Backlash on violence hits Hollywood

FIRST THE gun lobby, now Hollywood. As the US struggles to make sense of the recent spate of school shootings and work out who to blame for turning white middle-class teenagers into mass murderers, the heat has turned from a badly scalded National Rifle Association to the entertainment industry.

For the past week, studioshave been running scared as Washington has hurled invective at them for overdosing children on a diet of senseless violence. Hollywood is well used to attacks from Republican lawmakers, but the industry appeared utterly stunned when its good friend President Clinton announced last Tuesday that the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission would be launching investigations into the possibility of criminal responsibility in purveying violence to children.

Studios marketing departments may have materials subpoenaed as early as this week to see whether the nation's youth is being deliberately and knowingly corrupted. For the first time in decades, Hollywood executives are afraid of official censorship and government interference in what they can and cannot show on screen.

One might have expected a defiant reaction, with industry representatives arguing forcefully that screen violence has nothing to do with violence in real life. That has certainly occurred: Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Academy and the industry's chief lobbyist, has furiously denied any correlation between screen violence and youth crime, arguing that censorship through the law would be a violation of the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

But a straw poll of writers, actors and producers also suggests that there is actually a great deal of humility and guilt as well as fear. "There is an unquestionable cause and effect between what goes up on screen and people's behaviour. We need to acknowledge the effect we have on the world," said the playwright and screenwriter William Mastrosimone, who participated in an industry forum entitled "Guns Don't Kill People - Writers Do".

While nobody in film or television believes they are directly responsible for criminal behaviour, there appears to be a wide consensus that there is too much violence and that it is almost certainly detrimental.

"Every picture I have done has come out more violent than the way I wrote it, and you have to ask yourself why," said Steven De Souza, who wrote the first two Die Hard movies and is now working on a film called Bonjour, Homicide.

Callie Khouri, who wrote Thelma and Louise, argued that screen violence was very often the result of laziness by producers and part of a tendency by the industry to fob audiences off with garbage. "If you have a story that's totally character- and plot-driven, it's much harder to write," she said.

Links between cultural products and real-life crime have been notoriously hard to pin down. When anyone accused Alfred Hitchcock of perverting his audience's minds, he would pull out a newspaper article about a man who strangled his girlfriend after taking her to the movies - to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Where Hollywood is most defiant is in its belief that self-censorship and higher production standards are the answer, not repressive laws. And there is clearly a collective memory of past instances of political crackdowns on Hollywood - notably the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the 1940s and 1950s.

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