Let’s ban guns from movies

January 7, 2013

Here’s a radical proposal: Let’s ban guns from being shown in movies and television.

But not for the reasons you think.

I’m not suggesting this because real handguns and automatic weapons are a threat to humans everywhere, though that is true. Nor is it because the casual, often comedic presentation of gun violence in films and TV shows tends to anesthetize young viewers to violence and its effects. Or that it warps their perception of reality so that it seems like a natural segue to move immediately from an argument to, say, lethal gunplay. The science isn’t all in on that last one, but I’d wager on the side of the empiricists.

No, I believe we should ban guns from movies and television for another reason altogether:

Because they’re always the most boring and predictable dramatic choice you can make.

And I say this, in spite of the fact that big-budget action films attract a mass audience that is entertained by extended exchanges of automatic weapon fire, in which hardly anyone ever gets hit. (Except when those automatic weapons are being fired by the hero – who can make every bullet in a machine-gun burst strike a different enemy.)

I’m amazed that the mass audience keeps buying tickets to these movies. I would love to understand the thrill or excitement to be derived from scenes in films like “The Expendables 2,” in which various forms of machines guns are fired repeatedly while hitting very few targets – or putting holes in inanimate objects.

The old “SCTV” series used to feature “Farm Film Report,” in which John Candy and Joe Flaherty would give favorable reviews to movies with the best explosions: “It blowed up good – real good!” was the highest praise they could offer. I’m just trying to figure out when that aesthetic actually took over.

A movie like “Expendables 2” – or this week’s “Gangster Squad” – lend credence to the theory that the mass audience would watch a movie that was nothing but two hours of fireworks, if each explosion was accompanied by blood spatters. Those kind of shoot-outs are not just a cliché in action films; they’re practically wallpaper. The shoot-’em-up scene is such a foregone conclusion that there simply is no pleasure or thrill to be derived from it.

Guns are drama’s most reductionist element. Cell phones (or their lack of signal) have become a crutch for contemporary screenwriters as a dramatic device – but guns are the all-time fallback position.

Some would say that pulling a gun ups the stakes in any scene; Chekhov noted that before movies were invented. I would argue that it’s like going all-in on one of those crazy-money poker tournaments on TV. When the gun comes out, all surprise evaporates. The writer has painted himself into a corner and there’s really only one way out: Somebody’s going to get shot.

Sure, it’s not always the somebody you expect. And sometimes the gun jams – or misfires. Or it’s out of bullets. All steps in the right direction.

But the wrong direction was bringing out a gun. It’s not the same as a knife or some other deadly (but non-gunpowder-activated) weapon. It’s the sign of a writer saying, “OK, I’m out of ideas.”

Which, of course, is the point. The studios – and, thus, the filmmakers they hire – have no interest in originality. Audiences have lost the ability to recognize or appreciate it.

So, when in doubt, shoot first and ask questions later.

Obviously, the kind of gun culture fostered in movies, the ease (and sometimes, amusement) with which life is taken – these are contributing factors to a culture that offers sudden national fame to gun-wielding mass killers, via the sensational coverage of those events. I personally don’t blame movies for the real-life gun violence; that’s the NRA’s excuse.

I’m just a movie critic who believes that guns have long since made movie-makers lazy, based on the experience of seeing a lot of movies every week. And I’m here to call for a moratorium on guns in movies until our movies get better as a result. A lot of them couldn’t get worse.

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