Lighthearted and snarky is usually the order of the day here at moviegasm. But sometimes things happen in the world outside of Hollywood (a world that’s easy to forget about from inside Hollywood) that just hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m talking, of course, about the Virginia Tech shootings. As it happens, and in the interest of full disclosure, I am from Virginia and went to college very near Tech, and knew a lot of people that went there. This was many years ago, and I didn’t know anyone connected with what happened, but it still added some emotional weight to the incident for me.
It’s tempting to be critical of the news media’s round-the-clock coverage, the incessant interviews with anyone loosely connected to the incident, the wild speculation about the motives and mindset of Seung-Hui Cho, the gunman. But the reason they spend so much time covering it is that as a people we’re fascinated by it. And I don’t think it’s like rubbernecking the carnage after a natural disaster. I’m not making light of things like Katrina and the tsunami in Southeast Asia, but there’s something different about an event like this.
I remember the Columbine shootings vividly. I was in college, in my bedroom reading The Cider House Rules, and a roommate opened the door and said I should see something. And as sickening as the events that transpired were, I was equally offended by the aftermath. You see, way back when, I had a black leather trench coat that I loved. I listened to Korn and Marilyn Manson. I watched horror movies. And being young, I was angry about the way the world worked. It’s a slow awakening process, finding out about the world. There’s a reason that when these things happen, that it’s young people who perpetrate them. It’s not like some recently-fired postal worker spraying his office with bullets. It’s harder to ascribe a motive, to see inside the bad guys. It’s like a blind rage at everything; either the callousness of God or the coldness of a chaotic universe. This is the awakening that happens between youth and adulthood. It is the hardest test most of us ever face, and not everyone makes it. It reminds me of the haunting line in Spielberg’s A.I., when Francis O’Connor is leaving David in the woods rather than having him destroyed, and the only farewell she can think of is: “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world.”
And I watched as the media tried to blame it on the music and movies that were my outlet for that anger. I found that I could no longer wear my coat without garnering looks around campus. I listened stoically as our leaders tried to fit this tragedy into a nice, neat box that they could fix with parental warning labels on CD’s, while conveniently forgetting the profound wisdom in Marilyn Manson’s words when asked by Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine what he would say to the people affected by Columbine. His response was: “I wouldn’t say anything a single thing to them. I would listen to what they have to say.”
None of this is to make excuses for Cho. He was sick, and the pain that he inflicted makes his own suffering insignificant. Miniscule. Infinitesimal. He was the bad guy, and he got off easy by shooting himself. But as disturbed as he was, on some level, I understand. I think we all do, and that’s why we’re so fascinated. Why we excuse the round-the-clock coverage, the invasiveness of the media firestorm. Because what happened at Virginia Tech, and Columbine, and with Charles Whitman and every other whack job that snapped one day and took out his anger and frustration on anyone and everyone he could find… every time that happens, it offers us a peek at the darkness inside us all. These guys aren’t suicide bombers half way across the world fighting a political battle. They aren’t a nameless, faceless catastrophe. They aren’t even schizophrenics who thought Joan of Arc was telling them to do it. They’re us, just too weak or stupid or… something, I guess, to face the world for what it is. And as crazy as that sounds, that makes me feel good, and it should make you feel good, too. Because we are the ones that are strong enough. We wake up every day and face the world not knowing if our lives mean anything. We face injustice and unfairness, a world filled with man’s inhumanity toward man and broadcast into our living rooms round the clock, and we soldier on. We do our best to fight the good fight. We try. We stumble, and we fail, and we can be weak. But unlike Cho, unlike those Columbine kids, we’re not giving up. We’re not lashing out. We’re trying to fix the things that seem so wrong. We’re fascinated because we see our weakness in them, but deep down we know that we’re stronger.
By now you’re probably wondering how on earth I can swing this conversation back around to movies. I know you’re not reading to hear my diatribe on the human condition. But in the coming weeks, people are going to try to cover this with a smoke screen. They’re going to try and fit it into that nice, neat box that they can control and fix. It’s already starting, with the revelation that Cho watched Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy repeatedly before going on his shooting spree. One of the photos he sent to NBC even shows him posing with a hammer like the film’s hero. They’re going to say the movies are to blame. They’re already saying it.
I’ve seen Oldboy, and I liked it. For the uninitiated, it’s a revenge flick from a talented director named Park Chan-wook. By sheer coincidence, I have his follow-up flick, the brilliantly titled Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, sitting in a Netflix envelope on my coffee table. Oldboy is the story of a man locked in a room for fourteen years by some unseen enemy, and he has no idea why. Then, he’s released, and has only a few days to find out who locked him up and why. His road to that end is brutal, filled with stylish violence and ends with a psychological torture that almost breaks him. Maybe it does, you could argue. But as a revenge film, it is elevated almost to the level of Greek tragedy, if you ask me. It contains elements of incest and self-mutilation, but so does Oedipus Rex. It’s not Schindler’s List, and most critics derided it as being stylish to a fault, without anything much to say. I disagree, but so it goes.
Movies are just a prism we use to try and make sense of life. For some it’s books, or art or architecture. It might be science or math or astronomy or astrology. For a lot of people, it’s money. It’s any way of viewing the chaos in a way that makes sense to us. If you come to this site regularly, though, it’s probably movies. They’re a haven. And it’s okay to cling to those things. In the wake of a tragedy like this, please remember that it isn’t our havens that drive others to such awful things. Face up to it. Own up to it. It’s us. It’s in all of us. If you take away movies that make us uncomfortable, anything that gives us a safe place to feel the way we already feel, then things like this will happen more often, not less. It’s easy to put the blame on something we can control like music or movies. In the dark and frightening days after we’ve been reminded of the fragility of human life and sanity, we want to point at something tangible and concrete and say “There is the source of our pain and misery and fear!” But I believe down to my soul that art is a reflection of the things we already feel, not the cause of it. Cho was drawn to Oldboy for reasons we can’t ever know, but they are reasons that were already there. Be strong. Have courage. And when those around us tell us that art is the reason these things happen, stand up and say art is the reason these things don’t happen more often.
Or don’t. It’s up to you.