Friday, March 16, 2012

Put Down the Pitchforks for "Project X"

Have you heard about "Project X," the found footage movie about a trio of teenagers who throw a house party that goes out of control? With spring break in full swing in many parts of the country, reports have been popping up involving wild house parties where the participants are pointing to "Project X" as the inspiration for their revelry. There have been thousands of dollars in property damage and several arrests. A teenager was shot and killed in the aftermath of this one in Houston. In other words, there have been plenty of consequences for destructive partying that weren't part of the movie.

"Project X" was subject to a lot of vitriol upon its release in theaters a few weeks ago. Several critics predicted that copycat house parties were inevitable after the film glorified so much hedonism and excess. So it's no surprise that various parties in the media are now pointing fingers at the movie and its creators. And after years of watching these kinds of controversies crop up in the wake of other copycat crimes, I'm betting that not only will the creators of "Project X" suffer no adverse consequences for unleashing the film on impressionable young minds, but we're probably going to see a couple of sequels and imitators, their fortunes fueled by all the attention.

Someone will probably try and sue Warner Brothers, claiming that they're responsible for the damage caused by copycat partiers, but this never works. "Natural Born Killers" and other films and television shows have been dragged to court before, and the legal standard is pretty clear. As long as the media in question didn't directly incite its viewers to engage in bad behavior, they're protected by the First Amendment. Simply portraying an out-of-control house party as a fun experience isn't enough to hold Warners responsible for the actions of the kids who may have been inspired by "Project X." After all, just looking at a synopsis of the film shows that it's operating in the realm of fantasy. Cops don't intervene, parents behave irrationally, and the teenage party planners are held up as heroes where they probably would have spent the rest of their youths in juvenile detention if the movie were taking place in a normal universe. It's not, of course, because "Project X" is a movie. It's pure wish-fulfillment.

The only people to blame are the partiers themselves, who are trying to model their lives on dangerous fantasy. It's tempting to want to shift responsibility to a movie, especially one that's been getting called out for being a terrible influence and promoting the wrong values, but that's letting the kids who actually perpetrated the mayhem and destruction off the hook. Most of the people who watched "Project X" didn't go out and start trashing houses. Most of them probably understood that this kind of behavior tends to have extremely negative consequences. Were some viewers, namely adolescents, too young to make those kinds of value judgments? Maybe, but that begs the question what those kids were doing watching an R-rated movie loaded up with graphic nudity and violence. People did notice the R-rating and all the content warnings, right?

I also expect that "Project X" is going to be portrayed as being the cause of more hardcore partying, when it might really just be drawing attention to an already existing phenomenon. The movie was apparently inspired by the real life story of an Australian teenager whose party attracted over 500 strangers after he posted the details on a social media network, and things got out of control. Teenagers and young adults have be throwing raucous parties for ages without so much scrutiny over people's motives. Ask anyone who lives in a college town. I seriously wonder if the "Project X" controversy is just going to make law enforcement more paranoid. A recent write-up over on the Washington Post notes two recent incidents where the cops preemptively arrested party planners or shut down events before the partying ever got underway.

"Project X" fits nicely into the current cultural narrative of feckless young people indulging in alarming amounts of excess and risky behavior, so I'm not surprised that the media jumped on it with such gusto. And I'm sure there really are some young idiots out there who took one look at "Project X" and immediately wanted to recreate what they saw onscreen. However, a couple of sporadic incidents and a brand new buzzable, hash-tag-able label for extreme partying doesn't make a trend. And the media getting all worked up about the few kids who cited "Project X" as prime motivator isn't very convincing.

I may not be interested in watching "Project X" or other movies like it, but then I'm not keen on seeing them scapegoated for a small number of young reprobates' own worst impulses either.

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