Weinstein, Tarantino and the standoff over movie violence

The mogul showed courage in breaking Hollywood's code of silence -- but what do we know about movie violence?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published February 1, 2014 7:30PM (EST)

Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel in "Reservoir Dogs"        (Miramax Films)
Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel in "Reservoir Dogs" (Miramax Films)

Last week, while most people in the film industry were trickling home from Sundance, Harvey Weinstein went on CNN with Piers Morgan and vowed to back away from making ultraviolent movies. There are plenty of unflattering things one could say about Weinstein, and no shortage of people in the movie world who fear or dislike him — especially in Oscar season, given his Sauron-like powers to bend academy voters to his will. But trust me on this: The guy’s not cynical. Weinstein is passionate about the movies, about his company, and about the people and political causes he supports. Much of his success in reshaping the landscape of American cinema over the last 30 years stems from this fundamental sincerity. He’s made bad movies and good ones, hits and flops, and pushed them all into the marketplace with single-minded determination. But he’s never tried to sell something he didn’t believe in.

So it’s no good dismissing Weinstein’s comments about media violence as some kind of short-term, self-interested marketing ploy. (There’s always an element of self-promotion at work with Harvey; we’ll get to that.) He's the guy who turned Quentin Tarantino into a cultural icon and has supported his career from "Reservoir Dogs" to "Django Unchained," and has clearly begun to ask himself whether he made extreme violence hip. I think he can relax about that one, because that was going to happen with or without him. But I found myself strangely moved by what Weinstein said and how he said it, not because I entirely agree but because it reflected our profound cultural confusion around this question.

I guarantee you that Weinstein has thought about this long and hard, and understood that he would take incoming fire from all sides of the culture wars. I also believe that he’s had numerous conversations with other Hollywood studio heads and producers, who may share his concerns but don’t want to talk about it, before deciding that his unique status as the avatar of independent film allowed him to go out front on this issue and take the heat. However you choose to interpret them, Weinstein’s comments marked a startling breach in Hollywood’s long-standing code of silence on this issue.

So before we get to the mixed feelings, the footnotes and asterisks, and the heavy scrim of doubt, moral posturing and ideological murk that surrounds the relationship between pretend violence and real violence, I want to start by applauding Harvey Weinstein for his courage. (There’s a first time for everything!) He went out there on TV in front of millions of people and voiced a sentiment that might be incoherent but that most of us share, in this peculiar era when violent crime overall has declined but spectacular mass shootings, on the Sandy Hook or Aurora model, are either more frequent or more prominent. I have no better way to put it than this, speaking as a critic with a high tolerance -- maybe even a preference! -- for carnage, amorality and unhappy endings: The unprecedented level of graphic violence in contemporary entertainment, however it gets explained or framed or bracketed, does not seem healthy.

Weinstein, who is a longtime liberal Democrat and supporter of gun control, partly went on CNN to talk about a proposed film called “The Senator’s Wife,” a Frank Capra-style Beltway drama starring Meryl Streep that will apparently take on the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association. Morgan observed that gun-rights advocates might accuse Weinstein of hypocrisy, given the money he’s made making, distributing and promoting violent films, especially Tarantino's. Weinstein clearly knew this was coming: “They have a point. You have to look in the mirror, too. I have to choose movies that aren’t violent, or as violent as they used to be. I know for me personally, you know, I can’t continue to do that. The change starts here. It has already. For me, I can’t do it. I can’t make one movie and say, ‘This is what I want for my kids,’ and then just go out and be a hypocrite.”

That's startlingly candid talk, especially compared to Tarantino's infamous interview on British TV last year, when he seemed conspicuously rattled by questions about the effects of violent entertainment in the real world. Mind you, now that I’ve praised Weinstein I’ll walk it right back, and not just because “The Senator’s Wife” sounds dismal. Right after the remarks above, Weinstein added that he’d be happy to make a piece of jingoistic war propaganda like the Mark Wahlberg hit “Lone Survivor,” which wraps its celebration of death in red, white and blue. I understand the distinction he was trying to draw between a war movie that draws on actual events and a violent spectacle in the Tarantino mode, drenched with irony and cinematic allusion. Or rather, I understand that he was trying to mollify conservative viewers a little (not that it worked). In fact, “Lone Survivor” is just as much a masturbatory fantasy as “Django Unchained,” just with a different audience in mind.

