To catch the ear of Hollywood with the question ``Are violent movies harmful to moviegoers?'' start with a familiar setting. Imagine a murky, cobwebbed science lab filled with towering stacks of dusty studies and reports piled to the ceiling. Rats slink and sniff. Lightning cracks outside again and again. Test tubes bubble. Next to the stacks a ghoulish, presumably mad scientist in white coat jumps up and down and shouts, ``Vhy von't you listen to me! Vhy? Vhy?'' Okay, Hollywood, you've done the scene a million times. But this scientist isn't crazed; break open a handful of those reports and you'll find some sobering disclosures about a question that won't go away: Do violent movies cause lots of people to behave violently?
According to the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV), the US Surgeon General, the National Institute of Mental Health and dozens of other organizations, the answer is yes.
NCTV claims it has ``over 700 scientific studies and reports which conclusively show the harm of TV and movie violence.'' Included are studies from 19 countries. The concensus? On a diet of violent films and TV, people become desensitized to violence; anger and irritability increase; fear and anxiety heighten; and in many instances criminal behavior is the result.
While some studies exist which suggest violent TV shows do not have a negative effect on viewers, there are virtually no studies indicating today's violent movies somehow contribute to well-being. Testifying at US Senate hearings in 1987, Aletha Huston, co-director of the Center for Research on the Influence of Television on Children, said there were many X-rated and R-rated films on television now, due to cable-movie channels and easy access to videos. ``There is more published research on this topic [influence of violent images] than on almost any other social issue of our time.''
What is a violent movie? NCTV, a nonprofit public-interest organization based in Illinois, rates movies according to acts of violence averaged per hour. ``Tango & Cash,'' for instance, with 104 acts of violence per hour was named by NCTV as ``one of the most violent and socially destructive films of 1989.'' People magazine counted the death and destruction in the first ``Rambo'' film. There were 70-plus explosions and 44 specific killings, or about one death for every 2.1 minutes of the film.
But despite the scientific studies and body counts, skeptics and doubters about the influence of violent movies are as plentiful in the movie industry as the entries in the weekend movie section of TV Guide.
A former head of a major studio once suggested that violent movie heroes played by Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger are simply bigger than life; they become ``mythical figures'' who help moviegoers feel powerful in the face of violence.
Paul Verhoeven, the outspoken director of ``Total Recall,'' the $50 million ``action'' movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, believes violent movies have a cathartic effect on an audience. ``I think society is harmful,'' he said. ``I don't think `Total Recall' is harmful. I think it's a kind of purifying experience to see violence. ... If your worst dreams come true in a movie, then you can face reality a little better.''
When told that hundreds of studies exist linking violent behavior to violent movies, Verhoeven said, ``You must be kidding. There is no evidence, nothing to be found ... where you can see that people, seeing a movie, have grabbed a knife to kill somebody, or even a gun. There is no evidence of that at all.''
Understandably, both Verhoeven and Renny Harlin, the director of another summer action movie, ``Die Hard 2,'' measure their own life-experience against the assertions that violent movies affect behavior. ``I've been watching action movies and violent American movies since I was five,'' said Harlin, ``and I've never been violent in my life. I've never felt - as a teenager - when I left a movie that I [wanted] to kick somebody or punch or shoot somebody.''
Verhoeven, of Dutch descent and raised in occupied Europe during World War II, said, ``I saw more killing [then]. ... What I [saw] as child is one of the real faces of reality, isn't it? ... I think violence in movies is nonsense, because it's just not happening; it's just not there. We have violence on the streets - that's what is happening. Movies are an experience of the mind.''
John Russo, a director and coauthor of the famous horror movie ``Night of The Living Dead,'' agrees. He sees horror films as different from violent adventure films - as ``cautionary tales.'' He said, ``Horror films are entertainment. We have a lot of fun making them, and the fans see them that way. Yes, we have a society with people who take guns and shoot people.
We're not supposed to make films about this? If no violent films were made, would there be less violence? I don't know. I don't think anybody really knows.''
Few filmmakers are ready to contend that movies are a passive experience. Millions of people, like Verhoeven and Harlin, go to violent movies and may be none the worse for the experience. Others, struggling with real-life problems, go to violent movies and act like what they have seen. Still others find movies - at their artistic best - to be occasionally insightful about the human spirit and condition.
But the hundreds of reports indicate there is a darker side to the influence of violent movies on many people, particularly young people. In a media-prolific age, movies attract youth with powerful, resonant images and make millions of dollars. Huge screens, sound systems with incredible fidelity, and hi-tech special effects are analogous to the sophistication of today's expensive, computerized cars. The difference is that violent movies always drive the audience.
While such movies may entertain, they also teach, instruct, suggest, and exclude much of the real stuff of human interaction. And studies indicate that the cumulative effect of violent movies - almost always exalting force over reason - can distort basic human values among the youngest viewers.
A Gallup poll in 1987 disclosed that the average American teenager, between 13 and 17, saw around 90 films a year.
Sociologist Carl S. Taylor learned how persuasive a single movie can be among a group of young people. Taylor's recent book, ``Dangerous Society,'' investigates gangs in Detroit from the inside. ``The No. 1 film that these kids watch over and over again is `Scarface,''' said Taylor.
Directed by Brian De Palma and released in 1983, ``Scarface'' is an excessively violent and brutal story of a cocaine-snorting, small-time drug dealer and gangster in Miami, who kills his way to being a drug lord.
``These kids have no strong family ties,'' says Taylor. ```Scarface' becomes a parental unit for them. In the film the [lead character] has a bad relationship with his mother, as do most of these kids. The film reinforces a negative image; the kids study `Scarface' over and over again on video. They know the parts, and they know the lines. ... These kids have failed at everything else, and then they become gangsters.''
No movie over in recent years illustrates better (or worse) the power of movies to influence behavior than ``The Deer Hunter,' the 1978 Oscar winner for best film.
Central to the movie is a lengthy terrifying scene in which captured American soldiers in Vietnam are forced to play Russian roulette with handguns. Several soldiers lose the game. In contemporary movies there is perhaps no more haunting or graphic depiction of deaths than those in ``The Deer Hunter.''
Quinn Redeker, one of the four screenwriters of the film, said in an interview that four years after its release, when the movie had played in theaters across the US and on cable TV, 27 young men had taken their own lives playing Russian roulette after seeing the film. In fact, the three major TV networks refused to show the movie because they judged it too violent. Director Michael Cimino would not allow scenes to be cut.
``I am amazed to think that sophisticated artists would believe that movies have a cathartic effect on audiences,'' said Dr. Roderic Gorney, director of the program on Psychosocial Adaptation and the Future at the University of California at Los Angeles. ``This theory isn't applicable to the movies. Instead of people discharging energies by seeing violence in movies and TV, the overwhelming number of studies indicate they are instigated to become hurtful, whether it is violently hurtful or nonviolently. If you take a bunch of starving people and show them scenes of banquets in movies, it doesn't cause their hunger to go away, and no rational person would expect it to.''
Killing and violence portrayed as entertainment is nothing new, said Dr. Gorney. The Romans killed for sport. Violence has been present in the drama and theater of all cultures for centuries. ``What is new,'' he said, ``is our ability to commercially exploit violence to the nth degree. At least in our day and age we have the possibility of understanding what we are doing to ourselves; other ages didn't have this possibility. If we don't do something with our understanding, then we are a bunch of fools.''