FX: “FILM AT ELEVEN!”
There’s a lot we don’t understand in our country right now. So today we’re not trying to find a solution to anything, or pontificate, or even bloviate. We just need to ask some questions that ideally will make others try to find solutions, pontificate and bloviate.
As a nation, America has a short but violent history. It’s well beyond the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
After all, when our forefathers — whoever they were — achieved the first Atlantic crossing, what did they begin immediately to do? Apart from clear the land, build shelters, begin to farm and hunt? It didn’t take them long to understand that the land on which they were now standing belonged to someone else.
Those someone else’s had to move on, be removed, put out of the way.
To be fair, diplomacy of a sort was attempted. And at first we believe the native Indians here made efforts to accommodate the new settlers. That, after all, is how we come to understand our own first Thanksgiving, in legend anyway.
But the biggest feature of this new land was its size. Comparatively unknown at the time, once the country understood how much land there was, how much wealth could be harvested (timber, mining, trapping, tobacco and cotton farming…not to mention the ability of men to begin small but necessary businesses), a second realization followed quickly on the first. No one was watching.
One could do what one wanted with impunity. Survival was the order of the day, and that left almost no time for moralistic worries about good and evil, right and wrong. The Indians were soon seen as impeding progress. “Manifest Destiny” as the country moved west meant fairly complete freedom to do whatever had to be done to secure land and build locks, canals, and eventually railroads and entire cities.
Ports needed to be established. Military incursions — the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 — had to be fought even as immigrant roots were more and more deeply implanted in our soil.
A lot of problems were solved quickly and fairly easily. Violence in the name of a cause, in the name of settlers versus ranchers, in the name of slavery or freedom was a given.
Quick cut to today.
America is the most heavily armed and blood-thirsty civilization probably since Rome. And what Americans now want, and get almost daily, is news of violence committed, violence stopped, violence erupting, whether on the playing fields of the NFL or on the streets of Chicago. Forget about Texas.
We have become accustomed, and hence insensitive, to the tragedies of actual violence around us.
And in our entertainment, millions flock every weekend to malls across the nation to see the latest in special effects blow up entire civilizations, bring down outer-space intruders, punish Mafia activity.
There is blood on our television screens, in our films, in newscasts from our real-time war zones.
Thousands of men, women, and children sit enraptured for hours watching car races, hoping against hope that something terrible will happen in their very presence, something they can remember and talk about for years.
And always we are promised by our newscasters “Film at eleven.” This is for those who need to replay scenes of carnage and slaughter over and over again to get the maximum jolt required for them to forget about their own quiet lives and their own problems.
In Rome it was called “Bread and Circuses.” Authorities there kept their edgy crews moderately happy by allowing official slaughters in the Coliseum. In effect, the government of Rome was constantly changing the subject away from the miseries of the men and women in the streets.
So now too the United States. With more weaponry distributed among its citizens than in any other country in the world, some leaders here seem content to change the subjects of recession, unequal pay and unequal rights, and pre-emptive wars by allowing us to fantasize about our own history of successful violence, violence that occurred more or less naturally when people weren’t looking, when they were too busy building houses, paving roads, inventing labor-saving devices, exploring for oil —whose oil never mattered much.
Today we live in a society that is more or less dedicated to watching violence. A bridge collapses, a gigantic forest fire erupts, a terrorist attack somewhere. We now expect and demand “Film at Eleven!”
Something there is in the American character that cannot be satisfied by progress and peace.
Why does violence on our shores enchant millions? Why do we buy more weaponry than any reasonable person needs? How can we, day after day, watch school children in our cities be cut down and then shrug, saying in effect ‘twas ever thus.
Violence has become a genuine growth industry. If nothing in the days’ news makes us salivate, we have only to turn on television, or video games, to get our daily fix of blood and gore.
And if domestic violence can’t soothe our savage breasts, we can turn to tales of vampires and werewolves, of ancient kingdoms ruled by blood-thirsty monarchs who have no sense or right or wrong. We can watch intergalactic warfare for hours on end.
The most remarkable aspect of all this is that rarely are we concerned with actual human beings dying. In films and on television, for example, assassinations take place without a corpse dismembered or unable to rise and fight again. Intergalactically entire civilizations perish without a moment of sympathy engendered in us because we don’t see, and hence cannot feel, their loss.
Our politics, too, are becoming ever more threatening and violence prone. Members of Congress actually feel empowered to envision for us revolutions against the government. Whether it’s because of fear of losing private ownership of guns, or because we hate Planned Parenthood and abortion, or simply disagree with rational reports of crime solutions that come to us without a current conspiracy theory, increasingly we seem to feel we can say, do, and advocate any kind of violence that will make us feel good again about our country.
But our country isn’t feeling good. To be sure, we still marry, work, save, travel, worry. But beneath the outward signs of life going on as usual is a rumbling deep in the earth many thousands hear that unwittingly leads them towards violence against their own fellow citizens. Or the government.
We’ve been blessed with something called “democracy” which clearly isn’t good enough for thousands around the nation who want less “democracy” and more punitive action against those with whom they disagree. Settling matters at a ballot box, or diplomatically, or even in a one-on-one debate is for losers.
So what we’re asking today is, given the blessings of our system and our way of life, why do we demand more and more violence, more and more “Film at eleven,” more photographic evidence (although we all know this can now be doctored in any number of ways) of death and destruction in order to feel complete?
How can we sympathize with our nation’s returned and damaged veterans and yet still love what caused those amputations and brain injuries?
How can we work and dream about sending our children to colleges when so many others are dying on the streets of our cities unmourned but for their families who appear so regularly on “Film at Eleven”?
One obvious reason is that what we see at eleven is distant from us in both attitude and mileage. It’s all something that happens to other people. And here, too, we rarely see the physical horrors visited upon victims so that when we talk about these events, it’s no more important to us than talking about the latest special effects film that excites us but doesn’t really matter to us.
In short, what we’re wondering is why our life in these United States seems to have to include murder, suicide, conspiracies, explosions, fires, collapsing cranes, car collisions, and payback in the streets for imagined slights, territorial disputes, medical procedures some would abolish?
What, in other words, is wrong with us?