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This story first appeared in the August 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Peter Bogdanovich is no stranger to violence — either onscreen or off. In an eerie foreshadowing of the Colorado tragedy, his very first film, 1968’s Targets, starring Boris Karloff, ends with a sniper, an angry Vietnam War vet, picking off teenagers at a drive-in movie theater. But while that movie reflected the rising discord of the late ’60s, it wasn’t until 1980 that Bogdanovich experienced, first-hand, the full impact of violence when his companion, Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy model and actress, was brutally murdered by her estranged husband.
People go to a movie to have a good time, and they get killed. It’s a horrible, horrible event. It makes me sick that I made a movie about it.
We made Targets 44 years ago. It was based on something that happened in Texas, when that guy Charles Whitman shot a bunch of people after killing his mother and his wife. Paramount bought it, but then was terrified by it when Martin Luther King was killed and Bobby Kennedy was killed. The studio didn’t want to release the film at all. So they released it with a pro-gun-control campaign, but that made the picture seem like a documentary to people, and it didn’t do too well.
It was meant to be a cautionary fable. It was a way of saying the Boris Karloff kind of violence, the Victorian violence of the past, wasn’t as scary as the kind of random violence that we associate with a sniper — or what happened last weekend. That’s modern horror. At first, some of the people [at The Dark Knight Rises] thought it was part of the movie. That’s very telling.
Violence on the screen has increased tenfold. It’s almost pornographic. In fact, it is pornographic. Video games are violent, too. It’s all out of control. I can see where it would drive somebody crazy.
I’m in the minority, but I don’t like comic book movies. They’re not my cup of tea. What happened to pictures like How Green Was My Valley or even From Here to Eternity? They’re not making those kind of movies anymore. They are either making tentpole pictures based on comic books or specialty pictures that you pray someone will go see.
The fact that these tentpole movies are all violent comic book movies doesn’t speak well for our society.
Obviously, there is violence in the world, and you have to deal with it. But there are other ways to do it without showing people getting blown up. One of the most horrible movies ever made was Fritz Lang’s M, about a child murderer. But he didn’t show the murder of the child. The child is playing with a rubber ball and a balloon. When the killer takes her behind the bushes, we see the ball roll out from the bushes. And then he cuts to the balloon flying up into the sky. Everybody who sees it feels a different kind of chill up their back, a horrible feeling. So this argument that you have to have violence shown in gory details is not true. It’s much more artistic to show it in a different way.
Today, there’s a general numbing of the audience. There’s too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible. Back in the ’70s, I asked Orson Welles what he thought was happening to pictures, and he said, “We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.” The respect for human life seems to be eroding.
The other point I would make: Even with all the murders in the United States since the Kennedys were killed, very few people have experienced murder directly. Generally speaking, the average person hasn’t experienced it, and the average director hasn’t experienced it. I think if they had, they would make their films differently. We had a murder in our family when Dorothy was killed, and I can’t begin to describe how horrible it is. It’s too easy to show murders in movies now. There are too many of them, and it’s too easy. There is a general lack of respect for life, because it’s so easy to just kill people.
Nothing’s changed in 44 years [since Targets]. Things have gotten worse when it comes to the control of guns. This guy in Colorado legally had an arsenal. What’s an AK attack rifle for? What is that for but to kill people? It’s not for hunting. Why is it for sale? It boggles the mind.
Dorothy was murdered by a guy who was not even legally in the United States, and he bought a gun here. It’s out of control. Anytime there’s a massacre, which is almost yearly now, we say, “Well, it’s not the guns. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people” and all that bullshit from the NRA. Politicians are afraid to touch it because of the right wing. And nothing ever changes. We’re living in the Wild West.
I’m not sure what the solution is. I just know that the violence in this country is out of control. And the fact that guns are so easy to get is chilling. But nobody wants to blame the movies. Nobody wants to blame guns. And yet, it’s so easy to buy them and there are more murders in this country than anywhere else.
I’m not too eloquent on the subject. I’m just too angry about it.
— As told to Gregg Kilday
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