Monday, June 18, 2012

Pop Culture's Smell of Mendacity

"Yeah, I'm lying to him right now.  What?
Oh sure, he's totally buying it."
Pop culture has lied to all of us for years.  It's lies to us every day and will keep lying to us for the foreseeable future.  Pop culture needs the lies to keep going because nothing jarring ever really happens in pop culture and that's boring.  Nothing absolutely brand-spanking new ever occurs.  And like everything since the moment the Big Bang decided to blow its cosmic load all over the void, everything builds on something else.  Always has, always does, always will.

But the lies keep coming.

Foreign movies are better than American movies.  It's a lie, of course, but one that makes some people feel superior because they know something you don't.  Of course, what they never tell you, is that practically every American movie gets shown overseas while only a vanishingly few foreign movies get shown in America.  Force someone to sit through every film made in France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Italy, Iran, England and America in any given year and chances are it'd be a wash.  Once you see all the shitty movies from France that no one's showing you at the local art house, you start to realize each country's quality output is roughly the same.  But we only see what they send out to the rest of the world and they see every damn movie we make, including all the garbage.  Check out 1975 in film on Wikipedia.  It lists films released internationally.  Not every film from every country, just those given an international release.  You'll find eleven from France, just four from Germany.  U.S.A.?  I don't know, pretty much the entire rest of the list.  Type in any other year, same thing.

"Bullshit makes money! Who knew?"
Punk music saved rock and roll.  Another lie shoved down our collective throats.  First, like everything else, punk music slowly and gradually developed for years with groups like The Ramones setting the stage.  It didn't just fucking appear in 1977 and save the world.  And from what exactly did it save the world?  Had disco subverted Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen?  Had Neil Young started playing dance music?  Was Miles Davis turning in his trumpet for a synthesizer? Were the great folk, new wave, country and funk genres all collapsing under the weight of Saturday Night Fever?  No, of course not.  And did disco stop?  No, of course not again.  We just stopped calling it "disco" and started calling it "dance music" or "club"  or "rave" or whatever other label fit a song whose primary goal is to get people to move on a dance floor.  And frankly, what in the hell is so wrong with that that punk needed to save us all?  And if punk isn't commercially popular (it isn't) and isn't supposed to be (it's not because that would defeat the purpose of its underground rebellious stature) then how in the hell could it have saved any music at all?!?!  It was another barely discernible genre of rock given all kinds of self-important bullshit recognition because somebody needed to feel better than you by exclaiming, when you mentioned that Stevie Wonder song you like, "Thank God punk came along."  Save me from Stevie Wonder?  Fuck you.  And speaking of rock...

Rock and roll blasted onto the scene in 1955 with Bill Haley and Chuck Berry and Elvis.  Bullshit.  Ever listen to rhythm and blues from the late forties and early fifties?  It was already there.  Hell, even the claim that Rocket 88 from March 1951 as the first rock song is dubious.  There were a lot before it and even the jazz standard How High the Moon got a treatment from Les Paul and Mary Ford in January of 1951 that has an electric guitar that sounds one hell of a lot more like the rock and roll guitar we now all know and love than anything in Rocket 88.  I guess it just wasn't popular enough with the kinder yet.  Speaking of popular...

Jaws and Star Wars ruined the movies (because they weren't considered high art and made too much damn money).  Yeah, because movie studios were always about high art, not box office.  In the early seventies, when Hollywood was making movies like The Last Detail and The Conversation and all those other movies that brought about the renaissance of the alleged second Golden Age and, supposedly, no one was making big-budget bloated studio crap anymore, the big box office winners were Airport (grossed over $60,000,000 in its initial run and went on to gross more than $100,000,000 overall worldwide), The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno ($116,000,000 worldwide).  So I guess Jaws and Star Wars really pissed on the whole "Art Films About Burning Buildings" trend Hollywood had going.

