After Aurora, Rethinking Violence In Pop Culture

The Aurora theater shooting has prompted Hollywood to reconsider the role of movie violence. Similar conversations are taking place among novelists, video game makers and other artists. Director Rob Cohen, crime writer Laura Lippman and video game designer Chris Hecker talk about violence and art.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. After the most recent mass shooting took place in a movie theater, producer Harvey Weinstein proposed that Hollywood directors sit down and discuss the role of violence in their films. That's not to say that images of blood and bullets trigger violence in general or motivated the Aurora murders in particular; the fact is we don't know.

And violence is part of many artists' palettes, from Homer to Shakespeare to Tarantino. So we want to talk with artists, writers, directors and video game designers today about the role of violence in their work. Why do you use it? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, people and places abandon by the American economy; Chris Hedges joins us.

But first the role of violence in art and entertainment, and we begin with Rob Cohen, the movie director responsible for "The Fast and Furious" and, back in 2002, "xXx," where hero Vin Diesel laughs at the torturer played by Danny Trejo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "XXX")

VIN DIESEL: (As Xander Cage) I don't mean to nitpick, but you're the worst at this torture thing.

(As Cage) You slap me again, I'm going to throw you a beating.

CONAN: After Aurora, Rob Cohen told the Los Angeles Times that the fact that the accused killer went to the Batman premiere dressed as the villain from the previous Batman picture gave him pause. We want our movies to be shown to the widest possible audience, he said, but now I have to look deeper.

Rob Cohen joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. His latest film, "Alex Cross," opens in October. Thanks very much for coming in.

ROB COHEN: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And you said the Aurora theater gave you - the Aurora theater shooting gave you pause. What will you be doing differently?

COHEN: Well, you know, I just finished a film, with "Alex Cross," that is - even though it's PG-13, it's very intense and has a character, played by Matthew Fox, that is meant to be a terrible, terrible villain. But the way Matthew and I executed that character, he's actually very charismatic and the audience's favorite character in research previews.

CONAN: A little like Heath Ledger was in the "Batman" movie.

COHEN: Yeah, and it gave - it upset me because that - you know, it wasn't the intent, and that's not to say they don't love Tyler Perry as Alex Cross, they do, but it's interesting how an anti-hero or a villain can, in today's zeitgeist, be projected with so much charisma that we wind up in a darker, more disturbing area of human experience.

And that gave me the thought, after Aurora, like wait a minute, we might want to do something better than this knee-jerk thing that keeps coming up.

CONAN: That film, if it opens in October, it's locked in and has been for some time. There are not going to be any changes to it. So what will you do differently?

COHEN: Well, I think it's going to be more in the choice of subject matter. You know, every film, for me anyway, I define a line, and on one side of that line is what I'll call impact, and on the other side of the line is what I'll call good taste. And you're dancing on that line all the time because if you go too far over the impact line, into the impact area, you can get on a slippery slope of gratuitous violence and artful violence that's done for violence sake or for kinetic, filmic sense sake. If you fail or fall on the other side, on the good taste line, you could very easily wind up with a film that's mostly oatmeal with sprocket holes in it.

And so you've got to balance between what's going to reach your audience, what's going to excite them or get them emotionally engaged with the film and the characters versus, you know, falling short of that and having everything be very, very safe and unprovocative.

And, you know, it's a commercial business, and so you want to reach the most people, and you want them to feel like they got a really good journey of entertainment. So I think it's in the choice of subject, like, do you keep going back to that kind of operatic violence choreography with varying degrees of graphicness as your fallback position of what action should mean.

CONAN: And it's also, you've got other people who are investing many millions of dollars in your business, and hoping to reap a profit from that, who are likely to say: Rob, it sure worked with the "xXx" movie, it sure worked with some of your previous films. Can we put in a car chase?

COHEN: Well, you know, in an odd way, car chases are the least violent sequence because it's the joy of destroying an almost fetishistic object: the car. And rarely do we see, you know, brains scrambled on the highway. It's usually just a spectacular crash with an explosion to top it off.

But, you know, when you get down to the area of guns, blood squibs, you know, blood bags, you know, dismemberment and other things, you are getting into that area, which, you know, for most people, it is seen exactly as it's meant: as an entertainment. But unfortunately, when - there are other people in the world who receive this information quite differently, like this guy in Colorado.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation, Laura Lippman, a bestselling crime writer, best known for the Tess Monaghan series. Her latest book, "And When She was Good," comes out later this month. And it's hard to have a crime novel without at least one crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Al(ph) walked back in, placed a gun at the base of Martin's(ph) head and pulled the trigger. Martin never saw it coming. That was the part that amazed Helen(ph). Val(ph) didn't require Martin's fear or foreknowledge any more than he would need to make eye contact with a cockroach before squashing it. Something had annoyed him. He eradicated it. End of story.

