Indicted, tried, and convicted: Violence in Western culture as crucified in Natural Born Killers through its public execution. Take “execution,” two ways, as NBK kills violence by carrying it to an extreme. Amend “violence IN Western culture,” to read, “violence AS Western culture.” The message of Natural Born Killers is not that violence is engendered by the system or even that violence is inherent in the system, but that violence IS the system. In such a society where violence is the stock and trade, natural born killers rise to the top. In fact, they are destined to rule as royalty, natural born.
The message of NBK is clear. So clear that we focus our attention upon it, just as we watch a magician’s right hand while his left is palming the ball. Virtually all the media talk in articles and reviews has been riveted to the issue of violence. Meanwhile, Oliver Stone is performing his magic behind the smoke and mirrors. His intent? To make us more sensitized to the violence in our everyday lives so that we might question its validity. His method? A brilliant form of propaganda. And that is the focus of this article: how he did it and how you can too.
Unless you walked out of the show when it first began because it antagonized certain sensibilities regarding carnage and mayhem, you were first appalled by the graphic nature of the crimes and then intrigued with the black comedy that sets it in a completely different context. You might sit there, wondering, “I think this is deplorable. I should just stop watching.” Then, scene after scene, Stone twists it all around into a cosmic joke and you find yourself amazed that you are laughing. “I should stop watching, but I’ve never seen anything from this point of view before.”
By the time the story is halfway through, you have almost forgotten to look at the violence per se and have become much more interested in looking for the humor. If that is where the story left us, we would merely have been desensitized to even higher levels of violence than we are already. Our tolerance levels would have increased to some degree. There is no good or bad in a system that is inherently evil. From inside the system there is no way to evaluate intrinsics. That is why midway through the film we are presented an alternative paradigm in the form of Red Cloud, the Native American. Just as we are becoming settled into accepting the violence as a necessary component of the humor, Red Cloud illustrates a larger context in which another culture exists that is not made of violence. Suddenly, we can see good and evil. Suddenly, we have stepped out of Western culture to see it for what it is, objectively rather than subjectively.
Now we are assaulted full tilt with the media connection through shots of sheepish audiences in front of the television sets vicariously drinking up the blood of their own kind drawn by broadcast wolves. Again, smoke and mirrors that make us question our own role in sitting in the theater watching NBK. Still, the only characters who are worthy of succeeding are Micky and Mallory. Everyone else is tainted with some degree of restraint. Everyone else is less than pure. In the pecking order that is the Western culture, only the natural born killers have a right to sit at the top of the food chain: cannibalistic christs at the head of the smorgasbord table, “Drink, this is your blood… Eat, this is your body.”
Unlike the first half of the story in which we find ourselves placated into accepting the violence, now we find ourselves ever more sensitized to it with every horrendous event. Instead of finding the humor and forgetting the means, we take note of our desire to root for the root of all evil and rebel against the seeds we find within us.
By the end of the story, we cannot help but be disturbed that we wanted the wantonly vicious to succeed. And that is where the propaganda takes hold. Because Stone has been so successful in sucking us in to the Super Bowl of violence, then turned the tables and made us question the rules of his game, we become so focused on the film itself that we are not aware how many times we are helpless but to think of it while watching Saturday morning cartoons with our kids. Every time a news program airs, we note the gleam in the eyes of the anchor reporting atrocities in a foreign land. We see these things and think of NBK, drawing comparisons. But the propaganda is not that we consciously ponder this connection with the overt message of the film, but that we take time to think about it at all. We are focusing on the actual connection, unaware that Stone’s amazingly powerful propaganda statement has changed us in a way that prevents us from simply not seeing the violence at all.
The two concepts are closely allied: consciously considering the violence in the media versus not even thinking to consider it. The first is our focus. The second is what makes us focus.
If Oliver Stone had merely intended to create an homage to ultra-violence he would have never brought in Red Cloud. Yet, as the film stands, it clearly snookers us into being deprogrammed from our stupor and sensitized to violence we had become accustomed to and would otherwise unconsciously ignore.
How did he do that? How can we use the same techniques to further our own pet cause as writers? To understand we must examine both the structure and dynamics of Natural Born Killers and how they were transmitted to the audience through storytelling techniques.
