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Film Essays

Repetition Works, David. Repetition Works, David: Collapse of Metaphor in Natural Born Killers (1994)

[This is the second entry in a series exploring themes in Jean Baudrillard’s America and how they relate to film, please read the introductory piece here. All text in quotes or italicized is from America unless otherwise noted.]

Joy in the collapse of metaphor, where here in Europe we merely grieve over. The exhilaration of obscenity, the obscenity of obviousness, the obviousness of power, the power of simulation.

Sixteen years after its release, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers is still regarded as one of the most controversial contemporary films. The film follows the murderous couple of Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis), two young people who revolt against their family and society by going on a mass murder spree across the country. The first half of the film focuses on the Knox’s initial crime spree and their pursuit by the narcissistic lawmen Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) and documentation by sleaze TV personality Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr). The last half of the film documents their incarceration and interview by Gayle. The film’s controversy stems from the extreme violence and drug use throughout the film; the film itself has been linked directly or indirectly to at least eight copycat murders. Part of this controversy is that the film itself is a paradox: The film criticizes violence in media by using violence.

Mickey and Mallory - Too Much TV

The paradox that Natural Born Killers encapsulates begins to make sense if you stop looking at the film as a metaphor, but rather acting as a mirror to a media and violence saturated society. Throughout the film, the reality that Stone presents is one that resembles the constant flicker of a television screen, it switches back and forth from color to black and white, to short animated sequences, and even features the classic Coca-Cola polar bears. The perception of reality in the film becomes one of television. This perception of reality is found in America:

It is the same with American reality. It was there before the screen was invented, but everything about the way it is today suggests it was invented with the screen in mind, that it is a refraction of a giant screen.

Part of Natural Born Killers is that it is documenting an almost ontological shift that our perception of reality is shaped by media. In an expository scene that gives Mickey and Mallory’s back-story, Mallory’s tumultuous childhood is presented in a sitcom setting, “I Love Mallory.”

I Love Mallory - Mallory's Fantasy

Examples of domestic and sexual abuse are presented with a laugh track, reflecting an idea that sitcoms reinforce patriarchal norms. Think of shows like “The Honeymooners,” “All in the Family,” or “Married, With Children,” which featured a patriarch who demeans women and demand that it’s “their way or the highway.” We might laugh at “pow zoom, to the moon,” but when Stone displays the abuse from the father juxtaposed with a laugh track, he deconstructs the notion that the sitcom is an innocuous genre.

The blurring of the line between media and reality continues throughout the film, and at the same time that Mickey and Mallory are committing crimes, Gale is planning his show, American Maniacs. The reality that is shaped by Gale’s show is demonstrated by the glowing reviews that people on the street give towards Mickey and Mallory. One group of teens praises the pair while saying “I’m not saying I believe in mass murder or that shit, don’t get us wrong. You know, we respect human life and all. But if I was a mass murderer, I’d be Mickey and Mallory.”

"Mass murder is wrong. But if I were a mass murderer, I'd be Mickey and Mallory!"

The media’s perception of Mickey and Mallory becomes the public’s reality, because of Gale’s apologetics for the duo in order to help booster ratings the public sympathizes with the killers. Once again, this is a direct mirror to the way that the media portrays mass murderers. The 24-hour news cycle pounces upon these killers, yet while it deplores them, it simultaneously makes them stars. A current example would be Nancy Grace, the blond bouffant who wags her tongue at her finger at those she disapproves of, yet, without those people she would be without a job.

We have looked to literature and film to serve as allegories to help explores the issue of our day: from Soviet scares in Animal Farm to cold war jitters of sci-fi films of the 1950s. However, when we look at Natural Born Killers, we see the collapse in metaphor that Baudrillard describes. The film doesn’t have any deeper meaning than the surface meaning, and that is what makes the film’s message so effective. The sheer extremity of the films violence and oversaturation of media demonstrates the way in which media shapes our perceptions of reality.

Mickey and Mallory as a cartoon

Continue the series with the next entry on Fargo.

[Citations, for those who want them:
-Baudrillard, Jean. America. Trans. Chris Turner. 2nd ed. New York: Verso, 2010.
-If you want specific page numbers, please e-mail us at: VideoWordMadeFleshEditor@gmail.com
and set the subject to ATTN: Theo – Baudrillard Quotes]

By Theo Estes 4/11/11

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy these posts:

A Touch of Humanity: How WALL-E Taught Us to Be Human
From the Queue: Peeping Tom

Sadism and Indifference: Pasolini’s Salò

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