I’m not a zealous follower of the news cycle. I hear a lot (how could you not?) and much scrolls past my face (how could it not?), but clicking on “trending” links isn’t what I do because it rots the soul, winnows away our humanity, pushes us into an airless world where the same words, phrases, and tired arguments are sounded and re-sounded.
Anything that we comment on requires that that thing be put constantly in front of our faces. You don’t have to look for them. It’s not like reading about what Faulkner’s life was like, or how to bake French bread, or what state the trails Lewis and Clark once blazed are in today. If Windex were made a staple of the news cycle we would argue about shades of blue, if something were too blue, too diluted, and so on—like simple-minded obsessives in ranty, half-cocked arguments that might as well be banged out on social media in all caps.
There are advantages to not burying your eyeballs in trending links. You learn things other people busy frothing at the mouth don’t. You have a different perspective. Fresh eyes, to mix a metaphor, but tell a truth. These things can grow your soul, help you understand who you are, are not, should be, could be. Note that verb “be”—can be a very active verb. It’s not an “I’ll-just-wait-for-the-topic-of-the-day-to-trend-on-Facebook” kind of verb. It’s a go-out-and-get-or-make-yourself-some-meaning verb.
Lately that active way of being has produced in me a dual-level lesson on the subject of guns. The idea of going to school to learn, to meet with friends and make new friends, to fall out with your friends, and then perhaps be hunted as you do so, is as crazy an idea as exists in American society. The craziness shows in how people choose to express themselves. So it was with the reports of the Santa Fe shooting that I became horrified by language as an indicator of where we are.
When you see a construction like, “The Santa Fe shooting was the deadliest in American history since . . . ,” that construction works such that the tail end of it will read something like “Burbank, 1923.” That’s just how the constructs of language operate. It’s like a chord in music: A certain resolution, within a fairly narrow range of possibilities, follows. It’s not that the ear predicts what will happen, but rather that what the ear hears makes sense to it, and to the mind beyond.
The Parkland, Florida shooting was, of course, in February of this year, which is how that aforementioned construction resolved. What one might then have noted was that the Santa Fe, Texas shooting was down the news cycle in many sources. It wasn’t the story of the day or the weekend, just one of a handful of “top trenders.” And I thought, “Is everyone freaking insane now?” There’s a 1932 movie called The Most Dangerous Game, in which this crazy guy living on an island around which lots of shipwrecks happen rounds up the people who drift in, puts them in what should be a safe environment, and then says to them: “Okay, get out in the woods, I’m going to hunt all of you; I’ll give you a head start.”
Nutso idea for a movie, but it has a real-life variation in the public schools of America, and the language with which we treat these horrors has become frighteningly banal. Evil at its worst—as Hannah Arendt insisted—is evil at its most banal, because when it loses its ability to shock it gains an ability to ingratiate, to seep into everything as it becomes a part of the status quo. The new normal arrives by gradual enough degrees that no one notes the transformation, even in how we talk about it. We now talk about it, often enough, like we talk about kids eating detergent pods. Some of the kids in Santa Fe were not even surprised that a shooter turned up in their school. It’s now become just something that happens. It’s just a matter of whether it happens in your zip code, on your floor, in your classroom, and if it’s you, rather than someone else, who ends up inside of crosshairs.
I think of the shooters, too. How a child gets to that point so early in life. How does a child get there now, when a child did not get there 30 years ago? When do we see this age of fragmentation, of digital platforms disconnecting us not only from each other, but ourselves, for what it is? It is a virtual world, not a reality-based world, where people less frequently need to assess what is real and adapt to it, but rather say, “Nah, I’m good, I’m growing my own narrative, and what’s real to me is going to be my new reality.”
I didn’t have many friends in high school; I did have a few close friends. I never needed more than a handful, since a true friend is a true rarity and a false friend is only a slight upgrade over an unctuous enemy. Every high school kid with a brain and a soul experiences angst. But angst doesn’t explain shooting your peers. Even out-of-control, super-sized, melodramatic high school angst doesn’t explain it. What explains it, in part, is the head-long internalization of reality, where reality is privatized, corrupted, turned from a bright beam of light into something emanating from behind many carpetings of dirty gauze deployed to stop a kind of internal emotional hemorrhaging from spilling out, so that parents, teachers, and others might see.
