One day, film critic of tomorrow, you will be able to say you were there at the dawn of the #WOMTAY. But you will have to read until the final paragraph to know what that means.
Ann Hornaday caused a bit of an internet stir with her column in Sunday’s Washington Post in which, among other things, she wrote that Isla Vista murder suspect Elliot Rodger suffered from delusions which “were inflated, if not created, by the entertainment industry he grew up in.” Hornaday writes for my hometown paper and is prominent on several local and national media outlets, so I have more knowledge about her than I have about most film critics. I find that I disagree with her opinions fairly often, but that she is generally smart and articulate.
Therefore, I assume she knows full well that there is a world of difference between “inflated” and “created,” and that she chose the latter verb carefully. I agree that movies can inflate and influence. I have a much harder time believing they create actions that were not already largely formed by myriad other personal and societal factors. Seth Rogen, singled out by Hornaday as a representative of the type of actor who appears in such dangerously influential movies, took great offence at her conclusion. His responsive tweets will most likely keep this issue alive for a few days and keep both their names in the blogosphere, a reality to which I am currently contributing. So I will do my best to refrain from mentioning either again.
It seems to me that Hollywood has gone through great convolutions to make us believe that it bears no responsibility for anything beyond providing hard working Americans with some good old fun – clean or filthy depending on a well-regulated ratings system. It’s as if Oscar Wilde – who once said “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book” – were running the PR Department of AMPAS. Twenty years ago, in what would appear to be a direct admission that movies can in fact influence behaviour, Disney deleted a scene from The Program when a young man copied the scene’s action (lying down in the middle of a busy road) and was killed. I don’t recall anyone arguing back in 1993 that among the tens of thousands of other young men who saw The Program prior to the excision, none were reported to have died from lying down in the middle of a busy road.
Here’s one problem with blaming Hollywood for societal tragedy: we have no reliable control group. As much as we may try to look at other time periods or other cultures for guidance, there are too many variables to adequately predict how our behaviour would be different if Hollywood were churning out positive, life-affirming messages. Our memories of simpler and more innocent times are almost always contaminated by the vagaries of imperfect memory. After all, the ‘50s in America – before all the sex and violence and foul language – were indeed a wonderful time. Provided you were white, Christian, and male. And not handicapped or gay or mentally disturbed or drug-addicted. Is it possible that for every tragedy that has been inspired to some degree by modern film culture there are other potential tragedies that have been averted by the cathartic experience of watching Hostel (2005)? We will never know the answer to that.
The one thing I will agree with Hornaday on, even though she didn’t really say it, is that Hollywood does a terrible job of displaying the aftermath of dangerous behaviour. Precious few movies detail the horrors that follow a gun death or the potential destructiveness of unsafe sex. In a recent comedy by a previously-referenced actor (who I have promised not to name anymore), a good-looking, utterly irresponsible young man makes numerous disastrous choices and ends up with a pretty cool job at the end. I found that little plot development far more objectionable than the easy access to sex which this young man had (upon which the critic who I will not be naming anymore, seemed to base more of her argument).
Here’s another problem: who gets to decide which films “create” this dangerous behaviour? AMC’s Tim Dirks put up a list of 100 controversial movies and asked readers to vote on the ones that were “most shocking.” In the top 20 alone, there were movies by Pasolini, Aronofsky, Stone, Hitchcock and two from Stanley Kubrick. There were also examples of pornography and cheap exploitation (Cannibal Holocaust currently holds the second position). I might agree that the world would be a better place without Faces of Death (at number 15) but I certainly would not wipe it from existence at the expense of Freaks (currently number 17.) We take for granted that we live in a society where we can see a wide range of movies. Hollywood is largely correct in arguing that we determine what gets made by supporting or failing to support certain films. The solution to the problem – if indeed, you believe there is a problem – is the same as the solution to every other problem we currently face. Education. An educated populace is the only thing that will move us in a more positive direction. A populace that is trained in nuanced thinking, that is taught how to respect but question, that is exposed to a variety of political philosophies and artistic styles. That is how we end up demanding a higher caliber of film.
I suspect Hornaday (all right, I named her – sue me) would argue that this is all she set out to do in her essay. To educate her readers about a problematic by-product of Hollywood films circa 2014. Nowhere in her article does she call for any form of censorship. She is merely pointing out what she sees as a dangerous trend. I’m afraid her decision to use the phrase “created by” will result in the opposite of her intention (unless you are one of those cynical types who believe her entire intention was to raise her Q rating). I think she overreached and has allowed for reasonable backlash.
Watching this unfold has led me to my own decision. Harold Rosenberg, in his essay Pop Culture, Kitsch Criticism, suggests that those who would write seriously about mass culture phenomena, even if they are largely critical of it, are doing a disservice to real artistic endeavour by sucking up precious oxygen that the more serious arts desperately need. Rosenberg could be quite the snob. But I am finally coming around to his point of view on this. If Hornaday genuinely thought that Neighbors was representative of films dangerous enough to create the tragic lunacy of Elliot Rodger, perhaps she should have denied it oxygen. Perhaps ignoring it, and writing extra pieces about Ken Loach’s Family Life (1971) or Tim McCann’s Revolution #9 (2001) would be a better way to educate her readers about mental illness and movies. I realise that Hornaday’s job is to review movies and her bosses at the Post might take issue with her failing to write reviews for the latest big-name release. Besides, one of the only joys a film critic actually gets in life is to write a really bad review. So maybe if you can be as funny as Dorothy Parker describing Katharine Hepburn as running the gamut of emotions from A to B or Roger Ebert saying that watching his own colonoscopy on TV was more entertaining than watching The Brown Bunny (2003), you get a pass. Otherwise, I suggest a new acronym – WOMTAY – so that all critics can technically submit a review to their employers. “Waste of my time and yours.” We may still have to watch them, but at least this will save us the trouble of dissection, allowing for more productive pursuits. As in: Need for Speed: #WOMTAY. Now I can fix that leaking toilet.
I will try to refrain from reviewing WOMTAY movies in the future. I suggest you all jump on the bandwagon.