It’s the terror, stupid!


My teenage son warned me in advance. “You won’t like it, Dad. It’s really interesting, but there’s a lot of action in it.” By “action” we both knew he meant violence.

The TV ads for the movie Inception were not just relentless. The imagery in them was bizarre and spectacular enough to make the movie a must-see. I wasn’t surprised to learn Inception cost $200,000,000 to produce. That ton of cash could fund a lot of teaching jobs in a troubled nation whose people are told their problem is the economy (stupid!). But like a good American I parted with ten bucks to see the movie too.

Inception’s rather corny plot has promise as an exploration of the mysterious depths and workings of the mind. In the movie Dom Cobb is a master at “extraction,” the invasion of people’s minds, and his professional services are especially useful to corporate spies. But Cobb has problems with his daily life at home: He’s suspected of murdering his wife, and he suffers a melancholic alienation from his two lovely children. Did he kill her or did she kill herself? An offer he can’t refuse comes along: A corporate chieftain wants him to “implant” an idea in the mind of a business rival so the rival’s corporation will dissolve. Cobb is assured that if he can pull off this perfect crime arrangements will follow that will allow him safe return to his children.

What follows on the screen is a challenging, and strange, configuration of sequences that depict Cobb’s invasion of people’s dreams–and dreams within dreams–so he can successfully perform his duties as a mind-controller. For more than two hours the lines between dream and “reality” are blurred, and the audience doesn’t know what’s real, even at the end when Cobb returns, in dreamy soft-toned hues, to his children at home.

The story line, highly rigged to suggest intellectual heft, is promising, as faces confront each other to discuss their schemes and the mind’s strange ways. But fully a third to half of the movie depicts, in often spectacularly original ways, mayhem and violence–slugfests, gunfights, car chases and crashes, paramilitary battles, and doomsday implosions. “You won’t like it, Dad. It’s really interesting, but there’s a lot of action in it.” A lot of violence almost wholly unnecessary to the story-line.

Like any technology, film–“the talkies,” “moving pictures”–has its biases. Cameras can’t think or enter brains to picture thoughts happening in the soft tissue there. Film-makers have to imagine what’s happening in a brain and find some surface to picture it. Film-makers also shy away from thinking that comes in the form of complete sentences and paragraphs, and they know they risk losing their audience if they spend a lot of time aiming the camera at people who just talk face to face. The bias against “talkies” has tilted sharply in favor of visually stimulating action scenes, and the current tilt leans strongly toward blowing things up in bigger and more spectacular ways. In recent years Hollywood routinely has given us a steady stream of crime, car chases, disasters, shootouts, monsters, fires, towering infernos, runaway trains, runaway viruses, sinking ships, doomsdays, and apocalypse nows. Even in children’s movies–from Disney productions to Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter flicks–we get armies of monsters, most of them quasi-human, engaged in extraordinary battles certain to keep our kiddies bug-eyed during their naps. If we miss the action on the big screen, we can pick it up on TV. A routine channel surf will provide us any number of TV programs and ads that feature people pointing guns at each other. Violence can be fun and profitable too. Video games offer a caricatured violence unmatched except on real battlefields, and the military promotes these games as cost-efficient recruitment tools and early training exercises.

If dieticians and chemists can provide generally accurate descriptions of the negative effects of being supersized by fast food habits, we wonder if Cobb’s expertise is good enough to help us understand what producers–consciously or unconsciously–are “implanting” into the minds of their audiences, and what these audiences are “extracting” from the steady diet of supersized violence Hollywood and its media offspring provide. Clearly, the diet has an addictive allure to it. We seem dulled by, bored with, and hardened to ordinary doses of screen violence. We seem to want more and more of it, and in progressively higher doses. An old-fashioned shootout at the O.K. Corral understimulates. We want to see what it’s like for the world to blow up. Given the persistent success of what Hollywood pushers offer for sale, it seems that we’re too collectively hooked to just say no.

There are some, many in Hollywood, who say no to Hollywood as a cultural influence. Movies are just entertainments, disposable like throwaway plastic soft drink bottles. They “implant” nothing in us and we “extract” nothing from them except momentary suspensions of disbelief that momentarily take us away from the daily, perhaps too dull, rounds of daily life. Movies do not influence–flow into us–either consciously or unconsciously. Parents, teachers, books, and Sunday schools are the real cultural influences from which we derive our view of the world, our values, our hopes and fears.

