Saturday, December 27, 2008

Guns Aestheticized: Reading an anti-gun PSA through Doug Kellner

I've been reading Douglas Kellner's fascinating book on mass-mediated gun culture in the United States, "Guys and Guns Amok: Domestic Terrorism and School Shooting from the Oklahoma City Bombing to the Virginia Tech Massacre." (Paradigm, 2008) The book is causing me to think carefully about the profound aestheticization of guns and gun-related violence in contemporary American and global culture. There is a nearly sacramental status afforded to guns and bullets, as prosthetic extensions of the masculine ego, in innumerable mass media images.

Reading Kellner, it occurs to me that this sensibility even informs works of media culture that are self-consciously opposed to gun violence. I find myself rethinking, for example, the well known British public service announcement, “Stop the Bullets, Kill the Gun." For more than a year, Choice FM’s anti-gun violence ad (produced by the London-based AMV BBDO) has been making the rounds on line, reproduced on YouTube and in other venues:

(See production credits at )

Produced as part of the London radio station’s campaign against urban youth violence, especially "black-on-black" violence, the ad features slow-motion shots of a bullet exploding, in turn, an egg, a glass of milk, an apple, a bottle of tomato ketchup, a bottle of water, and a watermelon. The final screen is of the face of black youth; the bullet flying towards his head stops just before impact and turns into the words, “Stop the bullets. Kill the guns.”

The sequence of destroyed objects is presumably carefully chosen to build up towards the invisible spectacle of a human cranium being destroyed by a bullet. The final explosion, of the red fruit of the watermelon, foreshadows the (unseen) explosion of blood that would follow the bullet strike on the head of the black child.

I've been intrigued by the ad because of its allusions to high art, including contemporary stop-motion art photography and classical opera, but not quite sure what to make of these echoes. Kellner's analysis of the grand "Spectacle" of gun-related violence in modern society has encouraged me to thinking more carefully about why such high aesthetic values are brought to bear on the subject of gun violence in the ad.

I am not entirely sure of the precise artistic lineage of the image of the bullet strike. Perhaps, one of the sources here is the famous 1961-1963 series of “shooting pictures,” by the French contemporary artist Niki de Saint Phalle, in which a fired bullet exploded concealed paint containers.

The more proximate inspiration is presumably the work of the scientist and photographer Harold E. Edgerton, whose 1964 still shots, “Shooting the Apple” (also called “.30 Bullet Piercing an Apple”) and “Bullet Through Jack”, capture, through use of stroboscopy, a bullet passing through the objects.

One thinks as well of AP photographer Eddie Adams's famous 1968 image of South Vietnam's national police chief executing an alleged Vietcong insurgent. There must be innumerable other photographic and cinematic images of human heads exploding as bullets pass through them, that in one way or another inform the ad. It is even possible that among the iconographic inspirations are the famous photographs of Flight 77 (“the second plane”) passing through the second World Trade Center tower on September 11, 2001.

Equally intriguing is the ad’s use as background music of the Bellini’s aria “Casta Diva” from Norma, perhaps best known Bel Canto aria of the 19th century. Was the selection chosen only because of its beauty and its fame, and to highlight the Edgerton-inspired aestheticization of the bullet strike? The music and moving image are carefully calibrated, so that the soprano sings the first word just as the bullet hits the first object.

Is there, as well, a clever deployment of the opera’s lyrics lurking in the background? The soundtrack plays the first three lines of the aria, in which Norma invokes the pure and chaste goddess of the moon:

Casta Diva, che inargenti
queste sacre antiche piante,
a noi volgi il bel sembiante

Translated by the Opera Guide:

"Chaste goddess, who dost bathe in silver light
These ancient, hallowed trees,
Turn thy fair face upon us."

Is the implication that the gun and the bullet are, in the current moment, our own sacred divinities? The unexpected slow motion beauty of the bullet strike gives a glimpse of eternal mystery, an effect heightened by the sublime music.

I can't help but wonder if it is entirely coincidence that final sung word in the ad is "sembiante" (appearance, semblance, face) just as our eye lingers on the face of the boy, suspended somewhere between life and death. In this sense, the ad might call to mind Roland Barthes' famous observation in Camera Lucida, when gazing at the photograph of the condemned criminal on the eve of his execution, "He is dead. And he is going to die." Photographs so often take us into strange temporal interzones, suspended between past, present and possible futures, and this ad would seem to exemplify and play upon those affordances. Perhaps the Bellini aria, with its stately rythmns, enforces an awareness of temporal sequence that intensifies the effects of the slow motion shots of the Phantom camera (capturing motion at 10,000 frames per second).

As in so many skillfully crafted PSAs the question of effectiveness is inevitably raised. Does the ad’s beauty simply heighten our contemporary cultural fixation with bullets and guns, as manifestations of the sacred? Or does the ad significantly undercut the great aesthetic value accorded to gun-related violence on television and in film? Reading Doug Kellner's important study, I'm inclined to think that the ad, despite the best of intentions, is so enmeshed with a hegemonic aesthetic that rends the speeding bullet sublime that it is unlikely to deter anyone from participating in gun violence...

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