Log in

No account? Create an account


You Think You’re So Smart: Culture At Bay

So, there’s this:

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with the argument that big dumb summer blockbusters should be held to different critical standards than art films.  The thing is, though, the video short-circuits that argument, calling you a snobby effete hipster jackoff with a funny haircut for daring to equivocate that different types of art forms cannot be judged by the same set of critical rules. Check out the sniveling New York faggot-type who cringes that ballets, operas and Michael Bay movies aren’t really the same thing: I hope someone shoves THAT guy into a garbage can, right?

As to the meat of the matter, one could also argue whether or not Michael Bay works artfully within his own chosen framework — personally, I think his movies tend to fail even as big dumb blockbusters because he crams so much into to the field of vision that they come across as overstuffed and incoherent. (And you can certainly carry that argument over into other art forms — it’s a common criticism of Wagner, for example, or power metal.) I didn’t object to Green Lantern (to make this about someone other than Michael Bay) because it was a big loud CGI-stuffed superhero movie; I loved a lot about of the Iron Man, Spider-Man and X-Men franchises. I objected to it because it looked like a tiresome, boring, bloody mess.

But what really bugs me about it is something that’s been pointed out by plenty of other sharp cultural observers:  the allegedly anti-’snob’ pseudo-populism that acts like it’s scoring some valuable critical point by making fun of straw-man ‘hipsters’ who only like indie movies, or who refuse on perhaps shaky general principles to go see explosion-packed CGI action blockbusters. As has been noted time and time again, these people have already lost. They are a small minority, the movies they like rarely make any money, and nobody really cares what they think. They have almost no say in what anyone does, says or believes about the culture, and are largely talking only to themselves.

The kind of people who love blockbuster movies, conversely, have totally and completely won. The movies they like dominate the box office to a ridiculous degree. The studios put the majority of their talent and resources into making the movies they want to see. (I live in a city of two million people, and I have not been to see an art film in a theater here in four years, because they simply do not play here.) They get the movies they want with the actors they want by the directors they want, and they make so much money that they’ll get the sequels they want until they stop wanting them. The only thing they don’t get is the respect of ‘snobs’, so they’ve now made it their job to make those people out to be phonies and weaklings and cringing fools.

It’s a bullying cultural attitude. It’s a triumphalist mainstream movement grabbing for the throats of a tiny minority of dissenters just because they can. It’s like finding the nerdy kids in high school who get beaten up for liking role-playing games, and then beating them up some more for not liking sports. It reminds me of some of the uglier aspects of contemporary politics (and some of the more obnoxious on-line practitioners remind me of the folks who espouse some belief or another not because they really believe in the ideology, but simply to ‘piss off the liberals’). I know most of the movies and TV shows and music that I like are never going to be very popular; isn’t that enough? The Michael Bays of this world have already won; I accept that the filmmaking approach of him and people like him has become culturally, stylistically, and economically dominant. Do I have to like it, too? Isn’t it enough to have 90% of the public on your side, without having to belittle the 10% who would rather watch something else? It reminds me of these people who use accusations of snobbery against those who dislike Britney Spears or Garth Brooks or Billy Joel. Isn’t the massive success and cultural dominance of these musicians enough? Can’t they be happy that their flavor of shit has been shoveled all over the landscape — do they have to make everybody eat it with a smile?

To me, that’s the real snobbery, a sort of cultural eliminationalism. I don’t care if some two-bit self-absorbed artsy schmuck doesn’t want to watch Transformers; Transformers is going to do just fine without him. But when the people who support Transformers are not only seeing the movie make enough money to buy God a new summer home, take up every inch of landscape on the cultural horizon, and guarantee permanent employment to the people who made it, but also making sure that anyone who dares speak against it is mocked, derided or fired…well, that’s a lot uglier and more insecure than the guy who only watches foreign films, right?

It may not seem that way in Brooklyn, and people whose cultural perspective is formed by a steady diet of Pitchfork and the AV Club may have a skewed perspective of the cultural clout of the hipster/snob minority.  Out here in the heartland, though, reality couldn’t be more obvious. Like I said, art films simply don’t play here, despite this being one of the biggest cities in the one of the biggest states in America. Most good bands don’t play here, either; I’d like to attribute that to the fact that San Antonio is close to both Austin and Houston, but that’s not entirely it. Philadelphia is close to both New York and Boston, but bands don’t skip it; they know they’ll find an audience there, and they know they won’t here. Every day, I get to see the dominance of the mainstream culture in a way I never did when I lived in Chicago.

