Thursday, 21 May 2009

Pop-Culture Entropy

We all search for meanings and labels to attach to ourselves and to other people. Yet I am often surprised at how subjective these are. Aside from my identity as an Orthodox Christian, I do not know what other words I would use to describe myself, apart from a great sinner.

I regard myself as politically liberal and a fan of pop culture. Yet both of these have passed from defining fairly cynical positions to being articles of faith.

Take films for example. The latest instalment of Tarantino’s endlessly unimaginative career has (astoundingly) won great reviews.

Tarantino has learnt his main lesson from David Mamet: if you use the word ‘fuck’ often enough, you will be praised by upper-middle-class film critics for raw, clever and realistic dialogue on a literary level with Aeschylos.

And then he has learnt presumably from someone else that if you are self-consciously derivative then it is not derivative, but ‘post-modern homage’. And that’s good.

Lastly, he seems to have learnt from Baz Luhrmann that if you use pop music in period films, this will be praised as ‘inspired’ rather than embarrassingly stupid because it flatters idiots, especially if the lyrics are related to what is happening. IE ‘It was very inspired of Tarantino to use an 80s British rock song called ‘putting out fires with gasoline’* in a film set in 1940s France because there is fire and there is gasoline. Me clever. Me understand what Tarantino say.'

I am far from being puritanical or highbrow in my film taste. I defend the view that many excellent films in the 1980s were stupid action adventures that nonetheless contained interesting ideas about consumerism and aggression. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film ‘The Running Man’ was a hilarious satire on sadism and conformity.

In this sci-fi movie, America has undergone a financial crisis, and for entertainment the crowd watch people being butchered on TV (hmm, hmm). There is a brilliant advert for one daytime TV show which shows a man picking up dollars in a cage filled with Doberman Pinschers. Conveying the state of society through its advertisements is both very funny and deeply concise, avoiding pretentious philosophising and laboured moralising.

Yes, it is a silly film with a largely clichéd plot, but it does represent the things that good pop culture can do with some imagination. Now contrast this with Quentin Tarantino. Has he ever had an imaginative or original plot idea?

In fact, Tarantino is less like DeSouza (the writer of The Running Man) than he is like Killian, the smarmy talk show host who makes money by flattering the baying sadistic crowd whilst feeding them torture porn. In case anyone thinks this term is a stupid hyperbole, the IB star Eli Roth has described the scene where he beats a Nazi to death as ‘porn’.

I don’t think one need be an admirer of National Socialism to find this very strange.

Now we have reviewers of this film stating that it is a work of post-modern genius that is cunningly disguised as a clichéd piece of crap.

In further entertainment news I’ve read that Russia and China are going to invade America in the remake of Red Dawn. This is another 80s film that was ultimately very daft, but with interesting ideas about how quickly America would adapt to Soviet Invasion and if there was a rebellion, how brutal would the rebels be? Whilst it was not 'Battle of Algiers' there were memorable scenes where Patrick Swayze dispatches injured prisoners, including one who looks like a teenager. This is not shot in a gloating way, like Tarantino, but with striking moral ambiguity for a film with such a mad reputation.

Yet now the Soviet Union has collapsed, why exactly would the Russians invade? And why would China risk invading a country that owes them so much money? In fact China is all that’s keeping America’s economy going right now.

Perhaps ‘pop’ culture has ran out of steam. It is a profoundly American form of entertainment (just look at the pitiful efforts of the French and British to emulate it) and perhaps it gave a voice to the libertarian right/ left who were elbowed out of the statist corporate policies that the Democrat and Republicans both followed. Now we have reached a paradox that because the state did not regulate the banks, the state has partially nationalised them. Subsequently the idea of a self-regulating market is gone.

In political news, I notice there has been a blanket silence on both ‘left and ‘right’ publications about Obama’s Vice President Biden (a sordid Serbophobe bigot) going to visit the puppet government in Belgrade. Could it be that liberalism is going the way of pop-culture?

*This song appeared in yet another brilliantly mad 80s film, 'Cat People'. This may seem derivative but no doubt shows Quentin's genius for 'post-modernism'.


