In sort of an honor to Wes Craven I made time this labor day weekend to watch the first three Scream films. I refuse to see the fourth movie again, since I think it might be one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. While the third film isn’t very good, I find it decent when compared to the fourth.
But on with my point.
Aside from John Carpenter, I can’t think of another horror filmmaker who was absolutely perfect for his time. Maybe Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe (Nosferatu) was as well, but that would be getting into the history of German filmmaking and I’m far more familiar with the history of American cinema, which is a major factor in what I want to address here.
I suppose many people forget (Americans tend to have a collective short memory) that violence in entertainment was a huge issue in the 1990s. For those who don’t remember it was the hot button issue of the decade. Ranging from music to movies to video games to the internet (still in its infancy), the depiction of violence in entertainment was one of the issues Senator Bob Dole ran his Presidential campaign on. For all the film buffs out there Dole is directly mentioned in Scream 2, along with the Christian Coalition who were spending millions of dollars to help censor art that depicted violence and spoke naughty language (South Park). While this might seem strange now, it was no joke in the 90s. Tipper Gore (Al Gore’s wife) took credit when the police raided Jello Biafra’s home (former singer of The Dead Kennedys) and she was extremely instrumental in putting parental warning labels on music albums. This backfired in a beautiful way though because once they labeled those albums kids wanted nothing more than to own them. So, strangely, it was a victory in some sense for free speech warriors.
One of the great and brilliant free speech warriors of that era was Wes Craven. What makes the Scream franchise (excluding the fourth film) so fantastic is that it’s a commentary on itself. Many people during those days were asking if there was a correlation between watching violent movies and committing violent acts. Craven was smart enough to make a film calling that into question.
Scream is a film about the horror movie audience. At the time one could have easily asked, “Is the horror movie dead?” when characters literally broke down the rules of how to survive a horror film. But here lies its brilliance: most of the rules are broken. And when you murder off the lovable Drew Barrymore in the opening scene, no one is safe. Anyone can go at any time. That’s what makes the film so thrilling.
The politics of the film make it very clear that when serial killers or mass murderers act upon their impulses to kill there is no big secret as to why. The Columbine massacre is a great example. People were asking what movies those two kids were watching, what music they were listening to, what video games they were playing, etc. What Scream did was answer why. And the answer is not that difficult. Serial killers, mass murderers kill because they choose to. There is no other reason. The films ask people to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. This is what made Craven perfect for his time. He knew that he had to get right into the middle of the conversation if he wanted the truth to be spoken and he did so by doing what he did best: he made a horror movie that asked questions, but then showed you the truth.
In the the third film there is a line about how pop culture would be the politics of the 21st century. It’s something of a throw away line, but I found it rather prophetic. There is no distinction in our country between entrainment and culture. That line has been entirely erased as far as I can tell. The media has played a large role in this transformation (or perhaps decimation) of our society. If there was any winner in the 20th century regarding the ideological wars it was consumerism. To consume is the duty of every American. We’re not taught in this country to think about the system as a whole really at all. We’re trained to accept it and work within it. We’re taught to accept what we’re taught, not critique it. To consume, not sacrifice. To accept authority, not question it. To have one universal God whose name is money. This is why I think John Carpenter’s They Live should be required viewing, but it’s, more or less, a forgotten masterpiece from the Hollywood Left. It’s entertaining, yes, but it has one of the most profound socio-political commentaries on the acquisitive society in which we find ourselves in that I ever seen in a piece of art.
Approximately one year from now we will be closing in on an election that will look more like a farce rather than a campaign. I hesitate to even call it an election. It will perhaps be the greatest form of sensationalism in my lifetime. The likelihood that Donald Trump will be our next President doesn’t seem so outrageous if we think about the culture we have collectively built in this country. The politicians aren’t even pretending anymore. At least not the conservatives. At least not Trump. The conservatives are making their fangs very visible and the masses seem to want to see themselves in that image. I don’t think Craven could have created anything scarier. I find it to be very dangerous when a population is so willingly ignorant, blood thirsty, and takes pride in such a matter. But this has been going on for decades. Its been going on since the birth of this nation. Long before films existed. And many, many people have died because of this willful ignorance. And many more people will die because of it.
I give my thanks to Craven. In a way, artists won the battle he was facing in the 90s. The idea of a correlation between violence in entertainment and actual violence is almost universally seen as absurd now. The ‘moral majority’ lost that one. But that doesn’t really matter now. Craven and Carpenter were great warriors, but the war seems to have been lost. Our government doesn’t need to censor anything. They have an awesome media that can and does drown out or distort any serious form of dissent or critique. Critical thinking about the society in which we live has become so rare that people dismiss it as radicalism, even if what’s being called into question has their own interests at heart. That’s how far the Right has pushed our country’s political agenda. Thinking about or daring to question the system as a whole is just crazy talk. The ‘moral majority’ won that one.
I’ve heard many theories as to why we live in such a violent country. The primary one is gun control, which is an issue that has survived from the 90s in a way that violence in entertainment has not. But, personally, I don’t really believe that gun control is the issue. I think it would be naive to believe that stricter gun control laws would stop people from killing one another, especially when there are over 100 million guns on the ground in America and, frankly, they’re not going away. Something deeper is at play here. If only we had those special sunglasses from They Live!
I feel very out of step with my times. I don’t pretend to understand why certain things are revered and why important ideas have been discredited or simply forgotten. I could guess, but that’s all it would be: a guess. I have no original grand theory or solution to the violence that occurs in our society. I’m an old fashioned Leftist in that respect. I question the validity of the state and authoritarianism. That may have something to do with it, but that’s nothing new. Whatever the answer is I remain perplexed. There is no simple answer here. Because the massive violence that goes on and on in our society is a reality. Far more complicated than a movie.
Rest in peace, Mr. Craven.