Movies and real life: Debate rages on

The Record

Many things came to a sudden, shocking end early Friday, when a gunman opened fire on a Colorado audience attending a midnight screening of the summer blockbuster "The Dark Knight Rises."

'The Dark Knight Rises,' upper right, is sadly not alone among films that are tied to real-life violent acts, including 'Taxi Driver,' lower right, and 'Natural Born Killers.'
'The Dark Knight Rises,' upper right, is sadly not alone among films that are tied to real-life violent acts, including 'Taxi Driver,' lower right, and 'Natural Born Killers.'

Most important and most tragically, 12 lives — out of a total of 71 people shot. Also, in all likelihood, Hollywood's hope that this film would sail effortlessly into box-office record books.

It will be hard to argue, as Hollywood and cultural pundits often do, that movies merely reflect — and don't promote — violence, that viewers can distinguish between fantasy and reality, that violent movies have a cathartic effect and thus lessen, rather than incite, anti-social behavior.

"Does [violence] influence people? I would say absolutely," says Dr. Michael P. Gentile, a forensic psychiatrist in Ridgewood. "It desensitizes people, the way the military does. It just trains you in a way not to react when you're killing and shooting people. Video games [are] worse because it's more interactive and you're actually killing in a virtual reality. But on screen, on TV as well, there's an element of desensitization that will just remove your inhibitions and your doubts and your reservations about carrying something like this out."

The fact that suspected killer James Eagan Holmes chose the dark, violent "The Dark Knight Rises" for his rampage, that he reportedly styled himself after The Joker, that his ghastly scheme for public mayhem included smoke bombs set off in a theater where patrons would likely consider the chaos part of the show (as several did) — a scenario right out of the playbook of Heath Ledger's Joker in "The Dark Knight" — can hardly be a coincidence.

"This is unprecedented, and it's going to have ripples throughout the entire industry," said Jeff Bock, spokesman for Exhibitor Relations Inc., a box-office tracking firm.

Unprecedented — but not unforeseen.

"Natural Born Killers," a 1994 movie about a serial-killer couple on a spree of violence, was viewed by Sarah Edmondson and Benjamin Darras in 1995, the night before they shot cotton-mill manager William Savage and a convenience store cashier, Patsy Byers.

The 1979 movie "The Warriors," about street gangs, sparked violence in Los Angeles and Boston movie theaters. The 1981 attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan was traced back to shooter John F. Hinckley Jr.'s obsession with the 1976 film "Taxi Driver." A 1995 film, "Money Train," in which a subway token booth is torched, may have inspired a real-life incident days after its November release. Sen. Bob Dole, in 1995, was just one of several politicians back then who made hay out of Hollywood's "mainstreaming of deviancy," as he put it.

Friday's tragedy was anticipated even by the movies themselves. As far back as 1968, the Peter Bogdanovich movie "Targets" featured a serial killer opening fire in a drive-in theater. In 1997's "Scream 2," Jada Pinkett Smith is slaughtered in the middle of a crowded movie theater watching a film called "Stab," while patrons ignore the mayhem, thinking it's part of the show. "This is something I think people feared would happen for a long time," Bock said. "Not just at a movie theater, but at a concert or the Super Bowl."

Not just the content of film, but security in movie theaters, and the nature of the Motion Picture Association of America's movie ratings, could change as a result. "The Dark Knight Rises" is rated PG-13. "When you have violence wall to wall and reel to reel, that should be taken account of by the MPAA," Bock said.

On the other hand, this question remains: If movie violence is so fraught with danger, why do hundreds of thousands who view a film like "The Dark Knight Rises" go home unscathed, while one lone guy in Colorado snaps? Clearly, more than the movie is to blame.

"Maybe he had some trauma in childhood and there was some connection, and he related to [Heath Ledger's Joker]," Gentile said. Such "lost souls ... have to be vulnerable to the suggestion of this and have their inhibitions, reservations, their morals kind of eroded in a way. They're down and out. They're down to their last bit of self-respect, self-esteem, and they just go over the edge. They lose it."

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