Abbot Genser
Stephen King
October 08, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Stephen King on violence at the movies

In the movie of the same name, it’s what the main character (played by Viggo Mortensen) turns out to have. It’s also true of American movies in general, which were in love with the knife and gun long before James Cagney (although the act of violence Cagney is probably best remembered for is the one he commits with a grapefruit). The discussion of how much all this make-believe bloodshed has influenced American behavior — not to mention the distrustful way in which Americans view the world — started long before Cagney used Mae Clarke’s nose as a juice squeezer. It’s a question worth mulling over, it seems to me…although I must mull quickly, because I have tickets to a showing of Jodie Foster’s new movie, The Brave One. This is the film New York Times critic A.O. Scott summed up as ”a pro-lynching movie that even liberals can love.”

Do I have my own history of violence? Yep. In my novels the body count is usually high, and in two of them — The Stand and Cell — I managed to wipe out almost the entire population of Planet Earth. In one book (Firestarter), a guy is persuaded to stick his hand into a whirring InSinkErator. In another (Cujo), a little boy dies of heat prostration after being menaced for days by a rabid dog while stuck in the family car (a Pinto, of course; Yugos had not yet been invented). In my own defense, I can point out that I have also written heartwarming books where people return from the dead. Usually to eat the living, it’s true, but surely that is a quibble — a miracle is a miracle.

I am joking, but it’s nervous joking, the kind analogous to whistling past the graveyard. Although the morality of violent entertainment is currently no more than a warm-button issue (possibly because no American politician has been assassinated lately), it still floats to the surface of the newspaper op-ed pages with fair regularity. Sort of like a drowning victim that won’t stay on the bottom.

It deserves to keep coming up. And to be discussed, especially in a world where the upcoming Saw flick — which, according to no less a source than Fangoria magazine, is the bloodiest yet — can be released with only minimal furor. Certainly my own lifelong bloodlust puzzles and sometimes disgusts me.

NEXT PAGE: I don’t know why movies like The Brave One should appeal to me and so many others. I can only hope they serve as a mental gutter through which our worst fears and impulses are channeled safely out of our emotional systems”

Freedom-of-speech folks — they come from both ends of the political spectrum — say it’s a violent world, and movies that decline to comment on that sad fact are bad art. They will also point out that very few people who see films like Death Sentence — a movie I liked a lot — feel compelled to take the law into their own hands.

The bad-art argument and the majority-rules argument are strong, but they come with this ironic fact: Both are extremely close to the arguments NRA gun nuts use when supporting the idea that owning a semiautomatic weapon is perfectly sensible (perfect for home defense, and you can use them to rid your lawn of those pesky woodchucks). Both free-speech advocates and gun nuts agree that it’s a violent world. The gun owners also point out that most people handle weapons carefully and responsibly. Defenders of violent entertainments can (and do) make the same claim. I haven’t yet seen this bumper sticker — YOU WILL TAKE AWAY MY BLOODTHIRSTY DVD’S ONLY WHEN YOU PRY THEM FROM MY COLD DEAD FINGERS — but it’s probably just a matter of time; after all, if gore is outlawed, only outlaws will have gore.

What, if anything, are we going to do about it? Given this country’s legislative history, most likely nothing. But we might make a start by admitting that yes, violent films on occasion do influence certain unstable people. (Like, say…John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan in order to impress…you guessed it…Jodie Foster.) Some minds — dangerous minds — are like dry tinder. The right act of violence in the wrong R-rated movie can be all the spark such an individual needs. Of course, it also helps to live in a country where handguns are plentiful; Cho Seung-Hui, the lunatic who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, is a case in point.

I don’t know why movies like The Brave One (even the title suggests tacit approval) should appeal to me and so many others. I can only hope they serve as a mental gutter through which our worst fears and impulses are channeled safely out of our emotional systems. The Greek word is catharsis, and I have used it many times to justify my own violent creations, but I have never entirely trusted it.

I do know that shoot-’em-ups (and saw-’em-ups) are likely to remain part of our lives, and that suggests a depressing idea: Maybe the love of violence is an integral part of human nature, undivorceable from our better selves. If so, it will continue to be a large part of our future entertainments as well as our history.

Discuss it among yourselves on the message board below. As for me…showtime in 40 minutes. I have to go see if Jodie Foster can kick some bad-guy ass.

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