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June 2008
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August 2008

and i thought i went over the deep end

Randy Shaw has written a piece comparing the San Francisco Giants' brain trust to Joseph Stalin:

"Giants' Stalinist Approach to Barry Bonds"

After Joseph Stalin seized control of the Soviet Union, the official history of the Bolshevik Revolution was altered. Onetime heroes were redefined as traitors and counter-revolutionaries, creating a pattern of erasing/rewriting of history that continued through the 1980’s. I don’t know if the owners of the San Francisco Giants studied Soviet history, but the team’s treatment of Barry Bonds is consistent with this legacy.... [J]ust as Soviet leaders had to rewrite history to explain food lines and declining wheat crops, so do the Giants have to justify the mess they have made of their franchise.

Shaw would probably do better if he called the team's revisionist approach Orwellian, although even then, the hyperbole would be suffocating. But even I am not ready to associate Peter Magowan with Stalin. And Shaw isn't just using the gonzo journalist technique of exaggerating for effect, he's making a "serious" argument.

don't tell me you're innocent, because it insults my intelligence

I believe in the importance of popular culture, and am committed enough to the analysis of culture that I regular assign texts in my classes that are more popular than canonical. And I don't think of pop culture as interesting "merely" in a cultural context ... I think the best is worthy of detailed textual analysis as well. (I think one reason my dissertation was oddball is that I took popcult "junk" like Mickey Spillane and examined it via close textual readings as much as I put it in its cultural context.)

Having said that, there is always a danger that an interest in popular culture makes us vulnerable to marketing. Deciding what is important enough to consider critically ends up too closely tied to what is popular, which isn't so bad in itself but which is a problem in a world where marketing drives the box office as much as does "quality." (This isn't just true for movies. I write a lot about television, and many assume I must be interested in the popular simply because I like TV. But what I like on TV is rarely what sits atop the ratings. I don't watch reality shows, to note the most obvious example. People like me are obsessing about Mad Men right now, but the truth is, hardly anyone actually watches that show. Buffy was perhaps the #1 example of a show that intrigued critics while remaining near the bottom of the ratings charts ... and lasted seven seasons nonetheless.) The movies that get talked about are almost always those that get the most pre-release advertising. The buzz created by such marketing has little to do with "populist" word-of-mouth ... the only mouths passing along words are those of the marketers.

It is certainly possible for mass entertainment to be both popular and profound ... this happens all the time. But when most of the energy behind a production is devoted to marketing, too little is leftover for the actual cultural product itself. As Pauline Kael wrote (28 years ago!):

The studios no longer make movies primarily to attract and please moviegoers; they make movies in such a way as to get as much as possible from prearranged and anticipated deals. Every picture (allowing for a few exceptions) is cast and planned in terms of those deals.... [T]he project must ... have an easily paraphrasable theme, preferably something that can be done justice to in a sentence and brings to mind the hits of the past. How else could you entice buyers? Certainly not with something unfamiliar, original....

There is an even grimmer side to all this: because the studios have discovered how to take the risk out of moviemaking, they don't want to make any movies that they can't protect themselves on. Production and advertising costs have gone so high that there is genuine nervous panic about risky projects. If an executive finances what looks like a perfectly safe, stale piece of material and packs it with stars, and the production costs skyrocket way beyond the guarantees, and the picture loses many millions, he won't be blamed for it — he was playing the game by the same rules as everybody else.

If, however, he takes a gamble on a small project that can't be sold in advance — something that a gifted director really wants to do, with a subtle, not easily summarized theme and no big names in the cast — and it loses just a little money, his neck is on the block.

I thought of this while reading Andrew Tracy's article on Hellboy II:

Talking faux-seriously about juvenilia has become a marvelous way to avoid talking seriously about the serious. The slew of hyperbolic, overheated critical rhetoric that follows in the wake—hell, in advance of—the latest high concept blockbuster is enough to make one gag. In these cases, critical investigation has by and large become a matter of repeating verbatim the films’ stridently announced surface-level themes with some linguistic curlicues and intellectual tumbling tossed in. As it has so often, commercial calculation finds a willing handmaiden in critical laziness, even (or perhaps especially) that evinced by those more intelligent and discerning writers who devote their efforts and talents towards designing elaborate intellectual justifications for films that neither require nor deserve them.

What’s most obscene about this pop-cultural mythmaking is that it works so resolutely against expanding taste or knowledge about movies. By focusing so obsessively and voluminously on the most readily, tyrannically available items, critical discussion is not simply reflecting the commercial film distribution situation in North America, but actively contributing to it. By elevating the latest pop detritus to the level of godhead, by implicitly declaring the centrality of pop moviemaking (most often bad pop moviemaking) above all else, it only further occludes those films that don’t have the advantage of being relentlessly drilled into our consciousness by the marketing machine. Why bother wrestling in print with films that are challenging, strange, obscure, or entertaining in different and novel ways when The Truth is playing in 2500 theatres?

