When violence is right and good and silly
In Call of Duty: Black Ops II, plot is optional, shooting essential
THE OTHER DAY I made the mistake of engaging a teenage male in conversation while he was playing the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops II. He was blasting away at helmeted soldiers in a landscape that looked like a bombed-out Los Angeles.
I asked him what his character was doing. “I’m shooting those guys,” he said. “Yes I see,” I said, “but who are they? What’s your mission?” He replied: “I don’t know, I just have to shoot them. I’m in multiplayer” (which means he’s linked via the internet to other enthusiasts around the world).
Most of the people you see getting shot deserve it.
I pressed on: “What side are you on? Isn’t there a back story, like aliens or zombies or invading Russians?” His reply: “Probably, but I don’t care about that stuff at the moment. It’s not about goodies and baddies. I just need to kill these guys as fast as I can.”
Micky's a reason for the gunplay in Gangster Squad
That conversation stayed in my mind last week when I went to see Django Unchained and Gangster Squad, two films which have become entangled in the US debate about gun control – along with games like Call of Duty. The gun lobby argues that governments would save more lives by restricting access to violent entertainment than by restricting access to automatic weapons. The argument seems to be that movies and games brainwash people into wanting to commit mass murder, while guns are mere tools (so people should be able to buy weapons when they wish but be required to undergo background checks on sanity and criminal record before buying video games or movie tickets.)
There’s no doubt that Django Unchained and Gangster Squad are violent. Both end with mass slaughters that look very similar to scenes in Call of Duty – blood splashing everywhere, bodies crashing to the ground and twitching pathetically. And that’s after two hours of bashings, floggings, burnings and stabbings.
But in these films, the violence has a narrative context – it fits logically within the story -- and a moral context – it is justified by the need to rid the planet of monsters. Most of the people you see getting shot deserve it. The innocent victims are obliged to suffer so we understand that the villains are beyond redemption.
Calvin's a reason for the gunplay in Django Unchained
Django Unchained is a black revenge fantasy (just as Quentin Tarantino’s last picture, Inglourious Basterds, was a Jewish revenge fantasy). Gangster Squad is an honest cop’s revenge fantasy.
And both films make it clear you’re not meant to take them seriously. In effect, Tarantino keeps telling us: “Don’t worry, it’s only a movie”. He’ll follow a scene of sickening brutality with a scene of ridiculous hilarity -- like the Ku Klux Klan arguing about the quality of their headgear.
Both films want you to notice references to earlier films. Django starts like Blazing Saddles, with splashy red titles, a chain gang and frequent use of the word “nigger”. The tone is set by a deliberately dumb theme song (“Django! Have you always been alone? Django! Have you never loved again? Django! you must face another day. Django! Now your love has gone away."), while Blazing Saddles starts with “He rode a blazing saddle, he wore a shining star, His job to offer battle, to bad men near and far.”
Emma Stone as Jessica Rabbit in Gangster Squad
If Django is a mashup of Blazing Saddles, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and a hundred westerns from the 1950s, Gangster Squad is a mashup of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the Untouchables and 100 noirs from the 1950s. The trick is to keep the audience enthralled in the narrative while letting them appreciate the style. Given the level of abstraction required, it’s hard to see how either film could encourage viewers to go around shooting people.
But making a believable drama that is simultaneously an elegant parody is a thankless task. Recently The New York Times described one of the movies above as “genre zombie-ism: the hysterical, brainless animation of dead clichés reduced to purposeless, compulsive killing. Too self-serious to succeed as pastiche, it has no reason for being beyond the parasitic urge to feed on the memories of other, better movies.”
You could easily say that about Django Unchained, but in fact that was about Gangster Squad. Its director, Ruben Fleischer fell off the tightrope. Tarantino, according to The New York Times, completed the walk successfully.
Where does all this leave Call of Duty: Black Ops II? It is certainly not intended as genre parody. It turns out to have a complex back story that jumps between the final years of the Cold War in the 1980s and a future Cold War between America and China in 2025.
But as far as I can make out, it has no moral core. Taking itself seriously, without goodies and baddies, without right and wrong, and without a sense of justice, it ends up supplying ammunition, if you’ll pardon the term, to the gun lobby.
To discuss violence as entertainment, go to Comments.
You have just read the Who We Are column, by David Dale. It appears in printed form every Sunday in The Sun-Herald, and also as a blog on this website, where it welcomes your comments. David Dale teaches communications at UTS, Sydney. He is the author of The Little Book of Australia -- A snapshot of who we are (Allen and Unwin). For daily updates on Australian attitudes, bookmark The Tribal Mind.