Hollywood is used to being a scapegoat for acts of violence. Automatically implicating movies in the wake of unimaginable acts of atrocity has proven to be an easy way of pursuing closure without actually having to investigate anything; if we blame the fictions put on our movie screens made by people we don’t know somewhere else, we don’t have to feel the responsibility to do anything more, or accept the notion that incomprehensible events can’t be pegged to a singular determining factor.
In contrast to collective reactions to prior tragedies, assertions that movies are directly “responsible” for gun violence seem to carry significantly less weight in the current national conversation about gun control. However, entertainment media has been and will continue to be part of this conversation. As Scott Beggs pointed out last month in the wake of Newtown, if we’re going to have a comprehensive conversation about guns and gun violence, then movies should by all means be a part of it – that is, part of an ongoing, dynamic critical dialogue rather than an assumed singular scapegoat.
But to avoid falling into the same two traps of either reflexively blaming movies for gun violence or declaring that there’s no conceivable link between movies and our perception to everyday life, perhaps it’s time to rethink the relationship we have to movies as supposed barometers for moral behavior and social standards.
Among the 23 sweeping (but limited) executive actions signed by President Obama last Wednesday, one declaration reads, “Issue a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.” Part of this peer-reviewed research entails conducting a broad investigation of the “causes and prevention of gun violence, including links between video games, media images, and violence.”
This directive is rather significant, both for the CDC and the entertainment industry. Ten million dollars will be invested in studying the relationship between “video games, media images and violence,” while $20m will be invested in understanding social and behavioral patterns of “how and when firearms are used in violent death.” According to NBC, the CDC hasn’t conducted any research on gun violence since 1996 after the National Rifle Association and their friends in Congress effectively suppressed such research. That means, three years before Marilyn Manson and The Matrix were blamed for Columbine, no non-partisan government agency could investigate whether or not assertions of this type were apt at all, not to mention conduct research on potential causes of gun violence outside of media influence.
Of course, this does not mean that zero research has been conducted on the relationship between violent behavior and violent entertainment. Academics of various fields including pediatrics, sociology, psychology, and communication studies have conducted and published peer-reviewed research on the relationship between images of film violence and violent behavior for children both in America and abroad. Many such studies have come to roughly the same conclusion: there exists some evidence that exposure to violent images onscreen leads to some short-term violent behavior, but this is usually in combination with other factors (such as quality of life at home). Conclusions to many of these papers usually come with the caveat that one should avoid taking this data as “absolute proof,” and qualify their results as “inconclusive and a subject of continued debate.” While connections are indefinite, a lack of evidence hardly constitutes conclusive proof of, well, anything.
Notably, academic film studies (my home base) hasn’t spent much time and effort conducting this type of research. Besides the fact that film studies doesn’t typically utilize the types of socio-scientific research common to psychology, sociology, etc., film scholarship is just as concerned with aesthetic, historical, ideological, and contextual considerations of the violent film image as its resulting affect on viewers.
Few of the studies I’ve listed above go into detail on the particular programming their sample was subjected to. Are we really going to assume the “film violence” is a given, easily identifiable notion that’s the same across media platforms, contexts, and individual films? According to film scholar James Kendrick in his book “Film Violence: History, Ideology, Genre,” “film violence” is a “perception, an elastic, sliding, flexible term,” one that’s constructed socially, historically, aesthetically, geographically, and according to the dominant values of the given moment (13). In other words, film violence is a term that carries a lot of weight, but its referent is hardly consistent.
How could one reasonably assert that the eye-slitting in Un Chien andalou, the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, the “Mexican standoff” in Reservoir Dogs, and the torture scenes of The Passion of the Christ all belong to the same category known as “film violence”?
The resulting meaning of any instance of film violence is profoundly contextual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that every instance of film violence is unique.