I agree with most of this. What I would add is that there ARE popular works that deserve "elaborate intellectual justifications," that are challenging, that reward serious talk, that help expand our horizons. (Mr. Tracy, meet Battlestar Galactica.) The problem isn't that there are popular movies; the problem is that popular movies are crappier than they used to be. This isn't a paean to the good old days, exactly ... I'm not saying that movies in general are crappier than they used to be. I'm saying that Spider-Man 3 is crappier than movies used to be. The best of the Spider-Man movies ... take your pick, they're all the same to me ... is nowhere near as good as the worst of the Evil Dead movies, which surely says something about how today's blockbuster mentality affects even good filmmakers like Sam Raimi. (What makes Peter Jackson's Tolkien movies and King Kong so remarkable is that they are as good as the splatter-core stuff he made before he was famous.) I shudder to think what The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II might be like if they were made today. Instead of being the greatest movies ever made, they'd be ... well, they'd be The Godfather: Part III.

five movies you should see

Here's what I did. I went to MovieLens, where over the years I have rated 1,168 movies. I sorted those movies according to "the least often rated movies that I have rated," in other words, movies I've seen and rated but most people have not (seen and/or rated ... at the MovieLens site). Starting at the top of that list (Tales of Ordinary Madness, which has been rated by only 13 users, including myself ... I gave it 4 stars out of 5), I pulled off the first five movies for which I gave the highest 5 out of 5 star rating. Voila! The five movies you should see that you haven't:

The Earrings of Madame de ...


The Sorrow and the Pity

Dinner at Eight

Murder on a Sunday Morning

friends are good

A package arrived in the mail today with two CDs of stuff from the 60s, put together by Phil Dellio, who comments around these parts on occasion. Phil's a renaissance guy after my own heart ... he's taught 7th grade and written a book titled after a Ramones' song. (There's a funny YouTube clip of Phil talking about buying records ... funny because of the comments, the first of which is "Mr. Dellio is a teacher at my school!") I can't wait to dig into these discs ... looking at the track lists, there's everything from audio excerpts of Richard Daley and Planet of the Apes to songs by Claudine Longet, the Miracles, and the International Submarine Band. Thanks, Phil!

world's best mom

I'm working my way through Season One of Mad Men, partly because Season Two begins this Sunday, partly because I got it on Blu-ray (it looks gorgeous, but if actors were worried about hi-def, this is really going to get the anxiety meter going). I just watched perhaps my favorite scene of the entire season, which I wrote about when it first aired. After it was over, I replayed that scene with the commentary on, and realized that my own take (that Betty Draper, depressed housewife, was letting her guard down and showing us what was really going on in her mind) wasn't the only possible one. Betty was also exercising her Mother Lioness power, which makes a lot of sense ... for all of my identification with her socially-induced depression, she is indeed a frightfully pro-active protector of kids in the scene in question. (I suppose another funny thing is that my original post was vague in case readers hadn't seen the episode yet, but now it's a year later, and I'm still being vague, in case anyone who is watching the DVDs or the AMC marathons to get caught up for the first time is reading.)

Here's my favorite picture from the episode. At the time, this episode is what convinced me that January Jones was doing a fine job ... watching the season again, it's clear from the start that she is excellent. But I think she needs that second viewing ... she's so good at portraying a certain kind of passiveness that you don't give her much credit until you get a chance to see that she's not as passive as she seems, which carries over into a second viewing:

what i watched last week

I stole this idea from some web site that I can't remember. I think they do this once a month. I'm going to try for once a week, on Mondays, although I may give up after one try. I'll list the movies I watched during the previous week, with one or two lines on each.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Wouldn't have worked without Russell Crowe in the lead role. He makes this stuff believable. 8/10.

Recount. "Only" a TV movie from HBO. Nominated for 9 Emmys. Written by Danny Strong (who got an Emmy nod himself), previously known to fans of the Buffyverse as Jonathan. 8/10.

The Good Earth. Late-30s Hollywood movie about China, based on Pearl Buck's novel, a former choice of the Oprah Book Club. Paul Muni, an American via Ukraine, and Luise Rainer, a German actress, played the two leads, both Chinese characters. Rainer won the Best Actress Oscar, her second in a row. Seeing it now, it's hard to understand why. 6/10.

The Host. Korean monster movie, a few dozen rungs above what you'd see on any random Saturday on the Sci-Fi Channel, if not quite the 5-star masterpiece some critics call it. 7/10.

Jason and the Argonauts. Yes, the set pieces are cool, and it's nice to see Pussy Galore as Hera. But in the end, it's no different from most special-effects extravaganzas ... you wait, bored, until the next cool Harryhausen scene arrives. Would be just as good with all the non-Harryhausen stuff removed. 6/10.