|A Ramble About Art, Death, and That Space Cadet in Blacksburg
by Rob Gonsalves
"...this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes, the devil's eyes..."
Hitler was a failed painter, Charles Manson was a failed musician, and Cho Seung Hui was a failed playwright. The 23-year-old English major who gunned down 33 people, including himself, at Virginia Tech on April 16 left behind two short plays, which really give little indication of why he did what he did, any more than Hitler's bad art or Manson's bad songs explain their bad deeds.
The morbidly curious can go read Cho's labors of hate, Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone, at AOL News until decorum or public complaint forces someone to take them down. I've read them; do you want me to save you the trouble? Here at the site our mission is to "warn the world about overhyped movies"; herein I will try to warn the world about overhyped plays. Because angsty emo horseshit like this is a dime a dozen in every creative-writing class across the nation, regardless of what various pundits will try to tell you about how these plays should've been a red flag.
Richard McBeef concerns the struggle of wills between the titular character, a 40-year-old guy, and his whiny conspiracy-theorist stepson John, age 13. Richard is in the kitchen reading the newspaper. John ambles in and opens a cereal bar. Richard tries to be civil, but John isn't having it — he whips the usual "You aren't my real father" trip on Richard. Richard makes the mistake of putting his hand on John's leg. John loses his shit and accuses Richard of trying to molest him, then accuses him of killing John's real father so he could marry John's mother Sue. He also brings up Richard's past jobs with the government (is John full of shit? We never find out).
Things get heated, and Richard is about to deck the little asshole when Sue comes in and reads Richard the riot act: "What are you doing to my son! You said you would have a nice chat to get on terms with him. And this is what I catch you do! What kind of step-father are you? Pretending to be nice to him with a fake smile on your chubby face!" This outburst, incidentally, is pretty well representative of Cho's rusted tin ear for dialogue.
Anyway, John tells Sue that Richard tried to molest him. Sue goes apeshit and throws a plate at Richard. The action moves to the basement and she throws wrenches and pipes at him. Richard tries to talk some sense into her: "Now, why don't we go to the bedroom and do it doggy style, just the way you like it, honey-poo." This almost works, until John emerges from his bedroom (where he's been throwing darts at Richard's picture) and tells Sue that Richard killed his real father. What follows really deserves to be quoted in its full inept splendor:
(She grabs a chainsaw and brandishes it at Richard. He runs out of the house and into his car. Thirty minutes later John goes out to Richard and sits on the passenger's side eating a cereal bar.)
I wonder why its so sunny out! Today is one fruity day!
Words fail me. They really do.
This all ends when John harangues Richard some more and tries to cram his cereal bar down Richard's throat. "Richard lifts his large arms and swings a deadly blow at the thirteen year old boy." The end.
Mr. Brownstone is even more pointless, if that's possible. Three high-school kids sit playing casino slots and bitching about their math teacher Mr. Brownstone, who's also playing slots nearby. There's a lot of dialogue about how much trouble Mr. Brownstone has taking a dump. A full page is devoted to the three kids singing the Guns 'n Roses song "Mr. Brownstone." Finally Mr. Brownstone gets the kids kicked out of the casino. The end.
People are talking about how "disturbing" the plays are. Ian McFarlane, a former classmate of Cho's who submitted the plays to AOL News, said "When we read Cho's plays, it was like something out of a nightmare. The plays had really twisted, macabre violence that used weapons I wouldn't have even thought of." Uh, this is overstating it a bit. The cereal bar, I'll give him that, but everything else is standard-issue revenge-fantasy stuff. The plays are typical adolescent bilge, and the most disturbing thing about them is that a 23-year-old, a college senior, wrote them. How the fuck do you get to the point of near-graduation as an English major and still be writing shit like this?
But the excitable media will try to sell you on how horrible and disturbing these plays are. Hell, if not for the tragic context they'd be pretty fucking funny. I can imagine some wise-ass staging these plays as camp, with the female roles played by guys in drag. If anything, the plays express hot rage towards child molesters, not random students and professors. Both Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone are accused of kiddie-diddling. Then again, Cho leaves it ambiguous as to whether they really did it or are just victims of spiteful kids who don't understand them. I'm sure we'll find out more about Cho's past, whether he was molested or accused of molestation, and we'll let the armchair headshrinkers deal with that. Who knows, maybe he was just pissed off in general and slapped his fictional characters with the Chester the Molester label because pedophiles are acceptable targets for scorn.
