Ain't It Cool News (
Movie News

EDITORIAL: Moriarty grapples and debates the issues of violence and film as raised on 60 MINUTES!

Alright, this is a change of pace folks. Yesterday, I gave Moriarty a call to ask whether he'd seen my SISKEL AND EBERT show yet, but... Our conversation turned to yesterday's 60 MINUTES, and... As commentators on film, and armed with the knowledge that Hollywood's studios are the biggest pack of spineless cowards the world has ever seen.... We decided, to address the issue. A tough one. Does Filmic Violence Influence Children To Kill? AND Should The Filmmakers Be Held Accountable?

A Short Story before I hand you over to Moriarty. My parents referred to me as the 'great experiment' growing up as a child. They decided to see what would happen if you inundated and raised a child on a massive influx of Violent and Subversive film, comics and games. As a result I grew up watching NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD over 40 times by the time I reached 8 years of age. I have seen with (and without) parental supervision since the dawn of memory Film Violence. I'm an Eagle Scout. I have a very strong sense of morality. I was chosen as one of the Future Young Leaders Of Tomorrow and sent to represent Texas in Washington D.C.

I harbored many violent thoughts about my mother when she divorced my Dad, became an alcoholic and began a strong abusive streak that lasted 6 years of my life. I wished her dead. It was film that had taught me that if I attempted to kill her myself, I'd be caught... and punished. When my mother dove into a pool drunk, I stood and watched her sink to the bottom. I was just gonna let her die, but I couldn't. I dove in, brought her out, performed CPR and brought her back to life. This.... From a child raised on Chainsaw Murders, Crossdressing Butcher Knife Wielders. A kid that could quote out loud all the dialogue to DAWN OF THE DEAD. But through all that horror and all that violence, I learned the true lesson of Horror and Violent films... And that is life is precious. Something to Fight For. Something I could never take away, lest I become the monster.

We live in a society today that has problems with children and parents communicating. A world where both parents are required to work, thus allowing a lot of time for unsupervised behavior. My father and mother worked. But they never minded coming home and reading FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND to me as a child. They involved themselves in everything I was fascinated in. We weren't rich monetarily, just rich in communication.

Now, read what our dear Professor must teach 60 MINUTES about journalism and the issues of violence in film and our lives...

Hey, Head Geek...

"Moriarty" here.

Tonight I'm going to dispense with all the usual trappings of my spy reports to speak to you and our readers from my heart. What I'm going to discuss here is controversial, and I'm sure that just as many of you will disagree with me as agree. I'm sure the TALK BACK for this article will be heated. Before we get to any of that, though, I need to make my feelings on one subject very clear.

What happened to those kids in Littleton was a tragedy. There is no bright spot, no one redeeming note to the story. I am heartsick at the thought of what that community is going through. The families of the victims have my absolute empathy. They are purely victims, with no fault of their own. These feelings are also true for any of the families who have lost loved ones to this random madness in any of a dozen cities around the world. Whether it's Dunblane, Scotland, or here in the US in Oregon, these incidents are horrific and personally affecting.

Having said that, my sadness at this tragedy is being rapidly replaced by a pure and blinding anger. I am troubled by the rush to judgment that the media seems to be making. In particular, I'd like to address what I consider to be one of the most sensationalistic, irresponsible pieces of journalism I've ever seen. This is a call to the creative community, a call to an ideological war which is already being waged. We have suffered attacks on our free expression before, but the climate is shifting now. When other media rolls over and joins the assault, when the U.S. Supreme Court allows the lawsuit against TimeWarner and Oliver Stone to progress, when a show like 60 MINUTES makes the kinds of inflammatory statements they did tonight -- well, it's time to take a hard look at what's going on and say the unpopular things that need to be said. It may not be easy, and the truth might seem cruel, but we cannot simply allow these attacks to go unanswered.

"Is it too far-fetched to believe that a preoccupation with video games that deal in violence and movies that portray violence can turn a kid into a killer?" With this question, Mike Wallace began his introduction to tonight's lead story on what is considered by most to be the leader in integrity in TV journalism, CBS's 60 MINUTES. He continued by saying that they had interviewed 3 parents of kids killed in a previous school shooting, parents who had joined to file a lawsuit against the producers of the film THE BASKETBALL DIARIES, the makers of the game DOOM, and other entertainment companies. Wallace promised to bring on spokespeople for the game and movie industries, the lawyers for the parents, and a man who was hired by those parents as an expert witness in their court case.

