For 72 minutes, we watched in silence as children were slaughtered on screen. And when the lights came up after the first press screening of “U-July 22,” Erik Poppe’s almost unbearably harrowing real-time recreation of the 2011 massacre on Utøya island, loud jeers began to echo around the blood-red interior of the Berlinale Palast.
The rest of the room — those of us too shellshocked to make sense of what we’d seen — could appreciate the reaction, even if we didn’t necessarily share in its sentiment. It was inevitable that a contingent of viewers might feel that the movie was too soon, or that Poppe had exploited the victims of a tragedy by repurposing their deaths as the stuff of pure spectacle (one that’s all the more evil for how exciting it is to watch). Some critics later expressed concern that “U-July 22,” which never names the killer and very seldom depicts him on-camera, could even inspire copycat attacks. And even if it didn’t, why run the risk? What’s the use of a movie about a massacre? If an atrocity is unthinkable, wouldn’t it stand to reason that it must also be unfilmmable?
It had been five days since a 19-year-old had used an assault rifle to slaughter 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School, and even in Germany the story was still front-page news. It would be another three days before the President of the United States Donald J. Trump would hold a meeting at the White House to address the epidemic of gun violence that his party tacitly continues to endorse.
Applying his usual constipated wisdom to the situation, our dear leader folded his arms, stared at the floor, and responded to the latest chapter of this ongoing crisis with a line of thought that’s now older than most of the victims were who lost their lives in Parkland, Florida: “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts. And you go one further step and that’s the movies. …Maybe they have to put a rating system for that.”
A rating system? For movies!? Why haven’t we tried that before?! Of course, in the unlikely event that inventing the MPAA doesn’t magically solve everything, Trump may need to broaden his strategy. His suggestion wasn’t just another disconcerting moment in a Wagnerian opera of disconcerting moments, it was also an alarming callback for a generation of millennials who hadn’t heard that particular song in a very long while, perhaps not since they were roughly the same age as the teenagers who are currently leading this country’s fight against the NRA. We have come unstuck in time.
For those of us who remember when the likes of “Doom,” “The Matrix,” and Marilyn Manson became synonymous with scapegoating — for those of us who comprise the last generation that didn’t learn about America’s gun fetishism through elementary school lockdown drills — Trump’s emphasis on the supposed perils of pop culture was the kind of head-fake that only ’90s kids can fully understand.
Twenty years have passed since Columbine, offering us two decades of evidence that firearm homicides are primarily correlated to the quantity and availability of firearms, and yet Republicans are still eager to dust off that old deflection; it’s one of the only things they won’t allow to die in order to get their way. Even after the digital revolution should have fully defanged the idea that Western media is limited to Western audiences, blaming art remains a go-to defense mechanism for those who can’t afford to blame themselves.
Of course, the President didn’t arrive at that idea by himself; he was parroting Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, the kind of politician who starts sentences by saying: “I’m a big believer in the First Amendment and right to free speech, but….” In the wake of the Parkland shooting, here’s what Bevin had to say about violent movies:
I’m a big believer in the First Amendment and right to free speech, but there are certain things that are so graphic as it relates to violence, and things that are so pornographic on a whole another front that we allow to pass under the guise of free speech, which arguably are… But there is zero redemptive value. There is zero upside to any of this being in the public domain, let alone in the minds and hands and homes of our young people.
Zero redemptive value. Zero upside. The boos at the Berlinale were echoing across the ocean.
Bevin may be a cynical creep who sees this issue as an easy chance to assume the moral high ground, but it’s understandable why smarter people — including film critics, the most brilliant thinkers of all — might believe that screen violence spills over into the real world, even in the cases where it originated there in the first place. The potential for that is clear and undeniable. Screens derive their power from their permeability, from how images can transform their blank canvases into one-way portals. If joy and wonder can pass through it, so too can bitterness and disdain; if the movies are a machine that generates empathy, it’s easy to imagine how disastrously they could malfunction.