CONAN: A clip from the audiobook version of Laura Lippman's "And When She Was Good." The author joins us from member station WYPR in Baltimore, and nice to have you back on the program.

LAURA LIPPMAN: Thank you very much, it's lovely to be here.

CONAN: And you use violence, too, I would say, in a different way than probably Rob Cohen does.

LIPPMAN: Well, you know, first of all, as a novelist, I'm barely involved in what may be called a mass medium. With the death of Gore Vidal this week, I was amused to hear him say a generation ago that to say one is a famous novelist is on a par with saying one is a famous ceramicist: There is no such thing.

So we do, most of us, I mean, there are incredibly well-selling writers who reach audiences that are akin to film audiences, but generally, novelists are writing for a smaller group of people, and because of the format, we are asking our readers to do some of the heavy lifting, to bring their imaginations and be engaged. And I've always seen that as a great advantage.

So it benefits me in terms of what I'm trying to do to be less graphic. I'm not doing that out of some sense of self-censorship or worries about inflaming someone's imagination. I just see it as delivering greater effect to let the reader imagine the worst that they can imagine because it's actually probably more vivid and terrible than anything I can write.

CONAN: What is the role of - you're a crime writer. It's about a crime.

LIPPMAN: Yes, and the crime novel - and it's odd to say this because I'd probably written about 10 of them before I figured this out - I'm a fairly liberal-bordering-on-lefty person, but the crime novel can be a very conservative genre. It usually maintains that the status quo has been disturbed, and it's worth putting back together again. And about order being restored, which is a fairly conservative viewpoint. And as I became aware of that, I've tried to suggest that perhaps the preexisting order wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and yet still that is the journey of a crime novel.

You can - it's very hard to write a crime novel without at least one homicide. That said, I don't think more is more. As bodies pile up in a crime novel, there is the risk of readers becoming desensitized, of them losing the sight of victims. So over the course of my writing career, I've had fewer and fewer deaths in my novel, and I've tried to - you know, tried to write novels in which one death really matters.

There's more than one in the novel that's coming up, but I believe there are fewer than five.

CONAN: The - I wanted to ask you both: Why is a death more powerful or more vivid than a bank heist, something that doesn't involve violence? Rob Cohen, is there something inherent there that gets to the audience's emotions?

COHEN: Well, I think it's so final, and it's an issue with which everyone can empathize. And I think that gives it its drama, and it's very powerful when it's somebody that has been connected to the audience in a film. You know, when you have the death of 500 henchmen in, you know, one of those mass-shooting, killing, action sequences, I don't think anybody worries about the death of cop number three.

But when you know a character, and that character is expunged from the record, it's really affecting, and it hits us, I think, at a very emotional core about our own mortality.

CONAN: And Laura Lippman, for a death, there must be consequences, too.

LIPPMAN: There must be consequences. I mean, the crime novel is very much a novel about some form of justice being achieved. Again, that speaks to some pretty conservative impulses, the idea that perhaps our police and courts will not always deliver justice, but some form of justice might be realized.

And that can tip over into vigilantism, with which I have a very uneasy relationship. It's not something that I would like to put in my books. There's a saying among crime writers, for people who are writing series characters and are writing in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, where the main character is, you know, good and true and honest, down these streets a man must go...

CONAN: Oh, the line from "The Simple Art of Murder."

LIPPMAN: Right, but there's a development known as the sociopathic sidekick, who does all the nasty stuff and leaves the hero or heroine pure. And this is...

CONAN: Hawk, for example, yes.

LIPPMAN: Hawk is a very good example from the "Spencer" series. There are quite a few. And, you know, as someone who loved Robert Parker's books and considered his books to be an inspiration for my early ones, I was very aware of that tradition. I love Hawk, but it's a troubling development.

CONAN: We're talking about the conversations among writers, directors and other artists about the role of violence in their work. In a few minutes, we'll hear from a video game designer about his thoughts after Aurora. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is the TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. And scientists are deeply divided over whether the things we read and watch and play have any link to real-world violence. What we do know is artists often use violence to help tell a story, and after the Colorado theater shooting, many filmmakers, writers, game designers and other artists are thinking more about the role of violence in their work.

