Thursday, January 24, 2008

Art vs. Pseudo-Science

Speaking of Ace, guest-blogger Gabriel Malor has reprinted part of an L.A. Times article which lists, in table format, the number of violent acts in the latest Rambo movie.

The last time I saw one of these tables drawn up was over 20 years ago, by a group that was against violence on TV. Their "ah-ha!" moment came from counting the number of violent acts in a certain cop show, which averaged something like one a minute.

Well, that does sound like a lot, doesn't it? It had more violence-- lots more violence--than any other show. In fact, in its half-hour time slot (22 minutes of actual show), thirty to fifty people could die!


Did you get the tip-off there? A half-hour cop show? Half-hour shows are sitcoms! (At least that was the rule back in the early '80s.)

Indeed, the "cop show" in question was "Police Squad!" The comedy show from the makers of "Airplane!" In one show--the one I know these "anti-violence" dinks were using as their metric--the CSI guy is trying to figure out the angle of attack for a gunshot wound. So, he lines people up and shoots them at different angles. Seven or eight people killed in just a few seconds!

But of course it was a joke! The scene was violent like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Not even that violent, because cartoons can exaggerate things without having to increase their budget much.

Now, we could assume that these anti-violent people--who never mentioned that the show was a comedy (and it was low-rated in the short time it was on, sadly)--were simply cynically incorporating a show that they knew would boost their message.

But far worse, I suspect that, to their minds, violence is violence is violence. Not only are we putty in the hands of convincing, real world violence, but we can't even take a joke without being hideously transformed by a literal meaning that we inherently reject (as pat of the humor). Nobody watched "Police Squad!" (or "Airplane!") and thought anybody really died. It's like thinking rabbi, priests and ministers travel in packs, golfing, visiting bars and flying in airplanes.

It's been pointed out that radical environmentalists have one solution for every problem: State control of human population. Too many people? The state should regulate how many children people can have. Too hot? The state should regulate what people can do in their lives that produces carbon (everything, including how many children people can have). Too cold? The state should regulate, etc. (Before the greenhouse-gas theory, which suggests particulate matter created by humans traps heat in, the coming ice age was going to be caused by the same particulate matter blocking the sun's rays out!) And global cooling is coming again, as is over-population.

The science always fits the theory and the solution is always the same.

Not surprisingly, the anti-violence (and anti-sex) crowd work on the same premise. They know what they want: State control of what people may do, say and observe.

Of course, the state is all too happy to control everything, so you have this triangle of activist-government-science, and poor little science doesn't stand a chance. It usually sends in its retarded younger brother, "science", who will say anything to be popular.

I think--I hope--that we're a little bit smarter now as a group. The censors haven't been all that effective with video games (unlike their earlier attempts, which pulled the vicious Death Race from arcades in the '70s), and in the '80s, they only managed to stigmatize role-playing. (Er, beyond the nerd stigma it already carried.)

But there's always a "Well, that was different" attitude in older people. Carmageddon is different from Death Race, therefore it's a good thing to censor it. I mean, we could tell those stick figures weren't really human, but that collection of polygons and pixels might actually fool some impressionable youngster into thinking running over people with cars is fun!

Rap is different from punk is different from rock is different from rock-and-roll is different from big band is different from flapper music. Music is the best for this, because you can trace scolds back to the first monk who said, "Hey, let's sing two notes at the same time!". ("Now, now, Brother Josef, you know that's Satan talking!")

Fiction in its various written forms is also a good one, though nobody reads much any more and a good many modern comic books really are geared toward adults, but let's not forget the old EC comics (Tales from the Crypt), the Congressional hearings about superhero comic books like Superman and Batman, and pulp fiction from the likes of Burroughs and Lovecraft, which was said to be rotting the moral fiber of our youth.

And movies today are different from movies when I was a kid. Well, yeah, when I was a kid, every freaking movie had a sex scene. I'm pretty sure I saw Ken Berry and Karen Valentine bumping uglies in one of Disney's Herbie-The-Love-Bug movies. And we never got popcorn when I was a kid so I had to just sit there, bored and embarrassed, until it was over.

And, I guess, given the current generation of parents, "Sex and drugs were different when I was having them as a kid." No doubt. You trusted yourself, probably too much, and probably don't trust your kids enough.

