Game Eaters

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Spike Lee vs. San Andreas.

Clara and I just got back from seeing Inside Man, Spike Lee's new film about a bizarre bank heist. There's a scene where the bank robber, played by Clive Owen, talks to one of his hostages, a young African-American kid with a PSP. He wants to know what the kid is playing, so the kid hands over the system. Suddenly the movie cuts to a giant, full-screen image of what is obviously a parody of GTA: San Andreas. In it a guy with an Uzi (assumedly the player) chases down another guy, shooting him in the legs. As the victim lay on the sidewalk, the phrase "KILL THAT NIGGA!" flashes on the screen, at which point the player jams a grenade into the victim's mouth and trots away as the guy's head explodes like a water balloon. The conversation Clive Owen has with the kid, which plays out over these images, goes something like this:

Robber: What do you do in this game?

Kid: Rob people. Kill people.

Robber: You think that's cool?

Kid: Yeah. Like my man, 50 Cent. That's what it's all about. Get rich or die tryin'. That's what you're doing, right?

Robber: Never mind what I'm doing. I think I should have a talk with your father about this game.

There's a lot of complicated stuff going on in this scene, and I found myself having a complicated reaction to it. First of all, it's yet another example of videogames shown on film in a visually inaccurate way. The graphics were too clean and detailed for an actual PSP game. Rather, they looked like what they were: some pre-rendered CG trying to pass for in-game footage. This put me on guard, since it's the first sign in any film that the filmmakers aren't gamers. Secondly, there was the obvious way in which Lee was criticizing GTA: San Andreas for its glorification of urban black crime. I think this would be clear to anyone who is familiar with Lee's politics. Bamboozled could be read as (among other things) a rant on the subject. Thirdly, it was a strange contrast to the way the PSP had been shown as blatant product placement in the rest of the film. The kid is never seen once without the PSP in hand, and there are several lines of dialogue, aside from the scene I mentioned, that seem designed only to draw attention to it.


We have a movie where the filmmaker clearly doesn't know that much about games. But the people who hired him want him to sell games to his audience. He shows the hardware, but then he turns the one showcase of software into a suckerpunch at morally corrupt pop culture and bad parenting. You've got to wonder if that was Lee's response to being told he had to feature the PSP.

Whatever Spike Lee intended, I have to admit that I've seen worse. I didn't walk away with the impression that Lee is pro-videogame regulation. The fact that the kid mentioned 50 Cent makes Lee's criticism seem directed more at gangsta culture than videogame culture. And the corrective impulse is constructive: Clive Owen's response is to educate the parent... not do the parent's job for him.

I can't think of many examples where filmmakers showed they understood either the technology or the culture of videogames. Shawn of the Dead is the only one in recent memory, and it was merely showing that games are (gasp!) a normal part of people's lives. I can't think of a movie that used real videogames (which excludes videogame-as-metaphor movies like Tron or The Matrix) to say something positive. Inside Man isn't exactly a step in this direction, but at least it doesn't feel like a step backward.

I guess that's sorta good news.


  • Taking issue with GTA: San Andreas' violence and racial stereotypes is like telling a gangsta after a drive-by that someone might get shot.

    I know that GTA is a violent game. I know that GTA enforces certain stereotypes and lifestyles, which is exactly why I don't take issue with anyone who criticizes it. It is what it is. There's simply no need to defend it unless the argument is that some law suggests that abiding adults should no longer have a choice to purchase and play said games.

    Should a minor have access to games like GTA: San Andreas? No, not in my opinion. So, if Lee was suggesting that we (the audience) take action against game developers advertising these games to minors, then I'm with him all the way. But if he's saying these games are bad and that no one should play them, I'd have to disagree. The overall problem is that based on the scene you describe it isn't clear what the lesson is supposed to be, which makes it hard to argue anything at all.

    By Anonymous Paolo, at 2:34 PM  

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