So we'd like to hear from artists in the audience. Call and tell us: Why do you use violence? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Our guests are Hollywood director and producer Rob Cohen. Among his many films, "xXx" and "The Fast and the Furious." His latest, "Alex Cross," opens in October. Laura Lippman, bestselling crime writer behind the Tess Monaghan series. Her latest, "And When She Was Good," comes out later this month.

And let's get a caller in on the conversation. We'll start with Christian(ph), and Christian's on the line with us from Hollywood but the one in Florida.

CHRISTIAN: Hi, yes. Neal Conan, it's wonderful to be on the radio with you. Your two guests are awesome. I'm actually a self-published author myself, and I agree completely with what your two guests are talking about. But some things that a lot of people might lose focus on is that violence, at least the way I use it in my story, "Lifeline Chronicles," is - it's a catalyst.

It really does give the reader, the audience a chance to see the protagonist and the antagonist grow out of it. And the ironic part is, at least in my work, I really do try to spin it a bit, where the antagonist becomes the protagonist by seeing their own deeds, their own works, and realizing kind of the wrong of their own ways.

CONAN: A catalyst, Laura Lippman, would you agree?

LIPPMAN: Well, I think what happens with homicide, and the thing that it's always been such an - the reason it's been an appealing subject for so long, is that it tends to rip whatever polite mask society has managed to put up. It puts people in contact across class and other socioeconomic divisions, across race divisions. All sorts of things come into play, and it gives you the feeling that certain truths are being achieved.

It's been amazing, for example, to watch the private eye novel thrive in contemporary Ireland. Dublin, and Ireland in general, are in such a different crossroads where they are that these stories that are about dark secrets and shame - I'm thinking in particular about the novels written by a writer named Declan Hughes - work wonderfully well there in a way they now almost feel anachronistic in the United States. Because in a culture where people go on television talk shows and talk about the things that they - you know, it used to be the reason, the catalyst for murder in old novels, it's getting...

CONAN: And blackmail, too.

LIPPMAN: Yeah, it's getting harder and harder to build a contemporary U.S. crime novel on the issue of shame and blackmail, you know, to come up with reasons for why someone might kill another person when they never would have before. And yet you see in contemporary Ireland it works fantastically well.

And, you know, I have the work of Tana French on my mind, who's writing these police procedurals set in Dublin that are like no one else's right now. So I sort of see that. The thing that I would argue, though, is that part of the reason to write and read crime novels is to contemplate whether anyone in his or her own head, assuming that they're sane, does anyone ever see themselves as the villain?

And I think what can be fascinating in crime novels is seeing someone incrementally work their way toward crossing that line and having it be a character that your reader, who tends to be a middle-class person cozy at home, can, if not totally empathize with, can begin to see this could be someone I know, this could be my neighbor, murder is not something that only happens in faraway precincts to people about whom I don't care.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Christian, and good luck.

CHRISTIAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation, and video games also get their share of criticism for onscreen violence. Chris Hecker is an independent game developer. He didn't design any bloody first-person shooters, but he did develop a game that contains what he calls Pixar violence. Here's a clip from "Spore," a game he helped create while working at Electronic Arts.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "SPORE")

CONAN: Those are dragons, fighting to save their species in the game "Spore." Chris Hecker joins us on the phone from Crescent Butte in Colorado. Nice to have you with us today.

CHRIS HECKER: Hi, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And violence in video games seems to be much more prevalent than either in literature, even crime literature, and even in action movies.

HECKER: Yeah, I mean, part of that is because we're so early in the evolution of the art form of games. And violence is a relatively easy thing to do interactively. We're still trying to figure out how to do other emotions besides power fantasy and frustration and things like that, with interactivity, which is kind of the fundamental differentiator of our art form.

And so this early on, although we're a big business, it's really actually pretty early in us figuring out - you know, from a filmic perspective, they had to figure out how to move the camera, and we're doing the same thing in games.

CONAN: So there are emotions you can't reach yet.

HECKER: Yeah, I mean, there's a whole palette of emotions available to the more, you know, mature art forms like painting and literature and film and that sort of thing that we basically have no idea how to do it in a really interactive way. We can do them in cut scenes, you know, things in between the interactions, but the thing that really is magical about video games, the interaction between the player and the game, it's very hard to figure out how to do emotions besides the normal ones you see, like power fantasy.

CONAN: And it has to be said, there are any number of different kinds of games, and not all of them involve violence, but the big games, the ones that make the $25 billion, are the first-person shooters.

HECKER: Well, yeah, I mean, there's a whole bunch of genres, like first-person shooters, that are less violent, that have a similar level of commercial success. And a lot of games that are commercially successful, or big games, like taking for example "Spore" that you played the clip from, there are combat ways of playing "Spore," and then there are social ways of playing "Spore."

