In a landscape of television media riddled with fancy computer-generated American flag logos, snappy catchphrases like “America Under Siege” and glittery advertisements encouraging us to preserve the spirit of liberty by buying a Ford, it seems needless to argue the notion that television shapes not merely our reception of news and information, but our perception of it as well. In the wake of September 11th, nightly news reports focus almost exclusively on the worldwide manhunt for terrorists, yet there continues to be little new information on this front. News programs have evolved from hour-a-week broadcasts to day-long spectacles for celebrity newscasters to interview one more family of a fallen firefighter.
The shift is not only present in the news. Sitcoms are focusing on the lighter side of life by introducing birth and wedding storylines in their effort to promote National Distraction. In this climate of sensational realism, it is plainly and simply true: television is much more than a means to send and receive information. It has the power to determine how, when and in what way the information is received.
Obviously, this is nothing new for a media that has seen us through other wars and other catastrophic events. The McCarthy hearings, the fall of Soviet Russia, the trial of O.J. Simpson — television brought these and other real life events into our living rooms and made the real life characters dance for us at the push of a button on the remote control. Figures such as Charles Manson, Tonya Harding and Monica Lewinsky have become desensitized pop culture references, equated with the likes of George, Elaine and Jerry. Because of the way their stories, however malicious or relatively unimportant, have been encoded to us by a Barbara Walters interview, a South Park parody or a Geraldo expose, their stories have been elevated to celebrity fodder: book signings, appearances on Oprah, one-liners around the water cooler.
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It is this role of television as cultural mirror that Oliver Stone explores in his 1994 film Natural Born Killers. The film introduces us to Mickie and Mallory, two Bonnie and Clyde-type criminals engaging in a bloody, murderous rampage through middle America in a closely-resembling-our-own-world 1990s setting. Stone traces Mickie and Mallory’s path from small time thieves and murderers to nationwide celebrities adored by the ratings-hungry press and worshipped by a sensationalism-addicted crowd of American television viewers. Stone parodies several television forms, including the network news and the sitcom, as a way of relating Mickie and Mallory’s story to real world media. In doing so, he creates a parallel whereby the fictional characters in the story become strikingly real, almost familiar, and the real life television conventions used in the film seem fictional.
Since it’s inception, television has primarily used the sitcom to mirror in some way the ideals and practices of the American family. From Leave It To Beaver toAll in the Family to Everybody Loves Raymond, sitcoms — a.k.a. “situation comedies” — have generally stuck to a basic, defining formula in which characters are placed in a situation and others laugh while watching them attempt to get out of that situation. At least one popular source on the Internet for fledgling sitcom writers, So You Wanna (www.soyouwanna.com), advises wannabe writers to place their characters in situations they generally wouldn’t want to be in, and make it as hard as possible for them to “squirm” out. It’s in this squirming that we can examine television as a reflection of our society. Edith Bunker, for example, knowing not to sit in Archie’s chair says something about husband/wife relations in the early 1970s that would probably be portrayed much differently in an episode of, say, “Malcolm in the Middle”.
The squirming in “I Love Mallory”, the fictional sitcom Stone creates in Natural Born Killers to provide explanation why Mallory will go out and kill, is a darker territory than even the raciest late night HBO series. Mallory is groped and molested by her father while her mother turns the other cheek. He grabs Mallory’s buttocks and calls her a “stupid bitch” while a laugh track, the sitcom staple, howls overhead. Even Stone’s choice for the actors portraying Mallory’s parents, audience favorite Rodney Dangerfield and perennial sitcom presence Edie McClurg reflects his desire to put a twist on the standard American sitcom.
The intent here is to show the distinction between what is actually happening on screen, how those images are presented to the viewer, and how the presentation affects the way we view what’s happening. We have been trained to laugh along with the laugh track, no matter what’s happening on screen.
Stone believes this leads to desensitization. If our gut reaction to what’s happening is going to be decided by television network associates and stars doing the thinking for us, how long before we are unable to view events in our own life objectively? With “I Love Mallory”, the auteur offers his take on what might happen if life became more even like a situation comedy, where we are forced to live within a certain set of ideals with predetermined actions and reactions. It is his concern that the sitcom, where everything is worked out in twenty two minutes (the other eight are taken up by commercials) and everything really can be solved by a hug from Mom or a witty one-liner from the maid, leads to a desensitization. Our thinking becomes so ingrained by the television ideal that, as Mallory explains to her brother after killing their parents, we have to resort to such violence to free ourselves from the pangs of a numbed reality.
Central to the film’s exploration of television is Stone’s depiction of the news media. Wayne Gale (Robert Downy, Jr.), in hot pursuit of that one big interview, is the prototypical smarmy newscaster-cum-celebrity so popular in today’s age of “America’s New War!!” He is the embodiment of Dan Rather breaking down in tears when Letterman asks him how he’s holding up since the 9/11 attacks. Gale is Destiny’s Child singing “Bootylicious” on a telethon in the name of freedom. He represents that sensationalized style of reporting, where the facts don’t really matter as long as the ratings go up, up, up. His characterization-slap on a sports jacket and an unctuous British accent to look and sound intellectual-suggests that the sale is more important than the product, that the news itself is the news.
And so, as in real life, the killers in Natural Born Killers are elevated to celebrity status. Their trial is a sell-out covered by all the networks. People wave signs reading “Murder Me Mallory” and teenagers worship the pair as one would a rock star. Stone recreated our “Trial of the Century,” (as the news labeled it early on), the O. J. Simpson trial. Just as in real life, where we all tuned in that sweaty summer night to watch the Los Angeles Police Department’s laughable White Ford Bronco chase as if it were an episode of COPS, all eyes are on Mickey and Mallory from the moment they are captured to their eventual escape during the prison riot.
There’s a feeling permeating the second half of the film where one wonders how far Mickey and Mallory will get in the eyes of their adoring public (not to mention in the eyes of their number one fan Wayne Gale) before they are stopped.
Stone makes us question things like the girl who holds up the sign beckoning Mallory to kill her. Does she really want this? That’s doubtful. But through his use of the media circus and the sitcom device discussed earlier, and by showing images of Mickey and Mallory’s faces all over the major newspapers, Stone is suggesting that the girl holding up the sign has become desensitized by all of this fanfare. The media has drawn a new distinction, and the girl can no longer discern between what television has told her the killers represent, (the laugh track syndrome), and what they actually are. For this girl, being “killed” by Mickey and Mallory means being elevated to the stuff of legend.
The media has always influenced our reception of news information. Any time a story is passed on, it retains even the slightest element of the storyteller’s bias. In Natural Born Killers, however, director Oliver Stone contends that this bias is not something that we should perhaps be so quick to overlook or ignore, for it may carry with it a much greater effect than might be evident at first.
Mickey and Mallory are cold-blooded killers whose image is distorted by television. Stone draws parallels from real life to show how this distortion can result in much more than just ratings. He displays how sensationalism in the news media and the propagation of the American sitcom ideal has led to a desensitized culture unable to draw its own conclusions without a laugh track, a fancy computer-generated graphic or a groveling newscaster telling them where to find truth.