Death Wish

Hollywood is full of liberals because Hollywood is all about fantasy, and out here we know the difference between fantasy and reality. The studios are called dream factories, but they are, really, factories. They’re big and ugly. There’s a cluster of them in the dreary flats south of Hollywood and Vine and the tourists, miles and miles of light industry and warehouses. The old RKO studios are down there, with that sad pastel globe from the old days up on the roof. Joe Kennedy, the president’s father once owned RKO. Howard Hughes owned RKO for a time, but long ago it was folded into Paramount Pictures, the vast complex that surrounds it now. But Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers danced under that globe. That was Rio in Flying Down to Rio. That was London, when it was a lovely day to get caught in the rain. That was fantasy, something to sell to the rubes in existential despair out there in the thirties. Now, what’s left of RKO is surrounded by even larger soundstages – where the bridge of the Enterprise in every Star Trek movie really is, and the Las Vegas casinos in all the Oceans Whatever movies. It’s all fantasy. That’s what Hollywood sells. Your life is dreary? In the dead of the night do you stare at the ceiling and know your life is meaningless? Hollywood can fix that. That’s the business model.

That’s also a personal model. Ehrenfeld, Pennsylvania, is a tiny little town in the coal country near Johnstown, and on November 3, 1921, Charles Dennis Buchinsky was born there. He grew up there, dirt poor, the eleventh of fifteen children. He was the first in the family to graduate from high school and seems to have decided that he didn’t want a dreary life in the mines. He signed up to fight the Japs. He was a B-29 turret-gunner in the last years of the war, and after we won and there was no more to do, he decided he wanted to be an actor. That was something to do, and he paid his dues in Philadelphia and then New York, one small part after another, until he decided Hollywood was the place to be.

Maybe it was the place to be, but Buchinsky, as a name, just wasn’t going to cut it. Luckily, down at Paramount, at Melrose and Bronson, there was that famous Bronson Gate – where the police never could hold back the hundreds of young women trying to catch a glimpse of Rudolph Valentino. That was long ago, but that was cool, so Charles Buchinsky changed his name to Charles Bronson – which was also necessary. In 1954, during the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) proceedings, his agent told him he had to do something about his Russian-sounding name. There was that Bronson Gate down the street. Why not go with the Valentino fantasy? So he did. Forget Ehrenfeld. There would be no more existential despair.

Bronson’s career took off – he became the tough guy who would do what’s necessary to make things right in role after role. He was no more than a character actor, but an iconic type, always in demand, until he found the perfect lead role in 1974 in Death Wish – now a cult classic. There are those who love righteous-vigilante films, and there have been six sequels and a remake – there’s a large perpetual audience for this sort of thing – and this was the first iteration of the fantasy. It was a counter to despair.

The story is pretty simple. An architect who served in the Korean War in the medical corps, because he was a conscientious objector, living in New York City, finds that three street punks posing as grocery delivery boys broke into his apartment. They beat his wife and raped his married daughter, spray-painting both of them and the wall of their apartment “just for fun.” His wife dies, his daughter is left catatonic, and his boss decides that this guy needs to get out of New York for a while, so he sends him to Tucson – where he sees a Wild West show and gets to know the pleasant local gun enthusiasts, who talk about self-protection and whatnot. He also finds out he’s a damned good shot, and back in New York he soon finds himself watching the city fall apart. The crime wave of the seventies was notorious, so our hero helps out the overwhelmed police. He sees bad guys doing bad things, he shoots them dead. The police are upset, but kind of thankful, and don’t know what to do. They really don’t want to arrest him. They can’t give him a medal. They buy him a ticket to Chicago.

Half of America was appalled by this movie. Half of America loved the fantasy of one righteous man doing what needed to be done when the police and courts and politicians do nothing. Jazz fans loved the Herby Hancock score. Death Wish was a landmark film, even if it was cartoonish crap. It lingers. It set up what the National Rifle Association has been saying since the Newtown massacre of all those school kids – “The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” – not cops, not courts, not politicians and policy, not gun laws. Look at Charles Bronson. You’ll understand. It also plays on what the Republicans have been saying since Ronald Reagan – government is kind of useless. Sometimes you just need to grab your gun. That’s the fantasy. This is something to sell to the rubes in existential despair out there.

Out here in Hollywood we know the difference between fantasy and reality. That may not be so in Michigan. Mike Martindale of the Detroit News has the story:

Police responding to a “shots fired” call at a Home Depot store said a customer apparently tried to stop a shoplifter by firing at a fleeing vehicle.

The incident occurred at 2 p.m. at the store on Joslyn, according to a police press release.

