Popcorn, recently performed at the Grand Theatre, Lancaster, is a play based on a 1996 novel by Ben Elton and is perhaps a satirical tribute to Oliver Stone’s 1994 film, Natural Born Killers which portrays violence, family upbringing and abuse as factors in creating killers. That film’s self-conscious portrayal of media-propelled voyeurism was maybe intended to get audiences to question whether in viewing the film they are becoming implicit in promoting and excusing violence. Natural Born Killers was initially banned in England, apparently because it glamorised serial killing. In America, critic John Grisham went so far as to suggest that film makers should be made legally accountable for inspiring real life murders after a couple went on a killing spree in Texas. At the time I remember thinking that what was more likely to cause offence to those who controlled the media was its powerful attack on the media through, for example, its satirical use of a TV-style comedy perspective to represent sexual abuse within the family as being jovially dysfunctional.
Popcorn centres on a film director, Bruce Delamitri, who makes movies which are said to glamorise violence. It mainly takes place at his after-award ceremony party which is hi-jacked by a couple, “The Mall Murderers”, on a copy-cat killing spree which is seen to mimic that of characters in his films. The play is perhaps a less morally loaded critique of the media than Natural Born Killers and more a critique of wider society’s blame culture.
Within Popcorn, film director Bruce Delamitri faces widespread criticism for inspiring murder through portraying it as cool. However his films are still in high demand and he wins a prestigious award. In this sense the audiences of his films can be seen to condone their violence by consuming not rejecting the films. To counter his critics, he presents the well-used argument that human beings are not passive recipients. They do not simply process his films as instructions and then go out killing in robotic like fashion. Violence has always been in society, he argues. Like Delamitri, however, “The Mall Murderers” also do not take any responsibility for the killings, blaming them both on Delamitri’s films and on past abuse and a dysfunctional family background. In fact no one takes responsibility for anything, “the story is full of witticism and when some one dies you feel nothing”. (Wikipedia)
In order to feel, the creators of Popcorn are perhaps asking us to take back responsibility. Take back responsibility as consumers and as actors and to take responsibility for society as a whole. Saying that that’s how things have always been or will always be is not an excuse.
Whether or not violence on TV, the theatre or in computer games can play a part in promoting violence in wider society, as socialists we believe that a large amount of violence that does exist is a characteristic of class society. In class society institutionalised violence lies at its foundations in the power of the military and the police. In class society an economic system cherishes money and power to the detriment of human beings. Commodity is valued over community and well-being, so that we grow up to be insecure while surrounding signals tell us that consuming products will make us better – by the age of thirteen, 75 percent of what children are told about themselves is negative.
I work with young people, a significant percentage of who have been labelled as “growing up in deprivation.” Many of these young people have been the victims of violence and many have learnt to stop feeling by disassociating themselves from their experiences. Furthermore, some have learnt to disassociate themselves from their own behaviour enabling them to hold the view that their current behaviour and actions are not their fault. This way of looking at the world is supported by a prevailing culture of blame. While the violence they faced certainly wasn’t their fault and one can never underestimate how difficult it may be to survive, it is crucial for the future well-being of these young people for them to learn to recognise that how they choose to behave now, within the limits of capitalism, is their choice. They do not, for example, need to continue a family history of violence. Tragically some choose prison over the violence of poverty and the purposeless they experience outside. What is critical, however, for these young people and for those whose lives have not been so damaged, what is critical for all of us to move in a positive direction is the need to begin to take responsibility for actions and the society we are part of. Simply blaming the socio-cultural environment we grew up in for the world we live in can be an excuse for inaction and a barrier to change.
Of course Popcorn doesn’t go far enough. Taking personal responsibility will not necessarily free us from alienation, poverty and violence, but it is a start. Of course we know that boycotting a product, going on a demo, recycling our rubbish or giving to a charity won’t change things either, apart from perhaps creating a sense of individual smugness. How many people ‘did their bit’ in the Poll Tax riots or Reclaim The Streets marches and now sit on their imaginary laurels passing the buck? It is easy to critique capitalism. It may be easy for us to blame our own behaviour on it and it is not always easy to feel motivated to organise for change, especially after a hard day of wage slavery. However, the only way to bring about radical social change is for us to take responsibility for our lives and take responsibility for organising for a socialist world. We have no desire to reform a system which depends on violence and control over others but to build one based on common ownership and mutual cooperation.