Gun Play

The moral development of most movies, like novels, can be charted like the progress of the stock market. La Strada portrays the uninterrupted decline of a human being, ending with a slight uptick. Tender Mercies is an unusual movie, rising from its protagonist's lowest point, with a momentary downturn when his daughter is killed, immediately returning to a triumphant and continual rise.

The modern movie of constant violence, which I call the "gun play", has a uniquely monotonous chart: the line of unending destruction runs absolutely straight across from left to right, with no variance. These movies begin on a level of intense violence, continue this way for two hours, then stop.

These movies function on two levels. They appeal to our most unconscious sadistic impulses; the small boy who tore up butterflies becomes the man who watches Michael Meyers decapitate teenagers or pierce them with pokers for two hours. Silence of the Lambs, with its clinical autopsy photographs of murdered girls with their skin peeled away, or this week's Casino with its vise killing, may appeal to this same level of the human psyche. But there is another level laid over this one, coexisting smashed into it like another of the five cities of Troy in an archaeological mix; and that is what Roland Barthes called "a purely moral concept of justice." He was writing (in Mythologies) about wrestling, but his words can be exactly juxtaposed to the gun play, without loss of meaning.

Not only does the gun play conform exactly to the wrestling match, sharing its format, morality and details, but the modern form of the gun play further confirms the parallel by featuring wrestlers, many of whom have appeared in movies such as Commando, Predator and The Terminator.

Wrestling matches, like gun plays, have themes without narrative. Both are a spectacle: "the public relies on the most important virtue of spectacles, which is to abolish all motives and consequences; what is important is not what the public believes, but what it sees." Barthes distinguishes boxing, which is "a story telling itself before the eyes of the spectator. In wrestling, by contrast, each moment is intelligible, not the totality...Wrestling demands an immediate understanding of juxtapositions, without the necessity of connecting them together." Unlike sports such as judo, where defeat is symbolic, immediately acknowledged, and leads to the end of the match, wrestling "demands excessive gestures, exploited to the ultimate paroxysm of their meaning....a wrestler thrown to the ground is there exaggeratedly, swelling to fill the public view with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness." Similarly, the gun play involves a series of set pieces where the hero, often shirtless and sometimes barefoot as well, tests his strength fighting a series of adversaries against a background of fires, explosions and broken glass. Arnold Schwarzenegger's swelling muscles, the throwing and pinning of an adversary, the struggles, groans and expressions of agony, are directly stolen from wrestling. "Each symbolic act in wrestling is endowed with a complete clarity because it must always be instantly understood.... what we are seeing is truly a Human Comedy in which the social nuances of the drama (fatuousness, righteousness, refined cruelty, the 'payback') happily merge with the symbolic acts most suited to express them and carry their meaning to the outer walls of the hall."

Instead of a drama with rising or falling characters and themes, each set piece, each combat, "is like an algebraic equation instantly revealing the relationship of cause and effect... What is thus delivered to the public is the grand spectacle of Suffering, Defeat and Justice." A subtext present in both wrestling and the gun play is the extreme equivocal nature of social rules and conventions. When the villain violates the rule that a wrestler is safe behind the ropes by attacking the hero while he is resting, the audience hisses; but when the hero pays him back in kind, or kicks him savagely once he is down, justice is done and the audience rejoices. The role of the ropes in wrestling is played very overtly by the Bill of Rights in the gun play. "You have the right to remain unconscious," Mel Gibson said to the villain he had just knocked out in Lethal Weapon III. The heroes of the gun play, whether portraying mercenaries or police, routinely torture their adversaries to get information, conduct warrantless break ins and searches of their houses, and execute them with a bullet to the head at the movie's end. The wrestling match itself may have as auditory accompaniment only inarticulate groans and grunts; the gun play has added the gloss of the sadistic play on words: "Nailed them both," said Danny Glover after killing two assailants with a nail gun in Lethal Weapon II; Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, asked "Where's Sully?", replied, "I let him go" (he had just dropped Sully off a cliff.) Thus the gun play, like wrestling, exists in a world without contrasts, without relativity, where absolute good and evil can be determined only by physical appearance, by context or costume, but where both sides have the luxury of behaving the same.

The gun play conclusively disproves the theory that movies can be idea-free or morality-free, any more than information can be information-free. The idea itself, like the murder of the protagonist's wife or daughter at the beginning, may be nothing more than a minimal excuse for the action that follows, but it is still an idea and still communicates a view of the world. Gun plays, like wrestling, present "a human euphoria, raising us above the ambiguity of daily life and treating us to the panoramic view of an unequivocal Nature, where symbols correspond to causes, without obstacle, evasion or can doubt that wrestling reveals the power of transmutation appropriate to the Spectacle and the Cult." Rather than being only a fantasy, only entertainment, the gun play, like wrestling, is a primitive morality story, which implicitly encourages its audience to adopt a primitive morality.