Entry from March 23, 2009

I wonder if there is a case to be made that all the worst things about American popular culture of the last 40 years — and what a lot of them there are to choose from! — are the fault of the late Jack Valenti? Specifically, he is to blame for the introduction of the MPAA’s rating system for movies in 1968, but from that all else stems. Up until that time, the voluntary restraints of the Hays Code had assumed that what was bad for children was also bad for adults. Movies, accordingly were prevented from presenting not only excessive sex and violence but some kinds of immoral behavior without ensuing punishment and other kinds of immoral behavior altogether. In order to introduce these formerly prohibited images and the language which was thought to go with them into the mainstream of the popular culture, Mr Valenti, who died two years ago, and his co-conspirators at the Motion Picture Association split off the youngsters from their parents and grandparents, retaining some of the old restrictions — and not even all of those — for the former while letting the latter look at whatever they liked.

But if certain kinds of words and images are inherently corrupting, why should we suppose that they are only corrupting to children? It’s as if the act of formerly illicit knowing involved in watching people copulate, or blow each other’s heads off or get away with murder were the equivalent of knowing that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist. These, in other words, are supposed to be the real things of the world from the knowledge of which children may be protected for sentimental reasons up until the age of 17, after which they must be free to indulge themselves in any amount of this way-too exciting “reality” at whatever cost to their psychic or moral health and maturity. But what if these are not real things after all? What if, as the Hays Code had supposed, the moral principles and social customs which society brings to bear against such things, formerly supposed to be obscene, themselves have a superior reality which the popular arts are bound to respect?

These thoughts are prompted by a review in today’s New York Times by Seth Schiesel of “Chinatown Wars,” a new version of the video game, “Grand Theft Auto IV” which runs on the Nintendo DS — a device mainly used by children.

Yet like Scarface, Goodfellas and other gangster movies (writes Mr Schiesel) “Chinatown Warsis definitely not for children. Recent Grand Theft Auto games go quite a bit further in their references to hedonism (some might call it depravity) than almost anything coming out of Hollywood. In “Chinatown Wars” a drug- addled gangster tells the player about how he just got loaded on ketamine and enjoyed a menage a[accent grave] trois with young twins — one male, one female. These are just words on a screen, but not the sort that young children need to be reading and asking about as part of their entertainment diet. For obvious reasons the game is rated M for Mature, the equivalent of an R rating for films. . .Any parent who buys Chinatown Wars for a young child after reading the rating description on the box is being negligent or willfully ignorant.

I love that parenthesis: “some might call it depravity.”Yet, after spending more than two-thirds of his review on the need to recognize that some video games, like some movies, need to be kept away from children, he spends the rest of it telling us how marvelous the game is!

Perhaps the highest praise I can offer “Chinatown Wars” is that it engrossed me so deeply that I missed my subway stop twice in the past week. The first time, as I got off the train a stop late and walked over to the other platform I was surprised that I didn’t feel any chagrin. The second time I realized I was just having too much fun killing rival drug dealers and stealing their stashes to care.

There are two things to be said about this. One is that by saying both that the game is wonderful and that it needs to be kept away from children, he is in effect saying that keeping it away from children is as much a fantasy as that which is played out in the game itself. This is great, kids, but you can’t have it. Yeah, that will keep them from getting hold of it! Second, by implicitly endorsing fantasies of murder and theft — not to mention that misdenominated “menage a[accent grave] trois” — a form of household, or ménage, not a sex act — as harmless entertainment, he is undercutting the ground on which he would deny it to the kids in the first place. If none of this has to do with the real world anyway, how will it harm children any more than it is harming him? I found it interesting that, on another page of today’s Times, a disturbing story by Randal C. Archibold informs us that “Mexican Drug Cartel Violence Spills Over, Alarming U.S.” Not that the real-life murderous drug-lords could have anything to do with the fantasy ones, of course.

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