The 1963 assassination of President Kennedy and the way in which America appeared unable to compute the shock of it without rerunning and analysing the gruesome murder via the ghastly Zapruder footage almost rendered the gory reality of it something to which the nation eventually became immune. It was too unreal to be real. It may as well have been a gunfight between cowboys in the Wild West or a gunfight between gangsters in Chicago or even a ray-gunfight between Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless in outer space; that was the narrative that made sense to a country that had evolved its mythology through cinema and TV, with a far wider audience exposed to it than were exposed to the oral mythology characteristic of ancient civilisations.
The moment JFK’s head was blown to smithereens by Oswald’s bullets and Jack Ruby then fired into Oswald on live TV, the sensationally dramatic nature of reality and its fictionalised counterpart became almost interchangeable. US involvement in Vietnam was called ‘the first television war’ – bloody, uncensored and incessant, with a seamless segue between TV coverage and the Hollywood-made dramas screened after the news broadcasts. The assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, another tragedy presented as though it had been consciously scripted to appeal to the bloodthirsty appetite of the television audience, prompted Jim Morrison of The Doors to observe that America was so numbed and jaded by the endless parade of bloodlust beamed into its living rooms that an assassin appeared to have superseded the movie or rock star as the nation’s most iconic product.
British author JG Ballard echoed Morrison’s sentiments in his 1970 book ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ and regularly cited the JFK assassination as the moment he felt life as presented to the world via media outlets rendered it indistinguishable from fiction, and how repetition had slowly engineered a subconscious craving for horrific events. Woody Allen made a similar point by using satire in the opening sequence of his 1971 movie ‘Bananas’; a political assassination in a South American republic is portrayed as a sporting event, complete with commentary from noted US sports presenter Howard Cosell.
I find myself constantly referencing all of these artistic reactions to American gun culture every time the massacre of the week grabs the headlines. It is beginning to feel as though each horrible slaughter is the latest instalment in some grotesque movie franchise, where the same film keeps being made over and over again, with every successive remake provoking less of an emotional response than its predecessor, forcing the filmmakers to up the body count. The whole cinematic impact of 9/11 was so reminiscent of a big-budget blockbuster disaster movie that it seemed to enhance the disbelief of the viewing public that this was really happening. Similarly, the psychological horror flick ‘The Blair Witch Project’ cleverly replicated the lo-fi visuals of the amateur video camera to chilling effect and further erased the join dividing fact and fiction; just as real atrocities had echoed Hollywood via television, now cinema was imitating the small screen’s presentation of reality.
There appears to be a direct line from that to the brutal murder of a young man shot dead at close range in his car by a police officer this week; captured on camera by his girlfriend passenger and streamed live on the internet as it happened, the appalling incident and the manner it reached those not present in the car seemed to be the natural, awful culmination of everything Ballard had foreseen from 1963 onwards. Technology’s democratisation has been laying the ground for such a moment for years, something ISIS have already gleefully capitalised on with their online beheading rituals. A news reporter being shot dead live on US TV last year was so twentieth century, after all.
‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’, Nigel Kneale’s remarkable 1968 BBC play, portrayed a future society so immune to any form of dramatic titillation that it can only be entertained by real events that have nevertheless been deliberately choreographed by TV executives. Real sexual intercourse is televised live – as with ITV’s demeaning keyhole-peeping gutter voyeurism of the moment, ‘Love Island’; but relentless exposure rapidly renders the audience bored, so two of the competitors are dumped on a desolate island, ignorant of the fact a psychopathic murderer is also present. Viewers eagerly await the inevitable, and the viewing figures shoot up as a consequence. As children in the backseat of a car on a tediously long journey are prone to utter – are we there yet?
My reaction and, I suspect, the reaction of many receiving the news of the most recent mass murders on the streets of a major American city this week, is dangerously bordering on massacre fatigue. The first-ever post written for this blog beyond the introductory one dealt with the killing of 14 people in California, carried out by one of their work colleagues in the name of Allah; that was on December 7 last year. I’ve no idea how many hundreds have been gunned down in America since then, but statistics released in the wake of this week’s events show that 507 of them were shot by police officers alone. Almost 300 innocent people lost their lives in a Baghdad bomb blast this week, but Iraq is a nation barely a decade into its democratic experiment. America is 240 years into its own, which doesn’t bode well for Iraq if America is held up as an example of success.
And it seems somehow sadly apt that the climax of this week’s catalogue of barbarity was a sniper gunning down five policemen just a few blocks from the scene of the crime that set the ball rolling 53 years ago – a ball that seems set to keep rolling, rolling, rolling. Rawhide.
© The Editor