Panel ponders influences on aggression

Maybe it was the 95-degree torpor enveloping the city. Or the sheer breadth of the topic.

Whatever the reason, clear answers were scarce at Thursday’s panel on links between Hollywood products and real-life violence.

The event, titled “Violence in America: A Hollywood Production,” was sponsored by Variety and the Creative Coalition, an advocacy group rooted in the entertainment industry. Co-hosting the evening at the Directors Guild of America were actor and coalition prexy William Baldwin and Variety publisher Gerry Byrne.

Variety Editor-in-Chief Peter Bart served as moderator.

Thesp Stephen Collins, rapper Chuck D, sociologist Amitai Etzioni, helmer Michael Bay and columnist Arianna Huffington sat on the panel.

School shootings like the one at Colorado’s Columbine High have sparked fresh criticism of the movie rating system, primetime TV and music genres such as rap and hard rock.

While not sparing those targets, panelists largely blamed violence on a laundry list of factors including local TV news, corporate mergers, gun ownership, shoddy parenting, advertising and prescription drugs.

“As a society, we have become so atomized, so attuned to a narrow set of economic interests, that we’ve put aside any notion of the public good in favor of the individual’s pursuit of their own happiness,” Huffington said.

Some critics assail the violence in Bay’s high-adrenaline action films “The Rock,” “Bad Boys” and “Armageddon.” But he argued that any mayhem he depicts is there for a reason.

“There’s always good against evil,” he said. “I don’t feel it’s gratuitous. People get killed for a reason.”

When Etzioni clucked at that comment, Bay asked him, “Do you think if every director went out and made ‘Fantasia’ and every videogame was Donald Duck and Dumbo, violence would go down?”

Etzioni replied, “Of course.” He cited studies showing crime levels rising in rural areas after cable TV was introduced.

Identifying the source of violent content has gotten trickier amid industry consolidation, mergers and the rise of multinational corporations, several panelists said. They pointed to recent takeovers such as the one involving CBS and Viacom.

Bart, a former film exec at Paramount, Lorimar and MGM, said film violence often lacks worthy context. In the ’70s, he said, “films tended to be more character-driven. Studios would turn to individual directors. Then, in the ’80s, we started seeing high-concept action films.”

Chuck D ended one profanity-laced diatribe by observing that the creators of entertainment fare are woefully cut off from the rest of America. He said he is reminded of this on his frequent visits to Southern California.

“All I know is that every time I leave Hollywood I need IQ rehab,” he said.

In an interview after the panel disbanded, Bay said he feels a great sense of responsibility for his films. He stressed that conscience can’t be enforced by the government.

“I’m making movies that millions of people see,” he said. “If somebody were to copy something from one of my movies, it would really affect me.”

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