Natural Born Killers and Capitalism

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Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1994) is a film directed by Oliver Stone. The story is about Mickey and Mallory Knox, two serial killers that travel across America on a killing spree which elevates them from criminals into international media celebrities. The story sounds like a modern day Bonnie and Clyde (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1967), however Mickey and Mallory's crimes are much more severe and without cause. Stone intended the film to be a critique on a culture obsessed with violence and the media’s glorification of violence. In Chaos Rising: The Storm Around Natural Born Killers’ (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1994) Stone explains “What I was doing was pointing the finger at the system that feeds off violence, and at the media that package it for mass consumption." Unfortunately, many people perceived the message of Natural Born Killers as a glorification of violence. The film even inspired several copycat killings. The film Natural Born Killers was intended to critique a culture obsessed with violence, yet inspired murders. The reason this film was decoded so differently by some viewers was due to social stereotypes imposed by capitalist ideology.

How an audience perceives a message from a text is through the process of decoding. Those who produce a text encode it with messages and meanings through the use of semiotics. When the audience receives a text, they then decode and identify these meanings through the signs and signifiers. Morley (1992, p.53) explains that meaning in a text is generated through two main factors. The first factor is the way a text is encoded through semiotics. This can invite certain readings and block others. The second is the social background of the receiver, which can be studied sociologically. The interaction of these two constraining structures will define the notion that a text can be interpreted in an infinite number of individual ways. Stuart Hall’s work on the role of social positions in the interpretation of mass media texts also helps explain this. His work was based around the three different ways a viewer can decode a text. The first is the dominant reading. This is when the reader shares the text’s code and accepts the intended reading. The second is the negotiated reading, which is when the reader partly accepts the intended reading but not completely. The reader then modifies it in a way that reflects their own position, experience sand interests. The third is the oppositional reading, which is when the reader’s social situation causes them to oppose the dominant code. They understand the intended reading but don’t agree with the code and reject the intended meaning, causing them to develop their own interpretation of the text. On March 6th 1995, teen couple Ben Darras and Sarah Edmondson shot a local businessman in Oklahoma. They then drove to Louisiana where they also shot a store store clerk. After their arrest, the couple said that they had been taking acid and watching Natural Born Killers several times. Upon Darras’s arrest he also shouted the words “I’m a natural born killer man”. Since the release of Natural Born Killers it has been linked to 8 murders. Each of the murderers shared the same lower class social position, and passion for the film. What can Hall and Morley’s work tell us about how this film was decoded so differently from its intended meaning by these adolescents? Hall (1977, p.182) explains that texts are polysemic, meaning they may be read differently by different people depending on their identity, cultural background and personal opinions.

Traditionally in film, those who commit acts of violence are villains who get punished for their crimes, while the police are seen as heroes. In this film the police are violent; one being a murderer himself. Throughout the film, Mickey and Mallory slaughter without reason yet by the end of the film they gain sympathy and likeability from the audience. An oppressed lower class...
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