A lifetime ago or so I was a film student and a freshman in college, excited to earn my chops behind a camera and become a modern day story teller. Although, I later rerouted my GPS and changed my studies to my first true love: philosophy, I did end up learning some interesting things about film theory, that I think are applicable in our everyday lives.
One of the most fascinating things I remember learning is the difference between the American filmmaking school of thought and the European. The American method revolves around creating closed stories and plots that fully resolve and the European leans more heavily on open-ended endings that leave the audience with lingering question-marks. For the purpose of filmmaking I think neither way is better than the other— it’s subjective. The Europeans believe their method is superior because it creates a smarter audience, as it becomes necessary to think and discuss the topic and the movies becomes jumping off points for intellectual inquiry. Meanwhile, the Americans argue that the end of a story is, hands-down, the most difficult part to write and deciding to cut the end is just lazy storytelling— dismissing the hard part and then rationalizing it by saying it’s more intellectual. This argument will continue on. An anecdotal example of this within my own social circle would be the series finales of Dexter and Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad used the American style and it used the last episode to methodically wrap up every loose end and do it’s absolute best to bring closure to every character and their journey— with suspension of disbelief that would rival the best broadway musical. Conversely, Dexter used more of a European method, as it left more of an open and subjective end to the ongoing saga of Dexter, the good doer serial killer that we all know and love. For the most part my friends LOVED the Breaking Bad ending because they say it brought “closure” and were frustrated with Dexter and its “ambiguous” ending left them unsatisfied. It is my opinion that the overwhelming preference for the Breaking Bad ending is because it closely resembles the American idea of film-making, or in other words, the American idea of how a story should be told.
You may be asking yourself by this point what does any of this have to do with violence in America. I will get to that shortly, but I first want to make a clear caveat to my argument. I am not implying that violent video games and movies does not have an adverse impact on children, as it may work towards desensitizing children to violence and dehumanizing people, which can become very problematic. I also do not think there is a such thing as a magic bullet to anything in life— everything in life is the product of multiple variables and not one single thing will lead to one thing or another— nothing is that simple. Gun ownership (statistically speaking), for example, does not increase homicide rates. However, gun ownership coupled with economic disparity and high proclivity for mental illness could be argued as having a strong impact on homicide rates. But, then economic disparity and rates of mental illness are also the product of multiple variables and so on. So its hard, in the complex model of life, to make clear arguments that X leads to Y.
The national ethos of the United States is the notion of the American Dream. This idea grew in abstraction from the frontier life in America prior to the declaration of independence, which mostly was speaking to the vast lands of America and the vast opportunity that comes with land. The notion was more concretely defined into, what we know as, the modern definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in the 1931 book Epic of America. Adams defines the American Dream as follows:
But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (Adams, 1931)
In essence its the idea that anybody can make it in America and become whoever they want and they can rise up based on their talent, drive and capabilities and not based on circumstance of birth (race, class, gender et al). I would critically argue that the American Dream is merely capitalism covered in sugar and melted chocolate, because the reality is a society of exclusively the Bourgeois is unsustainable and improbable, or as Winston Churchill phrased it “[t]he inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings…” (Churchill, 1945) I am not claiming that people presume that they will become wealthy from just living here, but its an understanding that your success will be the product of your hard work and talent. So, what happens if you are not successful in America? Does that imply you are not talented enough or do not work hard enough? Maybe it does. Some people may have different values, such as family or following a career passion that makes them happy, but may not be lucrative. For the people that find happiness in other avenues in life, outside of capital ventures— to each their own. But surely the people who are talented and work hard can make a life for themselves and become successful, or in short, become their own rags to riches story.
The American film making school of thought of having resolved conflicts and plots that get nicely buttoned up at the end is a a metaphor for the American Dream, as it resembles, quite clearly, the dream. No matter what happens in America, you can always persevere and things will always work out— no matter how difficult the conflict, it will get resolved and the guy always wins the girl. The standard American method of storytelling is essentially taking the the American Dream and beating you over the head with it over and over again. You may stop and think that the Breaking Bad example I used earlier did not happen this way. But, I would argue that it did. The necessary suspense of disbelief that was required for the final episode to unfold as it did, was quite impressive and even the ending itself was fantastic and dreamy. A realistic ending would look like this: he gets arrested and dies in prison— broken and lonely or gets cured and lives a lifetime knowing he destroyed his life and his family. Skyler and Walt Jr. get no drug money and live a life in the shadow of a narcissistic and murderous drug kingpin. Insinuating that he was able to orchestrate some plan to get his son drug money and save Jessie in a heroic act of selflessness martyrdom was a bit over the top. Walt White was a murderer without the balls to pull a trigger and a drug dealer that preferred the quiet non-drug infested silence of suburbia. He loathed with disgust when he had to witness the filth caused by Jessie’s drug binge, but never put together the connection that he is the cause of the filth, not necessarily in Jessie’s life, but in many others. He was a capitalist who deliriously focused on the money and power and had no wherewithal for the collateral damage he left in his path. Walt was living out his American Dream in the only way he could and, in the end, he did not atone. He died as a hero in his own mind. This is no different than the Scarface drug-lord fantasy that is glamorized in hip-hop culture.
