Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Things they can never make movies about


Any time an event of a certain magnitude -- good or bad -- occurs in our world, the clock starts ticking to how soon a movie will be made about it.

When it's an event we're proud of, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, a movie (Zero Dark Thirty) comes out the very next year. (It's worth noting that ZDT was already being made as a different kind of movie about bin Laden, but real-world events changed its thrust.) When it's something that scars our national psyche forever, such as 9/11, it takes five years (the first 9/11 movies hit theaters in 2006).

Either way, the conventional wisdom is that a movie will materialize sooner or later.

But I don't know if we're ever going to see a movie about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Simply put, there's too little value -- morally, cinematically, and certainly not for our entertainment -- to be gained from going over these events again.

I was talking with my wife about the events over the weekend, as often as we could bare to talk about them, and I proclaimed that this may be the most morally reprehensible event of my lifetime.

That's obviously an over-simplification on some level, and it ignores the fact that the shooter, whose name I will never contribute to mentioning in print, was very likely disturbed beyond the ability for us to attribute his actions to any moral value judgments he was capable of making. It's also a claim anyone who had family in the World Trade Center might argue with. And that's only staying within the United States, not considering the countless atrocities that have occurred in other countries.

But since I've already brought 9/11 into this discussion, let's go there for a minute. We can (and have) cursed the names of anyone and everyone involved in the planning of that terrorist attack that shook the very filament of our beings. But no member of Al Qaeda could have done what that man did on Friday. No fundamentalist Muslim could have walked up to a room full of 6- and 7-year-olds and systematically killed them. That could just be because it requires a certain brazen "courage," so to speak, to stare in the face of a child and assassinate him/her without blinking. If you want to look at Al Qaeda in the most negative possible light that the organization most certainly deserves, you could say that they were too cowardly to confront their victims face to face -- that they could only kill them through the intermediary of an airplane. It takes absolute disregard for the sanctity and purity of life in its most innocent forms to do what that shooter did on Friday, even if he was nowhere near in his right mind.

And even though 9/11 killed more than 100 times as many people as were killed in Newtown on Friday, I would say that a good 99 percent of them were adults. Yeah, there may have been a daycare at the World Trade Center -- in fact, I think there was. But that accounted for a very small percentage of those who were killed, and you might say those deaths were "unavoidable" for the agenda the terrorist group was trying to carry out. And that's the big difference here as well -- Al Qaeda had an agenda. Whether we agreed with it or not, Al Qaeda had a specific outcome it was trying to achieve and a specific notion of how to achieve it. Their plan targeted adult citizens of a country they considered to be their enemy. There's an odd kind of morality about that when contrasted with what happened on Friday. 

We make movies about tragic events because we think there's something we can learn from them, because we need to be reminded about the importance of not overlooking warnings signs for these tragic events repeating themselves. And for sure, it will always be good to remind ourselves how the failure to control our access to guns, and our failure to have adequate services to help the mentally ill, both played a role in the atrocity carried about by He Who Shall Not Be Named on Friday.

But dramatizing tragic events requires recreating them on the screen in some way, and that is just not a viable option with something like the Sandy Hook shooting. It would go without saying that you could not show actual children on screen being shot. But even introducing us to 20 little kids, with their precious smiles and their boundless energy, and then killing them off-screen, is too much. Even introducing us to one little kid, and then killing him or her off-screen, is too much for us to handle.

Because it requires us to confront the single most disturbing thing about this incident, the thing that can't escape our imaginations no matter how hard we try: the actual moment of their deaths. The actual moment when a small child -- paralyzed by fear, face blurred with tears, crying hysterically -- succumbed to the bullet that ended his or her life. We can't help but think where the bullet entered the child's body, how it must have looked, how it must have been experienced by the other people who witnessed it and survived. And with the number of children who were killed on Friday, at least some of them must have died in gruesome ways, ways that would prevent open caskets at their funerals. If we imagine them all as little angels who died quickly and cleanly from entry wounds that didn't exceed the size of the bullet, we know we are lying to ourselves.

And if we don't introduce these children as characters in this theoretical movie that will never happen, then they really are just faceless victims -- a fate we do not want to bestow on them, no matter what we do. 

For some reason I have always been haunted by the death of Phil Hartman. And the reason is that I can imagine the scene in my head: Hartman pleading to his crazed wife in the moments before she shot him, trying to convince her in any way possible not to do what she was contemplating doing. And failing. And being shot in the face.

I don't imagine other murders like this, often because I don't know the victims of murders as well as I "knew" Hartman. It's easy not to imagine the particulars of many murders, because we don't know the people involved and don't know what they looked like. This is a blessing. If we spent all our time dwelling on the horrible particulars of murders, the horrors of this world would overwhelm us.