Structurally, NBK describes three Western worlds, populated by four principal characters. The “real” world is home to Wayne Gale, the TV “journalist.” All of his scenes are presented in the most realistic film making techniques. Unusual editing keeps his scenes consistent with the flavor of the film as a whole, but they are external manipulations of his reality, not presented as part of its makeup. Wayne Gale starts out fully in the “real” world and gradually evolves into the world of the natural born killers, becoming a killer himself, though not natural born. This is indicated as the scenes in which he participates become more and more internally bizarre, not only in action but in lighting, camera angles, film stock and eventually special effects as his face distorts like Micky’s. So Wayne has made the transition from the structured world to the dynamic.
In contrast, Scagnetti, the police detective, has always had a foot in each world. He has straddled the line all of his life. Like a half breed, he is not quite natural born, but still not domesticated enough to be unaffected by the smell of blood. His world is presented as a half and half mix of structural reality and dynamic transformation. Before he ever meets up with Micky and Mallory, he kills a young woman for the thrill. But that is where he proves himself not to be natural born. Those who are the Western Royalty get no thrill from killing: its just what they do. As Red Cloud put it, “Stupid lady, you knew I was a snake!”
The filmic storytelling of Scagnetti’s scenes reflect the dichotomy of his nature. Although his world is never as distorted as Micky and Mallory’s, it is never quite as real as Gale’s either. As an example, when Scagnetti investigates the murder scene where Mallory has killed the gas station attendant, the blood pooled behind the boy’s head is initially blue. Moments later, seen again the blood is red. This same juxtaposition of imagery is evident as Scagnetti examines the smudges on the shiny hood of the sports car where Mallory seduced the boy. He sees the reality of the evidence just as his associates do, but he also actually sees Mallory, reflected in the metal as if she were still there, reenacting the crime.
The third world belongs to both Micky and Mallory. They share the magic, but from two different approaches. Micky is a do-er, physically making over his world to his liking. In contrast, Mallory is a be-er: she effects change by altering her perception. When we flashback to experience the moment when Micky and Mallory met, we see Mallory’s family through her perceptions of them. There is no reality at all in her imagery. Although thrown into a bizarre, sitcom context, the vicious, lechery of her father and the distracted helplessness of her mother are still clearly delineated. We see nothing of her family in anything but her abstract remodeling. Her world is wholly non-real.
Micky has something to learn from Mallory: how to adjust his perceptions to change the nature of personal reality. Mallory has something to learn from Micky: how to alter her environment rather than just reconfigure it. Because of their different approaches, each sees only part of the picture, even while they are born to the magic. Together, however, they are unstoppable, as they control the entire violent world. This is brought home by their success in evading capture until they are separated at the drug store. Alone, they are vulnerable. When they are once again reunited in prison, their ultimate triumph is unavoidable, as long as they remain joined.
This arrangement serves to make the one faulty line of dialog between them stand out like a sore thumb. In their first meeting scene, Micky asks Mallory, “Do you always dress like that or did you do it for me?” She replies, “How could I do it for you if I didn’t know you were coming?” This would lead us to believe that somehow Micky has brought the magic to her and that she did not possess it before. But the manner in which she distorted her family clearly indicates the opposite. To be more true to the scenario of her own magic, her reply might better have been, “How much meat do you have in that bag?,” by which she doesn’t even acknowledge the question, thereby sidestepping the whole issue.
In the end, both Gale’s and Scagnetti’s worlds are tested against Micky and Mallory’s and found to be wanting. Gale is impure. Although he has become a killer, he is not natural born. Therefore, Gale might be at the top of the food chain except in the presence of the True Royalty of Western Civilization. Micky is the inquisitor who finds Gale lacking.
In parallel is the earlier scene in which Scagnetti visits Mallory in her cell. This is the only false moment in the thematic flow of the message. Scagnetti has verbalized his pride at having actually killed someone. Through Mallory, he seeks purification so that he can divest himself of the reality ties that bind, and transform himself completely into a genetic predator. As Earth Mother of this cold natural order, Mallory has it within her power to grant this supplicant his request. She can take him into her womb and give him rebirth as a truly natural born killer. Unfortunately, the rebirthing concept got lost in the sexual dynamics. Rather than making it apparent that Mallory understood her power and chose to withhold it, the idea got lost in parody of adolescent date rape. In this way, the scene lost much of its mystical power and Mallory lost much of her mythic aura.
