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Debate on Violence in Films Intensifies : Movies: N.Y. attack mirroring ‘Money Train’ scenes renews concerns of ‘copycat’ crime. But others say Hollywood is not to blame.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even by 1995 standards, it was a particularly grisly act: two men spraying flammable liquid through the slot of a Brooklyn subway token booth, holding a match in the window and seriously burning a 50-year-old agent inside.

To some, Sunday’s crime was all the more disturbing because it was a virtual replay of two scenes in Columbia Pictures’ film “Money Train,” starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, which had premiered only four days earlier.

Hollywood’s critics were quick to claim that violence-laden movies and television programs provoke injurious “copycat” behavior--an assertion that renewed debate about filmmakers’ rights and responsibilities.

At a Monday press conference in New York City, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton linked the subway incident to the film. And in his second major attack on Hollywood in the past six months, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.)--speaking Monday on the Senate floor--blasted the film industry and called for a “Money Train” boycott.

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“Those who continue to deny that cultural messages can and do bore deep into the hearts and minds of our young people are deceiving themselves and ignoring reality,” Dole said.

Still, the issue goes beyond entertainment, said Jonathan Kuntz, a visiting professor at UCLA’s department of film and television. “Movies have become a political football, a stick with which to beat liberal Hollywood,” he said. “Everyone in the country resents the film industry, which is seen as spoiled and nouveau riche. It’s an easy target--a good one to run against.”

Even those relegating Dole’s comments to presidential politics-as-usual, however, find themselves wrestling with the fact that life, too often, has imitated art.

Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film, “Romeo and Juliet,” was said to have set in motion a number of suicides. In 1984, a Milwaukee man splashed gasoline on his wife and torched her to death after watching the TV movie “The Burning Bed.” And in August, 1993, three Ohio girls ignited aerosol spray and set fire to their bedroom--a technique demonstrated on MTV’s “Beavis and Butt-head.”

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Two years ago, Walt Disney Co. took the unprecedented step of cutting a scene from “The Program” after a teen-ager died and two were critically injured imitating a football player who lay down on the center line of a busy highway in the film. And police blamed the 1994 murder of a stepmother and half-sister on a Utah teen-ager’s obsession with the “Natural Born Killers” killing spree.

“You can’t blame the writers or directors,” asserted Mark Johnson, producer of “Bugsy.” “Those guys who committed the tollbooth crime weren’t law-abiding citizens who would have been home doing their homework had they not seen the film. Still, that doesn’t free us from our responsibility as filmmakers. I thought long and hard about inserting a scene into ‘A Little Princess,’ which had our 10-year-old heroine escaping from an evil landlady by climbing across a 2-by-4 propped two stories up between buildings. We decided that the circumstances justified that moment but you have to consider the audience.”

Research conducted by the American Psychiatric Assn. indicates that media brutality increases aggressive behavior and causes a “desensitization” toward violence, said Los Angeles-based child psychologist Robert Butterworth. An American Psychiatric Assn. study showed that the average child watches 100,000 acts of TV violence and witnesses 8,000 TV murders before the end of elementary school--but only people with a predisposition toward violence act out.

“It’s true that violence-prone young people can get ideas,” Butterworth said. “But do we censor our media because of it? Are we going to let that one person in 270 million shape our society and culture? Filmmakers reflect what’s going on, holding up a mirror to what is . In a democratic society you have to take risks. The messenger shouldn’t be killed.”

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Indeed, “Money Train’s” tollbooth scenes are based on actual episodes that occurred in the New York subways in the late 1980s. Several nonfatal arson attacks have occurred since then, raising doubts about whether the latest incident was a cause-and-effect action or just a striking coincidence.

Officials of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority maintain they objected to shooting the arson segments in the subways; the producers shot them on a Los Angeles sound stage. Columbia declined to comment, but released a statement condemning the “isolated act of senseless violence.”

Although the film industry needs to be more responsible, said Richard Jewell, a professor in USC’s School of Cinema-Television, it’s unfair to hold it accountable for deviant behavior.

“The screen doesn’t have the kind of power to turn an upright citizen into a hardened criminal,” he said. “The biggest difficulty with politicians like Dole is that they oversimplify things to such an extent that we lose sight of the real issues: drugs, families coming apart, all sort of things that go far beyond media presentation. If we put nothing on screen but Disney, would the world be significantly less violent?”

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In the end, Jewell said, the “copycat” theory doesn’t hold up. “During my lifetime of watching movies, there have been at least 10 times as many examples of socially responsible behavior than the wrong kind,” he said. “The good guys come out on top and are rewarded--even in this day and age. If we imitate what we see, why wasn’t the American family like ‘Leave It to Beaver’? Why aren’t we all wonderful, warm, kindly human beings?”

Attempting to regulate movies is problematic both legally and artistically, said UCLA’s Kuntz. Films have enjoyed First Amendment privileges ever since a 1952 Supreme Court case in which the Catholic Church faced off with Roberto Rossellini’s “The Miracle"--a movie in which Anna Magnani played a woman who claimed she’d been impregnated by a saint. Until that time, the tone of a movie, as well as its violence and sexuality, was closely monitored, he said. Afterward, self-censorship has been the order of the day.

“Besides, if every filmmaker had to think about the possibility of someone on the crazy fringe imitating every plot development, it would have a chilling effect on art,” Kuntz said. “Directors and studios would have to confine themselves to bland, or at least safe films.” USC’s Jewell said he doubts that the American public would flock to “sugarcoated” movies that bear no relationship to their lives. And where, wondered Butterworth, would the line be drawn?

“Would we stop showing domestic conflict, high school kids having sex . . . car chases?” the psychologist said. “Values are internal, not generated from the screen.”

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