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Is it ever ‘too soon’ to make films about real tragedy?

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Beltway sniper movie Blue Caprice is currently doing festival rounds, but has enough time passed between film and event?

Of Blue Caprice, an upcoming film about the Beltway sniper attacks – which took place over three weeks across Washington DC in 2002 – director Alexandre Moors told DCist: “It is about a subject that had notoriety, and could make a lot of noise, as they say.”

People have always had a fascination with tragedy and gruesome, bloodthirsty spectacles long before film was invented

This line is as revealing as it is instructive. It says everything about how a film is marketed and engineered to attract an audience – films about real-life tragic events make a lot of money because the audience is already familiar with the event and retains a curiosity about it. The more they know about an event, and the more explosive it was, the more ‘noise’ it can make. James Cameron’s Titanic, for example, is the second highest grossing film ever, portraying as it does one of the most famous disasters of all time. Blue Caprice deals with a real life tragedy, which claimed the lives of ten people 11 years ago. Some would say it is too soon to make such a movie, because the pain and the memories will still be too raw, too real for those involved. But those some may be in the minority.

People have always had a fascination with tragedy and for watching gruesome, macabre and bloodthirsty spectacles long before film was invented. It is easy to think of Rome and the battles of the gladiators, where warriors were hacked to death before the audience went home for their dinner; it is easy to think of the nobility who used to visit the deranged inmates of Bedlam to watch with curiosity as the mentally unstable displayed their insanity before them. The aristocrats would watch as though it was a circus act being played out for their entertainment. Is there really much different between this and watching a documentary about the mentally challenged, whether out of sympathy or general interest?

network 1976

Sidney Lumet, with his 1976 film Network, held up a mirror to American audiences as he showed them how much they lusted after tragic news stories. In the film, a desperate, middle-aged news anchorman goes insane live on air. Due to the resulting boost in ratings that his hysteria receives, the news corporation doesn’t fire him, as it had originally intended to do, but instead gives him his own show whereby he rants about his issues for an hour. The audience bay for it – they cannot get enough. The film is not exactly without factual merit; it is certainly fiction inspired by fact.

There is an innate curiosity within people for seeking out disturbing events; there is a fascination with serial killers and their deeds

Take the OJ Simpson car chase in 1992, for example. His wife and lover had just been found brutally murdered when news cameras caught Simpson being chased across American highways by police squadrons. The chase lasted for over two pulsating hours, with Americans and Europeans glued to their television sets, not knowing how it would end. It didn’t seem like real life. It felt instead like a sequel to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, with Simpson escaping from a bloody massacre that his babysitter had created but implicated him in. The audience knew how much Simpson had to lose and, because this wasn’t fiction, the emotions and drama was increased tenfold. It was television capable of mesmerising people. It was more engaging than the previous year’s remake of Cape Fear.

This singular fascination with watching tragic events unfold on the screen is certainly not confined to Americans but is endemic of the human condition in general. There is an innate curiosity within people for seeking out disturbing events; there is a fascination with serial killers and their deeds, which leads to a market for films and television adaptations and documentaries that explore these notorious events. The legend of Vlad the Impaler, for instance, has become globally popular over the years with everyone from murder mystery fanatics to housewives hungering for an adaptation of his life and murders. It scares them but they want it, and they want it in abundance.

10-rillington-place

The issue people may have when watching a film which depicts horrific events that actually happened is sometimes they may be faced with the question, “Why are you watching this?” And it is a difficult question to answer. Nobody would justify watching a particularly gruesome adaptation of a story in which folk were murdered in a bath of acid by saying that it is a Saturday night and they want some entertainment. It just doesn’t sound ethical or normal. But somehow it is perfectly normal to say they watch a violent Tarantino movie because they want a bit of escapism.

Somehow it is perfectly normal to say we want to watch a violent Tarantino movie for a bit of escapism

Of course there may be other reasons why tragic events are turned into movies rather than simply a fascination with tragedy or with serial killers. The 1971 film, 10 Rillington Place, which chillingly depicts the murders of British serial killer John Christie, could be interpreted as a critique on capital punishment, and therefore the film has a social and political worth. At the end of it all, it is the audience who decides ratings. It is the audience that decides if it is ready for another Will Smith movie or if it has had enough of Shrek and his donkey. Therefore, an audience decides how soon it should be before tragedy is turned into a movie.

Is it too soon for the Beltway sniper attacks to be adapted for the screen? There certainly is a thing as too soon. But it seems the audience has had its say and, 11 years after the DC tragedy, the Beltway sniper attacks have been turned into a movie. The live news coverage of it 11 years ago, which audiences found so riveting and dramatic, has been compacted into an edible 90 minutes. Not too long to bore. Just enough time to either arouse curiosity or sympathy. Or simply to entertain.

 

Featured image: Sundance Selects

Inset images: United Artists; Columbia

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