After being named president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Oliver North blamed America’s “culture of violence” for the spate of school shootings in recent years. “All we need to do is turn on the TV, go to a movie,” he said in May. Earlier in the month, 10 people were shot dead at Sante Fe High School outside Houston. In February, 17 were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
North is not the first to suggest such a causal relationship. Blame for the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado was placed on the shoulders of popular culture: music (Marilyn Manson, KMFDM, etc.), video games, and the 1994 film "Natural Born Killers." Before Columbine, "The Basketball Diaries" (1995) was cited in a lawsuit after 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on a prayer group at Heath High School in 1997.
The lawsuit was thrown out in 2001 after a study by the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General found that "media violence has a relatively small impact on violence." The report identifies the greatest risk factors as mental stability and home life. Since that time, there have been many similar lawsuits and extensive studies that disclaim any connection between media and massacre. We all know — and frankly the folks at the NRA do too — that the elephant in the room is the availability of guns. So why do films keep getting the blame?
In part, it's a simple and effective distraction; you point the gun elsewhere. That being said, North's unverified claim warrants a look at the relationship between real and reel violence. Certainly, school violence in cinema is not new. "Zéro de conduit" (1933) features renegade students overthrowing their academic institution, lobbing trash down onto the teachers and staff. In Lindsay Anderson's "if..." (1968), the garbage is replaced by bullets.
Admittedly, there are some significant cultural and aesthetic differences between these early European films and more recent American cinema. In the former, the narratives are rarely fully literal, alternating between the real and fantasy. For example, in Anderson’s "if…" , the film switches between color and black-and-white stock, music is oddly interspersed, and the storyline contradicts itself: killed-off characters appear well again. In Jean Vigo’s "Zéro de conduit," objects disappear and reappear, a drawing made on paper suddenly becomes animated, and school dignitaries are no more than mannequins.
In early European films, the students still speak of revolution and less of destruction. However, in American films set in schools, especially those made in the 1980s or later, the student is no longer interested in simply upstaging the teacher and usurping authority. Instead, the student wants to dismiss or destroy the whole academic institution. Teachers are depicted as failures; their position holds no lure — either pedagogical or social.
As their titles make clear, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," and "Class of Nuke 'Em High" do not portray students with academic aspirations. In "Heathers," the students are like violent versions of Peanuts' characters; the adults don't really exist.
However, to claim that such films inspire actual shootings is absurd; films — now easily accessible through the Internet — are shown around the world, but few countries have mass shootings anything like the ones seen in the United States. In our armed society, the NRA does the directing. Just as "Elephant" (2003) mirrors Columbine, cinema mirrors society. Instead of blaming films, we should recognize that they are a reflection of our culture and its concerns.
In this media age, films have the potential to be much more than simple entertainment and distraction; they can open discussions and dialogue. That's the connection that truly needs to be made between film and violence. But for Americans to make that connection, the NRA would need to start pointing its moral compass true north, rather than relying on Oliver North and his finger-pointing at films.