The influences of parents, teachers, books, and Sunday schools are no doubt present in our lives, but I wonder if larger than life violent screen spectacles make them seem unreal, like the soft half-remembered tones of the children and idealized ordinary family life Cobb desperately wants to return to after he’s done his dirty work. It’s simply implausible to dismiss the power of the culture of violence, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to view it as a secondary influence. Certainly it reflects, in part, who we are as a people, for it comes from us and we approve of it as a mass culture we buy. We must derive some sort of pleasure from what we so hungrily consume. If what we feed on is a steady stream of escalating violence, and if violence breeds fear, insecurity, and demoralization, does this culture “implant” feelings of fear, insecurity, and demoralization that challenge and sometimes overwhelm the positive values we associate with ordinary life? And if we “enjoy” this violent culture, do we enjoy being fearful, insecure, and demoralized? Where is the joy in that?

It’s clear that addictive personalities are tied to stimulating activities and substances that temporarily ward off feelings of worthlessness, nihilism, and depression. It’s common for substance abuse to escalate if underlying problems are not addressed. Fear’s usefulness as a biological defense seems obvious enough. It’s a good thing to run like a scared jackrabbit if a lion is chasing you. But lions–and tigers and even sharks with big jaws–are becoming fewer and more far between on a planet being overrun by parking lots. We’re not likely to run into a lion in a Minnesota field or into snakes on a plane. And while we have good reason to fear terrorists, they too seem rare and certainly less threatening than the widgets of warfare they somehow get and sometimes use.

So fear as a biologically useful mechanism for personal survival is becoming defunct. What we have now is civilized fear, its objects normally mass produced as predatory widgets (guns, bombs, etc.) of warfare and violence. The ingenuity that goes into producing these widgets is bottomless, and the culture of violence, thanks to Hollywood, is futuristically visionary in promoting its advances. The imaginative ingenuity of movie producers who spend millions to pioneer new mechanisms for violence is astonishing. Their futuristic and fanciful inventions in movies no doubt in turn inspire the veracious appetites of military visionaries and engineers who want to see if the widgets can really be made to work.

We confront the interests of terror on two fronts: Foreign and domestic. To the global war on terror, what some like to call our World War III, we commit billions of dollars and thousands of lives in the hope of eliminating, or checking, terrorist threats, if not the fears deemed necessary to conduct the war. The culture of terror Hollywood provides us on the domestic front we are supposed to enjoy after paying the ticket price. If FDR once spoke eloquently about the importance of living free from fear, we now seem hell-bent on promoting a two-front culture based on fear.

How does this two-front culture affect the economy? The bottom line cost of the global war on terror is incalculable, but this much is obvious. The U.S. military budget for 2010-2011 is $733,000,000,000, compared to the combined total of $25,000,000,000 for potential “enemy” nations (Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Venezuela, Syria, Cuba.) U.S. military expenditures alone exceed the combined military expenditures of all the nations of the world. Not even China (at $144,000,000,000) and Russia (at $85,000,000,000) come close. Clearly we are leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else in the arms race. But if the U.S. was bankrupt during the Great Depression of the 1930’s and if World War II pulled us out of the Depression, we don’t see our global World War III, now well into its twentieth year following the first invasion of Iraq, giving us the war benefits that are supposed to save economies. We are going bankrupt.

Is the culture of terror on the home front good for the economy? Expensive extravaganzas like Inception stimulate Hollywood job growth proportional to the lengthy credits we have to endure as we’re walking out. But if, like Inception’s Cobb, we believe that movies, TV, video games, books and Sunday schools, “implant” emotions and maybe even thoughts, then we should calculate the economic impact of the cumulative anxiety the culture of terror provides for our viewing enjoyment. If what we “extract” from this culture are fear, insecurity, and demoralization that complement the anxieties generated by our global war on terror, what hope is there for the cheerful optimism needed to stimulate economic growth? When I’m insecure, afraid, not sure if I’ll see my lovely children again (Cobb sees them at the end, but nobody’s sure they’re real), my yen to invest in the future of America wanes, as do my power and willingness to spend. If I’m wealthy I invest abroad. If I have a job I’m less likely to buy widgets and toys, and if I don’t have a job I click into survival mode: I buy only necessities, or head toward the food shelf, fairly certain that the economic mess has made a victim of me, and perhaps wondering if the small pleasures and values of daily life are enduring and real.

And if I’m hooked on Hollywood I hope to have just enough to be taken in by the next blockbuster coming to the big downtown screen.