Inside of us, that once-external reality gets worked on. Distended. It becomes compromised. Broken down. It retains some elements of what is real—which allows that individual to pass through the world as someone who would surprise us by doing this, but at the same time, most of us are doing our version of the same thing. We see not so much what we want to see, but what we have to see as a survival mechanism, because now a part of our wiring suggests that the truth would be too much for us. We are less vigilant observers. People are in howling pain in this world of disconnection where everyone pretends, on social media, to be the paragon of happiness, each one of us Strawberry Shortcake in the brightest pink dress of unfettered joy.
As I was reading about Santa Fe, mulling all of this, I was also watching a newly released Blu-ray of one of the finest films I’ve ever seen. It’s called Gun Crazy, from 1950, directed by Joseph H. Lewis. It’s a film noir about Bart Tare, played by John Dall, who has a troubled youth. He robs a store but is helped out by a sympathetic judge with a mild reform school stint. Bart is also a whiz with a gun, a virtuosic marksman. But he accidentally kills a young chick in a flashback sequence, and remorse transforms his face as if a torch had been taken to a lump of soft clay. Bart has a few good friends and retains them, one of whom becomes a police officer. After Bart gets out of the Army, where he had been teaching marksmanship, he goes with his friends to a carnival where he meets Annie Laurie Starr (played by the excellent and recently deceased Peggy Cummins), a trick shooter who is nearly as good as Bart is.
You need to see the joint-seduction scene that ensues, among the most erotic in all of cinema even though—maybe because—it’s not trying to be. It is erotic in large part because these two virile individuals are bound to deeply love each other, but they only suspect it; they don’t yet know it. Love is hard to depict on screen. When you move towards something you are going to love someday, it just hits you a certain way the first time you encounter it, and Lewis makes that kind of hit—for Bart, Annie, and us—register in the first scene where we all come together.
Annie is upfront about how she views her moral standing, telling Bart that she’s bad, but she’ll try to reform for him. Lewis knew the mood he was looking for and was quite the charmer in describing it after the fact: “I told John, ‘Your cock’s never been so hard,’ and I told Peggy, ‘You’re a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don’t let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.’” Masterpiece Theatre this isn’t. We are much too quick to lead with the flesh in this age of sexts and genitalia pics, and while Gun Crazy isn’t that overt, for all of the real connection between these two, we see that disconnection is bound to follow. He is something, and she wants to be something she is not, which makes him try to be something he is not, because their bond is real, and some form of tragedy can be the only result.
The car sequence, shot from the inside in a single take with Lewis having ripped out the back seat, mounting a special camera on a swivel, is bravura filmmaking. This would be one of Orson Welles’s greatest shots. By then, these people have done some bad things. They didn’t set out to do bad things, but they have done bad things with guns. As I watched this film for perhaps the 30th time, I thought about its resonance now. Could people even watch this today?
You don’t want the lives of these two people to end badly. Every time I’ve seen it after that first time, I almost want the film to be some surprise, unreleased edition, a different cut with a different ending. I don’t mean some homespun renouncing of guns. No one in Gun Crazy is using automatic weapons. I wrestle with the idea that Bart and Annie would have had the problems they had anyway, even on a deadly level, even without guns. Bart saves his two friends from childhood in the end. I guess one might say he saves himself as well and, in doing so, he saves something of the woman who loved him. A lot of the saving comes via guns, too: The literal saving, the metaphorical saving.
The gun is such a potent symbol in a film like this in part because of its phallic nature, which Lewis plays up. He had censors to get around, after all. The penis-shaped device that has something emerge from its tip was useful. And with the physical organ, life, in a fashion, comes out, and so much waste comes out, too, depending on what its user is up to in that moment. But it’s more the language of Gun Crazy that is so telling. There is passion in it, and ardor when it describes Bart’s better qualities. Annie is anything but status quo, too, and again the language used to speak about her shows it. The friendships between Bart and his buddies cut deep and these men, too, talk about them in terms that reflect that depth. Nothing is ever banal, nothing is ever viewed as “well, what can you do, nothing to see here.”
This is why you know, when the film ends, that what happened here began and ended with two people who also loved each other. A tragedy has been completed; an epidemic is not about to follow. You watch Gun Crazy, and then you remember Santa Fe, Texas and yearn for a completed tragedy. You want it to be “the end,” not “tune in next week.”