Thursday, November 29, 2007

Censoring Violent Images: A Weird Pattern

The video game Manhunt 2 uses very violent imagery and themes and had to be edited extensively in order to be released in the United States. Selling the game at all is illegal in the United Kingdom. There's a censorship controversy around Manhunt 2 in the video game world, which, thankfully, did not spill over the way the controversy around Grand Theft Auto 3 (from the same game studio) did.

Someone else recently saw a small censorship controversy which did not spill over into the mainstream either. Hollywood director Brian De Palma made a "docudrama" about Iraq called Redacted. The final moments of Redacted feature a montage of photographs of dead Iraqis. These are photographs which you cannot see in the news, due to the American military's control over the American press. The military restricts the movement and presence of journalists in Iraq by "embedding" them among military units - a practice pioneered by Joseph Goebbels, of the Nazi regime - and has shot at journalists who were not "embedded", including the British journalist Terry Lloyd, whom the American military killed. (The British Government conducted an investigation and found the killing unlawful).

On that level, these are photographs which are already heavily censored. However, there is a further level of censorship. I've read conflicting reports. Some state that Redacted's distributor, Magnolia Pictures, placed black bars over the eyes of the deceased Iraqis; others say that the images were removed entirely. I've seen several of these conflicting reports so my belief is that both things happened; Magnolia altered some pictures and removed others entirely.

The first thing to realize is that neither Manhunt 2 nor Redacted have gotten great reviews, as far as their merits as a video game or as a movie are concerned. This might be the reason the controversies didn't spill over into the mainstream; the Grand Theft Auto controversy, after all, revolved around an utterly fantastic game. The second thing, just as a disclaimer, I've personally always found it weird that American movies haven't censored violence much in the past, given how much sex is censored in American movies and TV. However, the violence removed from Redacted is nothing compared to what you'll see in Hostel or movies like it, and in fact one of the sequences removed from Manhunt 2 to enable its release was very, very similar to a scene in Hostel 2, which was R-rated.

But those are just caveats. Here's the interesting question. Lots of people say violent movies encourage violent behavior; but violent crime in the US as a whole has diminished in parallel with the rise in violent subject matter in entertainment. (For example, Los Angeles is on track to finish 2007 with the lowest murder rate in four decades.) Likewise, the violent subject matter in Redacted was explicitly and deliberately compiled and presented for the purpose of halting violence. Before Redacted's release, Brian De Palma was quoted in several places saying it would be the images in his movie - the same images which Magnolia removed - which would finally end the war. (Everybody knows it was similar images on national TV which ended Vietnam.)

I took out a really horrifying picture here.

Obviously, these are provocative issues, which is one reason I'm so glad I banned comments. Every question raised or implied here is interesting, but the one thing I want to draw attention to here is the possibility that maybe showing people violent images actually discourages violence. I'm not sure if it's true or not. But all the video game press touches on Grand Theft Auto, and I used to play GTA a lot. Me and my brother would spend hours on this game, and a lot of the time we wouldn't even do the missions. Nine times out of ten we'd just kill innocent people and blow up cars at random until the cops showed up, and then kill as many cops as we could - ideally with the flamethrower or the rocket launcher - until they sent in the FBI. Then the game was to see if you could outlast the FBI in a car chase, and then, if you won that "level", they brought in the National Guard. Then the game was to see how long you could stay alive with the National Guard after you.

I'm sure this sounds like an anarchist's fantasy playground, but that's the point - that's exactly what it was. It was a fantasy playground. All these video game censorship monkeys need to remember that video games aren't real. And what really makes this all relevant is that I used to drive really fast, and these days I don't. Every time I'd leave my brother's house after playing Grand Theft Auto, I'd notice myself driving the way I did in the game. These days I drive slowly and carefully and I always get guys in sportscars who aren't old enough to drink legally going insane with frustration behind me. I don't even break the speed limit.

Just something to think about.