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Hollywood and its gun fetish

Sean Penn is Mickey Cohen in the new film “Gangster Squad.”
Sean Penn is Mickey Cohen in the new film “Gangster Squad.”Wilson Webb/Warner Brothers Pictures/Wilson Webb

So I just watched the trailer for “Gangster Squad,” and it goes something like this: Gun, gun, shot of phallic-looking building, Ryan Gosling, gun, firefight, is that Nick Nolte?, firefight, guns getting handed out like candy, someone getting hit with a gun barrel, guy pointing gun in other guy’s face, gun, gun, firefight, explosion, raid involving guns, casings falling cinematically to the floor.

It’s two and a half minutes long, so I left out a lot of guns.

Less than a month after the Newtown tragedy, this is what Hollywood is peddling, without shame: A firearms-glorifying culture that competes, inside our brains, with the impulse to stop the spread of actual firearms. A few weeks ago, the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns posted a video featuring outraged-looking movie stars, urging the public to rally for gun control. Someone soon reposted it on YouTube, spliced with images of those actors shooting guns onscreen.

The blanket charge of hypocrisy wasn’t entirely fair. Some of those scenes were actually trying to spoof gun culture. Sometimes violence is used in the service of art. And studios wouldn’t make these movies if the public didn’t want them, right?


Well, maybe, maybe not. There is an argument that holds that violence is part of our nature — that boys make fake guns with their fingers, so it’s inevitable that someday they’ll demand movies about people mauling each other with Uzis. But that doesn’t mean that glamour shots of high-caliber weapons are woven into the human condition.

That’s why it’s instructive to compare the state of guns in movies to the state of cigarettes — and to talk to Stanton Glantz, a University of California-San Francisco cardiologist. He heads up an effort called Smoke-Free Movies. And he contends that smoking in American culture was partly created by the cinema.

In the 1930s, per capita cigarette consumption was no greater than it is today, Glantz told me. But tobacco companies, savvy about the power of movie marketing, struck up endorsement deals with actors, then arranged to cross-promote the films in cigarette ads.

By mixing cigarettes with Hollywood glamour, they created a romantic depiction of smoking that doesn’t have a lot to do with real life. (If you’ve spent time in the presence of a chain smoker, you know what I mean.) It does have a lot in common, though, with the stylized way that guns are used in film.


I’m not suggesting some vast conspiracy between the studios and the NRA. But the gun lobby understands that glamorizing firearms is very good for business. When the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre was blaming “blood-soaked slasher films” for Newtown, he neglected to mention that the NRA National Firearms Museum was showing an exhibit called “Hollywood Guns.”

So can we separate the onscreen glut of guns with the gun-control mood of the nation? That’s unclear. Glantz has worked for years to get cigarettes out of movies, with mixed success. Some studios have adopted formal policies to curb images of smoking, he says. But in 2011, they showed as much smoking, in their youth-rated movies, as studios that had no smoking policies at all.

So Glantz is pushing to affect the bottom line. He’s lobbying the Motion Picture Association of America — which currently has few rules that trigger automatic ratings — to slap an R rating on any movie with cigarettes, unless it deals with historical figures. (R movies, he said, tend to make less money than PG-13 ones.)

He’s also focused on Congress’s fiscal cliff deal, which includes a substantial tax break for movie and TV producers. He wants to withhold tax breaks from movies that show smoking.

Some of these tactics might apply to an industry that’s bent on self-policing over guns. (“Gangster Squad” is rated ‘R,’ with strong violence warnings, while “The Dark Knight Rises” earned a PG-13, maybe because of its comic-book context.) As one of my colleagues has suggested, states could withhold film tax credits from movies that fetishize guns.


And, of course, moviegoers could vote with their feet at the box office, saying “no” to movies that fetishize gun violence for its own sake. “Gangster Squad” may be artistic, and if you’re a Ryan Gosling groupie, by all means, buy a ticket. But if it’s just a violence fix you’re looking for, why waste $11? All you need to do is watch the trailer 48 times.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannnaWeiss.