Movies are not real life. They’re entertainments, mostly made for profit, which may occasionally rise to the level of art. One shouldn’t believe everything one sees in movies; by their very nature they’re a magic lantern show. Now that that’s out of the way, we’re ready to talk about Dr. Pete Livingston and his fascinating polemical deconstruction of the treatment of death, dying, and grief in American movies, Over 9 Billion Dead Served.
In 1997 Livingston, a Point Richmond film-industry professional — he worked for Industrial Light & Magic as a creature-shop coordinator on Ghostbusters 2 — who also holds a Ph.D in psychology, began articulating a common complaint in a novel way. Livingston came to the conclusion that Hollywood movies were teaching Americans the wrong lessons about death, and he set out to examine images from some of the most popular — and therefore most influential — films of all time to prove his point. “This documentary does not ask what some obscure punk rock band may have taught an on-the-edge adolescent,” declares Livingston in his voice-over. “It asks what America’s dominant storytellers teach billions of people about death and dying.” He broke his argument into eleven chapters, illustrated with a multitude of clips from such screen hits as Star Wars, ET, Independence Day, The Lion King, Home Alone, Batman, Toy Story, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Says Livingston: “I wanted it to be educational. I think we’d have a better culture with less violence.”
It’s easy at first to snicker at Livingston’s seemingly naive hypotheses. Anyone who has ever gone to the movies knows that “Americans see billions more deaths and murders than is commonly recognized” or that “Deaths and murders are frequently joked about and celebrated.” In the current climate of war hysteria, the notion that “stereotypes of Nazis and Arabs are used to dehumanize those who are subsequently killed” is certainly worth talking about. But the parade of images has a cumulative effect. “I think real aggression does come from these films,” the filmmaker asserts. “I was trying to discover: What are our thought processes when we dehumanize people, where the bloodshed meets the road?”
Livingston assembled his clips from nonencrypted laser discs and produced it himself. When the doc was finished and he asked permission from the major distributors (Sony, Universal, Fox, etc.), they naturally threatened him with lawsuits, and the legal bloodshed did indeed begin hitting the road. He is currently claiming that Over 9 Billion Dead Served is protected by the Fair Use Doctrine, which exempts educational material from copyright laws, but he’s having trouble getting it shown publicly. “I violated all their rules,” Livingston muses. He’s been talking to lots of lawyers. “I’ve been hearing everything from ‘You’ll be crushed’ to ‘Looks like Fair Use to me.'” Meanwhile, hardly anyone has seen one of the most provocative documentaries of 2002. Stay tuned for further developments.