Sunday, November 29, 2009

Kick A Writer Day

I read the recent story about "Kick A Jew Day" with outrage, but as came to the part of the news story that suggested the creators of "South Park" might somehow be responsible, I took pause. In "South Park", according to the story, the behavior of the Naples kids was somehow influenced by other kids who have engaged in something called "Kick A Ginger Day", a Ginger being someone with red hair.

The school official in the news story below is correct when he states that perhaps blaming "South Park" lets the students off the hook for the responsibility of choosing an inappropriate behavior, but as a writer and teacher, I have no problem calling out Stone and Parker, "South Park"'s creators.

To be honest, I stopped watching "South Park" some time ago. I felt the show had become mean-spirited and that it at times took on racist and sexist overtones. I came to the opinion that Stone and Parker expressed a bigotry, unconsciously or otherwise and excused it by saying: "It's satire, we're expressing racism to show how absurd racism is."

Unfortunately, that doesn't always work out that way. I remember sitting with my students and discussing their perceptions of Jews as well as their perceptions of Jews on "Family Guy" and "South Park". Some got it. Many didn't. They allowed the lampooning of bigotry to reinforce their prejudice. I wanted to write a letter to Seth McFarlane, "Family Guy"'s creator, and ask him where he stands in this discussion. Perhaps I still will. Or perhaps he answered it when it was revealed that Lois Griffin, the main character's wife, was in fact Jewish and that her mother hid her background due to Lois' father's bigotry.

"I put the work out there," an artist might exclaim. "I'm not responsible for how it's interpreted or who watches it. Parents should exert some influence." This falls in line with "South Park"'s creators' previously expressed libertarian philosophy.

The controversy of artist responsibility isn't new. One can look back at "Birth of Nation", a blot on the history of the film industry and see the role of the artist in influencing social perceptions. In literature, one can look back further, although literature before the turn of the last century wasn't on the coffee tables and in the living rooms of the working class as well as the elite. One wonders what Hitler would have been able to do had he had access to the medium of television or the internet.

Where do we draw the line though? In the seventies was Alice Cooper responsible if teens imitated his stage show and as a result accidentally hanged themselves? Is Ozzy Osborne responsible for other teens from that same era taking his song "Suicide Solution" to heart? What about the responsibility of rapper, former drug dealer, 50 cent? Would we say that his work is responsible? Is his song "Gun Runner", the story of a gun deal gone wrong, told from the evil and successful gun dealer's perspective, social commentary which criticizes violence? Or does it glorify it?

This is a complicated issue. As writers, I think at some point, we all have to ask where responsibility falls. Stone and Parker jumped the shark some time ago and took credibility with them. Their show is merely self-indulged hate mongering masquerading as social commentary these days. "Family Guy"? It gets close, sometimes flirting dangerously close to the flame.

Or maybe it depends on what side of the fence you're on.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Modern Warfare Two Much?

As a gamer I have never shied away from violent video games. Doom, the ground-breaking "first person shooter" of the early nineties had me running around on a Mars science station, blasting the hell out of demons escaped from a portal to Hell.

More recently, I spent hours in a compelling WWII drama (Brothers-in-Arms) that was so rich in storytelling and character development that it could have been turned into a heartbreaking film about loyalty and retaining one's humanity in the midst of the insanity that is war. I know some will raise their eyebrows, but the game was that good.

Any yet there have always been other games that have made me pause and guiltily admit to playing them. The Grand Theft Auto series is in that category. I played part of one and decided I didn't like shooting police, beating prostitutes, and glorifying street thugs. I despise gangbangers. The idea of the noble criminal, the Mafioso with a heart of gold,has always been insulting to me. It disturbed me to see how gangbangers across the country elevated Al Pacino's pyschopathic character from "Scarface", heroworshiping him. If you want to be truly sickened, rent the anniversary version DVD sometime and listen to the gang associated rappers in the "extras" explain why the character touched them in a special way.

And now? Now I've just played through a scenario in a game which is guaranteed to be under Christmas trees across the country this year. A game that parents will benevolently bestow upon their children: Modern Warfare II. Don't get me wrong, I love the game and will play it to death, but I have to ask the creators why they decided to include this scene in the game. Essentially, as a deep undercover operative you follow a handful of Russian terrorists into a crowded airport and watch as they gun down over a hundred people. If you want, you can probably join them in the fun --- I was too appalled to fire at the innocents. On the other hand, I did try and shoot the terrorists and was in turn shot by them.  If you want to see this scene, you can click on the embedded video. You'll notice the person playing this segment enthusiastically joins in the killing of civilians.

Some people will argue that to drive home the horror of terrorism that a person should be unflinchingly exposed to its brutality. Perhaps that would hold on a news show, but in a video game?

I'm not going to follow the argument that video games desensitize people and therefore contribute to violence in the community, but I think this sort of use of violent imagery should give us pause. Some would argue that the it's part of real life and therefore the game is really a reflection of that. Really? Really? So should we then have a game where a person plays a child abuser? Or a serial killer who goes into a school in Colorado and blows away a dozen children?