The story began with that man, Lt. Col. David Grossman (ret.), who was singled out in a radio address by President Clinton this weekend as "someone we would all do well to listen to." Grossman is a former professor of psychology at West Point who now teaches seminars on the psychology of killing to Green Berets and the FBI. When Grossman was introduced in the segment, he immediately began talking about video games, which he has labeled "murder simulators." I've heard Grossman's theories before, and he makes some very persuasive arguments. Basically, what he says boils down to the idea that we are giving our children the same kind of immersive conditional training that is used to turn military recruits into killers. Grossman claims it's a two-step process. First, these games teach you to associate pleasure with death and killing. Second, they teach you the motor skills necessary to commit extraordinary acts of precision and marksmanship.

To back up his point, 60 MINUTES cut to footage of U.S. soldiers being trained on DOOM, using the game to "hone their shooting skills." Of course, combat isn't fought with a mouse, so I think the connection to this particular clip was tenuous at best, but I'm not saying that Grossman's entirely without a point.

When we fought WWI, military commanders noticed that soliders had trouble with direct face-to-face combat. So many soldiers found themselves unable to fire at another human being that our troops were being killed at a phenomenal rate. Years of research led to the entire endoctrination method we've all seen portrayed in films like FULL METAL JACKET and OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. It's an idea that works exceptionally well. The ego is broken down fully by humiliation, and the individual is devalued completely. That individual is rebuilt then, his ego and sense of worth tied to his performance as a soldier. That's when the training kicks in, and accomplishment is rewarded.

Grossman's theory leaves out the first step of that process, though. He doesn't account for what is breaking down the self-worth of these troubled kids. He forgets that the individual must be humiliated first, devalued... broken. These children are broken when they finally reach for a gun, looking for a solution. They are in pain, and they aren't equipped to handle what they're dealing with. In so many homes, parents see their children in trouble and they intercede. They take an active, participatory role in the pain that their child is going through, and hopefully they've already instilled the values in their kids that allows them to open a dialogue, to offer help. So many kids go through these same isolating experiences in the high school years and earlier, and they get the help they need. In some cases, though, these kids aren't getting that help anywhere. Parents, teachers, peers -- no one is helping them, and they find themselves stripped of what they view as viable options.

Ed Bradley goaded Grossman a bit, saying to him, "They're just games," and Grossman took the bait, firing back with a real sense of righteous indignation.

"They're more than games," he said. "It's a mechanism which equips a child to turn his fantasy into reality." He then brought up the case of Michael Carneal, the shooter in the Heath High School shootings in Paducah, Kentucky. He was a 14 year old freshman when he walked into his school and opened fire on a prayer meeting, killing three girls -- Nicole Hadley, 14, Kayce Steger, 15, and Jessica James, 17, and paralyzing Melissa Jenkins, 16. Two weeks ago, Sabrina Steger, Chuck and Jo Hadley, and Joe and Judy James -- the parents of the deceased girls -- filed a joint suit against 18 different video game companies, including the makers of DOOM.

Grossman is the expert witness they've hired to help them make their case. Again, he is a persuasive, if misguided, speaker. He cited the fact that Michael Carneal fired his .22 pistol eight times, landing all eight shots, each one on a different kid. Five of those were head shots, and the other three were in the upper torso. That's a startling exhibit of skill for a kid who reportedly had never picked up a real gun. The FBI claims that the average officer in the average engagment only lands one shot out of every five.

Then the parents of the girls spoke, and it was wrenching to listen to them. Their lives were destroyed by this boy, and they justifiably want answers. They're looking for something that can establish some sense of order in the universe again after the horror they've gone through. They're looking to blame, and that's completely understandable. When they talked about the desensitization that teens go through when exposed to violent imagery, their pain was palpable. Bradley seemed to be hands-off with the parents, afraid to offend. He asked one softball question about what role divorce, the dissolution of the family, peer pressure, abuse, and other issues play as contributing factors in these incidents, but the parents quickly turned the conversation back to games. One of them called the games "the straw that broke the camel's back."

Then Sabrina Steger, one of the parents, came on and made a point that I'm going to come back to later, one of the few lucid, coherent things said in the segment. She said that this is really all about responsibility, and that no one should have to dictate that to companies. If they choose to make games like these, that should be their right, as long as they're responsible for the images and ideas they distribute.

Bradley didn't pursue that line of questioning, though. Instead, the segment cut to Doug Mullenstein, a representative for the video game industry. He spoke with real eloquence about what a disservice this kind of discussion does to the national debate. He spoke about how narrow sighted it is to attack one factor and try to hang everything on it. Unlike many hired mouthpieces, Mullenstein seemed to be genuinely frustrated about this, and it seemed to be important to him to frame this discussion properly. He brought up the industry's voluntary ratings system, which he says is very descriptive and detailed, offering parents a valuable tool to help decide what software is appropriate.