But even Weinstein’s befuddlement strikes me as honest, at least in the sense that he’s reflecting the fact that no one really understands the whole question of media violence and its relationship (if any) to actual violence. We feel as if something's wrong, or might be wrong, but don't know what it is. Despite decades of research, social scientists have done no better than the vague idea that media violence is a "risk factor for increased aggression," which may or may not correlate to actual behavior. In the words of Texas A&M psychologist Christopher Ferguson, “If you are curious whether media violence contributes to violent crime, the simple answer to that is we really don’t know.”

Since Ferguson is viewed by some researchers as overly friendly to the entertainment industry, let’s turn to the “Report of the Media Violence Commission,” an extensive 2012 meta-research project co-authored by a dozen prominent psychologists. That report has been interpreted as forcefully supporting the long-standing claims of the psychiatric, psychological and pediatric establishments that media violence causes tangible and measurable harm. Yet it strikes a note of almost hilarious caution in its final paragraph: “One conclusion appears clear — extreme conclusions are to be avoided.” Duly noted, guys! Depends what the meaning of "is" is. Well, thanks for all your hard work.

We also don’t understand the public’s apparently unquenchable appetite for media violence, which strikes me as a more profound and important question. Indeed, to speak of the "effects" of media violence as if it were a phenomenon that existed independent of anyone's desire or marketplace demand seems to argue that popular culture is a one-way process dictated from on high, rather than a continuous feedback loop. Harvey Weinstein and everybody else in the entertainment industry wouldn’t have kept ramping up the violence in movies and TV shows and video games if the public didn’t like it and respond to it. And let’s be clear that no reputable 21st-century social scientist would try to claim that violence seen on screen leads directly to acts of violence in the real world. The only people who say that are pro-gun zealots seeking a scapegoat.

These analogies don’t entirely fit, but I suspect most of us feel about media violence roughly the way we feel about hamburgers or whiskey: Moderate doses probably aren’t harmful, and may even have salubrious effects. But too much is too much, and it’s hard to tell where that dividing line lies. As with discussions about fast food, alcohol or drugs, it’s easy to slip into a class-divided discourse where we express concern about the effects on others, while believing ourselves to be immune. Children or poor people or the unsophisticated rubes in fly-over country need to be protected from “Grand Theft Auto” and “Zero Dark Thirty” and KFC Extra Crispy and Sudafed, because they can’t be trusted to make good decisions or draw the right conclusions. You and I, of course, are different.

Except that we aren’t. When dealing with the shadowy question of how much media violence is too much, and whether it’s contributing to the perceived epidemic of mass-shooting incidents, we’re all operating in a zone of preconceived notions, faulty analogies and unscientific intuition. (“This is what I want for my kids,” as Weinstein put it.) Most of what we think we know about media violence is wrong, but that really isn’t surprising, since most of what we think we know about real violence is wrong too.

I’ve written about this issue numerous times, and commenters pretty much fall into two groups: 1) Of course media violence is corrupting the minds of youth, coarsening society and leading to horrific levels of uncontrolled brutality and gun violence. It’s obvious! 2) Violent media has been with us forever! Haven’t you read “Macbeth” and the Book of Genesis? Scolds, grouches and moralizers have been trying to censor it since Plato, but media violence satisfies a universal appetite, is probably therapeutic and is absolutely awesome.

Those things can’t both be true. But they can both be false, as is almost every other piece of received wisdom about violence in America. Many people who soak in cable-news hysteria evidently believe that our society is becoming more violent and gun crimes more common, but the opposite is true. Crime hysteria may be near an all-time high, but actual murder rates in the United States have fallen dramatically over the past 20 to 25 years, to the point where they’re at roughly the same level as in 1960, often viewed in the rear-view mirror (incorrectly) as a time of relative innocence and social harmony.