But regardless if your American Dream resembles the dreams of Tony Montoya or little orphan Annie, the dream is, still, a dream. We can accept the fact that the dream may not become a reality for everybody, but for some people it does. But what happens when that is no longer the case? What happens when the economic tides in America start working against the dream? What happens when the economic disparity becomes so extreme that the social mobility, that in 1931 was the backbone and evidence of our liberties and freedom, fades to the level of a developing nation? Perhaps violence ensues.
In the last 25+ years or so we have seen a dramatic swell in mass murders in America (defined by murder spree’s such as Columbine and Sandy Hook), even though the homicide rate has actually declined. I want to first look at the difference between regular homicides and mass murder spree’s. Homicides from domestic violence are crimes of passion and hinge on interpersonal conflict- not to say that there are not social factors, but for the purpose of simplicity I will not delve deeper. Drug crimes and gang-related murder are murders hinged in desires for survival. Mass murders are much different, as the murderers rarely have interpersonal relationships with their victims and there is nothing to gain in terms of survival. Mass murders are acts of rage against society, as a whole. In many of the recent incidents they attacked students or children— our symbols of hope for a brighter futures and greener pastures.
If the social mobility concept, that is coveted in the American Dream, becomes non-existent then the curtain will come crashing down— revealing the wizard and all his magical illusions. All the stories we grew up watching and loving, the stories that always get resolved and end with closure and fictional bliss, now just seem like phony propaganda to keep us happy and hopeful that tomorrow will be better. Or, as Annie put it, “the sun’ll come out tomorrow!” But, the reality, tomorrow is always tomorrow, and tomorrow is never today. This dream will never come true. Extreme economic disparity makes this reality crystal clear and it is to be expected that coming to terms with this reality would make a small percent of the population snap in a very bad way. If you couple this with mental instability and a hodgepodge of randomly FDA approved chemicals, perhaps a deep rooted rage towards society will come lashing out in a bloody tragedy.
As I noted earlier the American Dream teaches us that if you work hard and have talent, you will succeed. However, that also implicitly implies that if you fail it must mean you do not work hard and/or have no talent. So if you tried your best and failed, this is not because of circumstance of birth, oh no, it is because you are lazy and untalented. You’re a failure. So you make an elaborate plan to destroy the innocent children of this guiltless society that blindly and indiscriminately wags it’s finger at you, then you die like Scarface in a self-loathing suicide — making yourself a hero, within your own mind. While finding your 60 seconds of fame and, for what it’s worth, getting a piece of the stardom of the American Dream.
It may be pure coincidence that Hollywood tends to create movies that are more happy and uplifting during economic recessions, or maybe its just supply and demand. Maybe, when we are filled with doubt and poverty we want to be reminded that everything will resolve and that tomorrow “the sun’ll come out”. But, metaphorically patting us on the head and saying there, there, it will be ok, is just the social version of a pacifier. Does it work?
Perhaps our stories should more closely reflect our lives and maybe our lives will never truly reflect our stories. How can we align the American Dream with the American Reality? Can we? Would we even want to? Perhaps, Silence is Golden and maybe it will get better tomorrow.
“Remember…hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
“Get busy living, or get busy dying”
“Same old shit, different day”
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
- Adams, J. (1931). The epic of America. Boston [Mass.: Little, Brown, and.
- Breaking bad. (2010). United States: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
- Dexter. (2004). United States. John Goldwyn Productions
King, S. (1982). Rita Hayworth and Shawshank redemption: A story from Different seasons. Thorndike, Me.: Thorndike Press.
- Strouse, C. (1977). Vocal selections from Annie. Place of publication not identified: Edwin H. Morris &.
- Winston Churchill, “Demobilisation”, speech in the House of Commons (1945-10-22)