Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Culture Eats Itself

Leslie and I work mostly on different schedules. There are many days when the only time we are together is spent watching evening television. Our viewing options are limited because we don't subscribe to cable and, of course, because so much television programming is awful crap. She always has a few favorites which I eventually learn to like.  And I enjoy the Fox animation shows.

A couple months ago we saw two cop shows, just a few days apart, with identical plots. One was NCIS (which has an interesting ensemble cast) and the other was Castle (you never heard of it and it hasn't been canceled yet.)

Here's the plot: two separate crimes are being investigated.  The prime suspects with motive have alibis while evidence points to other suspects with no connection to the victims.  Eventually someone figures out that these apparently unrelated suspects secretly know one another because they commute every morning on the same train.

Both shows had a scene when they begin to figure it out.  "It's just like that old Hitchcock movie where two strangers meet on a train and agree to commit each other's murder.  What's it called?"  "Strangers on a Train?"

Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 movie Strangers on a Train.  The title itself tells quite a bit about the plot right upfront and, unlike the television shows, the movie goes on to explore the psychology and relationship of the conspirators - well beyond their merely getting caught.

What NCIS and Castle have done is crib a plot idea idea from a 60-year old film as a way to tie two unrelated shooting schedules into one supposedly coherent hour-long show. 

At the end the bad guys go to jail because advertisers have paid the television networks to hire production companies to create the minimum amount of entertainment necessary to make you and me feel good enough to watch their commercials and consider buying their products.  The writers earned their paychecks by stealing a little bit of cultural history. Capitalism has been served.

But why did they need to mention Hitchcock?  The shows would be just as good (or bad) if they'd omitted the reference.

Or would they?

Does raiding the common cultural legacy change the legacy itself?  Do quotes from earlier creations change our relationship to those very artworks? I think that when a two-bit police procedural cribs from a great film of the twentieth century, it is the film which take the hit.  No one has done Hitchcock any favors.  Some of his film's status has been taken away.  It becomes fertilizer for the more modern media.

One particular television show has become famous for cribbing from popular culture.  It stands head and shoulders above all the others in making references to movies, music, politics, religion, other television shows, even entire countries.  It's a huge success and I love it.  The Simpsons.

Here's a fascinating website that details some of The Simpson's many movie references.   (It's in Spanish.) After porn, more space on the Internet is devoted to explaining pop cultural references in The Simpsons than any other subject.  Or so it seems.  Try this search.

Sometimes I wonder "Are there any original ideas anywhere in The Simpsons?"  Maybe everything in every episode is just stuff from other places and I don't get all of it.  If I don't know what's going on I generally assume they're honoring some campy horror film or some unlistenable pop group - or both.

I figure there must be at least one person somewhere who knows what they're spoofing.  Could anyone get every reference?  And if someone did, would that person be able to hold a normal conversation?

Suppose The Simpsons wanted to do a parody of a movie which you had never seen or even heard of (like, in my case, this one).   If you learned about this after watching the animated episode would you want to go watch the original?  For me the answer is "Absolutely not".  I think that's a pretty common response.   After viewing an out-of-context comedy version, experiencing the original, in-context serious version would be kind of a downer where you giggle in inappropriate places.

I'm guessing that the references are not put there by the producers for people who have no clue.  The references are for the people who immediately get it.  These people, including myself sometimes, are rewarded with a little positive emotional response.  "I'm so smart." we think. "I feel good because I'm in on the joke." And because we feel good we're more likely to watch the commercials and consider buying the products.  Capitalism is served again.

In this funny 20th anniversary retrospective of the Simpsons Matt Groening talked about his original intentions for the show:
So my goal from the very beginning was to invade pop culture.  That was my goal as an underground cartoonist, [to] see how far I could carry this.
He carried it pretty damn far.  Matt Groening has done more than invade.  The Simpsons has conquered pop culture.  If only the US invasion of Iraq could have been half as successful.  Many of their little borrowings will, in the future, become better known by more people via the Simpsons than directly through the original esoteric thing, whatever it was.

It may be the show's central facet but the device of pop culture reference is by no means unique to The Simpsons.  The idea of using other peoples earlier work - in smaller or greater chunks, largely recognizable but altered to a new context, often without attribution - is all around us these days.  It started with hip-hop music.  It has been made ubiquitous by the rise of cheap technology, over enthusiastic fans and a voracious media where a hundred cable channels seem puny in comparison to the entire Internet.    

The result?  We, as a culture, have found a new dominant paradigm for our time.  It the dawning of the Age of Cultural Peculation.  (What's Peculation?  Another definition.)

Our entertainment industry rips off small bits of existing cultural flesh and consumes it without chewing too well.  It then creates newer, more generic, less unique, less satisfying cultural product to use as it sees fit.  It feeds us this stew, hoping a few chunks of old, good stuff will blind us to the thin, watery broth which is the principal ingredient.

If they can keep us happy consuming this crap, Capitalism will be served. But the more they do it the more our Culture will suffer irreparable harm. The more we let them do it, the more we deserve no better.

Other Mixed Meters Simpsons references:
Placido Domingo: High Culture Meets Pop Culture
The Simpsons and Samuel Barber
The Real Simpsons

Here's a list of other pop culture references to Strangers on a Train.

Nathan Fillion, star of Castle, also starred in the wonderful, short-lived science fiction show Firefly.

Here's the source of the Van Gogh portrait of Goundskeeper Willie.  The other pictures were found here and there on Flickr.  Generate your own Simpsons title screen here.

Here's a recent NY Times article, Texts Without Context, by Michiko Kakutani which deals with some of these issues on a much higher and more literary intellectual level. Here's the last sentence:
we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.
Here are some words I managed to avoid using anywhere in this post.  (You're welcome.)

Peculation Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


John Steinmetz said...

Culture has been eating itself for a long time (at the end of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" the Don's dinner music quotes from popular tunes of the day, including one of Mozart's own from "The Marriage of Figaro"), but I think you're right that current mass media culture relies more and more on these kinds of references. Isn't Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game" about this?--a culture in which artistic creation is all about making references to other artistic creations.

Bill McKibben's book "The Age of Missing Information" reports on his watching of one day's worth of television--he recorded everything from all the cable channels during a 24-hour period, and then watched it all. One of his comments was that on TV the world seemed limited to what had been recorded on film and video. Things that happened before film had very little presence on TV, and (if I remember right) he also said that a lot of TV was involved with hashing over the recent past--the past that had been recorded.

To contrast with this TV experience, he spent 24 hours in nature, on a hillside behind his house. Very little happened--he pointed out the slowness and the relative lack of dramatic happenings (very different from nature shows on TV). I'm reminded how many artists have said that nature renewed, nourished, and inspired them.

Maybe culture has always eaten itself, but if that's all it eats, indigestion may result.

Diogenes 23 said...

The film Director John Huston once remarked how he didn't understand why people remake good movies worse when there are so many bad movies that could have been made better.
All in all from the depths of the capitalist imagination comes,
"the sequel".
we see it in the visual art world and yes in the musical one too. Once success strikes there seems to be no where for the artist to go