While the likes of Trump and Bevin are obviously just grasping at straws without an iota of specificity, it’s safe to assume that “U-July 22” is not the kind of violent movie they’re talking about. They mean “Lethal Weapon,” not “Lone Survivor.” And yet, as the number of mass shootings continues to escalate, it’s worth noting that most of today’s multiplex violence is brought to us by the latter. Thanks to the rise of superhero movies and the special effects that made it possible, the violence we see on screen has become largely unrecognizable from the violence we see in the real world.
The franchises of James Bond, John Wick, and Jason Bourne remain notable exceptions, but most contemporary action films are too cartoonish for guns — trying to shoot Captain America with an AR-15 would be an exercise in embarrassment. The think-piece factory went into overdrive when Skurge picked up his beloved machine guns at the end of “Thor: Ragnarok.” Bloodshed and valor have grown so divergent that people were apoplectic when Superman caused a ton of collateral damage in “Man of Steel.” The ontological relationship between actual and imagined carnage has never been more clear — we get off on porn because the sex is real, and we get off on movies because the violence is fake.
If you see an old-fashioned firefight these days, more often than not it’s going to be in the service of a true story. That’s especially apparent in light of the recent surge of docudramas that riff on or directly recreate events too horrifying for our imaginations to contend with on their own, an emerging sub-genre that’s defined by (but not limited to) the disquieting likes of Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” Paul Greengrass’ “United 93,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Polytechnique,” and now Erik Poppe’s “U-July 22.” Other, more traditionally romantic narratives like “Titanic,” “Only the Brave,” and Clint Eastwood’s recent “15:17 to Paris” could also be lumped into this group. Peter Berg is its patron saint. While it’s difficult to prove that movies inspire violence, there’s plenty of irrefutable evidence that violence inspires movies.
The real question is how those movies reflect our own violence back at us. The ones that harness it best and with the greatest purpose have the power to restore some terrible shape to the mass horrors we’ve negligently allowed to become abstractions. “U-July 22” is not an American product, and it would be recklessly presumptuous to assume that Norwegian audiences need the same reality check that the rest of us might, but it’s hard for someone who grew up in the shadow of Columbine to accuse Poppe of trivializing an atrocity when — after the 18th mass shooting in the first six weeks of 2018 — the President of the United States is suggesting that we deal with the problem by putting more guns in schools. On purpose. If cinema played a role in creating what Bevin calls “a culture of death,” it partially did so by convincing politicians like him that every kindergarten teacher is one training montage away from becoming Rambo.
We have lost touch with reality, and at this point there is virtually nothing more a film can do to diminish the dead, or to desensitize us to the violence that stole their lives away. No matter how ethically fraught a movie like “U-July 22” might be — no matter how nervous this critic is made by the prospect of watching Paul Greengrass’ take on the same events, which Netflix is releasing later this year — the mere act of dramatizing these massacres offers the opportunity for our bodies to catch up with our hearts. It gives us a chance to viscerally re-engage with the terror that we’re at risk of turning into white noise, to stop the news of each fresh tragedy from screaming into one ear and out the other like a siren racing down the street.
In effectively creating a simulation of what it was like to be on Utøya that day, Poppe has restored a sense of urgency to the kind of atrocity that should never have lost it in the first place. Those directly touched by the trauma don’t need to be put back into confrontation with the clear and present danger they’re forced to carry with them every day, but the rest of us — we who have the luxury of thinking about other things in the brief window between massacres, and have forgotten the awful helplessness that gun violence invites into our lives — may need help to reorient ourselves to a problem that so easily overwhelms us.
Despite what Trump and Bevin might have you believe, it’s not because of “The Matrix” or “John Wick” (or whatever the Keanu Reeves scapegoat du jour might be) that bereaved teenagers have been forced to the front lines of America’s war of attrition against radical gun fanatics. It’s because nothing changed after Sandy Hook, or San Bernardino, or Sutherland Springs, or Orlando, or Aurora, or Virginia Tech, or Fort Hood, or any of the tens of thousands of other shooting deaths that have happened in this country between the ones we all know by name. It’s because every senseless death makes the next one that much more unreal — easier to believe but harder to imagine. It’s because violence is ultimately what desensitizes us to violence. If the movies can force us to feel a horror that is all too easy to forget, well, there’s probably some redemptive value in that.