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Did Movies Help Push Elliot Rodger Over the Edge?

Did Movies Help Push Elliot Rodger Over the Edge?

He shot it at magic hour.

By the time I got around to watching Elliot Rodger’s seven-minute video manifesto, two days after he killed six people and wounded 13 more on a hate-fueled rampage in Isla Vista, CA, I’d already been exposed to samples of his toxic rhetoric online: His grandiose talk of “a day of retribution,” of himself as “the superior one, the true alpha male,” his plan to “slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut” he could find. (The Los Angeles Times has a transcript of his words for those who can’t stomach the actual video.) So what struck me was not the content of his message — which, for better or worse, I’d already absorbed — but its form.

The son of a photographer with several second-unit and assistant director credits on his resume, Elliot Rodger appeared to have chosen what cinematographers call “magic hour” as the moment to shoot video, the setting sun coloring his face the electric orange of a C.S.I.: Miami episode. It’s a tricky thing bringing fiction into play when discussing a real-life tragedy, but it’s clear Rodger conceived his video, if not the murders that followed it, as a performance. He addresses his imagined audience directly, jabbing his finger at the lens for added emphasis, and peppers his speech with a convictionless maniacal laugh that could have been cribbed from Chris Cooper’s character in The Muppets. Unlike Seung-Hi Cho, who taped his own statement before murdering 32 people and wounding 17 at Virginia Tech in 2007, Rodger doesn’t seem like he’s about to snap. His anger seems strangely affectless, like an off-the-shelf emotion poured into a bottomless void, his personality as if it was assembled from spare p. He looks nervously over his shoulder several times, as if worried he’ll be caught, and his apparently unscripted rant circles back over itself several times, as if he’s drawing from a limited stock of suitably theatrical phrases. 

Many of those phrases, it quickly emerged, were taken from the online writings of so-called “men’s rights activists,” or MRAs, and at least one (“mountains of skulls and rivers of blood”) from a character in World of Warcraft. In the Washington Post, film critic Ann Hornaday suggested another source: the male-oriented fantasies of Hollywood movies” “If our cinematic grammar is one of violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger — thanks to male studio executives who green-light projects according to their own pathetic predilections — no one should be surprised when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large,” she wrote.

Hornaday, however, picked some strange examples to prove her point about violence and macho swagger: the romantic comedies and bromances of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen: 

How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like “Neighbors” and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of “sex and fun and pleasure”? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, “It’s not fair”?

Not surprisingly, both took offense and fired back on Twitter, where they have more than three million combined followers:

It’s only fair to point out that in Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” Rogen’s “shlubby arrested adolescent” only “gets the girl” after a concerted effort to push himself into adulthood, and that Hornaday’s own two-star review of “Neighbors” found nothing to offend beyond anatomical crudity and slack construction. She might sooner have targeted the “gentle and unfailingly compassionate” “About Time,” in which Domnhall Gleeson’s time-traveling character revisits pivotal moments in his relationship with Rachel McAdams until he happens on just the right combination of moves to force her to fall in love with him.

Several commenters were quick to liken Hornaday’s essay to blaming violent video games or Marilyn Manson’s music for the Columbine massacre, with the (not-so-)subtext being that both are equally ridiculous. But if you believe that art has the possibility to influence people for good — and if you don’t, it is difficult to justify devoting your professional life to writing about it — you have to believe the inverse is possible as well. But over the course of the many years I’ve spent writing and thinking about film, I’ve come to the conclusion that, with rare exceptions, its influence in either direction is extraordinarily limited, and that it has far more to do with the audience than the film itself. All a film can do is push a viewer a few inches towards the cliff. If those happen to be the last few inches — if the film’s message is one the viewer is already primed to hear — the effect can be profound, but it’s the drop, and not the push, that makes the difference.

Did Elliot Rodger watch Judd Apatow movies? I’m not aware of any evidence that he did. But it hardly matters. As Hornaday points out, he grew up in a culture where men feel entitled to women, where a young man who, by his own account, rarely spoke to people of the opposite sex can nonetheless describe himself as “the perfect guy,” and therefore conclude that his inability to lose his virginity is a sign of the world’s sickness and not his own. We are all part of that culture, not just the Hollywood executives whose “pathetic predilections” Hornaday blames for those macho fantasies’ existence, but the moviegoers who make them a financial success, over and over and over again. For all its supposed liberalism, the movie industry is far more reactive than it is progressive; if people stopped showing up to those movies, the industry would, eventually, stop making them.

The problem with targeting these toxic fantasies as part of Elliot Rodger’s motivation is that it means taking him at his word, believing that although he was unstable enough to gruesomely murder four men and two women, he was nonetheless clearheaded enough to articulate his reasons for doing so honestly. Some reports describe Rodger exhibiting signs of mental instability as far back as the first grade, when his parents divorced; others single out the privilege of social class, or the sense of displacement he may have felt from being mixed-race — and, as always, the easy access to firearms played an undeniable role. But no matter how you do the math, none of it adds up to what he did on Friday night. 

Perhaps solving the twisted equation that was Elliot Rodger isn’t the point. Part of the strength of the #YesAllWomen thread that flooded social media in the days after the murders was that it shifted the discussion from the undeniably extreme case of the Isla Vista shootings to the tragically common experience of everyday misogyny. (One graphic that passed through my feed pointed out that domestic violence has claimed more lives since 9/11 than all the wars and acts of terrorism combined.) Elliot Rodger killed those people, not a movie or a video game or a men’s-rights Subreddit. But any one one of those things might have pushed him closer to taking action, some with greater force than others. We can’t control how many potential Elliot Rodgers there are out there, although a more enlightened attitude towards mental healthcare and better educated law enforcement might help identify them before it’s too late. But we can be alert for the signals, large and small, that allow them to flourish, and try to foster culture that pushes them away from the cliff rather than inching ever closer to the drop.

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