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Originally published May 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 25, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Commentary

How films reflect, create the cruelty of our culture

We are living in a mean season — in our movies, in our music, in our television shows, in our politics — and it shows no signs of ebbing.

The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J

In the film "28 Weeks Later," the world is devastated by a rage plague, an infectious virus that turns normally peaceable people into rampaging berserkers. It is billed as science fiction.

But that doesn't mean it isn't true.

You can't find the culprit with a microscope; you can't fight it with a vaccine. But we are living in a mean season — in our movies, in our music, in our television shows, in our politics — and it shows no signs of ebbing. The anger is epidemic.

Americans share no common culture but pop culture, and it's there you see the rage most clearly. A new genre of horror movies — dubbed "torture porn" by its critics — revels in gore for gore's sake. Television dramas wallow in violence; reality shows thrive on public humiliation and rejection.

Radio hosts like Don Imus traffic in personal invective and ethnic insults. Rappers heap abuse on gays and reduce women to crudely caricatured objects. The blogosphere is full of "flame wars," endless explosions of attacks and take-no-prisoner shout-downs.

If art is meant to hold a mirror up to nature, then the mass-media face of America is flushed and wide-eyed and contorted into an endless scream.

Pop historians like to divide our national life into decades, and then assign each an easy, explains-it-all emotion. And so the '60s mean rebellion; the '70s, introspection; the '80s, consumerism.

Sometimes, though, it's more tempting to stand with Kevin Spacey in "Se7en," and see our modern national history as a long series of Deadly Sins.

Labeling each decade

What better explains the '60s than Gluttony — for new sensations, for new pleasures, for the addicting adrenaline rush of excess? The '70s is nothing more than a retreat into Pride, and endless self-absorption; the '80s years of Gordon Gekko and trickle-down economics are simple Greed.

And now we have surrendered to the sin of Wrath.

There are causes for it everywhere, depending on where you want to look. A conservative might tie our outbursts to a world that emphasizes shallow secularism over spirituality. A liberal might find the seeds of rage in our powerlessness over our own lives. Others might point to a rushed and overcrowded culture that rarely gives us room to turn around or a simple chance to breathe.

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And all of them would be right.

But whatever the dominant cause, we are living in a nation of altercation, a culture that encourages anger, prizes conflict, depersonalizes pain and delights in other people's distress. It is no longer enough that our stories show the good triumphing. Now the evil have to suffer too, slowly. Or better yet — just to be safe, just to make certain — make everyone suffer. Just let us watch.

Look at your big-screen TV, if you dare, where the Sopranos have replaced the Huxtables as America's favorite family, and top cop shows like "CSI" detail the dehumanizing particulars of crime scenes. Even upbeat reality programs depend on humiliation and spite. We watched and wondered what awful thing Omarosa would do next, how cruelly Simon would evaluate Sanjaya's latest hairstyle. Reality shows give us a safe space in which we can feel superior to others. They traffic in public ridicule.

Way out of bounds

It's a culture of insults and name-calling that crowd the public airwaves and our political discourse. Imus was loudly, and rightly, vilified for his offensive remarks about the Rutgers basketball players. But his real error was in clumsily touching the third rail of race; equal-opportunity invective is now part of the job. Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michael Moore and Al Franken all deal in hysteric hyperbole and personal invective; a recent Indiana University study of Bill O'Reilly's TV show tallied a derogatory statement every 6.8 seconds.

There are no debates, just shouting matches, and the angriest person wins.

The Web was, naively, once expected to provide a corrective to all that; it would be communication without prejudices, information without borders. Ironically, it often only increases our isolation. After all, a newspaper is in some ways an accidental delivery system; turning a page exposes us to any number of unexpected ideas. But search engines allow us to read only what we want, to seek out opinions we already share; they make it easy for us to reinforce our worst suspicions and stoke our longest simmering disgruntlements.

And to shout down, from behind the safety of a pseudonym, anyone who dares disagree.

You can see even more of this meanness in our movies. Once, hard-core horror freaks only talked about "snuff films," those apocryphal records of real-life torture and murder. Now studios rush to copy them, as each new shocker tries to outdo the last in realistic gore. "Saw" featured self-mutilation. "Turistas" had a scene of vivisection. A remake of "The Hitcher" had its hero torn literally in two.

Making a statement

Sometimes, the movies — as in "28 Weeks Later," a sequel to 2003's sadly prescient "28 Days Later" — have something to say about modern society. Sometimes the movies say something unconsciously. "Turistas," "Hostel," "The Descent," "Vacancy" — and recent remakes of "The Hitcher," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Hills Have Eyes" — all begin with their main characters far from home, and suddenly beset by savage strangers. They preach fear of the other in a post-Sept. 11 world. Better stay home, they warn. Better lock your doors.

