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America is addicted to the other porn

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(CNN) — In the latest “X-Men” film, Magneto levitates RFK stadium and drops it around the White House; the stadium is destroyed.

In “Godzilla,” the monster fights off what looks like the entire U.S. military while he flattens both Honolulu and San Francisco. And in the new Tom Cruise film, “Edge of Tomorrow,” opening Friday, Paris is left underwater after an alien attack, and a futuristic D-Day-like invasion leaves a French beach strewn with dead bodies and smoldering war materiel.

There’s plenty more mayhem to come as this season’s glut of blow-‘em-up flicks rolls out: “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (aliens drop a cruise liner on a city), “Guardians of the Galaxy” (outer space vehicles liquefied by the dozens), “Hercules” (the title character fights off lions, sea monsters and a whole army of bad guys) and “The Expendables 3″ (Sly Stallone and gang; train rams into prison).

Entertainment Weekly recently referred to it as “the summer of destruction.”

But let’s call it what it is: destruction porn.

Like real porn, these movies play to our most atavistic instincts. They all include some sort of buildup, the titillation of expectation that really bad, but cool, things are about to happen. They generally climax — pun intended — with a massive set piece of CGI carnage. And like real porn, afterwards we’re supposed to feel deliriously fulfilled and exhausted.

Fact is, we should hate ourselves for feeling this way, as if we’d just had really bad sex. But that’s not the reaction destruction porn elicits. Even worse, we’re exporting this American blood-lust globally, giving outsiders the impression of a country that has totally gone over to the Dark Side.

It’s not as if there hasn’t been massive carnage in the movies before this. Hollywood has produced plenty of war films, ecological disaster flicks and alien invasion epics in the past. But the sheer frequency of destruction porn these days — at least 11 movies of this type in summer 2012 (“The Avengers,” The Dark Knight Rises,” etc.) and 12 during the same season last year (“White House Down,” “World War Z,” etc.) — and our delight in seeing things blown up, should make us worry about the mental health of society.

Movies have always reflected the anxieties of their age. In the 1950s, we had plenty of nuclear paranoia films,often featuring mutated life forms. (Can you say “Godzilla”?) The ’60s and ’70s brought us ecological and bio-terror themes in films such as “The Omega Man” and “Silent Running.”And later films, like “The Road Warrior,” reflect an apocalyptic mindset.

But the recent spate of films seem to reflect a collective psychic collapse. Sure, there are reasons for this: fear of terrorism, the insecurity created by all those mass murders, like the recent episode in Santa Barbara. We feel that world has gotten even more chaotic. That there’s too much of everything. That society has gotten way too complicated, with too many people, too much technology, too many opposing ideologies clashing against each other.

It recalls the classic 1959 dystopian novel “A Canticle For Leibowitz,” by Walter Miller Jr., in which the end of industrial civilization is referred to as “the Simplification.” It’s as if we’re preparing for a global meltdown.

And the summertime, when we’re supposed to be mellowing out, is a perfect time for Hollywood to exploit our growing appetite for this kind of carnage. There are two specific reasons for this: Most filmgoers are in the under-40 demographic, looking for a night out away from the heat and to put their brains on pause — and believe me, there’s nothing more mindless than watching stuff blow up. If it’s photographed lovingly, and with insanely good computer graphics, all the better.

The second reason is the importance of the foreign market, which now accounts for nearly 70% of total box office gross.

Our global neighbors tend to go for what we do best, which is make big budget films with state-of-the-art special effects, a minimum of dialogue (explosions speak a universal language) and lots of mayhem. Lots. Just to take two recent examples: the just-opened X-Men film has grossed $168 million in the U.S., and twice that much overseas. And the new “Captain America” flick — “Captain America,” no less! — has grossed $255 million domestically and a whopping $454 million overseas.

America: A country where scenes of mass destruction are the norm, and carnage is preferred over peace, love and understanding. Is this the kind of negative image of America we want to export? And sure, we all know that “It’s only a movie,” but don’t kid yourself: When we get geeked at the leveling of entire cities, it says something about who we are, and where our society is going.

And you’d think after 9/11 and the never-ending mass murders in this country we would be a bit more sensitive to scenes where cities are destroyed and thousands of lives lost, but the opposite seems to have taken place: We wallow in it. We cheer it. Like porn, we can’t take our eyes off it. It’s seductive and incredibly addictive.

Wish fulfillment? Catharsis? Just good old entertainment? It really doesn’t matter. While we’re in the grips of whatever social psychosis is stoking this ravenous appetite for mayhem, Hollywood will be happy to oblige.

By Lewis Beale

Editor’s note: Lewis Beale writes about culture and film for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other publications. He has taught writing about film at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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