John Dolan: A teen can’t play Grand Theft Auto but he can watch Joker in a cinema — riddle me that!

Shouldn’t we be doing a little more to protect our teenagers from scenes of gratuitous violence as appear in the acclaimed Joker? So says John Dolan
John Dolan: A teen can’t play Grand Theft Auto but he can watch Joker in a cinema — riddle me that!
Joaquin Phoenix as Joker.

PICTURE the scene: You have been ordered to torture a terrorist and are offered a selection of gruesome implements, including sledgehammers and electric cables, to use on your victim.

You end up pulling the man’s teeth out and electrocuting him. If his heart stops, you can always administer a shot of adrenaline to restart it — after all, the dead can’t squeal.

Now picture another scene: a crazed man blowing someone’s brains out with a revolver on live television.

Or try this: The same crazed man stabbing someone to death with a pair of scissors, first in the stomach, then in the throat.

Sickening stuff, huh?

But only the first gratuitous scene, depicting the torture, which appears in the computer game Grand Theft Auto, has been deemed too violent for children aged under 18 to view in Ireland.

The other two scenes are from the movie hit of the moment, Joker, which anyone aged 16 or over can take in, along with a box of popcorn, at the cinema.

Does that strike you as odd?

If so, here’s a question: Should Grand Theft Auto be reduced to a 16 certificate? Or should Joker have an 18 rating?

I’m pretty sure most of you went with the latter.

Nobody likes a party-pooper, and kids in their mid-teens can vary widely from being childlike to ultra-mature — often in the same minute!

I also appreciate that the difference in age here only relates to two years — but it’s the two most crucial, formative years in a person’s life.

Shouldn’t we be doing a little more to protect them from such scenes of gratuitous violence as appear in the acclaimed Joker?

It’s strange how are our film classifications have changed down the decades. Back in the days when kids were allowed to play outside all day until dark, they cycled everywhere, and were often working full-time at 15, cinemas enforced strict policies on age ratings.

And the movie classifications themselves were remarkably strict too. 18 certificate movies were common, not just for horror films — most of which are tame by today’s standards — but for action films, comedies and even romances.

Back in the ’50s and ’60, swearing and sex in particular were taken seriously by the censors, while violence was usually of the western type — ‘bang, bang, you’re dead instantly’, rather than every graphic detail being pored over.

The situation was complicated here in Ireland by the overweening grip on everyday life held by the Catholic Church — hence Monty Python’s Life Of Brian being banned here for blasphemy.

These days, however, kids are over-protected and driven everywhere. They don’t need to grow up half as quickly as youngsters a generation or two ago, and enjoy a ‘kidults’ phase that can often stretch to their thirties. Many parents don’t allow theire children to walk the streets alone in daylight until they are fully grown.

Yet, at 16, they are deemed old enough to stroll into a cinema and watch shocking scenes of violence.

The guidelines for the Irish Film Classification Office (IFCO) state that they have “a duty to protect children and young people from harm”, but go on to give a reason why they awarded a 16 certificate for Joker.

“It is important to note that the context in which material is presented in a film will often be the determining factor in the age classification it is awarded. Where certain material is presented in a fantasy or comic context, for example, its impact may be softened.”

In the case of Joker, a spin-off from the Batman comic book series, they clearly decided that its impact had been “softened”.

Then again, many of the reviews I have read of the movie go out of their way to either revel in, or be abhorred by, the many scenes of violence carried out by its mentally unstable anti-hero.

Joker director Todd Phillips, not surprisingly, takes the former stance, insisting that the realistic depictions of gruesome violence in the film are far from irresponsible.

“Isn’t it a good thing, to put real-world implications on violence?” he asked. “Isn’t that a good thing, to take away the cartoon element of violence that we’ve become so immune to? It seems actually very responsible to make it feel real and make it that weight.”

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Then again, I’m not suggesting his film is too violent per se, but I am suggesting that perhaps it is too violent for sensitive children aged 16 or 17.

Of course, film classifications are important commercially to the studios. A too-high rating may end up cutting off some of their target market.

Where I am with the IFCO is in their stance that they encourage parents to take the lead in deciding which films are appropriate for their children. Some kids are more sensitive and immature than others of the same age.

My kids had been pestering me for weeks to watch the Stephen King horror film, It, and, even though my eldest, aged 14, had read the book, I still wasn’t sure he was ready for the recent movie versions.

Then I spotted the 1990 U.S TV mini-series version was being shown on the box and decided that would be more palatable — after all, it starred Richard Thomas of ‘John Boy Walton’ fame!

Sure enough, the 30-year-old TV version, though creepy in parts, was far less scary than the cinema version of today.

All of this may be my way of saying that, although I enjoyed seeing Joker at the cinema, I do think many critics go over the top in their praise for it.

Playing the title role seems to be an excuse for some fine actors to go complete ham and over-act their way towards an Oscar nomination.

Yes, Joaquin Phoenix performs the villainous role admirably, but — a bit like the clown in It — once you have the character’s warpaint on, the job is mostly done.

It says a lot about modern cinema that, back in the day, playing Shakespeare’s Hamlet was seen as the ultimate acting role.

Hamlet is a character who tackles everyman issues of love, life, loss, death, and revenge, which audiences can relate to.

These days, the whole of Hollywood gets worked up about a fictional cartoon book bad guy, who has nothing at all in common with his audience (we hope).

I fell for the hype and joined the cinema queues, but, frankly, Joker is just another superhero movie for adults who either can’t or won’t grow up.

Oh, and it ain’t a patch on Toy Story 4!

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