These three worlds, inhabited by the four principal characters define the perspectives of the story. From a Dramatica perspective, Micky is the Main Character (Physics Class) or first person singular perspective, I. We experience the story primarily through him, which is a standard approach to exploring that view. Similarly, Gale is the Obstacle Character (Psychology Class), identified as the second person singular perspective, YOU. He is always talking about Micky, talking TO Micky, saying “you this” and “you that.” Micky responds in the interview scene saying to Gale, “you this” and “you that.” Comparatives often occur between the Main and Obstacle characters and NBK is no exception. Micky tells Gale, “We’re really just doing the same thing, we’re really alike, you and I.” Gale angrily retorts that they are quite different. However, through the unfolding of events the point is made that not only were these two characters alike in attitude, Gale eventually proves they are alike in deed as well. Gale changes, actually transforms, and Micky remains steadfast, accepting no substitutes, killing Gale as a pretender to the throne.
In unusual storytelling, the remaining two Dramatica Domains are personified, rather than played out. Scagnetti is the Subjective story incarnate (Mind Class), trapped between Gale’s structure and Micky’s dynamics. The Subjective Story can be seen in terms of the first person plural perspective, WE. Scagnetti is the battleground upon which the battle between the two worlds is waged. Even his book, entitled “Scagnetti on Scagnetti,” further reveals the dichotomy in Scagnetti’s nature. Mallory, on the other hand, is the Objective story (Universe Class) identified as the third person perspective, SHE (or THEY). She represents the actual reality of the story, the true magic that has no base in physicality per se, but the point of view from which all valid meaning is derived.
Consistent with the characterization of storylines is the use of on screen dynamics in the symbology of the film. Normally, storytelling is accomplished by having the audience look at the dramatic potentials of a story and then figure out the dynamics that drive them by watching the potential rearrange and reorder themselves, indicating the forces that have moved them. In the end, enough movements have been documented, scene by scene to draw conclusions as to the dynamic environment that holds the message of the story.
In NBK, however, even the dynamics are portrayed right up front for all to see. Changes in film stock, which have no valid internal story impact still serve to connect otherwise disassociated pieces of the drama. Another approach creates comparisons between items of similar or dissimilar shape or color to draw connections. A notable use of this technique is in the opening diner scene in which a cut between the green of Micky’s Key lime pie is matched to the green of the jukebox near which Mallory is dancing. Similar colors, similar outlooks, green and green, she is as he is, etc. Third is the use of special effects, such as the face distortion that draws connections at yet another level. And finally, is the editorial technique itself, such as repeating action or editing between two incompatible renderings of a single event.
The last is the most objective approach, imposing its impact from outside the story. The special effects like distortion are the Main Character equivalent, as they are only seen by the audience experientially from the most personal of views. The Subjective perspective is carried through the comparisons of color or shape, and the Obstacle view is presented through the changes in film stock and style, which reflect our perceptions back to us in warped mockery: alternative truths. All of the hidden dynamics are made visible, putting the whole film on trial because there is nowhere left for the audience to hide themselves within the story. The context expands to the real world and we are presented with a fun house mirror, leaving us to ask ourselves, “Is it warped, or are we?”
And that is the nature of the propaganda techniques in this story. First it suckers you in. Then, midway, it throws it all into a different context forcing us to reevaluate ourselves. Finally, it leaves us so focused on the violence that we observed, and confused by our reaction to it that we have effectively become deprogrammed and re-sensitized to violence without ever being aware that we had changed.
Many of us may be resistant to the idea that we can be changed by a work in ways of which we are not aware. But this article itself has been modeled after the structural dynamics of Natural Born Killers. It begins with a discussion of violence of the piece, and suckers you into looking at the mechanisms of the story. Then it turns the tables midway and diverts the issue to describing how propaganda works, forcing us to focus on that methodology. If it were to end as the film did, it would have concluded with the paragraph above, and everyone who read this article would be unaware they had been changed. How changed? Well, the issue of the morality of using propaganda techniques was never brought up. It was left out intentionally. So if we had not drawn attention to the structure of our own propaganda, that missing aspect would naturally be filled in by the mind of each reader whenever they noticed propaganda in the future. It is an essential question to be answered: is this kind of manipulation moral, even if it is for a good cause?
By bringing this all out in the open, it diffuses the power of our propaganda statement. It takes the force of it from the subconscious and elevates it to conscious consideration where it can easily be disposed of by our readers. We really did not want to impact anyone in a propagandistic manner. Our intent is only to objectively describe some of the techniques by which it can and has been employed, then subjectively illustrate its power by using those very same techniques. As a result, you all now possess some tools, which if used will make both you and your indicted subject Guilty as Charged.