The moral and social effects of the movies (Phelan, 1919)

Azumanga: The Scream by *MapleRose

History is full of events, peoples and attitudes that just resonates with today in one form or another. Mass media was feared throughout history when it evolved a new form. Novels were once feared with reasons very familiar to video games. Every new form was no exception, but the little details are often lost to history and I bring you this dusty piece of history because…

It was part of my assignment for theory class, but very much relate to a famous statement of film critic, Roger Ebert who said the “video games can never be art.”

This little piece was written by Reverend Joseph J. Phelan in 1919. The chapter can be read online through google book.

At that time period, mass media was recognized to have a strong effect on people due to propaganda, this perspective was called the hypodermic needle model or the magic bullet. With that, Phelan wrote about the wickedness of movies, even though he presented himself as a “balanced” and well educated person at the beginning of the chapter. It quickly devolved into condemning movies with a laundry list of disadvantages, some of which are familiar: “injury to the eyes”, “Promiscuous mingling with feeble-minded”, this pretty much relates to the arcade period and now the online play period of those who profanely abuse their microphones.

“The False depicting of true art.” Roger Ebert said video games is not art. As Roger Ebert is a film critic whose knowledge is bound in film, I understand his position from a historical perspective. In Phelan’s piece, he cited play theater writers critical of movies and their arguments against movies are essentially founded on the novel aspect of the new medium.

Much is heard of the “movies as an art” and it is well to heed an authority on this particular phase, William A. Brady, a famous play promoter. He says: “The movies are handicapped in an artistic competition with the stage. The majority do not command the best authors and few pictures actors take themselves or their work seriously. It is a greatly overpaid industry. The only underpaid people in the movies are the scenario people. […]

Another authority states : “To speak of the art of the movies is a force of a farce, contradictory in terms. The movies are more like artifice than art. The idea being to express life not as the manufacturer himself sees life, or anyone else for that matter, but as he imagines someone else wants to see it! The motion picture can never be art, because it is not literature, and consequently has no power of persistence.” According to Frohman, the life of the “best” photodrama is not over two years. In contrast, true art does not perish in so brief a time.

A graduate colleague, Ted Dickinson who also wrote on the same piece, explained to me the historical context of film’s early beginning.  The films were continuously playing in the theaters, movie-goers just come in the middle and watch the film, possibly with little attention. In any case, every medium has its own critic from older ones. Fortunately, mass communication technology has advanced that critical discussion among a diverse population is possible in contrast to mass communication in early 20th century.

“Genesis of crime and juvenile delinquency”. Yes, this argument is very old and will continue to live on. Phelan cherry-picked some anecdotes, like how an 11-year held up a car with a gun and claimed to have a seen it from a movie. Better yet, he made spurious correlation between rising juvenile crime and rising movies attendance in many growing cities. I recalled a student  journalist made the same argument and I commented on his fallacy. Unfortunately, I can’t find it.

Phelan proposed several solutions that would have not passed legislation. The first solution is rather progressive in his time: increase parental responsibility. His nine other solutions boiled down to censorship, so much for the first amendment. His argument for its legality.

There is, of course, no question concerning the right of the public to exercise whatever control it deems necessary. All legal decisions are of one accord. The state has much right to prescribe films as text-books, as much right to ban obscene pamphlets[…]

It seemed that freedom of expression in art was not really considered back then. However, the legal environment has changed that protect the media from banning, such as the Miller test (thanks to this episode of Extra Credits). The wording of what constitutes grounds for censorship in Phelan’s time was familiar to me. For example, obscene, indecent, immoral, gruesome, revolting, cruelty to human beings or animals. Another relevant example for videogames that Phelan would hound over is that videogames would “exhibit methods of committing crimes or commit violence” (my addition). Aside from those vague descriptors, he wrote  several pages of what should be banned from being shown in pictures, generally anything sexual and violent.

Upon reflection of videogames critics, Phelan would have fallen in rank with Jack Thompson and Dave Grossman because of their  rhetoric against new media. However, the debates over videogames and future media will continue, but what goes on will be different as time marches on. The beginning of the 20th century saw one-sided debates on new media with little opposition and little empirical evidence, which can easily ruin the cultural value and future of a medium, such as comic books. Today, Western civilization has grown tolerant and our debates are more constructive and elaborate with scientific rigor.

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