A 47- year-old Clarkston woman in the parking lot witnessed one of the store’s loss prevention officers trying to stop a shoplifting suspect getting into a dark colored SUV. The customer – identified as a concealed pistol license holder – reportedly fired shots at the dark-colored SUV as it sped out of the lot.

It’s unknown how many rounds were fired from her 9mm handgun, but police believe she hit and flattened one of the vehicle’s rear tires as it sped off in the direction of Brown Road.

That was odd, but the Supreme Court ruled long ago that the police cannot use deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect, unless he (or she) is a danger to the cops’ lives or the lives of others. The police are constrained by laws and things. Civilians aren’t, so this woman was just helping them out, but Ed Kilgore notes the obvious problem here:

Now let’s say you’re another Home Depot customer with a concealed carry license and you didn’t notice the shoplifter but you did notice the other vigilante’s bullets whizzing by your head. Would you pull down on your fellow armed citizen? And if a widespread gun fight broke out in that parking lot, how would the police – you know, sort of auxiliaries to the real crime-fighters in their Fords and their Subaru’s – sort it all out?

That didn’t come up in the Bronson movie. There is fantasy and there is reality, or, as Heather Parton reports, perhaps we can’t tell anymore:

On the stump last week-end, Donald Trump entertained his followers in the wake of the massacre in Oregon with colorful fantasies of him walking down the street, pulling a gun on a would-be assailant and taking him out right there on the sidewalk. He said, “I have a license to carry in New York, can you believe that? Somebody attacks me, they’re gonna be shocked,” at which point he mimes a quick draw…

As the crowd applauds and cheers, he goes on to say “somebody attacks me, oh they’re gonna be shocked. Can you imagine? Somebody says, oh there’s Trump, he’s easy pickins…” And then he pantomimes the quick draw again…

Everybody laughs. And then Trump talks about an old Charles Bronson vigilante movie, and they all chanted the name “Death Wish” together.

This was two days after a troubled man barged into a college classroom and shot seventeen people, but Parton isn’t surprised:

Now Trump is a clown, we know that – a very wealthy celebrity clown who has captured the imagination of millions of people. And if there’s one thing he’s known for, it’s his macho swagger, so this isn’t exactly a shock coming from him. Indeed his entire rap is based on the idea that American leaders are all a bunch of “babies” (although one cannot help but think he has some other words in mind) while he is the manly leader who will take on all the “bad people” including world leaders, ISIS and anyone else who stands in the way of making America great again. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Trump literally packing heat at his next rally and shooting into the air like Yosemite Sam.

That’s unlikely, perhaps, but something is going on here, even with Ben Carson:

If he were president, Ben Carson would not visit Roseburg, Oregon, in the aftermath of last week’s deadly shooting, as President Barack Obama is scheduled to do on Friday. The Republican presidential candidate also slammed Obama for his call on the same day of the shooting to politicize the event that killed nine people at Umpqua Community College, in hopes of finally getting momentum for gun control legislation.

“Imagine a politician politicizing something,” Carson remarked during an interview with “Fox and Friends.” When do we get to the point where we have people who actually want to solve our problems rather than just politicize everything? I think that’s what the American people are so sick and tired of.”

And he knows how to solve problems:

Asked what he would have done had a gunman walked up to him and asked him to state his religion, Carson said he would have been more aggressive.

“Not only would I probably not cooperate with him, I would not just stand there and let him shoot me, I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all,'” he told the hosts.

His posts on Facebook and Twitter holding a sign proclaiming “#IAmAChristian” went viral over the weekend, in reference to some witness accounts that the gunman asked victims to stand up and identify themselves if they were Christian before they were shot, though police did not confirm or deny the accounts.

Is this heroic? Steve Benen notes that Carson is really into this:

Carson said yesterday that if he had a child in kindergarten, he’d feel better knowing there were loaded firearms in the classroom. “If the teacher was trained in the use of that weapon and had access to it, I would be much more comfortable if they had one than if they didn’t,” the GOP candidate said.

Last night on Facebook, Carson added, “As a Doctor, I spent many a night pulling bullets out of bodies. There is no doubt that this senseless violence is breathtaking – but I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away…”

He doesn’t get around much, but Benen notes that Carson is not alone:

After the massacre in Charleston, S.C., a Republican state senator complained he wasn’t satisfied with how the victims reacted to the gunman. After the massacre in Aurora, Colo., a Republican U.S. congressman complained that the victims should have been armed so they could shoot back. After the massacre at Virginia Tech, National Review published a piece admonishing the victims. “Where was the spirit of self-defense here?” John Derbyshire wrote, adding, “Why didn’t anyone rush the guy?

