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The Movie Violence Blame Game

Back in early 2000 I wrote an outraged editorial for the late GAUNTLET magazine in response to the media blame game that occurred in the wake of the April 1999 Columbine High School massacre. In the article I decried the rush to judgment that followed the massacre, whose teenaged perpetrators took their own lives in the melee and so couldn’t be questioned about their motives. Thus, despite “evidence” that ranged from flimsy to nonexistent, numerous lawyers, politicians and newspaper columnists pinned the blame for the killings on that most convenient of targets: Hollywood, whose violent output was apparently single-handedly responsible for turning Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold into remorseless killers, with THE MATRIX and perennial whipping post NATURAL BORN KILLERS (a movie implicated in seemingly every late-90s crime) taking the lion’s share of the blame.

     13 years later we find ourselves in a similar climate. The rash of shootings that plagued America in 2012, culminating in the December 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, has inspired a fresh round of media finger pointing. This particular blame game isn’t as intense as the one that followed the Columbine shootings, but has been severe enough that Hollywood has taken notice, and vowed to create movie theater PSAs about the dangers of filmic violence.

1999 vs. 2013
    
Let’s keep in mind that the circumstances of the 2012 shootings were a bit different from those of 1999. For starters, the shooters in the earlier case were teenagers, yet James Holmes, the culprit in the July ‘12 Colorado movie theater shooting, was 24, while Jacob Tyler Roberts, who shot up a Portland shopping mall in December, was 22, and Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza was 20. This means that in all three cases the perpetrators were old enough to be held accountable for their own actions.

     Another major difference between then and now is the lack of any recent movies to link with the shootings--i.e. nothing with depictions of people shooting up movie theaters, shopping malls or elementary schools--meaning the finger-pointers are recycling the same nineties-era fare evoked during the Columbine blame game. In the now-infamous press conference held in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre blamed the media-created “climate of violence” for the shooting, singling out the “blood-soaked slasher films” NATURAL BORN KILLERS and AMERICAN PSYCHO.

     Really? The 13 year old AMERICAN PSYCHO was more a satirical art film than a “blood-soaked slasher,” and NATURAL BORN KILLERS? We still have to worry about the effects of that film nearly 20 years after the fact? I guess this just proves that, truly, the more things change the more they stay the same.

The Linking Game
    
It seems that in recent years people have been eager to link every mass shooting with a movie. Thus, when somebody suggested THE BASKETBALL DIARIES might have inspired Eric Harris Dylan Klebold because it contained a dream sequence in which Leonardo DiCaprio shoots up his high school, the film became irretrievably linked with the Columbine tragedy--even though to those of us who actually viewed THE BASKETBALL DIARIES in its entirety the connection seemed pretty tenuous (with the sequence in question being representative of the anti-social mindset DiCaprio’s character is weaned away from in the course of the film).

     Even more ludicrous is the alleged link between the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and Chanwook Park’s film OLDBOY. Said “link” consists of a still photo from the film depicting the lead actor brandishing a hammer in a manner similar to the way a hammer was upheld by Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho during a videotaped diatribe. Once again, for those who bothered to see OLDBOY the connection is tenuous, as the scene depicted in the still sees the otherwise unarmed protagonist using the hammer to defend himself against bad guys--unlike the heavily armed Mr. Cho, who perpetrated an act of violence.

     Of course, the biggest problem in linking THE BASKETBALL DIARIES and OLDBOY to the abovementioned tragedies is the simple fact that no evidence exists that the shooters ever saw either movie. Not that this slows down the finger-pointers, who invariably invoke the tried and (un)true “must have” argument.

The “Must Have” Claim
    
Must have”--as in “Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold must have seen THE MATRIX/THE BASKETBALL DIARIES/NATURAL BORN KILLERS before embarking on their rampage”--obviously sounds a lot better than “Might have,” “Could have” or “In the absence of any concrete proof I’m inferring that…,” even though all essentially mean the same thing.

The “Responsibility” Question
    
Many commentators claim that violence in movies is hunky-dory so long as it’s presented in a “responsible” manner. The problem is nobody can seem to agree on what constitutes responsible violence.

     On the one hand we have celebrity attorney Gerry Spence, who on a 1999 HANNITY & COLMES broadcast argued in favor of sanitized depictions of violence: “In my day it was Tom Mix and Wild Bill Hickok. They shot somebody, but it was nice and clean, and always the bad guy.” The opposing view was articulated by David Lynch in a 1988 TWILIGHT ZONE MAGAZINE interview: “I think one of the sickest things on television is the way people are killed. It’s so clean and so fast that kids think it’s as easy as that. Real death is, of course, much messier.”

     Who’s right?

The SCHINDLER’S LIST/RETURN OF THE JEDI/EXORCIST II Connection
    
Whatever the answer to that question, most everyone seems to agree that SCHINDLER’S LIST, despite its unusually high quotient of sex and violence, is a film whose responsibility quotient is unimpeachable. So redoubtable is the film that when congressman Tom Coburn dared criticize NBC’s uncut airing of it in 1997 he was shouted down by many of his fellow congressmen, and also by NBC president Don Ohlmeyer and FCC chairman Reed Hundt.

     The irony, of course, is that SCHINDLER’S LIST is a rare example of a film that can be definitively linked with a violent event: a January 1994 shooting that took place in a San Diego movie theater playing the film, perpetrated by a loser who believed he was somehow “testing God” and protecting the Jews by shooting the woman seated in front of him at the same time an actor was gunned down onscreen. Oddly enough, the guy didn’t seem to care how responsibly the film’s violence was depicted.

     Then there’s RETURN OF THE JEDI, a movie that to my knowledge has never been singled out by anyone as a bad influence. That, however, didn’t stop the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer from being inspired by its portrayal of the all-powerful Emperor, whose look and mannerisms Dahmer reportedly imitated. Dahmer’s other major filmic influence? EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, a VHS of which was playing on his TV the day of his 1991 arrest--interestingly enough, it’s the least violent, and so most responsible, of all the EXORCIST movies, a fact that didn’t seem to concern Mr. Dahmer.

     Of course in both instances the principals were deeply disturbed individuals, but wasn’t that the case in every crime mentioned above?

The C-Word
    
Censorship. Nobody likes that word, yet censorship is precisely what every anti-media crusader desires. This explains why such people tend to cloak their censorious proposals in benign-sounding terms.

     Here I’m referring specifically to a politician who in 1999 proposed an outright ban on violent movies with the proviso that “this isn’t a censorship decision, it’s a citizenship decision!” Some clever wordplay there, but I’m afraid what that politician was proposing WAS in fact a censorship decision, and one that would be disastrous to politicians like the one under discussion--what, after all, would they have to point fingers at in the absence of violent movies? Their own failed policies, maybe?

Finally…
    
Do I really believe any of the preceding arguments will have any impact on anyone’s thinking? Well, my GAUNTLET article didn’t seem to change too many people’s minds on this issue, and frankly I’m not expecting this one will, either. Anti-media finger-pointers, after all, are always thoroughly convinced of their righteousness regardless of the nonsensicality of their arguments.

     What I do hope is that you’ll take some time to think before partaking in the “movie violence caused the Columbine/Virginia Tech/Sandy Hook massacres” line of bullcrap--and if you insist on joining that crowd then at least come up with some genuine corroborating evidence. Remember, an informed opinion is a good thing!

 

--3/26/13

     

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