Les, I put a few big words in there for ya!
(And yes, I know the thesis is a little crazy; the prof seems to be fine with that.)
[title would go here, if I could think of one]
Suppose you were allowed, without fear of discovery or reprimand, to sock George W Bush in the teeth. You'd probably do it. We all probably would. And Bush isn't the only likely victim in this fantasy. Think about the people who, every day, send you into a spitting rage: your ex, your boss, your personal trainer, that guy who just cut you off in traffic. The late-shift barista. Your copy editor, or, if you are a copy editor, that writer who resists all understanding of the apostrophe. "You hate your boss at your job," the Flaming Lips sang on Bad Days, "but in your dreams you can blow his head off."
Even perfectly reasonable people sometimes have the urge to bestow violence upon the deserving. In real life, of course, we can't do any such thing. Common sense and the social contract are there to stop us. But we can go to a movie and watch somebody else do it.
Action movies are best for this. For example, several scenes in the otherwise forgettable new gangster-cartoon movie Shoot 'Em Up will resonate with those of us likely to flunk out of anger-management class. In one scene, the film's post-apocalyptic hero, Smith (Clive Owen [author's note: aka my boyfriend]), decides to steal a fancy car purely because it's parked illegally in a handicapped-parking space, the implication being that anyone so insensitive deserves to have his car stolen. Seconds later, Smith is enraged again because the driver in front of him consistently fails to use his turn signal when changing lanes. When the sloppy driver then throws a discarded paper cup out the window, Smith explodes - he speeds up and, still driving the car he removed from the handicapped space, bashes the litterbug right off the road. Social contract? What social contract?
Movies let us do the things we wish we could do in real life, whether it's shooting bad guys or bedding good guys. "You're sorta stuck where you are," the Flaming Lips song continues, "but in your dreams you can buy expensive cars, live on Mars and have it your way." Movies make it easy to rob banks, steal cars, smash through plate-glass windows, fly, flirt, win every time. In this way they make life tolerable. Some movies offer hope, some release. A film like Shoot 'Em Up leans toward the latter. The ersatz satisfaction achieved through vicarious violence holds at bay a vague but persistent sense of despair that creeps in when we start to ponder our helplessness in the face of quotidian evil. Inside the movie theater, you get to fight back. You don't have to suppress your anger and act like nothing's wrong. You're allowed to break free of all those civilized constraints. You're supposed to, in fact. You're supposed to laugh when Shoot 'Em Up's antihero corrals a mother who's beating her child and gives her an instructive spanking. You're supposed to cheer when he interrogates and then assassinates a once-decent politician who has sold out and become a hypocrite. It's about time somebody taught those people a lesson, isn't it?
Of course it wouldn't be practical to go around arguing that all politicians who violate their own moral codes should be shot. A person could get into trouble. So we hoard our fury, our disgust and disillusionment, all of our messy and irrational feelings, until we're in a place where expressing them is appropriate, where they can't do any harm.
Inside a movie theater, people become invisible. There's a magical transformation that starts when the lights fade. It turns an ordinary human into a weightless observer, a bodiless pair of eyes. The same sensation often occurs in foreign cities where, wandering unfamiliar streets, you recognize no one, no one recognizes you, and the inability to understand the language isolates you to the point that you start wondering if you can, actually, still be seen. When you're in that state - an invisible, floating perceiver - actions have no consequences. You can do anything you like. It's easy to be brave, because there's no risk; you're not even really there.
The problem is that when we come back to ourselves at the end of the movie, we find that we have left our rage behind. It's been spent, exorcised. Watching a good movie - or even a bad one if it's exciting and involving enough - is cathartic. But catharsis purges. Aristotle believed that watching violence on stage drained the viewers of their own turbulent emotions.
Partly that's what we want from movies: to be relieved, tranquilized. Purging angst through drama sounds like a fine idea if we're talking about cases like road rage, bullying and petty annoyances.
But is it wise to habitually jettison anger? When the urge to fight back is so easily worked out and smoothed away inside a darkened theater, is there anything left in us for the real world? What if films are taming our spirit of outrage and lulling us into submission? In other words, do we really want to let Clive Owen take care of the bad guys for us? As tough as he is on screen, Shoot 'Em Up's Smith can't do much about our real bullies. Dictators, terrorists, secret governmental endorsements of torture - these things are beyond the reach of silver-screen avengers.
It's tempting to declare helplessness in the face of such enormous evil and continue fighting our battles in an arena where we know we'll come out as winners. And the movies do help us get through our days without going mad. But given the state of the world, shouldn't we be a little mad?