And now we see Ben Carson thinking along the same lines. He didn’t directly chastise the victims in Roseburg, Ore., but by explaining how brave he’d be towards the gunman, Carson was effectively complaining that the real-world victims should have displayed the kind of imagined courage the Republican candidate described.

What is wrong with these people? Didn’t they see that Charles Bronson movie? Benen editorializes:

Carson probably didn’t intend to insult the victims, indirectly blaming them for failing to meet his standards for bravery. But imagine being the parent of one of the young people killed in Oregon last week, and seeing a presidential candidate talking about how he graceful he’d be under fire – unlike those who actually faced the nightmare and were shot.

Carson’s callous arrogance is nothing short of staggering.

Who knows, maybe Carson’s rhetoric will resonate with Republican primary voters, who’ll cheer his latest comments. But to my mind, this represents a new low for the GOP candidate, one devoid of compassion and basic human decency.

Benen is not a Republican, but he has more:

On Fox News last night, Megyn Kelly asked Carson to elaborate further. According to the Fox transcript, the Republican said he’s “laughing at” his critics and “their silliness.”

CARSON: Of course, you know, if everybody attacks that gunman, he’s not going to kill everybody. But if you sit there and let him shoot you one by one, you’re all going to be dead. And you know, maybe these are things that people don’t think about; it’s certainly something that I would be thinking about.

KELLY: But don’t you allow for that notion that in a time of great stress like that, one might not know exactly what to do. And to judge them, to sound like you’re judging them –

CARSON: I’m not judging them at all, but, you know, these incidents continue to occur. I doubt that this will be the last one. I want to plant the seed in people’s minds so that if this happens again, you know, they don’t all get killed.

He was tap-dancing, and Benen adds this:

Look again at what Carson said on Fox News last night about running at the gunman: “Maybe these are things that people don’t think about, it’s certainly something that I would be thinking about.”

Right. Of course. Carson, who’s never confronted with such a terrifying nightmare, feels certain that he knows exactly how he’d respond when staring down the barrel of a gun held by a madman. He knows what he’d be thinking and how he’d respond – and Carson sees this imaginary hero within as a model for everyone.

For those who have the nerve to suggest such shallow bravado is callous, Carson is inclined to “laugh” at “their silliness.”…

But imagine being the parent of one of the young people killed in Oregon last week, and seeing a presidential candidate talking about how graceful he’d be under fire – unlike those who actually faced the nightmare and were shot.

That is a problem, or it’s not:

Donald Trump defended Republican rival Ben Carson Wednesday, saying the retired neurosurgeon was unjustly criticized for his comments after last week’s shooting in Oregon.

“I thought he was treated unfairly,” Trump told reporters after a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa. “No I think Ben Carson was treated – frankly, I think he was treated very unfairly.”

Trump backed his fellow candidate’s remarks on Twitter early Wednesday: “Ben Carson was speaking in general terms as to what he would do if confronted with a gunman, and was not criticizing the victims. Not fair!”

Heather Parton would disagree with that:

I’m sure Carson had a lot to teach the victims about how they should have behaved more bravely in the face of an armed madman bent on killing them. One of them, a veteran who tried to keep the shooter out of the room, did live, so perhaps Carson can tell him all about what he did wrong when he’s out of the hospital. As for defending his faith at any cost and committing suicide rather than cooperate, well let’s just say that makes him someone who has more in common with Islamic fundamentalists than he might be comfortable with.

But it’s more than that:

While Trump and Carson may have personalities that are polar opposites in terms of temperament, they do have a couple of important things in common (besides crackpot politics). They are both outrageously arrogant and they both see themselves as Hollywood-style heroes. This notion they are personally so tough that if anyone threatened them with a gun, they’d either out-draw them or inspire everyone to run straight into a hail of bullets, is ludicrous. Neither of these men are trained military veterans or have any professional experience with firearms – except in their own Walter Mitty fantasies. These comments are embarrassing for both of them.

But it does speak to a larger issue about how the right proposes to deal with gun violence, personal danger and the fear that permeates our society due to the flood of deadly weapons landing in the hands of people with an ax to grind who want to go out in a blaze of glory and take a bunch of people with them.

Isn’t that the dark side of Trump and Carson’s inane self-serving illusions about their own theoretical heroism? Doesn’t Wayne LaPierre’s formulation that “the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” sound like old fashioned cowboy serial dialog that ignores the indiscriminate carnage that inevitably results when bullets start flying from guns that don’t know what kind of “guys” are firing them? …

In fact, the High Noon scenario is not confined to vacuous right wing “solutions” to mass shootings. It defines the right’s philosophy on gun rights in other ways that are changing the way we think about the law and our moral responsibilities.