But whether the movies have a political point of view or a reflexive paranoia, whether they aim for art or merely a fast buck, they focus on pain and revenge to an almost clinical extreme.

Once, this was trash cinema, midnight drive-in horrors like "Blood Feast" or "2000 Maniacs." Now it's just more slick studio product. Once, the story of a pretty woman, abducted and abused, would be a "nudie roughie," made for the raincoat crowd. Now it's called "Captivity," directed by the auteur of "The Killing Fields," queasily reminiscent of the "bind-torture-kill" slayings and released next month after a major ad campaign.

The meanness has gone mainstream.

It's not just in horror films, either. Reality comedies, from "Borat" to "Jackass," depend on people willfully (and occasionally, not so willfully) degrading themselves for our pleasure; thrillers like "Sin City" and "300" feature graphic scenes of castration and mass murder. Even arty imports, from "Baise-moi" to "Irreversible," turn on plots of rape and revenge, all presented in unflinching and sometimes nauseating detail.

It's everywhere

No genre is safe. "Black Book," a World War II drama, covers its heroine in excrement; "Shooter," an action thriller, ends with vigilante executions; even "John Tucker Must Die," a tween film, reveled in get-even ridicule. Once, historical epics lingered on the spectacle of ancient civilizations; Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" dwelled, predictably, on human sacrifice. Whatever the movie, rage sells.

The gore of modern horror movies, the callousness of TV crime dramas, the humiliation of reality shows, the insults and bombast of radio shows and bloggers — it may seem like a grab-bag of different troubles. But it's really one trouble. It's really just seeing other people as unworthy of the same rights and respect as ourselves, as fit subjects for contempt and cruelty. It is, very simply, learning to see others as something less.

And once we've accomplished that, all manner of horrors are possible.

The debate over the link between cold art and cruel behavior is not new.

Movies have become increasingly violent for years — and have been increasingly blamed for real-life violence. Videos of "A Clockwork Orange" were withdrawn from circulation in Britain after one seemed to inspire a copycat crime; when it seemed to inspire imitators, "Natural Born Killers" was sued, unsuccessfully, under product-liability statutes. John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan after becoming obsessed with "Taxi Driver"; the Columbine killers were said to model themselves after Neo in "The Matrix."

More recently, even international cinema came under scrutiny when the Virginia Tech killer sent his rambling "manifesto" to NBC News. One photograph of him holding a hammer seemed to mimic a similar scene in the Korean thriller "Oldboy"; others had him brandishing guns in each hand, like a John Woo hero. (That the killer, and his supposed inspirations, were Asian even added a bit of xenophobia to the mix.)

More than merely mean

It's provided fodder for editorials and radio-show rants and endless blog entries. But our new, mass-media meanness isn't just about violence but about cruelty, callousness and simple incivility. And blaming it for our own real-life troubles is willfully, dangerously beside the point.

Of course, art influences behavior. If it doesn't, no artist would bother. All art — whether it's Picasso's "Guernica" or a Lifetime TV weepie — can make an audience think about their own lives in a different way, and maybe even vow to change. But art is not the sole cause of behavior — if it was, then there would have been no murders before the printing of the first crime thriller, no rapes until the first pornographic film.

Nor does art affect us in predictable ways. Generations of young Americans read "The Catcher in the Rye" and saw a story of adolescent alienation; one person read it, and saw a call to kill John Lennon. Should the book be banned as a result? Should we ban the Koran, because it's been used to inspire terrorism and justify oppression? The Bible, because it's been cited in support of slavery and witch hunts?

Censorship is not the answer. Neither is squeamishness.

All art is a product of the time it's created in, and reflects that time whether it wants to or not, even if it attempts to escape it by hiding in fantasy. (Tolkien's "Rings" cycle may be set in Middle-earth, but it was born from the horrors of his service in World War I.) If we have TV shows that feature torture, and movies that feature beheadings — well, there is plenty of news footage of that happening in real-life too, lately. All art is a mirror.

But that doesn't mean it has to be a funhouse mirror, distorting the world to only show one side of it. That doesn't mean artists don't have a real responsibility to reflect the whole of life.

That's what art can do, but that's all that art can do. Our movies and TV shows and pop songs haven't caused this mean age. They only reflect one part of it. And if it's ever going to change, the shift has to come not from our stars, but from ourselves.

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