Bradley and Grossman mocked this idea in the cutaway, as they walked through an arcade to look at the warning stickers posted on games like HOUSE OF THE DEAD. I think the stickers are very simple and well-written, detailing that there is lifelike simulated violence in the game. Grossman sputtered in what struck me as feigned outrage as he pointed out that any 5 or 6 year old can play the games without permission. Of course, he didn't explain what a 5 or 6 year old might be doing in an arcade without a parent, but maybe he's got different ideas about parental duties than I do.

When the segment cut back to Mullenstein, Bradley grilled him about the games, bringing up their use in military training to prove their danger. In response, Mullenstein brought up another word I'm going to return to later -- context. "Being trained to be a Marine is different than playing a game with your friends in the living room. Context does matter." 60 MINUTES proved Mullenstein's point by accident when they cut back to the Paducah parents, who are also suing the producers of THE BASKETBALL DIARIES.

As Bradley (erroneously) described the plot of THE BASKETBALL DIARIES, CBS showed that same clip which so many news sources have taken out of context in the last week, the footage of Leonardo Di Caprio on a rampage in his school, dressed in a long black trenchcoat, shooting students and teachers alike. Shame on CBS. Shame on each and every news source that has shown this clip this week. You are truly without any justification for your behavior, and if you have any inkling of conscience, you must not be sleeping well. Within the film, these images are part of a dream sequence, the fantasies of a troubled youth who is grappling with a drug addiction. He's at odds with his mother, unable to connect to anyone who might help him, and his persecution feelings are getting the best of him. There's no doubt whatsover in the film that Leo's fantasy is wrong, a cry for help. He can't fix himself, so he's looking to lash out. He doesn't, though. He makes the choice not to. Jim Carroll, the real person who is being portrayed in the film, isn't serving time in a prison for mass murder right now. He's an acclaimed poet and novelist who took those typical adolescent feelings of not belonging, of wanting to destroy himself and others, and he channelled them into art, into something creative, not destructive. In the context of the movie, that fantasy makes perfect sense. Outside the context of the movie, it's exploitative, cheap, and ugly, and that's how CBS used it. That's how you've all used it. I am disgusted by your actions. Bryan Goluboff, the author of the film, is a friend of mine. We both contributed plays to a couple of festivals in the early '90s, and I got a chance to see a fair sampling of Bryan's work and talk to him quite a bit, especially around the time the film was released. Bryan is attracted to the dark side of life. All of his work takes us to unpleasant, violent, and frightening places. The thing that redeems his work is that Bryan looks for the small bit of light that can be found even in those jet black moments, and he shows how that light can survive and even occasionally triumph. His work is about hope, but your use of that clip has cheapened it, tainted his name, made a disgrace of what he and the other filmmakers involved intended.

Bradley then proceeded to make things even worse, pushing the parents, asking them why they were holding the makers of the film responsible. One of the fathers answered, "They helped support what he wanted to do and led him down the path that violence is good, violence is great, and you'll be a hero if you're violent." I am not making light of this man's personal pain when I ask if he's watched the film he's discussing. If he's seen anything beyond that five minutes, then he'd know that the film places enormous value on the the healing power of a parent's unconditional love. That's hardly a message of hatred or murder. I can understand why he got it wrong, though. I have no doubt he was coached by the venal, irresponsible, ambulance chasers that Bradley introduced as the lawyers to the families.

Michael Green and Jack Thompson were introduced together, and Thompson launched right in, explaining their claim that the filmmakers were reckless. "Part of their recklessness is the depiction of the violence in that scene as something beautiful, almost approaching ballet. The slow-motion aspect of it makes it all the more mesmerizing. It stars Leonardo Di Caprio, who is now the number one teen idol in the world, appealing by his persona and his ability as an actor to adolescents who would seek to, as any role model would be, to be copied and emulated." That's a direct quote, folks. Can you make any sense out of it? Is he really saying that slow-motion made the kids in Colorado or Kentucky pick up a gun? Is he claiming they did it because Leo did? That's absurd. Leonardo also starred in TOTAL ECLIPSE, in which he enjoys rough gay sex with David Thewliss. I haven't seen a rise in rough trade encounters between high school students and ugly older Englishmen, so I think that undermines their argument a bit. Still, Thompson's comment pales in comparison to what his partner said.

