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Thursday, November 12, 2009

MENTAL MONTAGE: The Blurring of Violence

In continuing my exploration of Lon Chaney this month, I thought it appropriate to discuss one of his most notorious films: London After Midnight. However, I do not broach this topic as a means of discussing the usual controversy surrounding the movie, which is that it remains one of the most sought after "lost" silent film in existence-- or, in this case, non-existence. Rather, I want to confront the startling effect the film had on its audiences and on one audience member in particular... 

I have often said that if you investigate early cinema for the first 20 years of its existence, you will have heard the whole story. We continue to interpret darker current events as startling and even devastating when in reality they are tired, tried, and true stories of shamefully recurring human behavior. In Hollywood, from film plots to celebrity self-destruction, it's all been done before, because as it turns out: times may change, but people don't. [Moment of silence for human stupidity].

So it is with London After Midnight, which planted the seed of blame in the land of celluloid for actions of violence in the real world.  Lon Chaney was already known for his horrifying faces and their powerful affect on the public by the time he starred in Tod Browning's latest feature. In fact, during previous screenings of The Phantom of the Opera, ambulances often had to be summoned to attend to the faint of heart who were passion out in the middle of screenings in reaction to the gruesome visage of the phantom "Erik" for the first time. (Friedkin's The Exorcist repeated this phenomenon in the '70s, but again, Lon was first). However, to my knowledge, it wasn't until London that the line between exhilarated viewership-- high on the adrenaline of a good scare-- and paranoiac obsession was crossed, instigating viewers to repeat 2-dimensional sequences of the silver screen in our 3-dimensional world.

Robert Williams was a carpenter living in London when he saw London in 1928. So profound was his reaction to what he saw that he claimed he was afterward "haunted" by the Vampire Lon had portrayed. Overcome with fear and anxiety, he suffered an "epileptic fit," and consequently killed his Irish housemaid, all while supposedly under the influence of Chaney's villain. In court, Williams would plead his innocence, citing temporary insanity as induced by his viewing of the film. The courts, thankfully, did not buy his story, and he was found guilty of the murder.

Clearly, controversy surrounding violence in the media is not a new phenomenon, born in the past few decades but an old dog playing new tricks. The more brutal the stories become and the more graphic the special effects, the more people want to blame film's more macabre moments for instigating horrific actions in reality. The "the movies did it" defense has become an easy fall back for out-of-control, non-fictional villains responding to carefully contrived, fictional worlds.

Most are aware of the infamous story of John Hinckley, and how he became so obsessed witha young Jodie Foster (left) after watching Taxi Driver that he tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. His goal was to "impress" Foster; to make himself as important and historically relevant as she had become through her acting. And this was not his first attempt. He had stalked Jodie, moved to Connecticut when she began her classes at Yale, slipped notes under her door, and had originally targeted Jimmy Carter as his victim, only to be foiled by a fortunate firearms charge. Hinckley's (below) defense for the attempted assassination of Reagan was to blame the movies. He claimed that he was so effected by the violence and mania of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver that he was driven to murder.

There are other stories, of course, but they are so common these days that they usually don't make as many waves. The television show "Dexter" has lately been blamed for inciting the murder of Johnny Brian Altinger by Mark Twitchell, a fan of the show. In Scotland in 2002, Allan Menzies claimed that he murdered a friend when seduced by Akasha, Anne Rice's anti-heroine from the film adaptation Queen of the Damned. Equally, after the Columbine tragedy, many questions were raised as to the influence that violence in the media had had on the two young killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. 

Ted Bundy was also clever enough to blame pornography for his disturbing, sexually charged murders, and in this instance the public equally jumped on the band wagon. The scapegoat of dangerous images became a convenient way to explain away the psychological conundrum of our species and equally gave us an agenda to, in a sense, kill the messenger to ease our fears, those which in this case we specifically hold against our neighbors. Bundy was just toying with us of course, and his claims offered no real resolutions. However is making the intangible world of, for our purposes, cinema an antagonist in our endlessly chaotic world like blaming the inventor of the hammer for the person who uses it to bludgeon instead of build? The narrow line between artistic interpretation and skewed and repackaged media dramatization wherein we are hypnotized by dirty pictures and salacious advertisements to feed our sado-masochistic tendencies. In America, the Lizzie Borden case is often identified as the source of the strange gluttonous love affair between media and audience. Over 110 years after Lizzie was declared "not guilty," television viewing audiences held their breath watching the OJ Simpson trial.

As showcased in the aforementioned, the irony of the "life imitating art" argument is, of course, that movies are the result of art imitating life. Films are made to translate in a structured fashion the complexities of human behavior; they are meant to act as mirrors, reflecting our own compulsions and emotions back onto us. We go to the theater seeking some truth of ourselves, and whether the image revealed be glorious or ugly, these "truths" were crafted with our own hands by our own collective history. A movie is not a living creature, enforcing its wrath on us; and if it is, it is our breath that gave it that life.

This creates a confusing and baffling cycle, for movies are thus made interpreting old patterns of human behavior only to be blamed for inciting new violence. For example, Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs, were all partially based upon the true story of Ed Gein and his horror house of death (below). On November 17, 1957, police arrived at Gein's residence in Plainfield, WI to arrest him for shoplifting, only to find the farmhouse full of dead bodies, chairs made of skin, and belts made of nipples (to name only a few monstrosities). The disturbing evil, which Gein had crafted into his own sick artistry-- fashion of the flesh--  was a prime subject for storytelling. Possessing the worst in all things psychological, social, historical, and human, it is no wonder that Hitchcock swooped in to turn Gein's madness into cinematic genius. Psycho shocked, appalled, intrigued... and apparently inspired, for later murders were blamed on the film. But Psycho did not create the monster; Hitch had simply re-told an old story. This raises other questions, including that asking if cinema had accidentally become a way for serial killer Ed Gein to continue his destruction? Had the vessels of truth become tools of evil?

                                                  Hitchcock's Psycho House                                                    

In the end, blaming movies for the actions a person chooses to perform in life seems to be a desperate and feeble attempt at salvation. The movie screen, in its magnitude and power, sits Godlike on its pedestal over our heads. We look up to it for answers, for help, for healing... We hope for it to take us away from our lives and protect us from the big bad world outside, (if only for two hours). We love it, as long as it loves us, but when it disappoints us, all we tiny humans can do is point our fingers at it and say, "This is your fault! I renounce you!" In this, we only ever renounce our own responsibility.

As in all things, you take from something only what you bring to it, but, the wheel goes round and round-- or should I say the film canister-- and so the blame game continues. In the end, it is not the images we see flickering on the screen that terrify us, but the things they make us see within ourselves-- evoking, provoking, enticing, forbidding, making masochists of us all, because despite protestation, we keep buying tickets.

*** Update: Indiana teen Andrew Conley was arrested for the murder of his 10-year-old brother in November of 2009. He was an alleged "huge Dexter fan," and many are blaming the show's violence for his horrendous acts.


  1. Great post again! Thank you so much for the comments on my Johnny post. I would die to stalk him and his mother's house! LOL. Have a great night! Kori xoxo

  2. I do agree a very, very nice piece. As usual, inteligent and full of conections between the themes... I love your way of writing! I wish O could see this Chaney's Pic.

  3. Thanks guys! And I agree T, I would love to see "London After Midnight." I saw the photographic reconstruction, and it was great... but bittersweet. I hear rumors all the time that a copy is out there, and I can only hope it surfaces in my lifetime!!! Take care all!