Martin Scorsese’s ferocious 2013 black comedy The Wolf of Wall Street sure was a wild ride: an orgy of sex, drugs and midget tossing themed around the vacuous culture of flatulent high-stakes stockbrokers. A character snorted lines of cocaine from a woman’s buttocks. A broker received a blowjob from a female sales assistant in a glass elevator while colleagues cheered on. Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Scorsese — the septuagenarian auteur widely regarded as one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema — pulled no punches in his portrayal of a ruthlessly sexist, if not downright misogynistic, corporate America.
Should that film have been banned?
Like The Wolf of Wall Street, there are no lead female characters in Australian-born director Andrew Dominik’s critically acclaimed 2012 drama Killing Them Softly. It is based in a scungy universe several tiers below the stock market: a criminal underworld populated by goons and killers.
Adapted from the novel Cogan’s Trade, Dominik uses gangster drama as a metaphor for the dangers of a free-market economy. The story revolves around disgusting men, the sort of people who spend their time gambling, fighting and working out how to rip each other off. Women are very much on the peripheries; there’s even one unpleasant scene in which James Gandolfini’s character abuses a sex worker. It’s hard to walk away from it without thinking, “man, what a violent and sexist society we live in”.
Should that film have been banned?
Grand Theft Auto V, the fastest-selling video game in history, is an immaculately detailed sandbox production that seeks to realistically recreate the experience of being a criminal in a sleazy city overflowing with crime. This city, dubbed “Los Santos,” is a parody of Los Angeles. Awarded five stars from The Guardian’s video game critic — “a nihilistic satire on Western society” — and heralded by many others as one of the greatest games ever made, the narrative weaves between three characters as they pursue a series of missions and heists.
Unlike The Wolf of Wall Street or Killing Them Softly, the viewer/player can choose whether he or she wants to partake in the violence and sexism of the game. There is even a GTA pacifist who rose to fame by exploring the game with a self-imposed brief of harming no one. Nevertheless, if you play in story mode, you’ll see confronting stuff, often with a strong undercurrent of social commentary. For example, the player takes part in the torture of a man of Middle Eastern appearance then, in the very next scene, is presented with a blistering critique on American foreign policy.
Should this game be banned?
If you answered yes to the first two questions, it stands to reason you might answer yes to the third. But if you answered no to the art films being banned and yes to the video game — which, as we learned last week, has been removed from Australian Target and K-mart stores following customer objections — it’s reasonable to ask why.
Perhaps suspicion of this apparently deeply immoral video game is a reaction to a graphic such as this, which has been making the rounds. Depicting an attractive young lady lying in a pool of blood with an axe hovering above her, it sure looks like the work of a sick maniac — immoral and inexcusable. But if you took a selective freeze frame from any number of feature films (from classics like Psycho to garden-variety slasher movies) would you not also be able to find a similarly repulsive, seemingly misogynistic stand-alone image with which you could colour or contextualise the rest of the production?
“This sickening game encourages players to commit sexual violence and kill women,” reads the petition that led to Target taking action. I wonder whether the person who wrote that has played the game. If he or she hsan’t, is it fair for the artists to have their work so maligned in such a way? (For what it’s worth: the game has encouraged me to kill many people — you have to if you want to move story mode forward — but every one of them was a man).
Perhaps the “A” word — artist — is key to this whole debate. Everybody understands the proliferate nature of video games in today’s society. They are available on innumerable devices in both short and long form. You can play Candy Crush on your iPhone for 20 seconds or spend days following a comprehensive narrative on a PC or console. But there is still a stigma that suggests video games are a lesser form of art than a film or a television program.
For me the most confronting element of this wide, expansive and often enthralling experience (the multi-narrative structure, when it clicks into gear, is ingeniously interwoven with the game’s settings) isn’t the violence but the way Grand Theft Auto forces players to grapple with characterisation in ways cinema cannot.
When playing video games there is a tendency to refer to ourselves in the first person. For example: “I died” or “they killed me”. One of the primary characters in GTA V is a repulsive hillbilly named Trevor. We are introduced to him via a scene in which he says a number of repulsive things and goes on to violently assault a man. We are then required to take control of him and help this awful creature (whose actions exist way outside the moral comfort zones of people who play the game) achieve his goals.
Rather than evidence that the experience itself is wicked, this may be an indication of something more progressive: an increasing awareness that the person we are playing or the fictional construct we are watching is not an extension of ourselves, and does not represent our own values. We may enjoy controlling Trevor as he steals cars and flies helicopters, but no player would wish to share his life, which moves from one greasy pit of despair to another. Perhaps games like Grand Theft Auto V are helping audiences (particularly young ones) create an intellectual distance between themselves and the things they watch and interact with.
Then again, opinions are myriad and the topic is complex. Who would have thought great art could be so controversial?
*This article was originally published at Daily Review