Bradley asks, "Are you saying they knew this movie would cause harm?"

Without even a hint of irony, Green looked in the camera and said, "They know that these movies are going to cause harm. They do focus groups to calibrate these movies to get the maximum response and effect out of the audience. They want to do this because they know that sex and violence are what sells, and they also know that there are people out there who are going to act out on what they see in these movies." If that comment isn't legally actionable by the producers of the film, then we have truly lost our way in this country. That is an accusation with no foundation in fact, an opportunistic statement made by a shameless huckster who is profiting off the pain of the innocent. There's not one sentence of what he said that he could prove in any court on Earth, and I defy him to prove differently. His statement is part of the problem with any dialogue on this subject. With inflammatory lies like his being tossed into the discussion, the truth becomes obscured, and healing is impossible. He is chasing a payday, and he will say anything he feels is required to get his hands on money. The scary thing is, his thug tactics might just work. This case is so high-profile, and emotions around it are so volatile, that it appears MGM is already rolling over and trying to offer resolution. They ordered a recall of the film, even offering to buy back rental copies. I would appeal to MGM right now to stop what they're doing and stand tough. If you back down -- if you lend any credence to the wildly insane rantings of these filthy moneygrubbing legal vultures, you cheapen the memories of those poor girls who died, you rob the parents of those girls of real, informed closure, and you undermine the freedoms of every other production entity in this town. Don't do it.

Robert Venderette (his name wasn't shown, only said, so I apologize for any misspelling) was brought on next. He was introduced as a lawyer for the film industry, but no specifics were mentioned. He predictably tried to turn the whole issue back to free speech. When Ed Bradley brought up desensitization, Venderette agreed to an extent. He said our whole culture has been desensitized by news coverage of Vietnam, and by the modern parade of violence we call news. He brought up the nightly footage from Kosovo. He blamed the whole culture for making violence more widespread, more accepted. This kind of dodging the issue makes it look like all the film industry can do is point the finger elsewhere, when that's not the answer. He didn't tackle the issue head-on.

Before he could offer any other answers or arguments, the segment cut back to the two lawyers for the families. Bradley asked them what they had to say to charges that their lawsuit was frivolous, and a cheap shot against defendents with very deep pockets. Green gave a smarmy smile and said, "Hold on to your hat," and his partner added an equally slimy, "And your wallet." I think those comments are very telling... in any context.

They're also chilling when you consider that the U.S. Supreme Court decided two months ago to allow a lawsuit to move forward against TimeWarner and Oliver Stone. Filed by Betsy Ann Byers in Louisiana, the suit claims that NATURAL BORN KILLERS was responsible for making two teens go on a killing spree in 1995. Then, just to make sure you'd been innundated with enough violence for the evening, 60 MINUTES showed the end of the opening diner scene from NBK. Again, there was no attempt to set up what the scene was about, or what the film as a whole was about. Instead, they just show Mickey's POV during the "eenie, meenie, miney, mo" part of the scene. Lovely. Enlightening. Pointless.

Bradley cited claims that NBK has inspired over a dozen copycat killings. He pointed out that Sarah Edmonson, one of the teens arrested in Louisiana, discussed the movie at some length in her confession. He then asks Venderette about Edmonson's claim. Venderette responded, "People react aberrantly to all kinds of things -- the Bible, the Koran, a Beatles song. It's amazing what people will do violence in the name of." He went on to mention Mark David Chapman's claim that CATCHER IN THE RYE was his major influence. As much as Bradley tried to lead this part of the conversation, Venderette kept bringing it back to the 5 million people who have seen NBK who have not gone out and imitated the film.

Finally, the segment ended with Bradley talking to the parents again. He asked them what they really hoped to accomplish with the lawsuit, and Sabrina Steger got in the last word, saying winning isn't really important. The parents of the girls consider it a victory that they've created this discussion. She pointed out that ten years ago, no one was winning lawsuits against tobacco companies, but they're winning them routinely now. She says their suit just paves the way, and that more will follow.

Are you scared yet, Hollywood? You should be. If we continue to progress in our relationship with the audience the way we're going now, we are going to find ourselves handcuffed by people looking to protect the public. The easy thing to do here is point the finger back at the parents and say that it's their job to police everything their kids hear and read and see and play, but that's just as naive as the view that only games and movies are responsible.

Instead of discussing guilt and blame, why don't we shift the discourse by removing those words from the conversation? No one wants to take the blame. No one wants to be guilty. Why don't we just discuss the concept of responsibility instead?