But with 20 elementary school children, we don't have to know them or what they looked like to imagine them dying. And there's no way for our minds to engage in our normal coping mechanisms, which tell us that maybe they were bad people who deserved it, or maybe at least they were ugly. No, we know these were innocent, beautiful little children, too young to have sinned, too young to have started to reflect the ugliness of the world in their own faces.

I am so grateful that I will never see this movie.

9 comments:

Travis McClain said...

As a storyteller (of sorts), I think there are other ways of exploring this tragedy in film than recreating the attack itself.

The real question isn't how such a film could be made, but whether it should. We've seen movies about various tragedies over the years and most of them fall into either sensationalist exploitation or the sort of emotional processing of an adolescent - reductive and clumsy, determined to find the "moral of the story".

I'm reluctant to say that this or any other tragedy should be "off limits" outright because on some basic level, the elements do exist for proper storytelling. I'm equally reluctant to say that offhand, I could name a single example of tasteful, thoughtful film-making inspired by such an event.

Vancetastic said...

Travis, did you see United 93? If so, I'd be curious whether that met your standard for tasteful/thoughtful. I found the film brilliant. Its documentary style removed it from the realm of the sensational (some actual air traffic controllers from that day played themselves in the film), and the only thing that could be deemed less than tasteful is if you balk at the idea of a movie, any movie, about 9/11. I found the movie to have a visceral emotional impact while celebrating the true heroism that undoubtedly occurred on that doomed plane.

Travis McClain said...

No, I haven't seen it. In point of fact, I've yet to see any 9/11 movies so far. Some of it has been conscious avoidance, and some of it has just been my standard slowness about getting around to seeing specific movies.

I wish I could offer an example offhand of an inspired-by-real-life-tragedy movie that I have seen, but I can't name a single one right now.

But suppose for a moment that a Sandy Hook film was made in the same vain as United 93. Would that be more palatable for you?

Vancetastic said...

I suppose I would see it. But that's just because I tend to gravitate toward the more extreme and unusual things out there. There is nothing I will consciously avoid, nothing that I think will be too disturbing for me. I would even like to get my hands on A Serbian Film, though obstacles like the difficulty of actually getting it will probably keep me from seeing it for awhile.

I guess if one were to make a movie about Sandy Hook, there would be no way a studio would finance it UNLESS it had been done in the most tasteful manner possible. But here's the reason why United 93 works, and I'm not spoiling anything about it by telling you this because you know the actual history. The fact that the passengers of that flight succeeded in taking it down DOES give you the catharsis you need in a movie like this, a reason to feel hope about the capabilities of human beings. Unless there's a Sandy Hook chapter that has yet to be written, I don't know how you can have that kind of cathartic ending just from the teachers who used ruses to save their children's lives. The rest of the tragedy is so overwhelmingly sad that it's difficult to find the silver linings needed to give you that crucial sense of hope.

Vancetastic said...

Oh, and, I'm sure you've seen Titanic. ;-)

Travis McClain said...

"Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire."

That's the line from the Torah that Spielberg used as the tagline for Schindler's List, and for good reason. Perhaps part of the issue for you is that we have yet to find any catharsis. There's been no analog to the liberation of Auschwitz. Just grief.

I remember that line of Stalin's: "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic." Just from a storytelling perspective, that presents the issue of distilling mass tragedy to an intimate enough level that we can connect with, and invest in, the "character" on screen.

Perhaps, also, the answer lies in not making a film about Sandy Hook specifically, but rather a sort of composite of the various school shootings.

I don't know. It's not like anyone is asking me for ideas of how to develop a screen story from all this. I don't think I'd want any part of it even if they did. I probably wouldn't even go see the movie if it was made.

Vancetastic said...

I guess on some level I am struggling with the extremity of it. There have been a number of movies that have dealt with the issue of school shootings, most notably Gus Van Sant's Elephant, which I did not like. However, I didn't question the fact that you could make that movie, because at least the victims were all 14 years old and older. Still babies in the grand scheme of things, but enough like adults that their deaths don't have quite the same gut punch that the deaths of six-year-olds have. Even at the age of 14 there are these preliminary (uncharitable though they may be) arguments you could make that some of the victims might have "deserved it" -- in the sense that maybe they were bullies or in other ways kind of poisonous people. (I'm being a bit simplistic to make a point.) But six-year-olds? Never.

I also think that humans allow themselves a bit of a lurid fascination with high school shootings that they would not allow with an elementary school shooting. The drama of the tragedy is something they can embrace a little more with high schoolers. The deaths of 17-year-olds are tragic without rocking us to our very core and questioning the very nature of evil. I don't mean to be simplistic but I'm sure you follow what I'm trying to say. And on that basic level, you can at least sell tickets to a movie about a high school shooting, because the victims are old enough that their deaths do not leave us feeling physically sick. Devastated, but not like we want to vomit out of rage, sorrow and an inability to understand.

Comment hurried as I try to leave work ...

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