Gangster Squad, an upcoming film about the L.A. police’s fight against the East Coast Mafia, has decided to cut a pivotal scene in response to Friday’s shooting of moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado. Eerily similar to the Dark Knight Rises tragedy, the scene shows armed men stepping from behind the screen at a movie theater, then shooting into the audience.
Hollywood tends to censor cinematic violence that parallels real-life tragedy. Neighborhood Watch, a comedy starring Ben Stiller, changed its title to The Watch to distance itself from George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed black teenager Trayvon Martin earlier this year; the 2001 Brad Pitt movie Spy Game reduced the amount of smoke in a bombing scene because it too much resembled the destroyed Twin Towers of 9/11. Whether movies should change in response to actual events depends partly on how we understand movies, which we have yet to clear up. In the meantime, however, directors shouldn’t have to choose between keeping or removing offensive material, because there’s a middle ground solution.
Many audiences and directors see movies as entertainment — for pure enjoyment, comfort, or amusement — so it makes sense that filmmakers remove potentially offensive material. From this perspective, movies are commodities of a consumer culture that should cater to the audience’s interests. Filmmakers do not need to uphold freedom of expression or artistic rights, instead focusing on satisfying the viewers. So in one way, Gangster Squad and The Watch are not doing anything wrong.
On the other hand, many viewers and filmmakers define movies as art. As creative expression that challenges or provokes us, artistic movies do not need to please everyone. As Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman once said, “No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.” Whether the change is substantial or not, movies should not compromise anything to gratify the audience on principle.
These either-or labels are not always helpful. Audience members argue about whether Dark Knight Rises classifies as entertainment or art. Directors may intend to create pure entertainment, but audience may call it a masterpiece. Above all, these simple definitions of entertainment and art are not mutually exclusive. Things get messy because we disagree about how to define different movies, and whether these definitions are mutually exclusive.
So how can we reconcile clashing perspectives? For situations such as Gangster Squad, one solution could require movie makers to warn audiences about potentially insensitive material before ticket purchase without spoilers. “Warning: a scene in the film unintentionally evokes the Colorado shooting of movie-goers” could flash on computer screens before online payment, or could be relayed by ticket sales people at the counter. Everyone can find the best of both worlds — viewers who don’t care can proceed to enjoy the film without spoilers, audience members who appreciate the warning but still want to see the film can go in prepared, and people who would rather not watch the scene can choose not to watch the film. Filmmakers aren’t forced to censor themselves, and viewers who choose to watch won’t be offended. It’s imperfect, but it’s a compromise for an industry and a consumer base with hazy intentions and goals.