We enter 2013 with the sickening, dispiriting events in Newtown, Conn., still fresh in mind and yet without much conviction that anything can be done to prevent such future horrors. Obviously, the overriding issue is that we have a gun problem in the United States and a political climate that has been, at least until now, too timid to do anything about it.
But we also have a culture problem, and we know this. We know, because though Newtown shocked us and stopped us in our tracks and continues to haunt our imaginations, it did not surprise us.
If the Newtown killings were an act of terrorism, the whole country would be mobilized to protect itself from the Other. But this felt like something from within, not just from within our borders, but from within the soul of the nation. And in talking about matters of the soul, our cultural gatekeepers have been just as timid as our politicians.
Fourteen years ago, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano, in "Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill," were warning us about the effects of violent video games and movies on young and impressionable minds. They compared the games that kids play to the conditioning that soldiers and Marines get in order to desensitize them to killing. They pointed out that by the time children reach adulthood they have witnessed hundreds of thousands of simulated violent deaths and have come to associate witnessing death and mayhem with pleasure.
That same book contained an introduction by then-President Bill Clinton, pleading with filmmakers and game makers to self-censor in the interest of children. That plea went unheeded, if it was noticed at all.
The interaction between real-life and movies is complicated. Some will claim that movies influence behavior, even as producers will invariably insist that movies only reflect society, as though movies were some unobtrusive aspect of culture, unnoticed by the world.
The truth is that movies and society influence each other in ways that overlap and are therefore arguable. But clearly something seems to be going on, and something is in need of changing.
My own epiphany came about six months ago and was occasioned by the film "The Dark Knight Rises." When I saw it at an advance screening, I regarded it as a wallow in nonstop cruelty and destruction, a film that was antilife. But when I wrote the review, I said none of those things, which I considered to be too subjective and personal, and instead concentrated on objective aspects of the movie that I deemed deficient, and I gave it a middling-to-negative review.
Then came the events in that movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and suddenly my own writing about this film seemed to me limp and inadequate - no, flat-out pathetic. It's not that "The Dark Knight Rises" directly caused a maniac to start killing people in a movie theater; obviously, it didn't. But it did seem to me that the soul-crushing chaos of the film - ultimately reflected in what happened in Aurora - warranted a response that it never got.
Survivors of the Aurora tragedy mentioned that, at first, they thought the gunman was part of the movie's promotion. That says something about the nature of our cinema, and it also invites us to consider what if that were true. Imagine Aurora never happened, but instead a summer movie contained a scene of a gunman going into a movie theater and slaughtering people. What would be the public and the critical response to that?
I think we know. Audiences would walk out saying that the theater-slaughter scene was the coolest thing in the movie, and critics, appalled, would nonetheless talk themselves into a neutral response by the time they wrote their reviews. For critics, the thought process would go something like this: Yes, it's sick, but isn't that a moral judgment? And is it my place to comment on morality and decency? I don't want to be like that old dinosaur Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, slamming "Bonnie and Clyde" in 1967. Maybe this is something new that I'm not grasping. Maybe the very fact that I hated it so much means that it's good.
And so the critic would end up writing something like this: "The movie contains a disturbing yet highly effective scene of violence transpiring at a movie theater." Forget any mention of the insidiousness of inserting such poison into the national mind, of the morality or decency of feeding audiences crack. It would be a review as written by one of Mr. Spock's dim-witted cousins, on vacation from Vulcan.
Well, fellow critics, it's time to take off the big ears.
The central confusion that embarrasses critics, and progressives in general, is the notion that this is a free-speech issue. Yes, it's absolutely true that strong images are needed to tell strong truths. You can't attack the regime and talk about the violence of government, of sexism, and of racism without depicting that violence. Some of the best filmmakers of the 1960s and '70s , coming off of decades of suffocating censorship, knew this.
But let's not fail to recognize that today, violent media is the new regime. The industry, in cinema and gaming, which is monstrously profitable, is a mechanical, repetitive neural training ground for action. And like the Taliban, it targets disenfranchised young men and boys who are unformed and weak in personality.
So what do we do? What can we do? Forget censorship. It's socially immoral. It doesn't work, and it makes for awful movies.
In terms of specific action, critics must, first of all, identify the messages that movies are communicating. If movies are cruel and nihilistic, say so. Say it explicitly. Don't run from that observation. It may be wrong and certainly pointless to review films as good or bad depending on how well they comport with our own individual morality. But that does not obviate the clear obligation to report on the philosophical content of movies. Widespread shame and disapproval will impact box office.
Likewise, critics need to let the public know, repeatedly and unrelentingly, each time the Motion Picture Association of America gives a PG-13 rating to celebrations of violence, such as "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Jack Reacher."
The public has a bigger role, and that's to insist that any movie with any violence at all - any shooting, stabbing, bombing or rape - gets an R rating. If enforced, this would reduce the violence in PG-13 movies and prevent some violent films from getting made. At the same time, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese will still be able to make their R-rated movies for an adult audience.
If raising violent films to an R-rating has no effect, and it might not, try NC-17.
Just as there is profit in violence, there is enormous profit in pornography, and yet our films don't routinely depict graphic sex acts for two reasons: (1) The public wouldn't stand for it; and (2) Critics would feel on solid ground deploring it. It's time to stop behaving as if we were paralyzed. It's time to lose our squeamishness about confronting screen violence - and the monolith of profit behind it - and to start acting like a community.