Movie Violence and Social Responsibility

Directors should recognize the emotional power films exert, and make movies to defuse violence

ALTHOUGH I'm prepared to argue rather loudly that violent movies do trigger aggressive behavior in people, particularly many young men and children, some film critics, studio executives, and directors say this isn't so.

Essentially they reason as follows:

(1) Some movies with violence in them like "Juice,New Jack City,Boyz N the Hood" (and even "Terminator 2") actually offer messages of anti-violence or social redemption. They can't be blamed for the murders and violence that occur at theaters when the movies open. One critic wrote, "How can a group be incited by watching what they are already living?" Others say violent movies shouldn't be blamed when individuals see movies and commit "copy-cat" crimes.

(2) Violent movies are cathartic and relieve some viewers of violent tendencies. Society is violent; people can be nasty, and movie violence stems violent urges.

(3) Movies are a business. If audiences stopped buying tickets to violent films, such films wouldn't be made.

(4) Any kind of mandated censoring of violent movies, or other explicit movies, would deny First Amendment rights. The movie-rating code helps parents decide what is suitable for children. Adults, of course, may see whatever they want.

Assuming that it is hard to agree on a definition of a "violent" movie, here are some responses to the above four points.

First, no proof exists that violent movies are cathartic. Hundreds of conclusive studies done by professional and educational institutions over the last decade link aggressive and violent behavior to violent movies seen in theaters or on TV. The evidence is overwhelming.

For instance, the staff of Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, in formulating a proposal (the Television Violence Act), found 85 studies connecting aggressive acts to children and TV violence.

It is not necessarily one movie by itself that triggers violent, aggressive behavior (although this does happen); it is more often the accumulation of hundreds of powerful images seen in dozens of movies that shapes negative aspects of behavior.

Not a single study suggests that all people react the same way to violent movies; but all together the studies present an alarming picture.

Under the guise of entertainment, society is experiencing the subjugating of innocence, reason, and kindness in many people to aggression and killing as acceptable norms.

The rating code for movies no doubt helps some parents select appropriate movies for children. But movie theaters are notorious for allowing youngsters into R- rated films. Cable TV and videos allow young kids to see any film.

To the critic who wrote, "How can a group be incited by what they are already living?" the answer is simple. What movies are not made to play upon emotions? Huge screens intensify characters and story, sophisticated sound systems amplify music, explosions, and killings. These are not passive devices. People go to movies for emotional reasons.

In Los Angeles last year a conference titled, "Violence - The War at Home," was organized by a Hollywood political-education group known as the Show Coalition. Actor Edward James Olmos at one point turned to director James Cameron ("Aliens,Terminator 2") and said, "I could take this water glass and shove it in Cameron's face and it wouldn't have the effect" of doing it in a film "done in 70 millimeter and Dolby stereo. Nothing that we can do will ever stop the damage we've done."

Damage? "Aw, c'mon. We're talking movies here, make-believe," say the critics. Consider the words of a 19-year-old former drug dealer quoted in the Boston Globe: "You see it on TV, you know, it looks cool: all these actors going around killing hundreds of men in two and three minutes. It builds up in your head and you think: 'Yo, I can do that.

At the conference, Michael Medavoy, chairman of Tristar Pictures said, "We do live in a commercial world. If you don't go to violent pictures, I promise you they won't get made."

In my view the negative influence of violent films has become a question of social responsibility, of filmmakers challenging themselves to use the power of film to help negate violence. Humor, reason, the triumph of love and hope, the nonviolent conflict of human foibles and misunderstandings are not commercially invalid, as plenty of tension-filled, artful movies prove.

The last word goes to film critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times on the remake of "Cape Fear." He writes: "Are we, perhaps, too quick to heap praise on films just because they are expertly done, shrugging off the troubling nature of the content? Is an audience's increasingly twisted thrills any justification for cheering on the people who provide them? Have our lives truly become so hollow that this kind of unapologetic bludgeoning of our sensibilities passes for jolly weekend entertainment?... p erhaps the time has come to stop splitting hairs and say simply and firmly that enough is enough."

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