that pleased millions and made him a wealthy, internationally known man. Yet now, all these years later, a young man might have used them as the vessel of his rage and alienation, taken the icon of the movie gun and moved from the intimacy of the DVD player and the arena of his imagination to the public arena, and there reenacted the ritual. This time the carnage is for real.

Hmm...I'm not sure what Hunter means by "deal with." How should John Woo "deal with" the unpleasant but plausible possibility that some kill-crazy maniac will find some measure of inspiration in his violent cop thrillers? Stop making action thrillers? Make all murderous characters villains? Donate a portion of his proceeds to charity?

I'm not trying to make fun. There was a time when I would have rejected such an argument outright. Watching a violent movie or playing a violent video game cannot make a person act violently. I still believe, essentially, that this is true. Millions of people around the world regularly enjoy some extremely violent entertainment, and only a small tiny fraction of them ever imitate any of the gruesome acts depicted on screen. Hostel had a huge opening weekend, and you don't often hear about power drill attacks on bound teens.

But lately...I am dismayed with Americans. I am ready to believe some fairly negative things about my countrymen these days, including that their wits may have been dulled by decades of brain-melting corporate propaganda and dreary, soul-sucking routine. But Hunter doesn't bother to actually build a case for or against violent entertainment. He just kind of insinuates that John Woo bears some responsibility in this whole affair and then rushes out the side exit.

I guess I'm just tired of reading hand-wringing articles about violence in media that don't bother to actually suggest any course of action or even lay out a coherent, arguable position. If Hunter thinks we should genuinely change the way we approach entertainment, he should say so, and not dance around the issue with phrasing like "raise striking issues that all creative artists must deal with."

The same cannot be said of Mark Ames on AlterNet, who very clearly lays out his case that the Virginia Tech shooting, along with the Columbine shooting and the majority of office killing sprees was really a rebellion against oppressive systems of control.

It isn't the schoolyard shooters who need to be profiled -- they can't be. It is the schools that need to be profiled.

A list should be drawn up of the characteristics and warning signs of a school ripe for massacre:
complaints about bullying go unpunished by an administration that supports the cruel social structure; antiseptic corridors and overhead fluorescent lights reminiscent of mid-sized city airport; rampant moral hypocrisy that promotes the most two-faced, mean, and shallow students to the top of the pecking order; and maximally stressed parents who push their kids to achieve higher and higher scores.

Ames, too, draws cinematic connections, but it's not the operatic violence of Park or Woo. Instead, he references the sardonic hijinks of Office Space and the ironic nihilism of Fight Club. Was Cho Seung-Hui really driven over the edge by a culture obsessed with superficiality and consumerism? Was his bloody rampage really a piece of shocking, depraved performance art, pointing out the uncomfortable truths about our worthless, shallow civilization that we were all just afraid to notice before?

If you pull back and rethink how you view these rampage massacres -- if you can accept that the schools and offices are what provoke these massacres, just as poverty and racism create their own violent crimes, or slavery created slave violence and rebellions, then you have to accept that on some level the school and office shootings are logical outcomes and perhaps even justified responses to an intolerable condition that we can't yet put our fingers on.

Now, I wasn't crazy about high school either, but to call the Virginia Tech tragedy a justified response to a university is going pretty goddamn far. I mean, you can certainly make the case that public high schools are conformity factories that deserve to be rebelled against. But Cho was a senior in college. No one was forcing him to stay at school if it was such an intolerable condition. I'm an overweight nerd who went to UCLA, which is a pretty shameful jockocracy in its own right, but I wasn't exactly filled with the overwhelming urge to kill.

Just as some were too quick to appropriate this horrific event into some partisan "narrative" about gun control or Muslim fundamentalism or whatever, Ames is a bit too quick to overtly take Cho's side. "Hey, working really sucks. Sometimes the only answer is to shoot up the place."

But I definitely appreciate his candor. Here's a guy with an opinion who's not afraid to sling it around and draw some criticism. Admirable. Stephen Hunter's essay, though thought-provoking, comes off timid and wishy-washy in comparison.


drummer510 said...

I think most people are afraid to say these types of things in public. Yes, Cho was a guy who seemed to never fit into societal norms, and didn't seem mentally together from those videos. But yes, a question that should be raised: is it our society that creates these killers or are they just fucked up to begin with?

Gohlke said...

Great rebuttal to the Hunter piece here: Scott really nails what is so inane about these "cultural" discussions.

Lons said...

"It is hard to say what all this proves, other than that Mr. Hunter has no peer when it comes to wielding the conditional tense on deadline."

Ouch...That line says it all.

Jose Canseco said...

whats with the anti-UCLA crap?

Lons said...

I was actually kind of disagreeing with the AlterNet guy there. UCLA has a lot of the negatives he ascribes to VA Tech...It's a huge public university, it's cliquey and full of popular, attractive jocks, etc.

AND YET, I was trying to say, I still managed to find a community in which I belonged and had a positive experience. Which makes me believe that the reading of Cho's violence as a reaction to his college experience struck me as at the very least incomplete.