"This is completely new!  No precedent whatsoever!
I'm shocked... and stunned!"
Or how about this one:  "[insert classic and beloved film title here] was hated by critics and audiences upon release."  I love this one, it crops up all the time.   It comes about because we want to make ourselves feel smarter, more insightful than those who came before us.  This one took some effort on my part to disprove when I was younger but that's just what I did, unwittingly.  When I heard decades ago from Hollywood interviewees and historians and documentaries that The Wizard of Oz was panned upon release and really not generally liked in 1939 (and aren't we so much smarter than those idiots?) I went to the library and pulled out the reference guides to Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Time, The New York Times and on and on.  I wanted to read those pans.  Boy did I have a hard time finding the ones they were talking about!  There may have been a couple of reviews that weren't crazy for the movie but for the most part, terrific reviews all around.  Also, good box office and a slew of Oscar nominations.  So, yeah, about it not being liked in 1939... shut up.  Ditto for It's a Wonderful Life.  Stop trying to make current generations seem smarter by making past generations seem like morons.

But these are just big examples, there are all kinds of small ones.  Whenever you hear anyone in music or film tell you they or their favorite director or guitarist or actor or, I don't know, manicurist did something no one had done before, they probably didn't.  When you're told something was a game changer, it probably wasn't.  When you're told something saved us or just you or me or somebody from the horrible banality of what came before, it probably couldn't because not everyone hates the same thing and wants to be saved anyway.  It's just pop culture lying because the reality is that everything gradually develops from everything else and, believe it or not, it all kind of makes sense.  And who the hell wants that when you're trying to sell the next big thing to a sucker with a dollar in his pocket?

And just who is it, exactly, responsible for spreading all these lies?  Me, actually.  And you. And the media, the studios and anyone who wants to sound not completely out of the loop at the next office birthday party ("You know, a lot of people don't know this but..." = major bullshit).  And who can blame any of us?  Persistent, gradual change is boring.  Who needs that when a sudden shock works better and it's easier to sleep at night knowing we're just a little bit smarter than those yokels that came before us?

6 comments:

Marlowe said...

What a great piece! You absolutely nailed it. Congratulations!

Peter Nellhaus said...

About The Wizard of Oz, the only problem was that it was an expensive film, and unlike a Civil War movie that Victor Fleming only partially directed and also took full credit for, did not make money until it's appearance on network television.

As for foreign films, it's very dependent on what US distributors think will sell here. There are good films that don't even get festival runs or US DVD distribution. The other problem is that some distributors also think the only films that will get an audience are genre movies, usually horror or action films, and sometimes those films are not very good. I discuss that conundrum in my essay on Thai cinema in the new anthology Southeast Asian Cinema, by the way.

I use to go to CBGBs back in 1975-76. Were I not a gentleman, I would kick the ass of every idiot who'd state that the Sex Pistols invented punk rock.

Greg said...

Marlowe, thank you.

Peter, The Wizard of Oz may not have made a profit but if you watch the documentary in 1989 on its fiftieth anniversary tape release you will hear the old canard, stated by Angela Lansbury no less, that it was panned by critics, a complete untruth. Other movies that get this a lot: It's a Wonderful Life and Vertigo.

I first came across the Vertigo one in the 1982 edition of The Book of Lists. It was a list of great works of art received badly upon release. They pointed to a Time magazine review that was indeed dismissive. If read in its entirety, it is also clear the reviewer was painfully dimwitted about the film's intentions. Mainly, it's criticized for being a bad thriller because the ghost was given away too soon.

Anyway, after The Book of Lists movie critics for papers (read: journalism majors that got assigned the movie desk) would bring it up and always reference the Time review. So, I read other reviews and, well, Time was one of the only ones that didn't get it. Hardly a collective critical pan for the film upon release.

You make some very good points with foreign film distribution. With foreign films it's always been a problem and always will be. Streaming and DVDs opens that up a little bit but we still only see a smattering of what the rest of the world has to offer giving us a skewed perspective.

And I might as well keep agreeing with - The Sex Pistols did not invent punk. No one invented punk. Going back to the early sixties there were plenty of garage bands playing simple chords and sounding raw and that's the way they liked it. By 1977 it had simply grown enough of a following that some clever fellow somewhere (like good old Malcolm McLaren) could give it a label and put a price tag on it.

policomic said...

This is a thing of beauty. Thank you.

Ace89 said...

Excellent piece.

Matthew said...

This is fantastic.