February 4, 2007
Pop Culture...the New "Culture"?
Where would our modern world be without “Culture“?
Shakespeare (as in Bill) and Wagner (as in Dick) and Van Gogh (as in Vinnie) and Bronte (as in, uh, all of ‘em, I guess) and all the rest? Past artistic works have become ingrained into our consciousness so much that they become part of our lives; the Greek legend of Oedipus is even a psychology term -- an Oedipus Complex. (Though it’s typical of our tendency to latch onto “literary” references without fully imbibing their meaning that it seemed to have escaped Freud when he coined the term that Oedipus didn’t know he was bopping his momma!)
But we pride ourselves on our knowledge of past works, our cannon of literary and cultural references -- they become touchstones, a shared identity. An episode of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation involved them encountering a culture whose language consists of nothing but references and literary allusions -- making communication nearly impossible if you haven’t read the same books (as the heroes had not).
As well, we tend to look down upon those who don’t share this universal knowledge. Yeah -- we all do. If we don’t recognize a reference, we think whoever made it is just a pompous dork…but if we do, we snicker condescendingly at anyone who doesn’t. Nature of the beast, I’m afraid.
So what, you might be asking, does all this have to do with a pulp fiction site, and an editorial page that generally references TV shows and comic books more than operas and Greek literature? Well, just that -- is there a difference? Should there be a difference? Should Spider-Man’s latest battle with the Lizard be valued differently than Perseus’ battle with the Kraken? Should the writer of some episodic TV series be less valued than Shakespeare?
Traditional thinking is: yes. Shakespeare was a genius, who spoke to the Human Condition and revealed truths of the inner mind. A TV writer is a hack. Period. Spider-Man is a comic book, for Mellville’s sake! A goofy character who has silly super powers and fights monsters, while Perseus was a grandly heroic figure who used weapons that had, um, super powers and who, uh, fought a monster.
We are reluctant to acknowledge the value, the importance, of pop culture. Flipping through a couple of dictionaries (both a few years old, admittedly, so maybe things have changed) I looked up the term “Superman”. In one, it defined it by the Nietzsche reference. The other listed the Nietzsche reference and the George Bernard Shaw play. Neither said: “iii) a caped man from the planet Krypton who fights crime and disguises himself as a mild mannered newsman.” Yet what’s the point of a dictionary? To explain terms that someone doesn’t know, surely. So, come on, if, today, say, an immigrant overhears a co-worker refer to “Superman” -- nine times out of ten, the reference will be to the super hero. Yet when this immigrant goes to his dictionary to find out what the reference meant -- he’s given every definition but the one that’s relevant.
In a sense, what we don’t necessarily like to acknowledge is that often the difference between “great literature” and “hack work” is simply individual perception -- in many cases, what we came upon in our formative years, we absorb into our consciousness and attribute importance to, while anything else…is just entertainment. And once enough of us have absorbed the same work at the same formative time in our lives, it becomes…culture.
Now, things are changing a little bit. More and more modern TV shows are being discussed with a certain respect -- which I think goes to my point about something needing to achieve a certain critical mass of broad based familiarity. An episode of a TV series can reach the same number of people in a single night as have seen a Shakespeare play in an entire decade. And so the adventures of Jack Bauer on 24 get talked about as do the cases of the CSI gang. And more and more TV shows are grudgingly conceded to having some artistic merit -- from the West Wing to Six Feet Under. But it’s still grudging, they’re still only allowed a seat at the children’s table. Yes, people write learned tomes analysing the meaning of Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer…but outside of the core fandom, such books are seen more as tongue-in-cheek novelties. Which is maybe the distinction. You don’t have to be a fan of Shakespeare to accept, as a given, that his plays are of some great cultural merit. But you kind of have to be a fan-boy to say that about some more recent pop-cultural property.
Yet if we are all honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that often such pop culture has as much impact on us as any piece of historical literature we were taught in school -- the great lines, the moving soliloquies, the profound moments of human drama that still resonate within us deep in out core might just as well have been uttered by a working actor doing a couple of days on a generally forgotten TV show or ballooning over the head of a garishly costumed super hero in a comic book as to have been found in the pages of some 19th Century literary classic.
In his introduction to the Daredevil TPB collection, Guardian Devil, actor Ben Affleck referred to some Daredevil comics he read in his youth as having “touched and moved me in ways I was then and still now am reluctant to admit“ -- a kind of astonishing admission to make when even modern comics writers themselves are often quick to patronise the comics of their youth (“Oh it was great fun…for what it was.”) Yet Affleck’s confession is probably true of most people -- they just don’t admit it publicly (not involving Daredevil, or comics, necessarily, but some sort of “disposable“ pop culture).