It’s easy to see that if you look at the world through a specific lens, it can seem like certain cultural tendencies are far bigger than they really are. (I myself have often been annoyed with critics who talk about indie bands with marginal sales numbers as if they’re far more culturally relevant than metal bands and hip-hop acts who outsell them by orders of magnitude.) But that’s an illusion. Michael Bay’s movies are far, far, far more successful than any movie made by a hipster darling like Bela Tarr or Apichatpong Weerasethakul will ever be. And you can make a pretty convincing argument that every dollar that goes to funding a Michael Bay movie is a dollar that doesn’t go to someone attempting a more thoughtful, ‘artsier’ film. There’s more of a leveling of taste in music today because the industry is in the toilet, and the gap between quality and popularity is surprisingly narrow in video games, but in most every other artistic medium — film and television especially, but also stand-up comedy, visual art, and even in relatively weak sectors like literature and theater — the difference between the popular mainstream stuff and the edgier indie stuff is vast.

And that’s fine — the market will out, and all that; I can’t change the general public’s taste, nor would I want to. Which is why I find it so infuriating that they want to change mine. I’m fine with knowing that TV shows I like are forever going to be on the cancellation bubble, while Two and a Half Men will run until its leads are skeletal. I just don’t want to have to be told to like it.



Jun. 28th, 2011 04:52 am (UTC)
I think a big part of the problem is that fans of mainstream stuff feel like hipsters etc. Think they (mainstream fans) are stupid. (Let's face it, often they're not wrong.) And they don't like that. So it becomes a personal thing. So they start framing it as a fight. And then we get into the thing you point out, where you have like ten hipsters with slingshots and spitballs somehow getting engaged in a cultural war with a mainstream army equipped with bombs and guns and all of the special effects stuff from Armageddon starring Ben Affleck. (Okay, you put it less stupidly than that, but the point stands.)

I suppose that the problem of some people taking it personally that others have different tastes than them will always be around, but the common perception of the snotty superior hipster pours a lot of fuel on this particular fire, and it turns ugly.
Jun. 28th, 2011 12:51 pm (UTC)
Many, if not most, people are never comfortable with their own preferences unless they're reassured they're "correct" to like what they like. Pretty much any time you see a majority viewpoint picking on a minority one, it is at least in part because those in the majority worry that they may be WRONG to like what they like. If their tastes/religion/politics/etc. aren't shared by 100% of the world, there's always the chance that the people who disagree are right. Only when everyone loves Michael Bay movies, goes this unspoken reasoning, is it safe to relax and enjoy them without worrying that it's somehow wrong to like Baysplosions.

Of course, there's a smaller number of people who don't feel secure in their preferences unless they're in the minority, who will abandon things they like if they ever become popular (I got a lot of good used CDs in grad school thanks to that attitude). And this group makes for an excellent straw man for the insecure majority. After all, while 100% support is best, 99% is okay as long as you can convince yourself that the other 1% is all comprised of contrarian hipster jerks.

I like to think that I don't need as much validation as that, and like what I like whether or not it's popular...but I still feel a little thrill when something I like gets a positive shout-out in the mass media. No one is immune.
Jun. 28th, 2011 01:48 pm (UTC)
Interesting. This ties in both with the recent Matt Taibbi bit about Michelle Bachmann ("When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don't learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you're a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they're even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies.") and that Lincoln quote about how the Southerners didn't just want to be left alone to practice slavery, they demanded that everyone else enthusiastically endorse slavery.
Jun. 28th, 2011 10:38 pm (UTC)
There's nothing surprising about the defensive anger of the mainstream's fans. Powerful mobs are always made up mostly of individual weaklings. Their sense of their own weakness is why they've joined the mob.

Also not surprising is Megan Fox's comparison of Michael Bay to Hitler. Her cultural memory probably doesn't go as far back as Napoleon.

And also unsurprising, when you think about it, is Spielberg's overreaction to Fox's use of an intellectually lazy analogy. After all, if Bay is like Hitler, then his enablers, including Spielberg, are implicitly like Joseph Goebbels. Given Spielberg's penchant for peddling manipulative, sentimental slop, that implied comparison probably strikes a bit too close to home for his comfort.


flavored with age
Gun-totin', Chronic-smokin' Hearse Initiator
Ludic Log


Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

Latest Month

December 2016
Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow