Guns, Music, and Heart

Dustin Hoffman recently told an interviewer that throughout his career, he never wanted to hold a gun in a movie.  It was a policy he laid down in his career in the 1960s, after being disappointed by a couple movies in which a gun was a primary prop.  He was also motivated by a violent incident in his own life involving a gun.  He also just didn’t like the role model he was providing.

Pondering this in the yurt inside my brain, index finger pressed against my lips, eyes cast skyward, I realized there are disadvantages to choosing such movies.  An actor has many fewer choices of movies, for example.  He wouldn’t be able to act in such wonderful movies as Godfather, Inception, Titanic, The Limey, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Fargo, Crash, True Grit, No Country for Old Men, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, any of Tony Scott’s films, any of Quentin Tarantino’s films, and almost any of Martin Scorcese’s films.

I contrast that with the career of Denzel Washington.  He’s an excellent actor with great presence, but long ago, I noticed a pattern to his movies: They have a lot of guns and killing.  Even though they usually have a lot of emotional heft to them, they all fit into one violent genre or another.  The Mighty Quinn, The Pelican Brief, Crimson Tide, Devil in a Blue Dress, Fallen, Training Day, Out of Time, The Manchurian Candidate, Deja Vu, American Gangster, The Taking of Pelham 123, Safe House, and the recently released 2 Guns, all involve gunplay to a greater or greater degree.

2 GunsI have a concern about the role that guns play in our society.  My cousin was killed in her twenties by a student in her aerobics class.  I’m a big proponent of gun control.  I don’t think that movies like Django Unchained, with the bloodbaths that populate the climactic scenes, provide a good role model for America’s children.  (In fact, I never even watched the film until my girlfriend left town for a few days.  She doesn’t like that stuff at all.)

However, there are no absolutes in my world.  I must confess that I placed a gun in the first chapter of my own novel, What Happens to Us,  The very purpose of the book was to demonstrate how dangerous unsupervised government surveillance can be, so I was compelled to put a maladjusted psychotic gun owner in the antagonist role.  However, I worked hard to make it so that this thriller wasn’t all about the guns, but about the characters and the heart.  There’s a gun in chapter 1 and a couple guns in chapter 27, but that’s it.  No fancy hardware, no cool poses, no attitude while holding the gun.

Not only that, but there was lot of room in the middle for character sketches.  There’s an account of how Cat discovered she had a good voice.  There’s an account of Dante’s sleight-of-hand mentor, whom he met at age 12.  There’s a 100-year-old woman who develops a relationship with Cat, and in the final scene of that thread, Cat is laying her head on Anja’s chest and feeling at one with everything and everyone.

To me, novels are about notes, as in musical notes.  The more notes you hit–with different tones, different timbres, different melodies–the better chance you have of putting together a memorable story.  A novel that’s just about guns and shooting becomes a cacaphony.  But if there are a lot of scenes that make you think, and even more importantly, make you feel something, then maybe you really have something there.


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