A killer at the movies?

Posted: Oct 17, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Not much of a consensus has jelled regarding the identity of the brute or brutes who have been shooting innocent, unarmed citizens from ambush in the Washington area. Some students of crime believe the killer to be a loner. Others believe the killings to be the work of a team. Some claim the killings have been committed by marksmen. Others deny the shootings reveal any great proficiency with guns. Most believe that the killer or killers are relatively young, and I assume most agree with me that the killer or killers are moviegoers. Hold it -- some of you out there are taking offense? You are movie fans? You are members of "the industry"? My old friend John Wayne used to get very prickly when I would speak ill of Hollywood. Since his departure heavenward, I fear my assessment of Hollywood has gone even more tenebrous. Yet, I would bet a year's supply of popcorn that the brutes, who have suddenly made themselves so famous from deeds so vile, are devotees of today's Hollywood "blockbusters." Where else would one get the idea of carefully mapping out the streets of an urban center, strategically planning random snipings and then killing unsuspecting people? Read "Mein Kampf" -- Hitler never dreamed up such a deed. Stalin never chuckled about such ghoulishness, and Stalin was known to chuckle about murder. Remember his little joke, "How many divisions does the Pope have?" Incidentally, Stalin, wherever he might be today, has found out. Brutal deeds unimagined by murderous dictators now are the raw material for Hollywood movies and prime-time television. Jim Bowman, the movie critic I admire most, says that Hollywood has replaced "the old-fashioned hero who did great deeds with stars who do evil." In today's films, "there is not much difference between cops and bad guys. And the bad guys are really bad." Bowman mentioned Anthony Hopkins brilliantly playing Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer and cannibal. Hollywood has slathered attention on Lecter. The attention he gets leaves him as a kind of pop celebrity. That is morally confusing to viewers with unsteady moral compasses. In a celebrity society where celebrity is dependent not on talent but on attention, such scoundrels become role models. But morals aside, movies have for a generation provided blueprints for some grisly crimes. Stalkers, snipers, even banal thieves have had clever scenarios provided to them by Hollywood. A couple of weeks back, before the ambushes here in Washington, I attended a French movie that could have been made in Hollywood. "8 Women" contained not one noble character or noble deed. Yet it was edifying in comparison with the Hollywood previews anterior to it. One depicted an urban sniper holding a man (actor Colin Farrell) and many others in his grip for hours, after the man innocently answers a pay phone in, I believe it was, Times Square. Like so many other sniper films, it struck me as ghoulish, infantile, romanticizing the irrational and preposterous. It was all of those things, but we now know it is not wholly preposterous. In a free and prosperous society, evil people are free to play the role of the sniper. If before the recent outbreak here you doubted it, you could always go to the movies. That movie that I saw in previews, "Phone Booth," has now had its release delayed, its producers, 20th Century Fox, fearing that viewers would find the plot "tasteless." Variety had reviewed it as "simple and suspense-deficient." "Suspense-deficient"? What do viewers go to movies for? After decades of this "suspense," do viewers still need new evocations of it? John Wayne used to chide me for my distaste for "violence" in film. He thought it harmless, and in his day he was probably right. In most of his movies, the violence was but a small part of the movie. There was also right triumphing over wrong. The good guys were always more appealing than the bad guys. There was little of Hollywood's present infatuation with grimness, insanity, cruelty and other blessings from the French Existentialists, most of whom were frauds. The scenes in a John Wayne movie were often very beautiful and rarely fantastical, as they are today with cars exploding out of buildings or fist fights going on underwater or while the fighters fall from buildings -- all in slow motion, blood dripping poignantly. Many of Wayne's movies were Westerns. Westerns are almost unheard of among today's film productions, which apparently are packaged to appeal to -- well, to disturbed young people, mainly young men, possibly snipers. The Westerns were usually filmed amidst stupendous scenery, where great struggles had actually taken place between good guys and bad. Moreover, very few gunmen, even bad gunmen, ever shot a person who was unarmed or shot a person in the back. If a gunman did, Wayne would bring down on him that epithet that everyone in the West hated and feared, "yellow-belly." Of course, all snipers, even by today's standards, are yellow-bellies.