What happens in schools now when kids turn in short stories or poems or, yes, even plays dealing with dark and violent issues? Is Cho Seung Hui going to be used as a stick to beat them down with? After all, he wrote "violent, twisted" plays and he killed all those people. Just as goth kids were persecuted after the Columbine killings because they wore black like the killers, so any kid who tries to use creativity as catharsis will be unfairly scrutinized and perhaps punished or even medicated. A kid who writes viciously about a child-molesting character could have his locker or bedroom searched. A kid who writes angrily about anything might be looked at askance.
Everyone is saying that Cho didn't talk much: "He was always really, really quiet and kind of weird, keeping to himself all the time. Just kind of anti-social, didn't talk to anybody. I tried to make conversation with him in August or so and he would just give one-word answers and try not to carry on the conversation." Great, so does that mean quiet kids are society's hidden danger now? As if shy, withdrawn kids don't have enough problems.
Every time a ripe pimple like Cho pops and spews pus and blood all over the media landscape, it's bad news for freedom of speech and expression as parents, school officials and cops go into panic mode. But you can't prevent shit like this any more than you can prevent hurricanes. Well, we could try making guns a little harder to get, but in America suggesting that is like spitting on a cross draped in the American flag. According to a news item, "Because he killed and injured so many victims in a short span of time, some people speculated that Cho used high-capacity magazines containing as many as 33 rounds in each clip. Under the federal assault-weapons ban enacted in 1994, magazines were limited to 10 rounds. But that ban was allowed to expire in 2004." But, y'know, guns don't kill people; quiet, angry playwrights kill people. Is the FBI monitoring David Mamet?
As more is learned about this talentless little spoogebag, there'll be even more half-assed attempts to diagnose Cho's illness based not only on the "art" he produced, but the art he consumed. Marilyn Manson was a favorite whipping boy after Columbine, as were The Matrix and The Basketball Diaries. Mark David Chapman's favorite book was The Catcher in the Rye; John Hinckley reportedly dug it too. Robert Heinlein was horrified to learn that Stranger in a Strange Land was one of Charles Manson's favorite books. Various horror movies and heavy-metal bands have been blamed for teenage atrocities. You can't control who's exposed to what, and among the millions of fans of some violent pop entertainment will be a psycho or two. Law of averages. Law of the jungle. Law of whatever.
I'm waiting for the ripple effect this might have on entertainment this asshole hadn't even seen because it hasn't been released yet. Will Hot Fuzz be postponed because a comedy with lots of farcical gunplay suddenly looks "inappropriate" and "insensitive"? America tends to be very rabbity about stuff like that. Entertainment dealing with explosions, like Die Hard with a Vengeance, got altered or pushed back after Oklahoma City. The season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer famously got postponed and edited after Columbine. A few movies like Big Trouble got bumped after 9/11. In this post-Virginia Tech atmosphere, I'd love to see Harvey Weinstein try to go through with his plan to re-release Grindhouse as separate movies, especially Planet Terror. In that movie, Rose McGowan has a gun for a leg! Cho Seung Hui had...a gun! I can almost hear Bill O'Reilly harrumphing himself into a hernia over the shocking similarities between today's gruesome Hollywood fare and today's gruesome headlines.
Please don't buy into the bullshit. It doesn't matter what this guy wrote or read or listened to or watched. Millions of harmless, peaceful others have read, listened to and watched the same stuff, and many have even written similar stuff, though usually when they were thirteen, not 23.
Cho was described as a ghostlike character who just sort of sat there blank-faced, staring. Remind you of anyone?
I watched him for fifteen years, sitting in a room staring at a wall, not seeing the wall, looking past the wall, looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off.
No, I'm not saying Cho was influenced by Halloween. I'm saying John Carpenter got it right. Some people are just stone unreachable fucks, they kill because they want to, and that's that. But, of course, it's easier to accept that he did it because he watched The Hills Have Eyes, or he played Grand Theft Auto, or he wrote dumb-ass plays that contain, by the way, nary a syllable about walking into a university and turning it into a shooting gallery.
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originally posted: 04/18/07 00:24:11
last updated: 04/18/07 09:15:37