Just one example:

The most obvious example is the recent legal concept of “stand your ground” – the legal doctrine which replaced the self-defense element of “duty to retreat” that had been part of common law definitions of self-defense for centuries. Civilized societies had long required that if a person had the ability to elude a deadly confrontation rather than engage in one, he had to take that option. Using deadly force must always be a last resort. The basic idea was based upon the common sense observation that if more people backed down, retreated or stepped aside, fewer people would be killed.

With stand your ground, there is no obligation to try to spare lives in a potentially deadly situation and a person is considered to be justified in killing someone solely if there is a perceived threat. The consequences of this are severe; an investigation by the American Bar Association found that homicide rates had risen in states which had enacted Stand Your Ground laws.

These laws are in addition to an older legal exception to the duty to retreat called Castle Doctrine, which holds that a person had no duty to retreat if someone enters their home. Tellingly, this legal concept has recently earned the nickname “Make My Day” laws, after the Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character’s tag line.

It seems Hollywood has a lot to answer for:

Last September a Connecticut teacher shot and killed his 15-year-old son after his neighbor called to say she thought she saw a robber in the front yard. Just a few weeks after that, a retired Chicago police officer shot and killed his 48-year-old son after he came in the back door late one night. And an off-duty police officer killed his son last July while the two were on vacation in upstate New York, after he told police he believed him to be an intruder.

Those are just a few of the gun “accidents” that are happening all over this country every day due to people believing that it’s reasonable to shoot first and ask questions later. They see themselves as heroes like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson protecting themselves and society at large from violent predators. In fact, Dirty Harry and Bronson’s vigilante were criminals.

That’s true, but only in real life, but that’s the problem. Hollywood may be all about fantasy, but out here we know the difference between fantasy and reality. Fantasy is a factory product, now rather predictable stuff churned out on what amounts to assembly lines, down in the warehouse district. Maybe that stuff will make you feel better, but you weren’t supposed to take it seriously. Fred and Ginger weren’t really in Rio. And that guy was Charles Buchinsky. He only pretended to be someone else. It paid the bills.

Why do these Republicans take Hollywood so seriously? Out here, we don’t. Perhaps they have a death wish.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Death Wish

  1. Rick says:

    A confession: I dissent.

    I think everyone’s making way too much of a deal about what Ben Carson thought he would have done if faced with a shooter, and how Trump defended him. And this, of course, is not because I’m a big fan of either of them. In fact, just the suggestion of the remote possibility of one of these guys actually becoming president gives me hives.

    The contention is that Carson was insulting the shooting victims for not fighting back? Except that, for something to be an insult, it has to be intended to be one, and it’s pretty obvious it wasn’t. When I first heard him say what he would do, I remember wondering the same thing; could that work? Could I even have the time to convince everybody to rush the gunman, or would I be dead after saying five words? What is one supposed to do in that situation?

    It did not occur to me that victims and their families would take this as criticism, or that he was calling them cowards. I tend to think that this is a case of people who are angry at all Republicans (as well they should be) for their defending the right of gunmen, in essence, to go into schools and shoot people to death, refusing to give Ben Carson any slack.

    In fact, what Carson said on his FaceBook page is, to me, much more damning:

    I grew up in the slums of Detroit. I saw plenty of gun violence as a child. Both of my cousins were killed on the streets. As a Doctor, I spent many a night pulling bullets out of bodies. There is no doubt that this senseless violence is breathtaking – but I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away. Serious people seek serious solutions. The Left would prefer to use these tragedies to advance a political agenda. To me, that is also devastatingly sad. The Left would have you believe that a man that asked Christians to stand up (and then executed them one by one) would obey “new gun laws”. That kind of logic explains many of the problems we find ourselves in today.

    What exactly does this even mean? He wishes these bullet-riddled victims had more gunpower to keep from getting shot? He’s glad that whoever shot these people had a constitutional right to own the guns they used to shoot them? And the question is not whether the bad guys would “obey” those new gun laws, since we wouldn’t be demanding they do, we would be forcing whoever sold the guns to obey those laws. So I have to, once again, agree with Carson on something he said on his website, above:

    That kind of logic explains many of the problems we find ourselves in today.

    But don’t get me started on Carson, who I sense is sort of a mild-mannered crockpot, and maybe even nuttier than Trump. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Defending Carson. I just wanted to say that the demand that we all be so sensitive to everyone’s sensitivities puts too much of a crimp on our ability to talk these things out, and it shouldn’t.

    And no insult intended, but I still wonder what I would have done if I came face to face with someone exercising their Second Amendment right, who was threatening to kill me.

    Rick

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