Within our own circles we probably have certain references that we’ve latched onto. I’ve always remembered an episode of a short lived Suzanne Pleshette sitcom where she played a writer at a magazine forced to review a friend’s play -- a really, really bad, pretentious play. In the play all the characters are either named Wally or Kevin -- Wally being the nerds, Kevin being the paragons. The pomposity of the play is summed up in the line “In every Wally, there’s a Kevin screaming to get out!” (or something). The point is, that line and concept kind of stuck with me, both as a spoof of archly pretentious plays, but also as a kind of “truism”. Yet, I’m guessing most people have little if any memory of a short lived Suzanne Pleshette sitcom from a couple of decades ago. (Ironically, though, sometimes personal catchphrases turn out to be more common place: I used to like to use the Jaws line -- “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” -- years before I realized it was actually a popular quote!)
I started thinking about this a while back when I was watching a, well, a pretty bad B-movie. In it, the hero is left for dead while thugs hold his family hostage. Then, in one scene, the hero emerges from a marsh, dressed in some jury-rigged armour that made him look somewhat inhuman. Now what, admittedly, skimmed over my head when I first watched it was that the movie was supposed to be a reference to a work of literature -- the Odyssey (okay, just to satisfy your curiosity, it was called Skull or, alternatively, Don’t Turn Out the Lights, but it wasn’t very good, so be warned). Anyway, when the hero emerged from that marsh, after being “murdered”, looking (perhaps unintentionally) inhuman, to rescue his wife from villains, I had an instant flashback, not to Homer, but to the first issue of Swamp Thing comics. And I suddenly realized there was a resonance -- that I had clearly absorbed and processed that comic from many years ago so fundamentally that it flashed to my mind’s eye while watching this unrelated movie.
And I thought -- hey, isn’t that “culture”? Something which we find echoes of in our later life? Yet most people watching that movie probably wouldn’t have had that reaction, ‘cause they hadn’t read the Swamp Thing. So it was a “personal” culture, but culture nonetheless.
Then I was re-watching some old movie I had first seen years ago -- can’t now remember what. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a movie that was particularly well regard (not that it was necessarily badly regarded -- it was just one of thousands of “okay” movies made over the years). Yet re-watching it, I was struck by the profundity of the lines, the subtle characterization, the nuanced performances. And I thought: how come this isn’t regarded as a classic? Then I realized, maybe I was responding to it precisely because I had seen it before, the lines and the performances seeming profound simply because they were resonating with my half-buried memories of them, making minor characters seem like old friends.
So does that make that movie a “false” classic? Maybe yes, maybe no. After all, maybe the reason it had lurked in my mind for all those years was because it boasted a richness I only just appreciated watching it again. As well, one could argue, might that not be part of the success of a Shakespeare, or a Twain? We are told they are literary giants, and fans pour over their stuff again and again, and we are taught them so thoroughly in school, that we are maybe conditioning ourselves to infer greatness.
Again I was thinking about this watching a rerun of the 1980s detective series, Remington Steele (I loved the first season -- hated much of the rest). And re-watching some episodes I was reminded of long ago, the stories and scenes taking on a phantom resonance as I half-remembered the episodes -- and remembered just how beautiful star Stephanie Zimbalest was! Anyway, in an episode where they investigate sabotage at a tabloid news show ("Steele in the News", by Michael Gleason and Fred Lyle), I was reminded of how much that particular episode had lingered with me. Guest star J.D. Cannon plays a once-great newsman slumming in this “pop news” program and some of his scenes with Zimbalest are beautifully written, delivered with gravely voiced conviction by Cannon. Sure, with the luxury of a now-broader cinematic education, I can suspect that his scenes were being influenced by the movie Network, but I didn’t know that years ago. (And can we really object to derivativeness when it’s acknowledged that most of Shakespeare’s plays were themselves based on pre-existing stories and plays?) Chances are Cannon filmed his scenes in a couple of days and would’ve barely remember he had even appeared in the series years later. Likewise, the writer may’ve churned out the script in a weekend, just to pay the bills while he worked on a play or something.
But, for me, Cannon growling about how he, a respected newsman, is supposed to pretend to give “serious consideration to whether Princess Di is pregnant again” said as much about the rapidly declining state of journalism as Peter Finch extolling his viewers to shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” in the Oscar-winning Network.
And so on. Partly because of my, perhaps, delinquent up-bringing where I maybe didn’t read as many of the classics as I should’ve, I realize that often the profound quotes that flash to mind at the oddest moment are not from Shakespearian plays, the profound conflicts between determined adversaries that define heroism for me did not erupt from some opera I watched -- rather, as often as not, they spring from comics and TV shows, B-movies and dime novels. You say Moby Dick, I say Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.
I’ve recently dug out some old Elric novels by Michael Moorcock and, again, partly thanks to the sweet echo of nostalgia, am reminded of these tales of the melancholy last king of Melnibone, his doomed affairs, his friendships and betrayals. And how they resonate as much with me, and many fantasy readers, as the tragedy of Othello or Hamlet does for a Shakespeare fan-boy.
I learned about love and loss, obsession and forgiveness, revenge and redemption, and irony -- yes, that most sweetest and neglected of tricks a writer can pull from his bag -- from comics, TV, and paperback novels; the gutters of pulp fiction.
And to my mind -- that makes it culture.
D.K. Latta, editor
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D.K. Latta, editor
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