Bad Movie

by Kieran Healy on August 12, 2003

Amitai Etzioni has an odd post about the supposedly pernicious effects of The Matrix on impressionable young minds. It’s about four fans of the movie (and presumably its atrocious sequel) who committed violent crimes and talked afterwards about their obsession with the film. One guy shot his parents to death with a 12-gauge shotgun. “[Josh] Cooke’s lawyer characterized his client as “obsessed” with the Matrix, and supported the appointment of a psychiatrist to determine whether Cooke was sane when he committed the murders.”

The post doesn’t have anything in the way of analysis, it just invites you to blame the film for the crimes. Important bits of information (e.g. “whether Cooke was sane”) don’t seem to me to get the kind of weight they deserve. It wasn’t as if the guy beat his victims to death with the the DVD case, either — there’s that shotgun he had.

I’m not sure what Etzioni’s point is. Does he think we ought to ban the film? (It’s a bit late.) Maybe sue the filmmakers? (I’m not sure that litigation is very communitarian. If it happens, count me in: the Wachowski brothers definitely owe me at least $4.50, because Reloaded was basically half a crap movie.) And more importantly, didn’t we have this whole debate in the 1970s already? It shouldn’t need pointing out that any cultural phenomenon as big as The Matrix is going to have enormously variegated effects. Some of the people who get involved are going to be the odd pork pie short of a picnic. But what are you going to do? When it comes to assessing the effects of blockbuster movies with cult followings, The Matrix is actually a pretty interesting case. It’s probably done more to get people reading analytic philosophy than any other film I can call to mind. (It’s spurred more paid-up philosophers to write papers about it, too.) This seems like a good thing, on the whole. The more teenagers who are routed towards papers by Colin McGinn or Dave Chalmers or Julia Driver and away from The Fountainhead or Ender’s Game the better, if you ask me.

So I really can’t find anything more in this post than a bit of tut-tutting. I suppose it’s that schoolmarmish streak, combined with having actually been raised in one o’ them real live vibrant communities — where everyone knows your business and has you pegged as soon as they hear your surname — that’s always made me a bit wary of the communitarians.



Stewart Kelly 08.12.03 at 7:41 am


It sounds like Cooke was a bit cuckoo, so is it really fair to blame the Matrix films? If he didn’t believe in the Matrix he would have found something else whacky to believe in, with probably the similar horrific results.


James Russell 08.12.03 at 10:51 am

This argument about whether art (be it music, literature, whatever) can have bad effects on the people who consume it has been going on since Plato. Art is, always has been, and probably always will be, an easy target in situations like these; much easier to blame a concrete thing like a film than do any serious analysis of the deeper, more abstract reasons why some idiot shot his parents.


Charles Stewart 08.12.03 at 1:29 pm

Hardly surprising: this has been a bit of a hobby horse for Etzioni for quite some time, so I expect the point is simply to add more to the stockpile. I have the idea (not sure where it came from) that Etzioni supports the idea of suing the producers of violent films: why do you think this is anti-communitarian?


Jeremy Osner` 08.12.03 at 1:38 pm

Hey, you must have missed the memo from D2: criticism of Etzioni is to be posted on your own site, not CT.


dsquared 08.12.03 at 1:55 pm

My understanding of the editorial policy, not that there is one, is that criticism of important political philoisophers is on-topic for CT, while ridicule isn’t.


Ophelia Benson 08.12.03 at 6:14 pm

On the one hand, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to offer (and write and post) opinions about things like putative effects of movies and other cultural items. I don’t think one necessarily has to have ‘a point’ in the sense of thinking Something Will Be Done as a result of one’s opinion. Well I would think that, wouldn’t I, because otherwise I would have to shut up so much of the time when I want to talk and talk and talk. But on the other hand, communitarianism causes me to want to pack a small valise and move to a shack in Montana that’s so tiny I can’t stand up straight even in the middle of the room. Communitarianism was big with the Clinton folks, too, and while I suppose it’s preferable to W’s weird sense of humour, still…I’m too keen on thinking in my own peculiar way to be a fan.


Russell L. Carter 08.12.03 at 6:58 pm

Why stop with The Matrix? Twinkies, modern technological society, and Jodie Foster should be banned as well.


clew 08.12.03 at 9:16 pm

There ought to be a looser, less inherited sense of ‘communitarian’, in which one of the duties between the community and its members is to leave the members room to dree their peculiar wierds.


Kieran Healy 08.12.03 at 10:14 pm

My understanding of the editorial policy, not that there is one, is that criticism of important political philoisophers is on-topic for CT, while ridicule isn’t.

Hmm, hadn’t seen you’d beaten me to the punch on this one, D2. I’m not sure how I feel about the criticism/ridicule distinction. I used to have a fairly good line in ridicule. Maybe I got old or something.


Kieran Setiya 08.13.03 at 4:08 pm

Why don’t you like Ender’s Game?


rea 08.13.03 at 5:11 pm

Who knows how much teen sex and suicide is attributable to Romeo & Juliet? Ban Shakespeare!


natasha 08.13.03 at 9:03 pm

I seem to remember very fuzzily that the band Judas Priest was once brought into court on charges that one of their albums had caused a teenager to shoot his parents. And then there were those who tried to blame the Columbine shootings on Marilyn Manson.

Does the doctrine of personal responsibility for the things that an individual takes it upon themselves to do suddenly end when confronted with the mystical, hypnotizing power of pop culture?


Kieran Healy 08.14.03 at 1:47 am

Why don’t you like Ender’s Game?

Come to think of it, what I really didn’t like was the awful author’s introduction to the paperback edition that one of Laurie’s students gave to her last semester.


Realish 08.14.03 at 2:03 am

I have an advanced philosophy degree and can use the phrase “X referred to Y at Z” with the best of them, but honestly, it annoys me when philosophers denigrate the kind of ‘philosophy-lite’ you get in movies like The Matrix and Waking Life. I love those effing movies. As far as I’m concerned, anything in a popular medium that gets anyone thinking in any kind of rigorous way about anything is a gift that we should do everything in our power to encourage, not sniff at. Every showing of The Matrix should have a group of philosopher-cheerleaders outside chanting “How do you know your world is real? Come inside and take the pill!”

(Yes, I know that doesn’t rhyme, and yes, I know philosopher-cheerleaders would be gross.)


Robert Schwartz 08.14.03 at 7:14 am

IIRC the first Matrix was trashed in the wake of Columbine. The interesting question is why was this one such a crummy movie?

I had the same feeling seeing Reloaded as I did when I saw Phantom Menace. They took a really good movie and tried to do the same thing again with more special effects and made it much worse.


Ronald 08.14.03 at 1:03 pm

Just wondering, if the violence in The Matrix has a bad affect on people, do you think that invading Iraq could have a bad effect also? (I hear its production was particularly tougth on the extras.)


Barry Ritholtz 08.17.03 at 2:29 am

The Matrix did it.

By that same logic, we should soon be over run by gay men looking to makeover us straights, fix up our apartments, get us grooming products, and teach us how to dress.

30 years ago, Dick Cavett used to make fun of the violence on TV issue: “There’s so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?”

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