Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gleiberman's article in EW on Pop Culture and The Dissipation of Empathy

NathanC posted a link to an Owen Gleiberman editorial on the Entertainment Weekly website in which Gleiberman, a longtime film critic/ reviewer for EW discusses his perceptions of the obsessions of pop culture and how they come back in mutated form in incidents like the one in Aurora, Colorado.

It's not a huge secret around our house that I don't hold Gleiberman's taste in very high regard, and you can pretty much count on his befuddlement when it comes to genre pictures (Jamie has had a subscription to EW since around 1995, so we've had opportunity to discuss the man's writing).

I won't say I don't echo some of Gleiberman's thoughts, but the more I thought about the article and it's constant accusations, backtracking on the accusations with a "I'm just saying" statement - the more I found it a bit disturbing.

I encourage you to pop over and read the article on your own.  It's free.

Let me clear the decks first and roll my eyes at Gleiberman's creeping assertions about fanboy culture and his ability to finally have a way to express his discomfort with the phenomena.  Exasperation with sci-fi/ comics/ fantasy and the culture around them has been an ongoing theme in his reviews for a decade.  He basically is both aware of and flustered by the fact that these people will not listen to reason when he can demonstrably prove his favorite Meryl Streep movie is of more value than Serenity.  So, in a way, I'm not all that surprised by the path he goes down here.  I'm more surprised that he bothered to point out so many other examples of media-influenced killers, basically only identified Holmes, and went on with the charge of associating fan culture with a breeding ground for mass killers.

That said, his definition of "fanboy" extends to "pretty much anybody with an obsessive interest in a bit of media".  Of course, he mentions local nightmare Charles Whitman in making the case, a person with no particular interest linked to any media, but who also killed a lot of people.  He dismisses the long history of disturbing, mass or serial killings (Devil in the White City, Lizzy Borden, the fact that modern police work, a lack of records and immediate communication meant people just used to disappear and nobody noticed, etc... et al....  anybody?  anybody?) believing that only Jack the Ripper ever got more than one person before 1950.

A quick flip though history you don't get in high school text books, and it's tough to back up Gleiberman's claims.

If you work through his factual errors, his fear of Comic-Con and his rage that the fanboys poo-poo his negative reviews of Hobbit movies, Gleiberman isn't entirely off-base about a decaying sense of propriety on the surface, and at least a sense of "what are we culturally embracing?".   He cites first person shooter video games, trots out the usual horrors of the movies and how they've been emulated.

All of that is to ignore that the average person in the average household grew up seeing (for the first 100,000 years of humanity) death, pestilence, plague, rape and pillage all more or less on a daily basis.  And still do in big parts of the world.

We had a window there of about 20 years in the US where we separated ourselves from a lot of the appalling bits of what was considered "life" before we brought back the horror in HD explosive sound complete with chairs one could buy that would vibrate when you pushed the button that made the digital shotgun go boom.  We created an amazing tool for public discourse and let people using names that made "Bandit" and 'The Snowman" look positively brilliant by comparison turn every article in your local paper into a forum for why the politicians are trying to destroy America (and put people on TV 24 hours a day foaming like rabid pandas about the topic of the day).  Hell, we don't even really know what it means to slaughter our own food anymore, and are far enough detached from the process that we're pretty excited about nuggets made of chicken paste.  

Of course it's creepy to think about a generation of kids growing up getting fat on processed food while they spend countless hours rehearsing murder on their TV screens while their parents watch The Wire in the next room over.  Is it a wonder what the discourse looks like when the kids take to the internet to set some danged fool who doesn't understand "Batman" the way they do straight, and piss on his stoop while they're at it.  What's he going to do about it?

Gleiberman rightly discusses the insane (but entirely predictable) reaction to the first negative reviews of Dark Knight Rises.  But that's also the internet.  As Gleiberman mentions:  that's kids who think they've got something to say, and they've got the technology, if not the critical thinking or writing apparatus, to do so.

But if you want to see something really nuts:  stumble onto the comment thread on a sports site.  ANY sports site.  You'd think any of it actually mattered.*  Or the riots that break out after a win, in many cities.  It's not just the genre freaks.

While it sounds good on paper, I'm not sure I buy Gleiberman's conclusion.
What Manson demonstrated, and what more or less every movie and videogame-inspired killer has demonstrated ever since then, is that it’s possible to become way too obsessed with pop culture — and, more than that, that when you do become too obsessed, the obsession becomes a way of severing yourself from empathy.

I'm not sure that follows.  Couldn't it be that the world is a place these people have already retreated from?  That the obsession grows as the one safe place?  The thing that actually makes sense in the troubled mind?