Meanwhile, that same three-decade period has seen both an extraordinary explosion of violent media and a massive incursion of the media into American private life — first the fabled 500 channels of cable TV, then the Internet and video game consoles, and then smartphones and other mobile devices. Doesn’t that support the arguments of outliers like libertarian scholar Jib Fowles, who suggests that violent entertainment is actually socially beneficial? Or the related case made by the Bible-Shakespeare contingent, who say that violent media has always been with us, and bears no relationship to real-world violence?

Not really, or at least not entirely. Entertainment is a vastly more pervasive force in modern technological society than it’s ever been before, and has taken an entirely new form as well. You can’t compare an era when the average person spends multiple hours consuming media every day, literally or effectively isolated from society, to an era when people went to see a play a few times a year, in a public place where they were surrounded by a crowd of friends, neighbors and strangers.

And while there’s no clear evidence that mass shootings of the Sandy Hook variety have actually increased in recent years, they definitely haven’t decreased either. A USA Today survey identified a steady average of 29 incidents a year since 2006, with an average annual toll of 147 victims. (The numbers for 2013 were 30 incidents with 137 deaths.) Set against a climate of generally declining rates of violent crime, then, mass shootings stand out more, and also attract disproportionate media attention. Correlation is not causation, as your statistics professor told you, but I personally find that combination troubling and suggestive: a media-saturated, largely passive and increasingly solitary populace, dosed with large amounts of symbolic and highly realistic violence, and a climate of generally low and declining crime rates punctuated with spectacular outbreaks of carnage.

As many of you will have noticed, I haven’t mentioned the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to violent crime in America, and the focus of Harvey Weinstein’s proposed Meryl Streep movie. We’re a society awash in guns, that has abandoned any serious efforts to control them on a national scale. Americans own an estimated 89 firearms per 100 citizens, nearly double the rate of the next-highest Western nation, which is Switzerland. (No. 2 worldwide is Yemen, ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, with 55 guns per 100 people.) We also have the highest murder rate of any major industrialized nation, by far, and for many years liberals who support gun control have treated those facts as interlinked and inextricable.

That’s a logical and natural conclusion, but also one sociologists and statisticians have a devil of a time pinning down. As pro-gun activists and NRA members will gleefully tell you, crime has continued to go down in America even as the number of privately owned guns has steadily increased. They’ll go on to claim that crime has decreased the most sharply in states with the most lenient “concealed-carry” laws (in other words, where ordinary citizens are most likely to be packing heat). That’s not an especially robust argument, since crime has also gone down in states that strictly regulate guns. But it's fair to say that all the new guns in America have not driven violence and murder to new highs, as many liberals might have expected, and that the statistical correlation between high rates of gun ownership and gun homicide is not entirely clear.

Indeed, the available evidence confounds people on all sides, and the overall picture is perplexing: Gun manufacturing and gun sales have exploded in the United States over the last few years (since the election of a known Kenyan Muslim as president, perhaps), yet by most measurements gun violence has reached its lowest level since at least 1981. Acts of spectacular symbolic violence can be viewed by anyone, 24/7, on a plethora of electronic devices that were unknown and unimagined a generation ago. This has not led to an increase in violent crime, but it may have had other less visible effects, including possibly or plausibly fueling spectacular violent acts by a handful of disturbed individuals.

Since we can’t even agree whether guns cause violence, there’s little hope of parsing the marginal and theoretical role that might be played by movies, TV and video games. It’s not like the heads of the major studios — who really do thrive on empty, meaningless and violent spectacle, the cinematic equivalent of fast food — are rushing out to support Weinstein’s cautious mea culpa. He's one of the only people in Hollywood who can afford to say this stuff: Subtract his partnership with Tarantino, and Weinstein has made very few violent films over the years. He’s better known for inspirational, upbeat and even anodyne fare, from “Shakespeare in Love” to this year’s “Philomena” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” (If anybody accused “The English Patient” or "The King's Speech" of causing school shootings, I didn’t hear about it.)

It’s almost touching to discover that Hollywood’s most ruthless salesman, all on his own, is trying to launch the “national conversation” about media violence that President Obama promised we would have after Sandy Hook. The rest of us immediately understood that was all bullshit, an illusory gravity dispensed by politicians, designed to make us feel better about something terrible we didn't understand. Harvey took it seriously.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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