18 August, 2011

The Stagnation of Popular Culture By Intellectual Property

Have we reached the end of popular culture?

I’m not being facetious here, and I’m not (just) trying to do this for hits. I’m asking a simple question: What’s REALLY changed in popular culture in the past decade? And is anything honestly POPULAR at this point? I’m not so sure that our culture has moved to a point of differentiation from the films and products of a decade ago beyond surface aesthetics, and it saddens me to state this.

Glee celebrates recycling culture, our most notable auteur director is the master of recycling/reusing Quentin Tarantino, and we watch endless cable reruns of Nickelodeon shows that we enjoyed/were anesthetized by as children. The Kindle sells us back books that we loved without necessarily engaging us in new forms of content or reading. Video games themselves have started to go through a “retro” era, with pixilated art and play mechanics that recall older arcade and console titles becoming a popular installation and a required format of publishers. Comic books…yeesh.

And let’s not even get started on Hollywood. There’ve been several points during films I saw this year where I felt like I was going through the motions as an audience member, watching the same movies that were being made ten years ago. That’s the worst part of being a participatory member of the audience during the Remake Crusade of Western Cinema. Many better film critics have determined that the experiences of seeing older films become reinterpreted for new audiences is much like seeing tarted-up versions of old girlfriends: It just doesn’t work for them. Neither does the reliance on purely (toy) commercial products for inspiration/greenlighting of films. The business mentality of Hollywood has crept up on us. Don’t believe me? Watch the trailer for Peter Berg’s Battleship and tell me that you’re excited to see this because it seems fresh and different.

Honestly, what has changed? Even Ridley Scott is returning to the property that made him famous, Blade Runner. You know why it grates on me? It’s being called a “property,” that’s why. Blade Runner is a seminal, interesting and evocative portrayal of where we were going as a society, where we ended up, and gave further thought to the debate of what is life itself. Do we need a sequel to the film? No, absolutely not. Can there still be interesting stories told in its universe? Possibly, but the fact that we’re going back to Blade Runner almost thirty years since the original blew our minds says something worse about our culture, which has become obsessed with going with the sure thing. Instead of making films, now we are interested in intellectual properties and how they are being used to drive the word of popular entertainment. We have become more interested in the process of making movies than the actual films themselves. As a scholar, it’s enlightening and informative. As a fan of films, I think that this is a maddening time for audiences.

Devin Faraci of Badass Digest wrote an interesting piece explaining how the plot construction, set design, and end of Final Destination 5 are emblematic of a larger flaw in popular culture of today in that it still resembles what came ten years ago. Drew McWeeny of Hitfix also recognized the genius and horror in setting a novel done by Ernest Cline (Ready Player One) in a world that is nothing but retro culture and trivial knowledge as a painful and obvious reminder that pop is eating itself.

One of the reasons I took a hiatus on writing the teen movie series was that during the run through 80’s films it began to be too familiar. The shock of the new had worn off, and a new breed of contempt had risen inside of me. This may not have been the case for teenagers in the 80’s that were unaccustomed to receiving legitimate mainstream Hollywood attention. However, as a late twentysomething adult male I can say that I’ve seen these stories before; hell, I’ve lived most of them. So why revisit them? Each story seemed to provide similar thrills, similar ideologies, and most of the same character archetypes as previous films. It didn’t matter what I watched, I was ultimately becoming unsatisfied with the depictions of the same teen characters.

(The second reason for stopping to write the series was that I recently got engaged. Some things take priorities over revisiting John Hughes movies and Valley Girl, no matter how good they can be.)

Now, this isn’t to say that it can represent a dead end. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a late summer blockbuster film that has received incredible word of mouth and can now be considered a financial success for recouping its budget. I saw the film and was absolutely shocked at how much I enjoyed it even though I knew its outcome from the title. The performances, pacing, and relevance of subject matter all contributed to an effective, enjoyable film, but mostly I enjoyed the film because of the intelligence used to deal with the issues of animal abuse and scientific moral dilemmas.

But then I thought about it…

…did I like the movie because it was good…

…or did I like the movie because it wasn’t terrible?