For example, if I am a filmmaker who is making a film that contains violent images, then I am responsible for that film once I send it out into the world. If I make the film, then I should be willing to defend it, to stand behind it. If I think there's something in it that's going to be trouble, then I should weigh the merits of having it in the film. If I think it's integral to the artistic integrity of the piece, then I should leave it in and be prepared to answer any charges against it or questions about it. If it's not important... if it's just for kicks or to add fireworks... then maybe I need to consider the worth of such imagery. If we trust these filmmakers with these massive budgets, then we have to trust them with the ideas they're bringing to the screen as well. As a studio, if you greenlight a project and it makes it to the screen the same way it was written, then you can't later disown the film, claiming you didn't realize what it was about. That's your job.

And parents... the ultimate responsibility is yours. Let me tell you a little something about my parents. I was what you would call a problem kid. I mean, I grew up to be an Evil Genius, so what else would you expect? I did things that just plain mystified them, broke rules they never thought to establish. Through it all, though, my parents worked hard to establish values in me... not dogmatic religious values (although they are churchgoing, Godfearing people), and not cure-all moralistic values, either. They worked to instill in me a respect for myself and a respect for others. More than any other rule, they taught me to treat others as I expect to be treated. They taught me to be responsible for myself. When I screwed up (which was frequently), I had to face those mistakes and do something about them. Today, I think back on the lessons I was taught and I treasure my parents. I was taught all about gun safety by my father, and I was taught to use a gun very effectively. I was taught about the vaule of life and I was taught to search for solutions other than violence whenever faced with a problem. My parents were involved in my life, even when I didn't want them to be. If I'd tried to build 30 pipe bombs in my house, they would have known. Hell, I couldn't even hide my porn properly. When you have a child, you are responsible for turning that rough draft of a human being into an adult, a citizen who can be responsible to whatever community he becomes part of. If that means you have to be aware of their favorite films and games and TV shows and comic books, then be aware. Learn about these things. Use them to bond with your child. Discuss the ideas that these forms of entertainment set forth. Don't just blindly ban things because you hear someone say it's "bad." Investigate. Figure it out for yourself. You know what your child is equipped to handle. I was reading John Irving and Stephen King by the age of nine because my parents, having discussed my reading with me, knew that I comprehended what I was reading. They knew that I was taking it in and then filtering it, processing it, and not just blindly following anything.

I had a defining experience that has direct bearing on this entire article when I was in high school. At that time, I went to a fairly progressive Florida school with a TV studio built in. The studio broadcast to the entire school via closed circuit, and my writing partner and I were responsible for a daily morning show during homeroom. We did this every day for two years. One half of the show (10 minutes) was announcements for the school, and the other half was whatever feature we felt like. We experimented with a lot of things over those two years, and we did some really good work. One of our regular features was (surprise) a movie review that was part slapstick comedy, part review show. We featured cartoonish violence on a massive scale. During our second year doing the show, there was a rash of suicides in our school and a shooting. As a result, the administration of the school went nuts, looking for someone to place the blame on. If you've been reading carefully, you can guess how this turned out.

One morning, my partner and I were called into the guidance office, where there were deans, the principal, and several counsellors all seated. They told us that the suicides were our fault. They looked two 18 year old kids in the eye and told them that they were responsible for the deaths of their peers. They wanted so badly to make sense of this that they lashed out and attacked us. None of our reviews had anything to do with shootings, but that didn't matter. We were scapegoats. We fought for six weeks to go back on the air, but in the end, they took away my voice, ruining the end of my last year on the air. Nothing changed. None of the kids who were feeling disenfranchised in the school felt any better. Nothing was solved. But we were off the air, and they felt better for having done something, for having assigned some blame.

I swore then that I would always be responsible for everything I say, write, produce, direct, or in any way put in front of the public. It makes me furious when I see people look for the easy answer, but more than that, it makes me sad. We have a problem that we refuse to address in this country. Extremists like Grossman and alarmists like the lawyers who hired him are adding nothing but hate and fear to an already difficult debate. We need to take some time to recover from the shock of what has happened in Littleton. We need to finish examining the lives of the two shooters and their friends. We need to try to start some sort of healing in that community. And then we need to really begin to discuss these ideas as adults, without the spectre of nonsense lawsuits hanging over anyone. Only when we all accept our responsibilities as adults and citizens will we be able to effectively tackle the problems that have gripped our teens. Until then, all this arguing is only going to lead to more hate, more violence, and no solutions.

Peace to all those in pain tonight.

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
comments powered by Disqus