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Bang, You're Dead
Revenge fantasies are proliferating in movies and on TV. But should they be blamed for Littleton?
BY RICHARD CORLISS

THE MATRIX: Keanu Reeves is hunted by droids in virtual reality -- they gotta die!

The young and the older always eye one another across a gaping chasm. Gray heads shake in perplexity, even in a week of mourning, even over the mildest expressions of teen taste. Fashion, for example. Here are these nice kids from suburban Denver, heroically documenting the tragedy for TV, and they all seem to belong to the Church of Wearing Your Cap Backward. A day later, as the teens grieve en masse, oldsters ask, "When we were kids, would we have worn sweats and jeans to a memorial service for our friends?" And of course the trench-coat killers had their own distinctive clothing: Johnny Cash by way of Quentin Tarantino. Should we blame the Columbine massacre on haberdashery?

No, but many Americans want to pin the blame for this and other agonizing splatter fests on pop culture. Adults look at the revenge fantasies their kids see in the 'plexes, listen (finally) to the more extreme music, glance over their kids' shoulders at Druid websites and think, "Seems repulsive to me. Maybe pop culture pulled the trigger."

Who wouldn't want to blame self-proclaimed Antichrist superstar Marilyn Manson? Listen to Lunchbox, and get the creeps: "The big bully try to stick his finger in my chest/ Try to tell me, tell me he's the best/ But I don't really give a good goddamn cause/ I got my lunchbox and I'm armed real well.../ Next motherf_____ gonna get my metal/... Pow pow pow." Not quite Stardust.

Sift through teen movies of the past 10 years, and you could create a hindsight game plan for Littleton. Peruse Heathers (1989), in which a charming sociopath engineers the death of jocks and princesses. Study carefully, as one of the Columbine murderers reportedly did, Natural Born Killers (1994), in which two crazy kids cut a carnage swath through the Southwest as the media ferociously dog their trail. Sample The Basketball Diaries (1995), in which druggy high schooler Leonardo DiCaprio daydreams of strutting into his homeroom in a long black coat and gunning down his hated teacher and half the kids. The Rage: Carrie 2 (now in theaters) has jocks viciously taunting outsiders until one girl kills herself by jumping off the high school roof and another wreaks righteous revenge by using her telekinetic powers to pulverize a couple dozen kids.

Grownups can act out revenge fantasies too. In Payback, Mel Gibson dishes it out (pulls a ring out of a punk's nose, shoots his rival's face off through a pillow) and takes it (gets punched, switch-bladed, shot and, ick, toe-hammered). The Matrix, the first 1999 film to hit $100 million at the box office, has more kung fu than gun fu but still brandishes an arsenal of firepower in its tale of outsiders against the Internet droids.

In Littleton's wake, the culture industry has gone cautious. CBS pulled an episode of Promised Land because of a plot about a shooting in front of a Denver school. The WB has postponed a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode with a schoolyard-massacre motif. Movie-studio honchos, who furiously resist labeling some serious adult films FOR ADULTS ONLY, went mum last week when asked to comment on any connection between violent movies and violent teen behavior. That leaves us to explain things.

Revenge dramas are as old as Medea (she tore her sons to pieces), as hallowed as Hamlet (seven murders), as familiar as The Godfather. High drama is about the conflict between shades of good and evil, often within the same person. But it's easier to dream up a scenario of slavering evil and imperishable good. This is the moral and commercial equation of melodrama: the greater the outrage suffered, the greater the justification for revenge. You grind me down at first; I grind you up at last. This time it's personal.

Fifty years ago, movies were homogenous, meant to appeal to the whole family. Now pop culture has been Balkanized; it is full of niches, with different groups watching and playing their own things. And big movies, the ones that grab $20 million on their first weekend, are guy stuff. Young males consume violent movies, in part, for the same reason they groove to outlaw music: because their parents can't understand it--or stand it. To kids, an R rating for violence is like the Parental Advisory on CDs: a Good Housebreaking Seal of Approval.

The cultural gap, though, is not just between old and young. It is between the haves and the self-perceived have-nots of teen America. Recent teen films, whether romance or horror, are really about class warfare. In each movie, the cafeteria is like a tiny former Yugoslavia, with each clique its own faction: the Serbian jocks, Bosnian bikers, Kosovar rebels, etc. And the horror movies are a microcosm of ethnic cleansing.

Movies may glamorize mayhem while serving as a fantasy safety valve. A steady diet of megaviolence may coarsen the young psyche--but some films may instruct it. Heathers and Natural Born Killers are crystal-clear satires on psychopathy, and The Basketball Diaries is a mordant portrait of drug addiction. Payback is a grimly synoptic parody of all gangster films. In three weeks, 15 million people have seen The Matrix and not gone berserk. And Carrie 2 is a crappy remake of a 1976 hit that led to no murders.

Flash: movies don't kill people. Guns kill people. "What's more troubling," asks Steve Tisch, producer of Forrest Gump and American History X, "a kid with a sawed-off shotgun or a kid with a cassette of The Basketball Diaries? It's not just movies. Lots of other wires have to short before a kid goes out and does something like this. It's a piece of a much bigger, more complex puzzle."

Some images in recent films are both repellent and (the tricky part) exciting. Some song lyrics express a rage that's not easy to take as irony. And, yes, a movie or song or TV show may inspire some sick twist to earn satanic stardom with a gun. But most kids deserve the respect their parents wanted when they were kids: to be able to consume bits of pop culture and decide on their own whether it's poetry, entertainment or junk.

There is a lapse in parental logic that goes from "I don't get it" to "It must be evil," and from that to "It makes kids evil." Today, moms and dads gaze at the withdrawn souls across the kitchen-table chasm. They see what their kids wear; they may know what their kids see. But, in another Manson lyric, they "fail to see the anguish in my eyes." Parents should try looking into their kids' eyes. If they do, and do more, they might even "see the tragic/ Turnin' into magic."

--WITH REPORTING BY DAVID E. THIGPEN/NEW YORK