Obviously I like the movie because it’s good, but do I enjoy the film more because it blew away my expectations? Keep in mind that there is a substantial difference between a qualitatively “good” movie and a work of art that’s “better than expected.” Had my experiences as an audience member subject to diminishing returns in quality at the movie theater left me unprepared for a film that carefully paced its story and adroitly presented it in such a way that it made other such films seem rather pedestrian by comparison?

This was the argument levied at Inception last summer when it arrived and was heralded as a masterpiece by audiences and critics throughout the world. A sizable portion of critics emerged stating that the film was receiving greater praise than it warranted because audiences wanted to like the film more due to its expectation as a thinking person’s blockbuster. While I believe that Christopher Nolan’s film is an ambitious head game that is worth watching and experiencing, I do understand that it can be a narrative, hermetic house of cards that may crumble upon further inspection. Consequently, I am forced to reexamine my enjoyment of Rise and determine whether the popcorn rush of entertainment provides returns upon subsequent viewings.

Why do I bring this up? Ultimately, the level of popular culture’s stagnation may determine whether my enjoyment is truly qualified. The interesting thing about the past year has been the revival of “dead” properties as popular entertainment. A Nightmare on Elm Street received a godawful remake with a wasted Jackie Earle Haley’s depiction of Freddy Kruger; Tron got the Dude to doff his cyber suit one more time after that film flopped; now, Blade Runner gets the visual architect of Phillip K. Dick’s dream of electric sheep to return for another go-round.

I suppose the biggest problem with our culture is that idea that everything old is new again. Sadly, it’s not, and we’re starting to see the effects with audiences attending pictures less frequently. Instead of demanding greater work from artists, the film industry has embraced (not) new gimmicks such as 3-D to enhance poorly constructed works. Lethargy has replaced excitement in several ways, and subsequently lowered our expectations for what film can provide. One critic referred to a switching of entertainment roles between television and film. Whereas once television provided a comfortable, reliable set of similar programs while film challenged audience expectations and social conventions, now the opposite is true today. Most of this can be attributed to the bottom line mentality of film producers and studios; unfortunately, this is even creeping into television production, and with alarming results.

Maybe there’s a greater societal ill at fault here, not the least of which is the hectic economy that has forced so many creative voices to go under the radar and make their work with extreme limitations. But I do think that perpetuating stagnation by forcing a view of a bottom-line mentality upon all audiences takes away from creative gambles, and ultimately it deprives audiences from really getting to enjoy a work on its own merit. When an art form becomes mired in remake and sequelization/copycat practices, one no longer feels inspired by what they see. Instead, one only sees the same thing, a simulacrum.

In many ways, the idea of seeing film profits as artistic qualifiers is problematic. Why? I’ll give you an example: How many people walk into an art museum, view an installation, try to find out how much cost the artist put into the creation of the artifact, and then judge it based on the return on investment or the number of people that view the art installation for an extended period of time? Similarly, how often does a literate person judge how much time went into the creation of a book, the type of software used to create it, and determine how much of a success the book is based on the sales figures? While it probably happens much more often in a larger commercial realm such as book sales, the point of the matter is that most people don’t engage in discussions of how many books were sold or eyes viewed material.

Here’s the most popular question set regarding a visual entertainment artifact:

“Oh, you saw ______? How was it? Was it good?

This should be the only test that matters. If it’s not fulfilled, all others are meaningless.

1 comment:

Christopher.baldwin919 said...

You have inspired me sir…
From the makers of “SWAPED!” comes the next great sitcom…REFERENCES! You’ll see a band of 20 something pseudo hipsters and pseudo geeks constantly make references to the movies, tv shows, books, and music they love. Critics are saying things like: “Yeah… the characters make a lot of references.” your friends will all say things like: “Hey, (your name) you should totally watch this show. They make a lot of (insert geeky pop culture thing all your friends know you’re really into) REFERNCES! You’ll love it!” Listen to your friends. Critics are jaded douchebags!! The characters are always finding themselves in one pickle or another, and instead of acting like fully fleshed out, 3 dimensional characters, with their own thoughts and personality, they will equate the situation they are in to a movie, video game, comic, or maybe even a TV show! So be sure to tune in every Monday night at 8:00PM sharp for REFERENCES!