It’s a rare moment when a San Francisco Chronicle Columnist finds common ground with the executive director of the National Rifle Association.
That happened this month when Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle put out a call to stanch the flow of cinema carnage. Wayne LaPierre of the NRA made a similar appeal just weeks before. Both were responding to the Dec. 14 massacre of school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
To be sure, LaSalle isn’t endorsing the NRA’s position whole hog. He still thinks fewer people would shoot each other if there were fewer guns available, a proposition that’s anathema to LaPierre.
And LaSalle isn't calling for censorship. In two books, he lamented the era from 1934 to 1968 when Hollywood studios voluntarily submitted their films to the Production Code Administration for approval.
But LaSalle had this to say in his Jan. 2 essay:
The interaction between real-life and movies is complicated. Some will claim that movies influence behavior, even as producers will invariably insist that movies only reflect society, as though movies were some unobtrusive aspect of culture, unnoticed by the world.
The truth is that movies and society influence each other in ways that overlap and are therefore arguable. But clearly something seems to be going on, and something is in need of changing.
LaSalle said he had an "epiphany" after a gunman, by some accounts dressed as a Batman villain, sprayed bullets at an audience for the film “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., last July...
When I saw it at an advance screening, I regarded it as a wallow in nonstop cruelty and destruction, a film that was antilife. But when I wrote the review, I said none of those things, which I considered to be too subjective and personal, and instead concentrated on objective aspects of the movie that I deemed deficient, and I gave it a middling-to-negative review.
Then came the events in that movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and suddenly my own writing about this film seemed to me limp and inadequate - no, flat-out pathetic. It's not that "The Dark Knight Rises" directly caused a maniac to start killing people in a movie theater; obviously, it didn't. But it did seem to me that the soul-crushing chaos of the film - ultimately reflected in what happened in Aurora - warranted a response that it never got.
Does this mean critics should pass moral judgment on films?
“A critic should not end up saying ‘this film offended me,’” LaSalle told me. “Because to say films are good or bad to the extent they comport with my value system is to become useless as a critic. But just because you don’t want to do that doesn’t mean you can’t say that this movie is anti-life. To ignore that 'The Dark Knight Rises' is an ugly, nihilistic vision is not to sidestep a moral judgment, it’s to sidestep making something clear that’s essential to how that movie functions.”
LaSalle said that out of 300 to 350 emails, perhaps seven or eight have disagreed with his essay, which appeared in multiple newspapers around the country.
“So many emails have said ‘you’re so brave,’ but the fact of the matter is that it wasn’t brave because everybody agreed with it."
LaSalle said he’d like to see more pressure put on the Motion Picture Association of America, the trade association for the movie business that rates its own films. He said the association should use violence as a much more important criterion in imposing ratings.
Specifically he wants one act of violence in a movie to result in an R rating, just as sex triggers that rating now. “All I’m doing here is saying that guns should be considered as dangerous as nipples.”
LaSalle seems to have scientific research on his side, with multiple studies correlating violence in the media to violence in real life. "The evidence is now clear and convincing: media violence is 1 of the causal factors of real-life violence and aggression," the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded in a 2009 policy statement.
Likewise the International Society for Research on Aggression concluded that the rating system for movies and other media needs to be improved.
I called the Motion Picture Association for a reaction to LaSalle's suggestion, but the director of communications said it would have no comment. That was the response I got from Warner Bros. as well.
Vice president Joseph Biden did a little better – he met with some of the heads of major studios along with television producers and theater owners on Thursday, after which the organizations put out a joint statement:
"The entertainment community appreciates being included in the dialogue around the Administration's efforts to confront the complex challenge of gun violence in America. This industry has a longstanding commitment to provide parents the tools necessary to make the right viewing decisions for their families. We welcome the opportunity to share that history and look forward to doing our part to seek meaningful solutions."
But any attempt to impose new restrictions on the media will face opposition. David Horowitz of the Media Coalition, which works for free expression for the industry, told National Public Radio that the government has no role in tamping down the violence in movies, songs or video games.
"The discretion is left to the consumer to decide what he or she thinks is appropriate for him or herself or, in the case of a parent, for a child," he said. He noted the violence in such classic works of literature as the Iliad and even the Bible.
The U.S. Supreme Court has taken a similar position, as when it struck down a state law sponsored by California Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, that would have restricted children's access to violent video games.
LaSalle himself thinks Hollywood will shrug off any attempt to stifle the mayhem on screen.
“Absolutely nothing will happen,” he said. “For the MPAA to change its ratings will cost millions and millions of dollars. Fewer movies like 'Jack Reacher' would be made, or they would have to be made differently. Even if we organized, let’s say, and went to Washington and had a great meeting with everybody, we would not get what we wanted.”
Meetings like the one Biden held on Thursday have taken place in the past, said LaSalle. Typically the studios invite the activists to Hollywood, introduce them to some stars, and promise to review their ratings system, but warn that changes will take a few months. The activists go home and trumpet their success, he said. Months later when the activists realize that nothing has changed, they are too embarrassed to admit their failure.
So what’s LaSalle’s solution?
He’d like to see prominent politicians take a stand, not only introducing gun control legislation but also calling for less violence in films.
Actual legislation would be too much – LaSalle doesn’t want to see the government get into the business of editing movies – but he thinks a firm suggestion might help.
I called the office of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She has been the foremost advocate of gun control in the U.S. Senate, and I wanted to know if she had any plans to speak out on movie violence as well.
Her spokesperson said she she’d call me back. I'll let you know if that happens.