Confession: I used to blow up models.
Just a couple of them, actually — a model of the original “Star Trek” Enterprise in which one of the arms refused to stay attached, and a version of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’s” Flying Sub. One year, when I had an excess of firecrackers left over from Independence Day, I put the tiny explosives in the models’ crevasses and filmed the whole thing in 8 mm.
They blowed up real good.
I never thought about the people who might have been on board the real vehicles, just as I never thought about the workers on the Death Star or the folks in the Library Tower in “Independence Day.”
I do now.
Maybe I shouldn’t; they’re just movies, right? Disaster movies, comic-book movies, action movies — the people who die in them, whether from toppling buildings or widely sprayed gunshots, are as disposable as stick figures.
But I can’t help myself. Maybe it’s the times, starting with 9/11 — a real-life disaster movie — that have continued with embedded war correspondents and mass shootings. Maybe it’s my old job, sitting in a CNN newsroom and watching tragic footage repeated ad infinitum on the TV or computer screen. Some people get hard, some people get numb; I tried, but couldn’t do either.
Today The New York Times had one of their “Room for Debate” columns, this time involving PG-13 movies and their trend towards violence. I want to be open-minded about the issue, because I think the studies that indicate pop culture violence influences real violence are sometimes overstated. (It may be commonplace on our screens, but at least we don’t attend executions on a regular basis and cheer the efforts of the hangman. Progress, right?)
But I do wish our pop culture depictions of violence would show some of the consequences. One of many reasons I found “Man of Steel” despicable was the casual way the film destroyed half of Metropolis without regard to the millions of lives that obviously would have been lost in such a disaster. (Of course, it also suffers from the presence of Zack Snyder, whose direction is as leaden as the type on an abandoned printing press, and about as dimly lit.) From what I understand, this became a plot point in “Batman v Superman” — which I avoided because of Zack Snyder — but all I can say is: Too late.
Indeed, this has become a trope of comic-book movies: Let’s blow things up! I’ve long thought someone should make a movie called “The Insurance Adjuster,” who would be the real hero in a ruined-city world. Except it takes a lot of damned work and money to actually rebuild a city, and at the personal level, some people never get closure.
The Insurance Adjuster would not be a happy person.
Nor would anyone, frankly, even if those aliens/villains/terrorists were vanquished. No, in the real world, websites would do “Portraits of Grief” for thousands, if not millions, of the deceased, and it would be months or years before the economy recovered.
In fact, I’d like to see movies (and TV shows) actually show the real impact of even a gunshot wounding. They’ll linger on the spurt of a bad guy’s blood, but what about the shattering of bone? Or loss of bowel control? The 1991 movie “Grand Canyon” is overwrought at times, but at least it showed Steve Martin’s producer character wetting his pants after getting shot in the leg — and undergoing a long and psychologically challenging recovery. (If you ever read stories about soldiers in battle, the stink of excrement is a common theme.)
Listen: I can find action movies as cathartic as the next guy. I just wish they weren’t so easygoing about their death toll. (To their credit, many TV shows aren’t anymore, but even a popular show like “Breaking Bad” has a smaller and more splintered audience than a blockbuster movie.)
But, of course, they’re not really about people. They’re about spectacle and happy endings: blowing up that city and going back to work the next day, villains defeated, economy humming, everyone going out for shawarma.
Now, that’s entertainment.