But the combat provides that emotional punch, you know, that - like people were saying earlier, like Laura and Rob were saying, it provides that impact, and it's just trying to do that, trying to do a love story in a video game, where the love story itself is interactive, is just a research problem for the next couple decades, basically.

CONAN: So what do you do? Do you feel like, first of all, with that narrow a palette, it's difficult to say anything profound?

HECKER: Yeah, well, I mean, there's certainly - I mean, as you said at the very - in the intro, like, there are profound things you can say with violence. It's been part of the, you know, speaking to the human condition for a very long time. You know, you go into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there are a lot of very violent paintings that are very profound. The question is broadening it.

There's a growing movement of game developers who are trying to broaden it, but like I said, it's just a very difficult problem. So it's usually small, more experimental games that are trying it.

CONAN: And is it, the problem, compounded by the fact that, like Rob Cohen's industry, video games, it's a business, it's a big, commercial business?

HECKER: Yeah, exactly. I mean, in a large-scale game like "Call of Duty" or something like that, I mean, someone's investing $50 million, and when someone's investing $50 million, they want their $50 million back. And so the best way to do that is to do what works, and what works right now are the kind of established genres.

That's why, I mean, the game I'm working on now is an indie game I'm working on by myself, and I can try a lot more experimental stuff.

CONAN: It's your $50 million.

HECKER: Or my $100,000, as the case may be.

CONAN: Rob Cohen, I wanted to ask you: Clearly there is interaction between video games and movies these days. More and more video games are being transferred to film.

COHEN: Yes, and it's interesting that very few of them work in the translation. And I think what Mr. Hecker was talking about is so accurate is that it is the interactivity, and when you remove the interactivity - because film is many things, but one thing it is not at this point is interactive. It is a narrative that someone has constructed and presents to the audience, which they either adhere to and make emotional connections to, or they don't.

And there is no chance of altering it by a given audience member's personality or, you know, decision chain, if you will. And so when these games are translated, they lose that special thing that the game world has given us, and I think that's one of the reasons that many of them, you know, have fallen into very bad results.

CONAN: Laura Lippman, I don't know if you play video games, but I do know you have a kid, and sooner or later, that video game will present itself.

LIPPMAN: Yes, I have a two-year-old who is already very adept at using an iPad and an iPhone to find the items that she wants on it. You know, I don't worry overly about this. I'm certainly following, you know, advice about screen time and just trying to limit that in general. But, you know, I saw "Bonnie and Clyde" when I was eight years old, and I mean, I guess we can argue about how I turned out...

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I've been meaning to ask you about those banks you knocked over back in Kansas.

(LAUGHTER)

LIPPMAN: This conversation has been with us for a very long time, and I think as a parent, the larger mission is to talk to your kids and to provide them the context for understanding something. I have a terrible memory, so I'm going to screw up the title of a very wonderful film. It's the World War II film about the guys who go after the gold. It's someone's gold. This is awful that I can't remember it. But it was the first film that my stepson - who's now 18 - ever saw in which the main characters are not behaving heroically. You know, they were out for themselves. They're going back for the gold and...

CONAN: This is a Clint Eastwood movie...

LIPPMAN: Yes.

CONAN: ...and I'm failing to remember the name of it, too. But, yeah.

LIPPMAN: And this was a great conversation for him to have with his father, to talk about heroes and antiheroes and how one behaves in certain circumstances and how...

CONAN: "Kelly's Gold," I think.

LIPPMAN: Yes. That's it or...

COHEN: Well done, Neal.

LIPPMAN: ..."Kelly's Heroes."

CONAN: Thank you. "Kelly's Heroes" or something like that.

COHEN: "Kelly's Heroes," that's it.

(LAUGHTER)

LIPPMAN: "Kelly's Heroes." That's it. I set you on the wrong path. But at any rate, you know, I've always felt, you know, certainly, you try to control what your kids watch and see, but, you know, I was someone who was pretty sneaky. I said I saw "Bonnie and Clyde" when I was eight. I sneaked into "Don't Look Now," an amazing film based on a Daphne Du Maurier film, when I was 13. It was a movie that was rated R at the time. I was reading "Lolita" when I was 12.

And I'm pretty comfortable with how I turned out. So I, you know, as always, it falls on adults in children's lives to set limits and have conversations. But there's - I'm not for much in the way of self-censorship. I think it's great that people like Rob are being reflective. It's always good to be reflective about our work and how it's being received.

