Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I'm Not a Part of Your System: or, A Hipster's Lament

I was sitting in the hospital the other day (for reasons there are irrelevant to this post), scrolling through Facebook on my iPhone (oh, shiny new iPhone - you amaze me. No, seriously, think about it - how far are we from having all those gadgets from Star Trek at our disposal? Not far, guys and gals. Not far at all). Anyway, I'm scrolling through Facebook and I see this status from my acquaintance who is upset that fencers don't use real swords (his comment is in the bottom, marked by the blue redacted mark. All other comments are from his Facebook friends):

Girl saves world with genius skills. Gets a "meh" reaction because not happy enough. Nice.
You know, sometimes I love Facebook. I'm just chilling out, and this perfect, perfect conversation comes my way to totally highlight a point.

So I haven't seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, either the Swedish or American version (I know, I know, shun me; it's on my to-do list; that and watch Doctor Who, Sherlock, Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and start watching Supernatural (because when I tried watching it after having my wisdom teeth removed, it made no sense.) When I set goals, I set fucking impossible ones. I will see the rest of Season 2 of Sherlock on PBS in May; THAT at least will happen). But the point I want to emphasize doesn't really rest on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. No, I'm not focusing on the film but these Facebook users' reactions.

My acquaintance brings up a very common idea in American (and Western, probably) culture - the idea of movies merely for entertainment. Which, of course, because I'm a culture studying hipster, I disagree with.
It's not that I don't enjoy movies; trust me, I do. It's just that there's a lot more to it than that. As Jason Mittell says, in reference to TV: "clearly we cannot dismiss television's meaning as simply escapism, as there is always some resonance with real issues even in the most escapist show" (pg 270, Television and American Culture.) Sure, we might see TV and movies as just a way to stop thinking about the real world for a while, a way to relax. But there's always more at work than just that.

And while the commenter given the red redacted box might think that movies should make one feel good about themselves, I find this kind of... well, selfish. As if film-making was less of an art form and just about continuing the "trad sublime" (thank you, Kodwo Eshun, for coining this term) that cares only about the aesthetics and wants no discourse surrounding the art. Whether or not we want to accept that there's more to a film that meets the eye, it's there. And unfortunately for us cultural scholars, it's not always something happy.

Let me introduce you to a man named Theodor Adorno. He's quite popular in the cultural studies realm and he's a really fascinating writer. Except that he makes me rather sad inside with his (and Max Horkheimer's) critique of culture. Here's how it goes: capitalism sucks (this is assumed; we can argue this later later over a pot of Earl Grey; there's plenty of room for argument. And I have a shit-ton of Earl Grey tea). It has created the "culture industry" to make us, the consumers, "an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery." It "misuses its concern for the masses in order to duplicate, reinforce and strengthen their mentality, which it presumes is given and unchangeable" (232, Art, Culture and Society). Basically, it makes us a cog in the machine and dupes us with awesome things so we don't care about the problems around us. It may seem to care about our welfare, but it really couldn't care less. Because it hates us. And whenever we start to notice it hates us, "the more dehumanized its methods of operation and content, the more diligently and successfully the culture industry propagates supposedly great personalities and operates with heart-throbs" (233). Adorno is notorious for saying things people don't want to hear.

I want to disagree, I want to say Adorno is 100% wrong. But I know he has a point. And I see things like this:

Which brings me to another issue - the fact that modern life very often does suck. And so turning to television, to movies, to other forms of media to escape the fact that there is a lot of sadness in our lives is common (much, much more to say about this, but in the following post. This idea alone could be a dissertation). And yet, we know that it's not always right. The Tumblr user above calls Glee a shit show but it was the best part of their day. Sometimes escapism is easier than admitting that Adorno and Horkheimer have some points. Because that makes us feel too alone.
However, I happen to disagree that the entirety of the culture industry is this way. Maybe it's because I'm young and naive and I refuse to accept the truth in this. Maybe it's because I don't want to believe that everything I know and allegedly love in the culture I have grown up around is working against me. Maybe it's because I truly believe that movies and television and other medias don't all work the same. Shows like Mad Men and Doctor Who and movies like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (at least from the little I know of it) seem intent on making a critique of the world around us. While they are a part of the culture industry, it seems they are not turning us into "objects of calculation." At least, I hope not. They are entertaining, but there's more than just that.

It's for these reasons I'm so set on arguing with people who say that movies and shows and such are just "entertainment" or should just "make us happy." In some ways, it's like agreeing that shows do nothing but diminish us, make us ignore the problems around it - and admitting we want that. In another way, it's like stating that the real, complex work going on in the themes of movies and shows is not important because it's "just a movie" or "just a TV show." As if that makes it less serious and less real. But I'm with Jason Mittell on this: "we need to be careful when condemning a practice that we might not fully understand" (373). Word.

So it's not in a movie (at least, maybe, a "good" movie)'s primary interest in making us happy. But perhaps because it wants to reveals something more about our world. But we long for happy movies - because so, so many of us are desperately unhappy. Unfortunately, that's another story. Until the next post.

This has come to my attention, and I would like to assure the world that Martin Freeman is not Winnie the Pooh. Because Martin Freeman is not made of stuffing and does not live off of honey.

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