If the gunman's mask was inspired by Bane, we will likely hear some depressingly familiar arguments about flicks inspiring violence – but pinning blame is a hazardous exercise
The US reels from another horrific killing spree: 14 people shot dead and many more injured at a showing of the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.
Sickeningly, some in the audience reportedly failed to make their escape because they assumed at first that the disturbance was simply a special effect.
The gunman was apparently wearing a mask, perhaps a gas-mask, though details are still unclear.
Was the mask inspired by the film's villain, Bane? And if so, are we to see a revival of the debate about copycat crimes and the cinema?
The traditional course of the debate is for the denunciation of violent flicks to be countered with a denunciation of America's gun laws.
And yet the gun laws are much stricter in Norway, where last year the far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik slaughtered 77 people.
Breivik was found to be an avid reader of conservative British writers such as Melanie Phillips – and Winston Churchill.
Pinning the blame is a hazardous and sometimes fatuous exercise.
Cho Seung-hui, the student who in 2007 killed 32 people in Fairfax, Virginia, was found to have watched the explicitly violent Korean flick Oldboy and struck poses reminiscent of the flick in his video diary.
But it was hardly a conclusive indicator of the film's guilt.
The flick Scream was thought in 2001 to have inspired a murder in Belgium.
Eight murders were blamed as "copycat crimes" on Oliver Stone's 1994 flick Natural Born Killers.
In 1993, the children convicted of the James Bulger case splashed their victim in blue paint, in imitation of the flick Child's Play 3.
Perhaps the most famous case is Stanley Kubrick's 1971 flick A Clockwork Orange, widely blamed for apparent copycat crimes and withdrawn from UK distribution by the director himself – an act seen at the time as an effective admission of guilt, although the director's wife, Christiane Kubrick, argued that it was merely in response to death threats and abuse.
As for recent history's most notorious act of mass-murder – the World Trade Centre attacks of 9/11 – there is a school of thought that this also has something of the psychotic copycat crime, a retaliatory, Hollywood-style spectacular created by people with an obsessive hatred of America and its political and cultural dominance.
Oliver Stone himself vigorously denies the copycat charge, pointing to the notorious "Twinkie defense": Dan White, the ex-police office who shot the San Francisco politician Harvey Milk in 1978, successfully claimed he had been eating too many Twinkies and the increased sugar level in his blood had destabilised him.
Stone commented: "You can't blame the Twinkies in the same way that you can't scapegoat the movies." Kubrick himself made the argument that you cannot make people, even in a deep, hypnotic state, do something that is against their natures.
So the old, depressingly familiar arguments recur.
The gas mask, the Clockwork Orange makeup, the blue paint – the flicks just provide incidental details for crimes committed by deeply disturbed individuals who would be committing them anyway.
But do violent movies, in certain cases, tip people over the edge?
It is a debate that is unfolding in the world of cinema itself.
The director Michael Haneke, in flicks such as Funny Games, effectively confronts audiences with the unreality of Hollywoodised violence: violence without consequence, violence that is simply part of the hackneyed dramatic language, glib sexualised violence, the sort of violence Godard meant when he said: "All you need for a flick is a gun and a girl."
Violence is a part of life, and the flicks are entitled to reflect it and address it; by the same token, the flicks are a part of life, and society is entitled to regulate them – and so it does.
The killings in Colorado on Friday are a heartrending tragedy, and for me the debate must always come down on the issue of gun control.
But the gun-ownership laws in the US have famously survived many spree-killings, four Presidential assassinations and many attempted assassinations, one inspired by Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.
This issue is not just about the movies.
• This article was modified on 21 July 2012 to correct James Bulger's name from Jamie.
Action and adventureMichael HanekeOliver StoneAnders Behring BreivikVirginia Tech shooting 2007Stanley KubrickColoradoUnited StatesDenverUS gun controlGun crimePeter Bradshawguardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.
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