You know, the fact is - and I'm not the first person to make this point - when we've had horrible incidents like this in other venues, you know, we didn't look at what happened in Killeen, Texas, back in the '90s and say, OK. We've got to talk about cafeterias and what they're serving. We don't look at schools. We don't look at workplaces. We live in a violent society. In some ways, I'm surprised this hasn't happened more often.

CONAN: That's Laura Lippman, author of the Tess Monaghan crime series. "And When She Good" comes out later this month. We're also speaking with Rob Cohen, film producer and director known for "The Fast and the Furious," "xXx." "Alex Cross" comes out in October. Chris Hecker is an independent game developer. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's go to Lewis, Lewis with us from San Francisco.

LEWIS: Yes. Hi, there. Thanks for taking the call. I'm on the Bay Bridge and about to go into the tunnel. So if I lose you...

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: ...I'll get this in quick. With regards to gaming and violence in gaming, I used to be a game tester here in the Bay Area. And I'm a strong proponent of finding outlets for things like violence. And I'm not talking about like shooting people down in the theater. I'm talking about playing the game, because it gets that innate nature of violence we all have inside of us out in a safe manner. So if you're blowing up pixels, all you've done was destroy electrons, right?

You know, I hear a lot of talk about how, you know, oh, it might be the food we're eating or it could be how the person was brought up. I just inherently think - and I'm sure a lot of people agree with me - that sometimes in this grand pool of people who are all forced to live so close to each other, that there are some physiological things that are just going on with some people, and they don't know how to find that outlet...

CONAN: Well...

LEWIS: ...right?

CONAN: Perhaps, that's it, but we don't really know that connection yet. But Chris Hecker, the catharsis argument for video games.

HECKER: Right, I mean, that's - like you said at the very beginning, and I was glad that you said it. It's like, we just don't know, right? I mean, it's a topic of, you know, psychological and sociological research about what the impact of violent media is on people. And I have no idea what the answer to that question is. I think we need to be thoughtful about how we use violence. It's interesting, you were saying - Laura was saying, actually, very early on in her beginning part where you get desensitize as the bodies pile up. And I think that's totally true.

And in games, it actually happens - it actually - in some sense, it's used as an advantage. When there's - take a first-person shooter, for example. It's not so much when you're playing that game. It's not so much about murdering another human being. It becomes a game, in some sense. It becomes a more symbolic representation, like the difference in your brain between playing "Tetris" and playing "Call of Duty" is not as great as you might imagine.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Sarah in Ogden, Utah: Your discussions reminded me that when my nephew plays, he always wants to be the bad guy. This is a big change from when I was a kid. We always wanted to be the good guy, the hero and save the day. Rob Cohen, this is back to the conundrum of the charismatic bad guy.

COHEN: Yeah. I mean, I think that is - really is a thing to really look at in the zeitgeist, if I can use that exhausted phrase. But it's that suddenly a character like The Joker with this charismatic performance of Heath Ledger and the enormous talent and skill of Christopher Nolan, created a character that so out-shadowed the hero - and even the hero in the Batman trilogy, even Batman himself is not a purely heroic character. He has a very dark, twisted and somewhat neurotic side to him.

And part of that exploration of darkness may, in fact, reflect - as Rudolf Arnheim's book "From Caligari to Hitler" - where you look at the evolution of certain kinds of films to reflect the growing social movements and unrest. We may be seeing this era, because all our heroes have fallen short or proven not to be. You then get this love of a rather omnipotent antihero and putting your faith in that kind of maverick, as opposed to what you're normally presented.

CONAN: But, Laura Lippman, if your hero is going to be - has to have a worthy opponent, no?

LIPPMAN: Actually, I would say perhaps not. I have written only two books that feature people that could even be remotely described as serial killers, and I hear it's pretty close to the real-life description, which is not a super-genius, Hannibal Lecter-type person, but usually a person of slightly below-average IQ, but possibly with a sense of being more intelligent, more powerful than he is. And it usually is a he. There have been very few female serial killers.

I - certainly a certain kind of book relies on that adversarial relationship, but I don't think it's the only kind of way to write a crime novel. And I think, in some ways, there's a lot of power in the banal realities of what a 14-year-old kid with a gun can do.

CONAN: Laura Lippman joined us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks very much for your time.

LIPPMAN: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Rob Cohen with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thank you.

COHEN: Great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And on the phone with us from Crested Butte, Colorado, Chris Hecker. Thanks for your time.

HECKER: Thank you so much.

CONAN: When we come back, Chris Hedges. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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