Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Haroun and the sea of pixels

Salman Rushdie has decreed that television is really great, and that’s where all the good writing is, although whether he worked this out before or after someone offered him loads of cash to write a TV science-fiction show isn’t clear.

It does raise a useful question, though: at what point does an art form achieve intellectual respectability? English literature, for example – y’know, Shakespeare and Milton and that – wasn’t considered a subject worthy of serious academic study until the second half of the 19th century. More recent manifestations of creativity, such as video games, are still on the periphery, to the extent that it’s quite possible to admit that you have no knowledge of or interest in them, and still be regarded as an intelligent, informed person. Some have suggested that LA Noire will be the tipping point for games, although it’s interesting to note that many critics have indicated its cultural worth by saying how similar it is to another form (in this case, film); in the same way that cheerleaders for The Wire and The Sopranos compare them to 19th-century novels.

The problem is that, once an art form is judged to be worthy of attention from the Rushdies of this world, there’s a retrospective rewrite of cultural history; works that we now see as canonical often barely registered when they first appeared. Here’s HL Mencken, writing in December, 1927, by which time DW Griffith had already produced his best work, Chaplin had made The Kid and The Gold Rush, Murnau had created Nosferatu and, at the beginning of the year, Fritz Lang had released Metropolis:
I have now seen about twelve movies, four or five of them to the end. I liked them all pretty well, but am not tempted to go back.
PS: Although some seem sceptical about the pretensions of games to Hollywood standards of plausibility just yet.

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