Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Pop Culture Needs a Common Space

It would be very difficult to argue that we live in polarized times.  Our politics feel more diametrically opposed than I can remember in my lifetime.  As the divide widens, it becomes more and more difficult to find common ground to talk to each other.  

And we need to talk to each other.  We need to be able to dialogue with people who are different than us, who think differently than us.  I'm not saying that we should abandon our deeply held convictions to all meet in mushy middle of muddled ideas.  But there must be a place where we can make contact.

One of my favorite moments in the movie City Slickers is where a character talks about his dad and baseball.  He said that no matter what was going on between them, they could always talk about baseball.  Baseball became that common space where they could talk.

In my own family, that common place has always been movies.  My siblings and I grew up in the age of the VHS and HBO.  Between us we have thousands of hours of movie watching hours between us.  And over the years my siblings and I have grown up and found lives of our own, which we all must do.  But normally, no matter how far apart we became physically or philosophically, we could always talk about movies.

I mentioned before on this blog how I am a "slow-to-warm-up" personality type.  In new social settings, I have a difficult time initiating conversation.  But once I feel comfortable, you can't shut me up.  The exception to this is when I go to the comic book store.  There, I can strike up a conversation with total strangers, because we all know we are there because we love the medium the store is built around.  

Now, these pop culture conversations are not the end all be all of a relationship.  If I had relationships with friends and family where movies, comics, or sports were the ONLY topic of conversations allowed between us, then those relationships would lack all depth.  But those pop culture topics can become part of the conversational stew that mixes our lives together with greater ease and flavor.  Some people can just jump right into the big issues.  But for many of us, we need to be able feel comfortable enough before we dig deeper.

In addition to this, pop culture talk is fun.  We get to speak about our passions and there is a double of enjoyment when they are shared.  A friend of mine once said that everyone is an expert on something and we love to share our expertise.  I remember when I was a teenager, I was at a party where someone asked me about what was going on in X-Men comic books.  I talked his ear off for at least an hour.  Strangely, he was fascinated by what I said and his fascination made my sharing all the more gratifying.  

Another thing that this pop culture space gives us is the thrill of intense emotions with little consequence.  Watch how emotionally invested we get in sports.  When my home team won a national championship, I was over the moon.  When one my favorite character was killed on a show I watch, I raged.  And we can get into merry little wars over our pop culture tastes.  Unlike arguing about politics, where families and friendships have a greater chance of fracturing, pop culture arguments can be invigorating verbal jousts.

I have gotten into heated arguments with some of my dearest friends over things from the Star Wars saga to Caddyshack.  In fact, regarding the latter, my friends staged a sort of intervention for me because I said that Caddyshack II is better than Cadyshack I.  They gathered and made me watch the first one with them.  When I did not acquiesce, they were happily enraged and we went round and round, shadowboxing on the topic.  We could argue and rail and filibuster and shout, but no relationships were hurt.  In fact, they are strengthened by our shared history.  The verbal sparring does not damage because the arena is a common space.  We get all the thrill of fighting without any emotional bruises.

I should mention that this can at times go too far.  I once didn't speak to a friend of mine for an entire summer over an argument about Alien 3.  But this is the exception, not the rule.

Or at least, that is the way it used to be.

One of the most toxic things to enter into the pop culture was its politicization.  I don't mean that it has politics in it.  Pop culture has had movies, TV shows, and comics that have dealt with political issues for ages.  What I mean is that a particular pop culture medium becomes a area that is staked out to push a particular perspective.

There has been a push in the last few years to look at popular culture as a means of changing the culture.  There is truth to this assessment.  The popular culture affects how the culture behaves.  These can result in fashion fads like wearing your clothes backwards or checkered shoes.  But they can also affect deeper societal issues.  Abraham Lincoln famously pointed to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin for awakening the North's outrage at slavery.  When he met the author, Lincoln said, "So this is the little lady who made this big war."

Because of this, popular culture is looked at as a tool in the culture war.  I'm not here to argue about how successful or not these attempts to move the culture have been.  But I am here to lament the effect, which is that it pushes out the common space.

