In the wake of the horrific shooting that occurred almost two weeks ago at a multiplex in Aurora, Colorado during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Bros. made several last-minute cuts to their upcoming period action film Gangster Squad. The scene in question, which was featured prominently in the now-removed first US trailer and can be seen very briefly in this international trailer, depicted a bevy of gangsters or cops (as the original scene is difficult to find, I don’t recall) shooting bullets from tommyguns through the back of a movie screen. Reportedly, this scene is rather instrumental to the film’s plot, so several very late-in-the-game re-shoots will take place to allow the film to make sense without the now-controversial scene in question. This resulted in the film’s release date being pushed back from September 7, 2012 to January 11, 2013.
Altering films and their advertising campaigns has become common practice in recent Hollywood. After the Colorado shooting, many ads for The Dark Knight Rises that focus on the film’s violent moments were removed from the airwaves. This weekend’s The Watch, which opened to middling box office and mostly negative reviews, had its title and advertising campaign altered from the original Neighborhood Watch after the shooting of unarmed minor Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman in Florida this spring. Several movies also incurred changes, delays, and alternative ad campaigns after 9/11.
In public relations terms, such changes are typically framed as a gesture of sensitivity to the victims’ families. I’m sure the executives at Warner Bros. and other studios were just as shocked and devastated as any sane and empathetic person would be in response to these events. However, when looking at the patterns that have developed around the ways Hollywood movies have been altered in response to real-life tragedies, it’s abundantly clear that “sensitivity” is hardly the primary reason that these changes take place. Instead, studios seem to fear that the specter of real life will interfere with the paid-for experience of manufactured fantasy. In other words, real-life tragedy potentially reduces the entertainment value – and thus the commercial intake – of ostensibly “escapist” Hollywood products.
The Business of Escapism
Much of the discussion about the changes recently applied to Gangster Squad has focused on the politics of institutionalized censorship, making the point that no art should be subject to it. While the term “art” here is applied correctly in the sense that movies possess artistic freedom protected by the 1st Amendment (a result of a 1952 Supreme Court case that all but abolished the Hays Code), in practice today’s Hollywood movies are often more commerce than they are art.
Many Hollywood executives come from business backgrounds. They see themselves as CEOs, not curators. The dollar, for them, is the bottom line. Creative freedom for the people they hire (including the relatively green Ruben Fleischer) is a matter of risk management, not artistic integrity. In short, one thing you likely won’t hear sitting in on board meetings at any of the Big Five are discussions of cinema’s value as the seventh art, nor will you see most with the power of the green light showing up at the New Beverly for a restoration screening of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
I’m certainly not writing an apologia here for the Hollywood CEOs of the world, nor am I saying this is the way Hollywood has always been and always will be. Any fan of movies knows the mainstream creative well has been much fuller in the past than it is today. Warner’s big mistake in this situation is not mistaking art for commerce – after all, these are people whose job is to turn something resembling art into a product. The great mistake here is the logic that studios have the power to control and regulate the escapist value of mainstream entertainment. Warner’s miscalculation is in attempting to convince us that movies like Gangster Squad can’t resonate outside of explicit human intention.
Warner’s hasty reaction in the wake of the Aurora shootings points to one of the central conundrums governing Hollywood’s logic: Hollywood films are often (though not always) poised as an escape from everyday life, as a fantasy that breaks one from routine; but Hollywood must also build its fictions from real life – from relatable human emotions, interactions, and incidents – in order to manifest this fantasy and render it appealing. So, in a sense, Hollywood eschews reality just as it borrows from it. And this practice runs perfectly smoothly as long as big-budget filmmaking functions with a sense of control over its reality/fantasy symbiosis.
But when the reverse occurs, when reality seems to too closely resemble to the fantasy of a Hollywood movie, or when real-life events are coincidentally reflected in fictional narratives, “control” reveals itself to be the trap door it really is.
