AN old and divisive debate once again grips Hollywood: Do movies simply reflect reality, or do they bend and mold the culture through example?
The question has dogged the silver screen since the turn of the century, when the slightly disreputable celluloid images first captivated mass audiences. The early founders like Paramount's Adolf Zukor and MGM's Louis Mayer consciously set about making movies that would not only entertain, but also uplift and impart values to their audiences.
But their family businesses long ago turned into corporate giants wielding hundreds of millions of dollars in search of a respectable return on their investments. As a result, some critics charge, they have abnegated their larger, social responsibilities.
"One of the reasons why there was a spate of horrible violence, grotesque violence, violence for violence's sake in today's movies is that it's the simplest way to appeal to the largest mass audience," says Academy Award-winning screenwriter Frank Peirson, who wrote "Cool Hand Luke" (1967) and "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). "It's drained the soul of the business."
Everyone contacted for this article reacted with genuine horror to the real-life torching in New York last week that left a subway toll-booth clerk severely burned.
The film's stars, Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, sent condolences to the man and his family, saying they were "deeply saddened by what happened."
But some in Hollywood also insist that a fictional movie can't be blamed for the instability of those responsible for the incident.
"Somebody who is going to fire-bomb a subway guard would have done something to somebody that day anyway - they were looking to get into trouble," says Charles Slocum, an industry analyst for the Writers Guild of America in Los Angeles. "We cannot program our media to the most vulnerable among us."
Others in the film industry were indignant at what they perceived as the hypocrisy of presidential hopeful Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas and other politicians who were quick to blame Hollywood for the attack.
"I think it's strange for a guy who is working so hard for the repeal of the assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill to be so appalled by fictional violence," says screenwriter Jeff Maguire, author of "In the Line of Fire" (1993).
Last week, Senator Dole called for a boycott of the movie "Money Train," in which a character known as "the Torch" squirts gasoline into tollbooths then threatens to light it unless the cash is turned over.
"To say that a movie 'caused' this senseless act ... gives it a logic and dignity it does not deserve," Dole said in a speech on the Senate floor. "But at the same time, those who work in Hollywood's corporate suites must also be willing to accept their share of the blame."
No one knows if the perpetrators saw the movie, which opened the same weekend. And New York transit police point out that there have been nine similar attacks during the last five years. Was life imitating art, or art imitating life?
While the question is impossible to answer, many in Hollywood's creative community - including Pierce, Maguire, and Slocum - share Dole's dismay about movies that thrive on violence for its own sake. They all agree the studios should be more responsible in their choice of materials.
"What it should take is a self-cleansing and a self-realization within the industry," says William Baker of the Motion Picture Association, which represents the eight major studios. "I think the worst thing that can happen is overreaction."