It’s a guilty pleasure, I’ll admit it. Whenever the movie “Die Hard” comes on, I’m drawn to it like an insurance executive to a collateralized debt obligation. It’s inane, puerile, decadent, and socially useless. It’s also seamless, clever, and a ridiculous amount of stupid fun.
When the German master thief Hans Gruber, played by the extraordinary, now deceased British actor Alan Rickman, tells one of his henchmen to fire another missile at an armored police car, it’s perversely delicious.
“Hit it again!” he orders with a sneer. The missile man flips up his portable shoulder launched rocket, aims it carefully and three seconds later…kaboom!
I can’t help but smile appreciatively.
What happens when a less adolescent exposition shows missiles—or arrows, or artillery, or big rocks from trebuchets, or plain old fashioned clenched fists— headed at other, less cartoonish targets? After a while, I wonder if we can separate cartoons from real world catastrophes. Speaking objectively, none of those incoming assaults are going to do any good for the recipients. Sure, we’re supposed to believe the recipients are bad, but what good does doing bad things to bad people do? Think about that; it’s not a rhetorical question.
Clearly, there are logical, legitimate answers. For centuries there has been a uniformly understood logic that bad deeds deserve some sort of punishment. At it’s darkest, that punishment gets styled as revenge. Dressed in more academic robes, it’s called appropriate justice. With some reflection, one begins to wonder if there’s something else going on.
Violence has always been entertainment, and it’s sophomoric to pretend this isn’t true. Lately it’s as if violence has become the dominant form of entertainment, rising above all others. When not presented overtly, violence often gets portrayed by proxy, with comic or athletic or financial scenarios standing in for a good physical thumping.
Die Hard and it’s thousands of analogues appeals because the shattered glass and evil deeds done by the baddies makes us delight in teaching them a lesson. When the bad guys smash things up, we can pretend to tut-tut at their fell ways, even as we vicariously can’t wait to see how innovative and effective their destructive plans may be. The same goes when we root for the good guys to show us their mettle and come back to the fight as potential victors, tougher-than-ever. We feel justified to kick some, bust some, get some.
The question needs to be asked: do we find this entertaining because it’s a reflection of how we walk in the real world? The sheer creativity that filmmakers and TV producers deploy when they choreograph all of the fictional mayhem we consume seems to draw it’s power from real world dramas that steer our institutions and hierarchies. The United States is beginning to show serious cracks in what the Declaration of Independence proposed, namely that we “…pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Companies are not especially loyal to their employees anymore, nor are employees particularly loyal to their employers. Social bonds that were once held in singular regard are becoming more and more fungible, essentially weakening our barriers, opening fissures to wrenching emotional distress. Civility in its many forms, intimate, local, national, and international have suffered, and conflict, refracted into economic and legal and social forms, has become more and more ordinary in our daily syntax.
Therefore, we cheer when the Gruber says “Hit it again!” because it gives us a vicarious thrill. The missile makes a big, fiery splash—a private, quick hit of adrenaline for us— and it acts as a good justification for another fiery splash, coming in the form of what we declare to be a legitimate response.
Art always presents thought experiments: for feelings, for circumstances, for experiences, and for implications. I’m not saying that Die Hard (for example) is a work of art (cut me a little slack, k?) but I am lumping it into the overall category of creative effort, to which art—an admittedly big term— also subscribes.
One wonders, however, if all of these thought experiments start to make us apply these attitudes outside of our mental laboratories more easily. We may not turn to rocket launchers and Molotov cocktails, but it’s hard not to see how our endless traffic in conflict entertainment affects how we regard ordinary interactions. If we’ve developed a taste for swordplay, embezzlement, car crashes, and terrorists doing massively destructive things just for fun, wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that related strategies didn’t at least come to mind when real life presented challenges?
To be clear, I’m not proposing a TeleTubbie alternative. I usually struggle to respect banal presentations, regardless of idiom. I generally don’t even like watching sitcoms designed simply to elicit mild chortles before viewers call call it a suburban night. (Although when I begin to think about the overall banalities of suburban life, I find my blood pressure starting to rise…) Trivialization and saccharine sentiment do not define constructive—or even interesting— aesthetics. But more and more I worry about cultures that treats conflict and violence as the building blocks for a fun afternoon with the family. It’s strange enough to pursue violent entertainments in a group. What are the challenges of soaking in it alone in the basement with nothing else to do on a Saturday night?
In the real world each gunshot, fist bash, car crash, and rocket smash would result in blinding pain for someone else. Those distresses are not usually things media consumers experience in their normal lives. Actors give us mimed winces and groans to tell us they’ve been hurt. But reality says that when a car drives through the front window of a local diner and bank robbers tumble out of the wreckage shooting, someone’s family business just got destroyed. The people inside the diner—fictional perhaps, but real in the context of the narrative— experience a horrifying story to mark their lives, and the culture has another justification to let retributive bullets fly as a normal part of an ordinary Tuesday.
The concern is that violence in its many forms becomes more and more normal the more we make it normal when we’re looking to unwind. It’s inevitable that lying, deceit, power politics, self interest, greed, xenophobia, and, ultimately, physical violence begin to make more sense.
It’s a long time debate: does creativity reflect culture or does culture shape creativity? It should be obvious that that the two are inseparable, like roots and leaves on a tree each fully dependent and influential on the other.
But everyday our civic institutions erode further. People who once might have simply disagreed are now having trouble speaking to each other, even superficially. People share more data now than ever before but know each other less intimately. People walk around on edge. People walk around angry. People walk around spoiling for a fight.
Are you looking at me?