“The tingly audacity of ‘Natural Born Killers,’ and the addictive pleasure of watching it, begins with the perception that Mickey and Mallory experience not just their infamy but every moment of their lives as pop culture. Their lives are poured through the images they carry around in their heads. The two of them enact a heightened version of a world in which identity is increasingly becoming a murky, bundled fusion of true life and media fantasy. It works something like this: You are what you watch, which is what you want to be, which is what you think you are, which is what you really can be (yes, you can!), as long as you…believe.”
That is a description by the film critic Owen Glieberman at Variety, of a film that has become a cult classic: Oliver Stone’s gory, hallucinogenic road film of 1994. In this brilliant analysis, Glieberman shows us in troubling detail how far we have come to entering a psychic world along the lines of the film’s main characters, Mickey and Mallory. These sociopathic lovers, played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, go on a killing spree that turns them into celebrities, “like Bonnie and Clyde for the age of TMZ.”
It takes some imagination for Glieberman to suggest in this audacious review how Natural Born Killers may have foreshadowed the grisly scenes of the end of the Trump regime. First published last year, Glieberman’s analysis unfortunately did not take into account the recent damage that has been done by our Benevolent Leaders in the sweet summer and fall of 2020. He mentions another of the movie’s nutty characters: “In Natural Born Killers, a psychiatrist, played with diligent dryness by the comedian Steven Wright, gets interviewed on television about Mickey and Mallory, and his analysis is as follows: ‘Mickey and Mallory know the difference between right and wrong. They just don’t give a damn.’”
Now fast forward to the broken, unholy mess of the Presidential Debate process in 2020: supposedly, “the most important election of our lifetimes–perhaps, ever!” (as we are told over and over by newscasters on all the cable channels.) Glieberman ends his review with a question to the reader: “To ask whether we’ve removed life from reality by turning it into a spectacle of nonstop self-projection. To ask whether we’re now watching ourselves to death.”
That last line reminds me of an older text, Neil Postman’s jaw dropping Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) that I read way back in my graduate school days. Postman’s analysis left a mark, and I assume Glieberman is invoking the book here, too. He suggests that we are ‘watching ourselves to death,” a phrase that reminds me simultaneously of those strange looking folks in The Hunger Games films, or the dunce who becomes chief advisor in the neglected masterpiece, Being There. Are we doing violence to ourselves, by watching what the Matrix gives us, every day at 6?
And what if we are “debating ourselves to death”? does anyone out there think they are gaining any wisdom or knowledge from these debased performances? Let alone life?
Natural Born Killers was, I suppose, partly a tongue in cheek satire about the depths to which tabloid journalism will go to gain a bigger audience. Today it is not crazed killers, but presidential candidates and the “process” that is the debacle of the day.
Two quick facts in ending this meditation: The killers survive in the final version of Natural Born Killers because Oliver Stone believed that the 1990s were a time when bad guys do not get caught (reminding me of Silence of the Lambs, a few years earlier). And this: there were so many copy cats that John Grisham suggested that Oliver Stone should be held accountable.
We might ask the same of our Benevolent Leaders today, in this morass we call the Presidential Debates during the “Most Important Election of our Lives.” Spirited debate, indeed. Or maybe just “a spectacle of nonstop self-projection”? We should be ashamed of ourselves, and yet we don’t seem to be. Meanwhile, demented political copy cats will surely abound, just as they did after the movie.
At least one Republican leader has called it what it is: “I have stayed quiet with the approach of the election,” Romney said in a statement posted to Twitter. “But I’m troubled by our politics, as it has moved away from spirited debate to a vile, vituperative, hate-filled morass that is unbecoming of any free nation—let alone the birthplace of modern democracy.”
Were you listening? Sen. Romney, when you watch the debate, what do you see? “A vile, vituperative, hate-filled morass.” In the movie, the perps, according to the psychiatrist, actually know “the difference between right and wrong. They just don’t give a damn.’” What about our Debater-in-Chief of 2020? Frankly I’m not so sure about the first part. The second part does resonate, however.