Another person will point out that buying a game is a voluntary process and that parents don't have to buy this for their kids. The idiocy of that statement is that people won't know about the violence of this game and even if they know, they will be beaten down by a teenager who wants to play what every other kid is playing on the internet.

I'm not suggesting that children will watch this and run out zombie-like to gun down a group of innocents. I'm just expressing some thoughts on the matter and wondering about whether or not a line may have been crossed, or if indeed, whether or not a line can be crossed any more.

My next post: "Writerly Responsibility" (it sort of a companion piece to this one)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Baby Steps, the path to rhetoric

I believe in personal growth. We all change. We aren't static. Maybe some refuse to accept the presence of change because the gradualness of the process can make perception of it difficult.

Personally, one thing I'm working on, and often failing at, is not attacking people for their beliefs. I am an opinionated man and am not shy about expressing myself. So conflict often ensues when I run into someone else who is also opinionated and outspoken.

One thing that sparked this reflection is a book on rhetoric. The authors argued that too often we assume a person's opinions are intrinsically tied to a person's personality. Therefore, challenging that person is likely to be threatening to that person and will block true discourse. Another author tried to address the barriers to communication by stating: "Superior people hold superior beliefs, thus non-believers are unworthy of equal treatment."

Communication, of course, is about listening and understanding a point of view. It is dispassionately picking apart an point of view and looking for flaws and strengths of an argument. It is not shouting at one another across a table on a TV talk show or across a negotiating table.

I've tried to remain apolitical on this blog, at least over the last couple years. However, I will make this political statement: open and intelligent discourse is a crucial element of democracy. Holding fast to a belief without intellectual curiosity is the path to stratification and solidification of feelings which might threaten the sense of unity that is conducive to domestic tranquility.

So here's to the much slandered concept of true rhetoric. Here's to true communication where listening is an active process and not something that occurs merely while we're catching breaths. And for those of my friends who hear me blast someone and shred an ego or two, remember I'm a work in progress.

Baby steps.

Monday, November 09, 2009


It was an independent film made for a reputed $10,000 and it has so far raked in around 90 million dollars. Of course, it helps when you are receiving a boost from Steven Spielberg and the Dreamworks group. I saw the film, often compared to "The Blair Witch Project", mostly because both are horror films told in a crude cinema verite' style and both were commercially successful after being made for a pittance. Both films also were successful thanks to viral advertising as well as a lively adolescent audience who latched on to the storyline and let their imaginations provide what the filmmakers were unable to.

The British newspaper The Times, in an article by Kevin Maher, describes the initial screening of the film in Santa Monica, where teens were behaving in an hysteric manner. According to the article the audience screamed, some paced the aisles and others cried uncontrollably in terror. At the preview screening, according to the Chicago Tribune, several audience members left before the film was over. When the studio people interviewed them, they were told by those exiting that they weren't leaving because they were bored, but rather because they were scared.

When I saw the film this weekend, there were only a handful of people present, mostly teens. And listening to their comments afterward, they found the film horrifying. I stopped one of them and asked: "Why?"

"Because it's so real," she said. Her friends, two boys and another girl, nodded agreement. "It's like something that could happen. It scared me."

An adult who had watched the film shook his head as he left and said to his wife: "That was stupid. How boring."

Wow. I love when there is disagreement in response, but talk about opposite ends of a spectrum!

I found the film worthwhile. It wasn't especially horrifying, although there were creepy moments that had me on the edge of the seat. The story is about a couple who live in a suburban home and are experiencing supernatural events which, it turns out, are the result of a demon that has haunted the female protagonist since childhood. The skeptical boyfriend, who videotapes everything, tends to antagonize the entity until the nightly visits take a more horrifying turn.

What gives me hope is that the teens here were responding to storytelling and not to gore. They were responding to the elements of horror that should be part of every horror writer's bag of tricks: foreshadowing, the use of little things to imply the greater horror at play, the use of darkness as opposed to gore for the sake of gore.

Great film? No. Good film? No. Interesting film? Yes, if one pauses to consider what is at work sociologically and psychologically between the film maker and the audience.

Finally, let me suggest other horror films where no or little blood is shed and where the same elements are at work to scare an audience, and to leave a sense of disturbance long after the closing credits.

The Haunting--directed by Wise and based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, this original black and white version remains the most horrifying. Its use of shadow and camera angle are memorable and the acting is believable with real characters.

The Innocents-- The Turn of the Screw has been done many times, but the black and white version with Deborah Kerr remains the most effective. I still see the ghost on the island in the middle of the lake, a gray blob among the shadows, chilling because she isn't clearly visible and we're not sure what we are looking at.

The Exorcist-- While the shock value is there, the story itself remains effective. The idea of the corruption of innocence and the challenge to fate of the priest is psychologically compelling. And I'll add a vote here for The Exorcist III with George C. Scott.

Night of the Living Dead--- This started the zombie thing, but what works is the grainy film and the claustrophobia as the characters try to stave off the inevitable. George Romero has never been able to reproduce the effectiveness of the low budget production. Again, there is gore, but the gore is secondary or even tertiary to what is really grabbing the audience and scaring the heck out of it.