Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pop Culture is Easy!

I was again thinking about Kurt Cobain and how sick to death I am of hearing people mock him for killing himself, complaining that they don’t understand “the whole tortured artist thing.” The problem with this is that Cobain was not a tortured artist. He was a tortured person for certain. He was a person who rose to fame and fortune thanks to the dollars of people who he despised. A possible conclusion to reach when one is unpopular is that popularity is evil. Deep down Cobain must have felt that if so many people liked him he must be doing something morally wrong. This is well enough documented in popular magazines and television documentaries. What goes unnoticed by those who call him a tortured artist, is that it was always his fame that tortured him. Cobain’s particular neurosis had nothing at all to do with his art. Van Gogh was a tortured artist. He painted in such a way and with such devotion to his vision that there was really no place for him on this planet. Van Gogh was compelled by an internal truth to change the way humanity looks at the world. Cobain just wanted to make music that made him happy.

Popular music is great not because it gives birth to new forms, but because its forms arise democratically. One does not need to be trained to write a song. On does not go to Conservatory to learn how to write a pop song. One does not need to know music theory to make music. One does not need to know how to read music to write songs! One gets a hold of a guitar or a piano, learns three chords, then hums a melody over the chord progression with maybe a few words about love or about Rock and Roll or about the government. Do this and you become a songwriter.

It is little wonder then, that appreciating good pop art is so much easier than appreciating fine art. I can break this down into two questions one needs to ask of popular art to decide if it is worthwhile.
1. How many hands are in on the creative process?
Every good band is either a group of people writing songs together or one person bringing in a song he or she has written and teaching it to the rest of the band, hammering out individual parts and so forth. Every good television show (and these you can count on one hand) is the same. The best shows are sketch performance and cartoons. Both tend to be made by writer/performers, in other words performers who do their own writing. Dr. Katz was basically three people. Home Movies was basically three people. Monty Python are six guys. Kids in the Hall are six guys. This is why the original SNL was the best. Most television, most movies, most mainstream music, by which I mean the garbage that litters the various awards shows, is all soulless and watered down. All of it is created by teams of writers and producers to be given to someone else to perform and direct. These works are more marketing campaign than art. They are not the expressions of individuals or small groups but huge corporate endeavors designed for focus groups and target demographics.
2. How well do the creators of the work know the rules of the game?
Bands like 3 Doors Down, Nickleback, Matchbox 20 and Creed are not formed by record companies like all that American Idol/Brittany Spears nonsense. They make their own name for themselves, but they do it by making music that is strategically mediocre. They care more about making it big than making music. Though I have said elsewhere than film is a Salon art and not a popular art, we can apply this rule to the co-called autonomous directors in Hollywood as well. It is true that Spielberg, Scorsese, the Coens and the like can make whatever they want, but only because what the want to make are blockbusters. They may be autonomous financially, but intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, they have nothing original to offer.

No Country for Men Who Think Violence Is neither Cool nor Funny

I wanted to write a pithy little review of No Country for Old Men in which I mad following argument:
I am Tommy Lee Jones, unable to understand the world in which I suddenly find myself living. The Coens are Anton, ruthlessly doing as they please as if guided by some higher morality that renders the rest of us expendable, sub-humans.
But I waited to long and now I don’t care anymore. I am growing tired of writing about movies that are about nothing and say nothing. A friend of mine thinks this movie is deep. Deep what? Can the Coens be deep without being cool? Can they be cool without being violent? Is violence cool? Is cool deep? These questions keep coming up as I continue to watch movies that are not worth my time. What gets me every time is that so many people who strike me as politically and socially savvy, manage to look at culture from a decidedly lower vantage point. The left wants to change the world but they think they can do that by keeping their entertainment dumb.
The problem is that they don’t think their entertainment is dumb. This is the paradox. In the larger picture the Hollywood responsible for all the movies beloved by so many left-leaning folks is a significant part of the machinery of domination. Anyone who does not think Hollywood is part of the cultural hegemony is not looking at it very closely. It is pretty basic Gramsci. Chomsky has explained it a million times through his numerous critiques of the media. Do the liberals not think he’s talking about their favorite Tarentino movie when he says that in a so-called democracy, as opposed to a totalitarian state, thought control takes the place of force? This is pretty easily demonstrable if one puts down the Spivak, Sedgwick and Dyer for five minutes, and picks up some Adorno, Benjamin and Marcuse.
But the question is also interesting psychologically as well. Don’t liberals abhor violence? Why then are so many of them interested almost exclusively in Scorsese, Coppola, Spike Lee, Cronenberg, the Coens, David Lynch, David Fincher, Quentin Tarentino? Are there no interesting filmmakers that make movies about things other than murder and violence? Is it murder and violence that makes a movie important? Is there no other serious subject matter? Is it because they would argue that all these movies are not so much celebrations of violence, but rather critiques of violence? My guess would be that they think ironic celebrations of violence function as artistic statements against violence. But they are fooling themselves. A History of Violence is a celebration of a violent person, a portrait of a badass. Just like Clint Eastwood, he’s the man who does not want to fight – above all else he does not want to fight! – but if you make him fight, so help you. How many times to we need to eat up that cliché? In No Country for Old Men, Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, The Godfather Trilogy and on and on, violence is cool and/or funny. Violence makes a character interesting. This betrays a rather limited imagination, yet it has been the fuel that has powered popular American cinema since the 1960’s. It only took Godard and Truffaut a few years to work this junk out of their systems with movies like Breathless, Alphaville, and Shoot the Piano Player. The Coens, Scorsese, Cronenberg et. al. never got over it.
I am thinking of this in relation to the Coens especially. Maybe I got old too fast, but I say for Black Comedy go back to Dr. Strangelove. Burn After Reading is ironic enough. I suppose one could describe it as dark, though that seems to me to be giving it rather too much credit. But comedy it is not. Is it hilarious when the boastful Harry shoots hapless Chad in the head, then freaks out bout it, because he’s never shot anyone before? Did you laugh and laugh when Osbourne Cox was hacking away at gym manager Ted in his shorts, slippers and bathrobe? Oh and it was extra clever because the scene was a reference to the scene in Fargo where Grimsrud burst out the front door wielding an axe after Carl, only this time you actually get to see the hatchet split open the prone victim’s head. Then the two CIA agents recount all the violence so matter-of-factly. People are dead everywhere and they couldn’t care less. Hilarious! What a goddamn hoot! Or is it biting social commentary that isn’t meant to be funny at all, but make me think?
I don’t know what these movies are about anymore. All they seem to do is remake their own movies. Burn After Reading is Fargo set in Washington DC. No Country for Old Men is more or less Blood Simple part two. It seems to me that they have just been spinning their wheels post Barton Fink. Not that that film was particularly earth shattering. There was hope in it though. It was clear that the Coens were very clever with respect to certain narrative conventions and that they where somewhat inventive in terms of visual style. One sees in Barton Fink and the films that preceded it the potential to make interesting films. Instead they got bogged down in their own cleverness. The way that they wittily re-write genre and break down generic conventions has become it own genre. Almost Every new movie is a Coen Film Noir that says nothing about anything. I would call it eye candy, but it is rather much more bitter than sweet. This makes their success all the more puzzling to me. In the absence of something to think about, there should at least be something to enjoy.