Now, none of this should be construed as an endorsement of modern culture. Modern culture is going to have to pay me a hefty sum before it gets my stamp of approval. (I can be bought, but not cheaply.) I like opera and Victorian novels alongside regular viewings of "Ow! My Balls!"

But let's be honest as to what this is all about.

At the minimum, it's about taste. Too bad. The world doesn't share yours. Get over it. (You can apply this to a lot of environmentalism as well. Hummers are just in bad taste, right?)

At the maximum, and worst, it's about control. Once again, too bad. The world doesn't want to be controlled, much. Censorship has largely been used as a bludgeon against the unfortunate few who weren't big league enough to be on the right side of the club. So the best you can do is make a few people miserable (and for a lot of moral scolds, that's a satisfying goal).

In fact, the greater the (coerced) centralized control, the greater the misery.

If you want to change things--really change things, and not just be parent to the world, convince the world that you're right. There are plenty of groups that eschew popular culture, that promote better values, and so on. The beauty of this approach is, not only are you changing things, you're a rebel! You're bucking the system, going against the herd, swimming upstream!

And that's always fun, right?


  1. The problem with the current entertainment scene is the same problem that always existed, talent is in short supply. Violence and sex can be simply part of the context in quality drama in shows like Deadwood or the Wire. Or it can be the gloss that covers up the lack of imagination in the countless slasher flicks or sex romps that litter the movies. The hardest row to hoe is quality drama or comedy without over the top sex or violence. But it has always been so, since the silent era. That's why cartoons are so successfull. Shrek is an example of an entertainment that the whole family can enjoy. There is not enough talent in Hollywood to make movies with live actors that will do the same thing.

  2. Trooper,

    You know, I've been around this city--and I'm sure it's true in NYC, too--and I don't see a shortage of all kinds of talent.

    I see peculiar shortage of writing talent. You can go to a local production of Bus Stop or what-have-you, and see lots of good actors.

    Animated films have an advantage on other types of film because they're constructed over many years without the sorts of continuity problems you get from a live film. Though, even there you'll see weak writing, unless you're watching a Pixar film, where they seem to have an almost Darwinian approach to getting good material. (Try everything, see what survives.)

  3. There is some real talent at work, but believe it or not it's often on TV. Last years season of the Wire for example. They had great mystery writers like Dennis Lehane and George Pelicanos who really did first rate work. And of course Deadwood which was another top notch work. But movies get lost in the deal, even the indies are sort of starting to all seem the same. I quess wide screen TV, movies on demand and tivo have taken all of the mystery out of the movies. I remember when my uncle took me to see Goldfinger in the old Paris Court, man that was something. Or when my dad took me to see How the West Was Won in the Albee. Those were motion picture palaces. I feel like an old crank. Hey kid get off of my lawn or I'm gonna call the cops......

  4. No, it's clear, especially from things like "Deadwood", that a lot of the talent is in TV.

    But then, TV series have to have a certain amount of respect for the writer. The sheer volume of what goes on limits (but certainly does not completely prevent) the sort of tinkering that well-meaning incompetents can do.

    Dean Koontz talked about this once: People in Hollywood would call him and say "We love your book! We'll give you lots of cash for the rights" and then they go an change everything, figuring they know better.

    Of course, writing a novel and writing a movie are different. But it seems like it's just as often the producer's mistress that's making changes to a story instead of, say, a talented scriptwriter, who's doing it out of recognition for what works on-screen (instead of ego and contempt for writing skills).

    I think it was the Maltese Falcon that John Huston's secretary transcribed from the book. Huston took credit for it, but it started there.

  5. The best explaination was form Elmore Leonard. He said "They pay me for the book and then they make something different. The book is still there, it doesn't change. Good luck, I get to count and keep the money," The real deal is that you need to get the real novelists to write the show, then you have something different. Maybe the writers strike will let the powers
    that be realize that you need good writers to have a decent show. But I doubt it. You never know.

  6. Strikes have never helped before, and the guild doesn't care if you're good, just if you get paid.

    But I think that's what keep the smarter guys winning awards and making hits. They build a stable of good writers and work 'em like crazy.

  7. And, hey, Troop, nice little "sub-blog" on Althouse there.


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