Jello Biafra, singer of the Dead Kennedys, once asked (and I’m paraphrasing here) which was responsible for more deaths: music or “”Top Gun”? The implication wasn’t that music or a movie killed anyone directly. It was that a movie, which was very pro military, caused people to enlist, which in turn led to their untimely deaths, and music doesn’t have that kind of track record. I think he has a point.
In mass media studies there is something called the hypodermic needle theory. It states that messages in mass media have an immediate, direct and powerful effect upon the intended audience. Hitler’s Germany and the “”War of the Worlds” radio broadcast are often used as examples. I believe the theory is more than a little flawed, though people who believe movies lead to violence obviously feel otherwise. The hypodermic needle theory is wrong simply because there are those who don’t buy every message the media puts forth, but there is some grain of truth to the theory that does warrant examination.
There is a certain segment of society that is very susceptible to messages it gets from outside sources. Usually this segment will only act out in positive ways (such as seeing a patriotic film and feeling the need to enlist in the military), but a smaller portion will often act in a negative way due to some sort of mental illness. Positive actions usually win out over negative behavior, however, simply because people like to think they are doing good and not everyone has mental problems. (And those who have problems are usually going to act in negative ways without any kind of catalyst from motion pictures.) That’s why people get compelled to save energy after watching “”An Inconvenient Truth,” but not stalk co-eds after seeing “”Black Christmas.” In turn, that makes movies with a positive message far more dangerous than violent films. Why? The military and government.
It’s no secret that the U.S. government and the military have their hands in the Hollywood cookie jar. The public relations industry became what it is thanks to the military and the government. Movies are just one tool they use, but they are a very effective tool. Get young people cheering Tom Cruise in the Air Force, and you’ll most likely see some sort of rise in recruitment numbers. The military knows this, which is why it grants certain filmmakers access that isn’t available to someone like Michael Moore. If the only thing that comes out of that access is a pro military film that does a nice bit of business, so be it. If, on the other hand, it resonates with people and they enlist — score. If those people happen to die while serving, so be it. Eventually there will be others to take their place.
That’s why positive messages in film can not only be misleading but also dangerous. They lull people into a false sense of security and give them a deluded sense of hope. When people act on those feelings they may find themselves in a situation quite unlike what they saw on film, and that can be a real eye opener. I’m not saying all people are blind sheep, but when you realize that only five percent of the population is what is known as “”leader material,” that leaves 95% who may be wide open to propaganda.
If someone sees “”Carrie” and kills her mother, the media will trot out all sorts of experts who will blame the movie, look to assign responsibility (both moral and criminal) and basically slam the state of horror films. If someone who enlisted because of some military film dies in combat, nobody ever questions the intent of movies like “”Top Gun” and “”Black Hawk Down” (not a pro military movie in the most obvious sense, but it does have a slant). The subject is never broached, and that’s a mistake. Yes, it’s shocking and a shame if someone imitates a movie and kills someone, but what if they are inspired by a movie to get killed? Where is the outcry there?
I’m not calling for censorship of films or even for the government to keep its hands out of Hollywood. It’s up to viewers to be smarter. I know that’s a tall order, but that’s the only way propaganda can be eradicated. If we were smarter, we wouldn’t blame movies for crimes, and we wouldn’t fall for jingoism, but we do both and we need to work on that.
Biafra’s point was right on. It made sense, and it bears some examination. If we as a society want to make filmmakers responsible for deaths, we can’t morally assign some deaths less weight than others. Death is death. If a movie gets someone killed, it shouldn’t matter what the movie’s subject matter was. On the other hand, if we want to hold people responsible for their own actions, we have to start coming to terms with the fact that propaganda is used by the government, that movies really shouldn’t be rated by some clandestine board, and people should be able to watch what they want to watch. I want to live in a more responsible society, not one that assigns blame to easy targets and scapegoats; I want accountability to responsibility, not arbitrary finger pointing.
So go rent “”Iron Eagle.” Just don’t get yourself killed afterward.
Posted on June 13, 2007 in Blogs by Excess Hollywood
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