TARGETS, Guns and the Violence Norm

I come from a gun family. There were more guns in my house than there were pieces of furniture. It wasn’t due to paranoia or even the idea of safety. No, my father simply like to hunt. And my first gun was a .30-06, which I used to shoot my first—and last—deer. I didn’t have the stomach for it. Still, guns have never put me off.

The gun I used while hunting was the same type a spree-killing sniper uses in Peter Bogdanovich’s first movie Targets. It’s a film both modeled after and in response to the Charles Whitman massacre at the University of Texas, where, after killing his wife and mother, he climbed the UT Tower and killed another 16 people. He wounded 32 more.

At the beginning of the film, there’s a message tacked on by the studio positioning the film as pro-gun control picture. It was, after all, released just months after the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But there’s something disingenuous about the message at the start of the film. It never really feels like a pro-gun control picture, but rather a reaction to what was at the time unimaginable violence, be it Vietnam or Charles Whitman or political assassinations. Even the horrors on screen couldn’t compare to the horrors of reality.

What make Targets disturbing today is just how common this kind of violence is. Just the other day, six people were killed and four others wounded in a mass shooting in Houston. It barely made the news. Even the horrifying massacre of 20 school children at Sandy Hook Elementary is fading from memory. Virginia Tech. Columbine. Aurora. Countless others. We just watch like they are the movies now.

In Targets, we see art imitating life. But in life, we’ve started to see all violence as entertainment. You can no longer compare on screen horrors to those off screen because they now compete for attention. Social media created an unrelenting stream of updates around any given event, even as the news media attempt to throttle coverage out of a noble, but impotent gesture of journalistic prudence.

Audiences get what they want. Even in 1968, Peter Bogdanovich hinted at this with his heavy use of the sniper’s perspective and the zoom of the camera toward a shooting victim. But what was then more of an exercise in cinematic disturbance, today reads like an indictment of the audience that would make Michael Haneke proud. 

There’s no use in looking away because wherever you turn your head violence, especially gun violence, is there. And we have trouble distinguishing violence on screen with our own realities, not unlike the spree killer in Targets, who gets confused when he sees actor Byron Orlok both on screen and in real life at the same time during the film’s climax. The victims of the mass shooting in a theater in Aurora, Colorado, thought the gun fire was just part of the picture, too.

So what responsibility does the audience and the media really have when it comes to violence. In Peter Bogdanovich’s own words in response to the Aurora shootings, “the respect for human life seems to be eroding.” Is there a way to combat this? Or is this violence norm we live in just a byproduct of modern society? I don’t know.

What I do know is that guns and people kill people. Whether those people are disturbed doesn’t really matter. Because in a world where mass shootings, massacres and spree killings are treated like part of the entertainment landscape, who isn’t disturbed? 

I may have fired my first rifle before I was a suitable audience for a PG-13 movie, and I may not fear guns, but I know their power. It’s not a power that should treated as lightly as a trip to the store to buy milk, like the killer and the gun shop clerks do in Targets. Until it’s harder to buy a gun than it is to vote in an election, we can expect the violence norm to continue. And as long as it continues, it will just be entertainment—because that’s what audiences demand.