Milos Stehlik: Why we love guns in the movies

January 21, 2011

Produced by Milos Stehlik

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This scene in "The Great Train Robbery" shows that shoot outs were popular even as early as 1903.

This week, we asked Worldview Film Contributor Milos Stehlik of Facets Multi-media to wax philosophical on the topic of guns in the movies…

 

I tried to remember the first time I saw guns in the movies, but I couldn't do it. It's like guns have ALWAYS been there. Guns and shootouts were there as early as Edwin S, Porter's 1905 early classic film, "The Great Train Robbery”—a primitive, though brilliant precursor to the Western genre. The American Western subsequently rationalized the genocide of American Indians by elevating the image of technologically superior white men with guns—which made them such efficient killers—over the image of the so-called savages who used bows and arrows. One might as well ask, what is it exactly that the white defenders of the Empire are so actively defending in so many movies? What requires so much wholesale gun-induced bloodshed, usually of people who are NOT like the heroes in race, character, ethnicity, physical appearance, or political philosophy?

Did this inherent presence of guns in movies influence my attitude to violence? Perhaps - I hate gratuitous violence in film --- and movie violence is very often gratuitous. I just don't want to watch it. I realize many others have the opposite reaction. Watching kids with their eyes - and one assumes their minds - glued to violent video games, I can only assume they've made the transition to an alternate universe where guns don't really hurt real people, and a gun shot is just an additional shot of adrenalin in the pulse of youthful excitement.

For me, the most memorable movie gun moments don't involve a strutting John Wayne or, for that matter, Gary Cooper poised in some dusty pseudo-Western courtyard with an itchy trigger finger. What impacts me are the moments when guns are most abstract, as in the strange demolition of scorpions that is the prequel of Sam Peckinpah's "Wild Bunch," or in the Coen Brothers' first feature, "Blood Simple," in which gun violence is part of the cartoonish parade—ironic at every turn and gesture. This applies, too, to the early Quentin Tarantino movies like "Pulp Fiction" and to some of the Hong Kong action films to which it owed its provenance, in which guns become instruments of a balletic fantasy in which they might as well be pencils. The Takeshi Kitano films like "Violent Cop" are in this genre, too, but knowingly or unknowingly, they owe a lot to Sam Peckinpah, who took film to violent extremes, but intelligently, with an underpin to the ironic in a very cynical spin. Peckinpah’s statement was that violence was an innate part of man's nature, and there wasn't much to rationalize about it—like in Hollywood Westerns, in their simplistic fairy tales of good versus evil.

Guns in movies used to be exclusively reserved for testosterone-driven male characters until sometime in the 1980s when films like "La Femme Nikita" and the newer James Bond films introduced sexy women who could aim and fire with split second timing. Calendars featuring scantily-clad women with bazookas followed soon after.

This all leads me to my favorite gun imagery in film. The scene is repeated several times in the course of Dusan Makavejev's pseudo-documentary, "WR: Mysteries of the Organism." Dressed as a soldier, Tuli Kupferberg, the anarchist, poet, and co-founder of the band The Fugs, walks around Manhattan toting a toy rifle. He ends up stalking people at Lincoln Center, as he gleefully masturbated his toy rifle.

In a brief gesturee—a kind of interlude—Makavejev breaks down to its psychological essence what guns are really all about: fear and power. In the context of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, which Makavejev's film is theoretically about, guns are part of a sexually repressive authoritarian structure leading to war, dictatorships, rapes and murders-- a sick society which refuses to be made whole. In Makavejev's world, we must collectively make love, not war, because guns and violence are loved by those individuals interested in pleasuring only themselves.

In films, conflict is essential to a film's dramatic arc. But gun violence as the centerpiece of so much film seems like an expedient means of gaining command of a maximum number of eyeballs. Every filmmaker has a choice. The smart and transcendent ones, like the arch audience manipulator, Alfred Hitchcock, know that the suggestion of violence is a mechanism more powerful and enduring than a hundred thousand bullets from an automatic...