Despair for the actions that occurred in Aurora is a foregone conclusion, and it's something I've posted on here previously, so I won't cover it again.   That doesn't mean that the character isn't inspiring the ill to rationalize, but...  I'm not sure Gleiberman isn't putting the cart before the horse.

But that loner psychopaths have access to media?  That they find anchors for their psychosis in the pits of mental illness?

The visions of being chased by media celebrities isn't all that uncommon for schizophrenics, and we know celebrities deal with stalkers on a routine basis.  That media pours in with no filter for some is something to be concerned about, but what's the remedy?  We've seen censorship with the Code system in Hollywood and comics, but that doesn't mean the motivated person won't just fixate on something else.  And how much do we police?  Do we reinstate prohibition to protect those with an alcohol addiction, or drop the speed limit to 10 miles per hour to reduce the effect of highway accidents?

And while I admit that the connection between fictional inspiration and murder is a subject of morbid curiosity and deserves study, from his own examples, it seems all Gleiberman can do is despair and wonder how deep the tunnels of the minds of his cited killers had gone that they came back up from the depths wearing the mask of the death of Travis Bickle or The Joker.

If you want to see what made me raise an eyebrow and post, it was the following:

Fanboy culture now risks turning into a kind of fundamentalism for fantasy geeks, with movies turned into an absolute: a reason for living that replaces living.

Firstly, find two fanboys to agree on ANYTHING, then get back to me.

Secondly: while I'm not going to say that Gleiberman couldn't walk the aisles of Comic-Con and find someone to hold up as an example - that's a pretty damning thing to say for a guy who liked movies enough to spend his life writing about them. Somehow, apparently, Gleiberman turned the horrific act of Colorado into the first volley of a fatwa of the Nerdites.

@#$%ing unbelievable.

Do I think that dialog on comics and comic movies is pretty base?  Absolutely.  But that's the internet.  We might as well be worried about obsessive Kim Kardashian fans from Yahoo! Answers going on a rampage.

Gleiberman may be using hyperbole, or he may not.  In either case, he clearly believes the nerds are to blame.  And you know the next step if you can find someone to blame.  You DO something about those people.

I won't get into the cautionary tale of Fredric Wertham, but while I join Gleiberman in mourning and asking questions about what the kids are up to, I'm not ready to start lining the kids with a particularly strong interest in a book, a movie, a character or The Beatles up against the wall so we can keep an eye on them.

*As a UT alumni and employee, I am always amazed at the deep conspiracies and wheels within wheels the athletic department is accused of running, and the vitriol lobbed at UT fans and alumni.  It makes the sniping in comics comment sections look calm and rational.


Jake Shore said...

Ugh. What a d-bag. I think your cart before the horse argument is right. These guys are disturbed and will graft whatever imagery or idea they see around them that they believe characterizes or agrees their obsession. He keeps saying he doesn't believe these elements of pop culture caused the deaths, but that really is what he's saying.

Besides the pre-1960 incidents you mentioned, what about the Presidential assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinely? Or the attempted assassinations of Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, FDR, and Harry Truman?

What bothers me the most about his article is how he presumes to know what Holmes was thinking. I guess that's all you can do when there is ZERO evidence to back up his claims. You can count me among those people 15-20 years ago who thought violence, dark imagery, and twisted themes in video games (GTF?) and movies would result in criminal or anti-social behavior. Trouble is, we have lots of statistical analysis and no one has been able to make any such connection.

Now, I'm not saying this stuff is good or healthy. And I am very concerned about the growing lack of healthy social interaction among people who live on the internet and social media. But as they say, this too shall pass. The truth is, every generation since the dawn of civilization thinks their's is the worst and the world's on its way to hell. William Bradford was lamenting the new generation growing in Plymouth. And to your point about the history of violence, Steven Pinker's new book "The Better Angels of Our Nature" makes the point that violence in civilization has been going down steadily and dramatically over time even with the horrors of the 20th century.

Crimes like the one Holmes committed are horrible, but the reflexive conclusions on the part of cultural elitists like Gleiberman make me almost as angry.

The League said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The League said...

The interesting thing is how Gleiberman would even name someone like Whitman who demonstrated no similar media influence but who is probably the most like Holmes in what he did. For good or ill, my observation from being on a campus where we had both Whitman and a recent active shooter situation is that after you get past the people with no skin in the game, you do see interesting and seemingly effective attempts at addressing safety, security and identifying campus threats.

What I'll be curious to see is how movie theaters process the event once the police come back with a full report and set of recommendations.