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The following column has been rated PG (Preaching Galore).
I didn't see Natural Born Killers, but I heard the soundtrack. Even without the visual images, I felt like I'd been worked over with a sledgehammer: screaming music, gunshots, curses. I admit to having had little desire to see the film even before being blindsided by the soundtrack; now you couldn't pay me to see it.
Lots of people did, though. Some even thought it was one of the best movies they'd ever seen. I do not doubt that there was loads of artistic merit packed in with the violence. Oliver Stone is a very talented man.
Still, I wonder if we're not reaching a time when artistic skill must be matched with a minimum dose of responsibility. We live in a very violent society, one in which every passing day seems to bring a new atrocity, previously unthinkable.
As if eleven year-olds being killed weren't bad enough, now we have eleven-year olds doing the killing. Stone's movie, intended as a satire on that culture of violence, has quickly become part of that culture. As a Newsweek reviewer, put it, "Stone hasn't figured out how to make a movie about the estheticizing of violence without fetishizing it himself."
But what is the harm? It's just good clean fun, right? Wrong. Movies like Stone's latest take away part of our capacity to be shocked. They flood the viewer with the most graphic scenes possible, and nothing is left to the imagination. You walk out less able to muster up horror at the world around you. We need that ability, and badly.
Study after study has shown the desensitizing effect that visual violence has. It came home to me in a different way. Watching the news with my dad, a bloody scene accompanied a story on Rwanda. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him cringe.
Now as you may guess, I have seen less than the normal ration of today's violent movies, but I've seen enough. To me the television scene was tame in comparison, to my father (who has seen none of the violence-packed movies) it was gruesome. He retains the capacity to be shocked; I've lost some of mine.
It is that outrage at violence that will be a catalyst for any real change in this country. All the tough words of politicians aside, government can't do everything about the violent nature of society. The country needs shocked and outraged citizens.
There is little sense raging at Oliver Stone and his gore-splattered cohorts in Hollywood. They, for all their pretense, are business-people first. As long as we sop up the violence, they'll dish it out.
Natural Born Killers would have been unacceptable thirty years ago. You don't have to be romantic for the fifties to wonder whether that's really progress.
Sentiments like this generally fall on deaf ears in our generation, and especially here at Harvard. There is a laissez-faire attitude about national culture. It is something that happens, in this view, not something to be changed.
Then there are another breed, the armchair nihilists. They like their mayhem packaged in movies and VCR tapes. They watch them, Nietzsche on their bookshelves, secure from the effects of a culture of violence.
So when the next kill-fest arrives at area theatres (it won't be long. I'm sure), think twice before shelling out your eight bucks. We are not "natural born killers," and we're not naturally apathetic about violence--it takes training. Do you really want that training?
David L. Bosco's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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