Tragedy and the Myth of Escape
Hollywood attempts to mitigate the development of any potential association between tragedy and the escapist potential of their product on the macro scale. Gangster Squad, The Dark Knight Rises, The Watch, and post-9/11 releases like Zoolander and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man all encountered alterations because of a tragedy that made itself to the national scale and persisted through more than one news cycle.
But when one considers the potential range of responses a viewer can experience on the micro scale, in terms of encountering the shadow of personal instead of national tragedy at the “escapist” movie theater, the real futility inherent in Hollywood’s efforts to make their products possess no resonance becomes clear.
Almost nine years ago, I attended a screening of Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World with my brother and my father. At the theater, we encountered a family friend whose son had committed suicide about three months prior. At some point in the film, a supporting character that has endured the taunts of the rest of the ship’s crew commits suicide by jumping into the sea with a weighty object. After the film, my dad shook his head, lamenting the fact that the family friend, still no doubt reeling over the sudden loss of his son, had to be confronted with the reality of suicide once again at the movie theater.
My father and I had no idea how the friend actually reacted to the film, or if the portrayal of suicide in a film about early 19th century seamen (an era and a way of life that few can relate to) had any additional resonance to the reality of a child taking his own life. The family friend may have rather seen a different movie. But if it did affect him, what exactly could have prevented him from having such an encounter? In addition to ratings and rating justifications, should we as audiences be forewarned of any potential negative resonance with our own life experience when we encounter fiction?
I admire my father’s empathy and sensitivity displayed to this family friend, and I share it; but the presumption within this initial reaction is not only that Hollywood has some sort of responsibility to shield us from experience, from tragedy, but that Hollywood is meant to be solely escapist. Many Hollywood films are escapist, but the idea that they are meant to be anything essentially, and can sustain that intention through any potential circumstance or context, is a frivolous rejection of the vast scope of human experience and its deep emotional complexities. Put simply, there are as many ways to take in a movie as there are people who see it.
Escapism is not always the goal of Hollywood, even when it wants to be. Don’t get me wrong. Escapism can be vital, escapism can be a necessary value. But escapism can never be a guarantee. In this way, the pastime of going to the movies can always carry an emotional risk.
The very scene cut from Gangster Squad illustrates the porous relationship between Hollywood cinema and reality as a stark metaphor. In the scene, the events outside the screen have a direct consequence to the events in the movie theater. Art reflecting life, even the most awful parts of life, is routine; life is art’s soil. Even before the events of Aurora, the scene that Warners cut hardly existed outside the realm of possibility. After all, celebrity gangster John Dillinger was killed by police outside a movie theater after seeing Manhattan Melodrama, a gangster film.
I’m not saying Warner should have kept the scene or kept the release date. To be honest, I don’t really care. For me, altering the as-yet-unreleased Gangster Squad doesn’t rank high on the list of crimes committed towards art, nor does it pose some sort of slippery slope threat to the depiction of violence in Hollywood cinema; stylized violence will continue to be represented without mitigation despite the events in Aurora, including in many of the scenes of Gangster Squad that don’t take place in a movie theater. And sometimes self-censorship can be an incredible act of humility and necessary decorum in tragic times.
What does bother me is the fact that, when studios make decisions like this, whether it’s digitally obscuring the Twin Towers shot in pre-9/11 productions of post-9/11 releases as if they never existed or changing the title of a Ben Stiller comedy to distract from the reality that some people violently abuse absurdly limited positions of power, Hollywood is effectively telling you that nothing they depict and create has any bearing on actual, lived life. They’re tacitly claiming that the acts of violence and atrocity we witness in fiction have no influence on the way we comprehend varied degrees of atrocity represented in our newspapers and, sometimes, our lives.
Decisions like the edit of Gangster Squad prove that Hollywood wishes for a distinction between reality and fiction that doesn’t actually exist; paradoxically, Hollywood’s existence actually thrives on life’s interdeterminance with art. Yet studios would prefer that you leave your life experiences, your emotional vulnerability, and your awareness of the fragility of existence at the door, for that might entail thinking about the representation of death in entertainment as somehow meaningful and even consequential rather than a temporary diversion.
This is Hollywood’s most offensive (and pervasive) fiction.