The primary purpose of any art is to captivate.  

Great art also should elevate and touch upon transcendent truth and beauty.  But it's first job is to take hold of our attention and cause entertain.  As I teacher, I have found that students learn better when they are more entertained.  This is why edu-tainment like Sesame Street has such and enduring impact.  

The problem is that there are many who think that the primary goal of art is to teach.

This is one of the reason why most Christian movies are terrible.  As earnest as the cast and crew are, they are overly concerned with making sure that the lesson is learned rather than focusing on proper directing, acting, story structure, etc.  The greatest Christian movie ever is The Passion of the Christ (it also happens to be tied with Schindler's List with the greatest movie ever made).  Notice that while there are sermons in it, the movie is not a sermon.  It is an experience of Christ's love by telling the story of His passion.  Mel Gibson, of course, wanted to move people towards devotion to God.  But he understood that he had to first and foremost make a movie that was beautifully directed, acted, structured, etc.  

Now, look at what has happened in the last few years with pop culture brands like Star Wars, GhostbustersDoctor Who, Terminator, and The Last of Us.  There has been a great deal of ideological battle over this content.

The Last Jedi is the most polarizing Star Wars film ever made.  And this controversy is so needless.  Rian Johnson not only got it into his head that he wanted to subvert all expectations, but the film makers decided to push a post-modern socioeconomic perspective (especially in the scenes on Canto Bigt) that made the move feel so odd.  You can read my analysis of the philosophy of that movie here.  

Ghostbusters 2016 actively attacked the franchises fanbase in the advertising campaign.  Criticism of the film was perceived as some kind of political attack and was returned with that level of aggressiveness.  We saw this same thing happen to the latest Terminator film where the director labeled the movies detractors as misogynists.  Chris Chibnall, the show runner for the latest incarnation of Doctor Who, specifically mentioned making the show more "educational."  What this translates to is a stronger focus on teaching lessons rather than entertaining.  In addition, Chibnall has retconned the decades-long Doctor Who cannon in a move that appears to tear away the primacy of William Hartnell's incarnation as the Doctor.

Whether I agree or disagree with the the politics is irrelevant.  The point is that people are being pushed out of the common space.  It is also creating art that is less likely to transcend their own time.  The more specifically and politically pointed a piece of art is, the more dated is likely to become.  

When Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, many people thought that the destructive power of the one ring was an allegory to nuclear weapons.  Tolkien strenuously rejected this idea.  Allegory, particularly political allegory, limits the effect and the reach of the art.  Tolkien instead focused on making the symbolism of the ring strong in its applicability.  This means that the symbol touches on something so pervasive and universal that it can be applied to a plethora of things.  The one ring embodies the archetype of evils found in fascism, communism, capitalism, etc.  

I am convinced that one of the reasons that the original Star Wars was such a big hit was because where it found itself in the pop culture.  America had just been through the Vietnam War and Watergate.  The country was polarized politically much like today.  But in Star Wars people from all different political perspectives, cultures, and ages were able to find something captivating and enjoyable.  And we could talk to each other about that galaxy far, far away and be brought closer to each other.

The first Hunger Games was such a big hit because the decadence of the evil Capitol could be applied to an out of control central government or to a runaway consumeristic materialism.  We could all see ourselves in that story and then argue about its merits.

Critics often lambast the Marvel films for being bland.  But they overlook that this "blandness" is part of the reason why it is successful.  Most of the Marvel films have an easy point of entry and identification for their characters.  And because of that, people are drawn to them.  Like the old Star Wars, I have been able to talk, debate, and enjoy the Marvel films with people from all political perspectives, cultures, and ages.  Marvel created a common space for us to meet.

That doesn't like it will last.  Captain Marvel became a flashpoint of political perspectives.  And The Eternals looks like it will try to "push the envelope," which usually means that it will try to push a politicized point of view in and push those who do not share this vision out.

Marvel is, of course, free tell their stories however they choose.  But it would be a shame to lose one of the few unifying pop culture spaces.

And when they are all gone, I do not know what shall happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment