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Guilt trip

In a post-ironic age, do guilty pleasures still exist?

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Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I skipped going to the symphony to watch Blade II and 40 minutes of Joe Millionaire. I ate two Slim Jims and an entire bag of salt "n' vinegar potato chips for dinner. I played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for more than an hour, but at least that was while listening to NPR. I also sang along to "Whipping Post" -- twice -- while driving my Suburban. And I loved it.

We're not always proud of it, but we can't live without our guilty pleasures. We much prefer the diversions we can wallow in over the ones that enlighten or ennoble us. It's not that America has no culture but that we like so much of our entertainment junky, our food fast, our brows low. We might play up our good dining habits or book club memberships, but it's the sugary snacks, the airport novels and the airhead magazines that we turn to when we're feeling blue or just looking for a good time. It used to be easy to distinguish guilty pleasures from worthwhile pastimes, but every year the boundary separating them gets more blurry.

In the 1980s and 90s, irony took a commanding voice in design and entertainment, with things that had once been rejected as "tacky" or "camp" suddenly being celebrated for their self-conscious kitsch factor.

Now it's hard to tell whether you're enjoying something for its kitsch factor or for its own sake. Do you wear Hawaiian shirts and bowling shoes to make a self-conscious "retro" statement or because the colors look good on you? Are you laughing at Speed Racer reruns or Survivor episodes or laughing with them?

In some cases, the trash of yesterday has become the treasures of today. Filmmakers Mel Brooks and John Waters used to take pride in aiming low and offending people. Now they each have hot-ticket Broadway musicals -- The Producers and Hairspray -- that attract whole families. Rule of thumb: If it has a hit Broadway show devoted to it, it's not as guilty as it used to be.

Mamma Mia! for instance, is the successful musical based on the songs of ABBA, a prime example of fool's gold that's now considered the real thing. When Benny, Bjorn, Frida and Agnetha first hit the US pop charts, they were ridiculed as the height of vapid disco and for their phonetic pronunciations of English. A few decades later, ABBA's tunes are acclaimed for their catchy good hooks and harmonies, and you needn't hide your copy of "Waterloo" in the back of your music collection anymore.

Comic books, once dismissed as juvenilia about men in tights, have earned newfound appreciation as they've evolved. With the recognition of artists like Will Eisner and Alan Moore, more ambitious artists have turned to comics, which have become a scruffy but respected art form. (I'm living proof of this, having gotten a master's degree for a thesis on the graphic novel Watchmen.) You can see their validation not only in superhero movies like Spider-Man, but the terrific indie films with comic origins, like Ghost World and this year's Sundance Festival hit American Splendor.

With so many gray areas, there's a need to separate the pleasures that are unredeemably guilty from the ones that have been reformed. Just in time for Lent, we consider a variety of amusements that span a variety of pastimes -- and Charlotte institutions -- to assess whether they're defensible or reprehensible. It's all good -- but just how good is it?

The Accused: First-person shooter video games

The Case: Has the "improved hand-eye coordination" argument in favor of video games ever worked for anyone who's not an aspiring air-traffic controller? The real-world value is low for most video games and all but nonexistent for "first-person shooters," the ones where you point a toy gun at a screen and fire at targets. And video game violence has increased exponentially. Old arcades simulated a cartoony shooting range: Shoot a bad guy, and he'd spin around like a cardboard target. With current games like House of the Dead, you blow away ravening zombies, which spurt blood when hit. Playing them can be a fast-paced blast, and console games like Grand Theft Auto can be remarkably detailed guides through a criminal career. But they have no real justification apart from the joy of shooting stuff. Sort of like real guns.

The Verdict: Guilty

The Accused: Hong Kong movies

The Case: The motion pictures of Hong Kong absorbed American pop styles, gave them a jolt of adrenaline, and improved on them, from Jackie Chan's slapstick stunts to John Woo's operatic action to the fight choreography and flying wire-work of scores of journeyman filmmakers. A 90-minute chop-sockey film might have bad dubbing, preposterous plotting and low production values, but it can also boast 20 minutes of astonishing cinema: You can see more craft and brio at climaxes of Drunken Master 2 or A Better Tomorrow 2 than in films of Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson that cost 10 times as much to make. It's gone full circle, with Hong Kong directors and action stars earning places in Hollywood -- where their output is far more watered-down than in their homeland.

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