  1. Interesting thoughts on the new Tarantino film.

    I've not seen it but I do find the plot depressing - American cinematic obsession with violent revenge fantasy.

    It does smack of torture porn in that it's basically allowing the audience to enjoy scenes of physical torture and violence because the victims are Nazis. The message being it's OK to fantasise about torturing and killing people, provided that you have a good reason for doing it.

    Like the scene in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction where 'Zed' the 'hill billy' gay rapist has his penis shot off and is told he can look forward to some 'pipe hitting' gangsters going 'mediaeval on his ass', 'with a pair of pliers and a blow torch', doubtlessly to the approval of the audience.

    Of course the message to take is that we're all free in our own mind then to decide who deserves some of that righteous retribution, and in what way we might summarily dispense that justice. In the case of the US it usually involves bombing a third world country.

    >> Enjoying your posts btw Gregor - especially the 'middle class stasi' of Cromarty - genius !


  2. Hi Gar

    Thanks for the comment. Whilst Eli Roth, the star of Tarantino's latest and the director of Hostel previously attacked the term 'torture porn', he says:
    "Being Jewish, for me it's like kosher porn. It's something that I have fantasised about since I was a very young child. It was like I performed a sex scene when I beat that guy to death."

    By contrast there is the excellent film 'The Pianist' directed by a Holocaust survivor and based on a book by a Holocaust survivor, which has the message that we have to 'get over it' and that violence is a sickening thing.

    There is another excellent war film called 'Come and See' which was filmed in Byelorus, and based on historical accounts of the extreme Nazi brutality. That also had a similar message that extreme violence is sickening.

    It seems to me that many Americans have a very acute perception of themselves as victims without knowing why. Maybe it is their turbo-capitalism? Maybe it is subliminal messages in films? Maybe it is because the media always gives them ideals that they can never aspire to. I don't know, but they seem anxious to find reasons to see themselves as victims.

    It is interesting that Americans have a fascination with WW II, especially when you see how often they mention 'Chamberlain', who was trying to protect Central Europe when the Americans weren't even interested. At any rate, Chamberlain's greatest flaw was that he offered impossible guarantees to unstable, expansionist nations like Poland. It's a 'paleoconservative' called Pat Buchanan who made the excellent point that the real Chamberlains are the ones who want to guarantee that we'll help Saakashvilli if he causes trouble with Russia.

    'Of course the message to take is that we're all free in our own mind then to decide who deserves some of that righteous retribution'

    Maybe it is something I overlooked about 'the Running Man': that Arnie is framed as a killer. To me it was an insignificant feature, but to many Americans it probably was a vital plot development because it made him fair game to be chased by 'buzz saw' and 'sub-zero' ('now plain zero' Arnie quips, but in a self-consciously cartoon way, unlike Tarantino's 'serious' dialogue).

    It seems like people have shrinking ideals and interests. Maybe being 'victims' is a way out of numbness.

    I'm pleased you liked the 'middle class stasi' of Cromarty quip, but maybe that is a reason why we should not mention my blog in ICA. Still, I thought this was a great website/ comic strip:

    In case it seems like I've been anti-American, 'Tom Tomorrow' like Bill Hicks shows that they are the best at mocking their own politics.

  3. Thanks for linking from my blog, Gregor. You are an intriguing writer, I've added you to the blogroll.

    I haven't seen the new Tarantino film, so can't comment.

    I don't really agree with your indictment of Tarantino et al's style. The problem is that IMO, the Book of all the possible great epics on life has already been written; all that remains is its reproduction and cross-referencing.

  4. Hello Anatoly, that is a great honour from one of my favourite bloggers.

    'The problem is that IMO, the Book of all the possible great epics on life has already been written; all that remains is its reproduction and cross-referencing.'

    Getting Borgesian on my ass... I'm sure Tarantino's films have their place in the Videostore of Babel. But there are so many novels that have not been filmed. So many true life tales as well.

  5. Incidentally, I am flattered by your word 'intriguing'. I think my fictional alter ego is the narrator of Bulgakov's novel 'Black Snow' (or 'Theatrical Novel', as I think it is literally translated). A bit of a weirdo but hopefully not an unengaging one.