Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the spirit of Roger Ebert’s I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, how about a conversation about pop culture that pisses you off? Not just terrible or inessential items, but movies, songs, or TV genres that literally make you angry at them and the people who like them. Boondock Saints, for me, because of the smug facility of the message. I just hate that it exists and that some people revere it. —Keith Johnsen
I don’t think there’s anything in cinema that gets me more incensed than crappy American remakes of great foreign films. Particularly remakes that follow immediately on the heels of films that were popular because they were perfect: Let The Right One In is already fantastic, thanks, and I couldn’t be less interested in this year’s American redo. And The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is so perfectly cast, just the idea of Natalie Portman stepping into the lead role makes me grind my teeth. (Okay, Carey Mulligan, another much-ballyhooed possible, wouldn’t be too bad.) The big issue for me is how often these remakes provide an embarrassing perspective on the flaws in American culture, or at least how stupid Hollywood thinks we all are: More often than not, American remakes of foreign films are dumbed-down and tarted up, with worse acting, less complexity, added comedy, and more frantic pacing. And it particularly doesn’t help when the main reason behind them seems to be “People don’t like subtitles, and do like seeing the same few stars in absolutely everything.” Really, I’ve just never gotten over the formative experience of watching La Femme Nikita remade three years later as Point Of No Return, which watered down the action, put the terrible Bridget Fonda in the lead role, removed or undermined everything interesting about her character, and turned her from the sexy, capable assassin-chick of the original movie into a weak, weepy whiner, dependent on Gabriel Byrne to get her out of messes. Fuck up your own stories, America, and leave the good ones from other countries alone, okay?
I don’t like to write off any whole particular genre or style, but a specific example is Austin Powers In Goldmember. I vividly remember watching it in the theater with our own Nathan Rabin, cringing at gross-out jokes about eating skin and a neck that looks like a vagina, but moreover wanting to turn around and scream “What’s wrong with you people?!” at everyone behind us who seemed to love it. Something about people eating right out of Mike Myers’ greedily extended, expectant hand just filled me with rage, I guess because a part of me hoped that the audience would see Myers’ laziness and revolt. But no, he went for the lowest common denominator, and the audience was right there eagerly waiting for him. The movie and my experience watching it just temporarily diminished my faith in humanity.
I used to joke to Keith that I wanted to die in the line of duty. Here’s how I envisioned my death: I’d be in my early 50s, watching, I dunno, the third sequel to the Shrek reboot, and I’d be so filled with bile that I’d have a fatal, rage-induced heart attack right there in the theater. I’m pleased to say I’ve mellowed with age, but I still grow apoplectic when confronted with spoofs in the Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer vein. Watching Epic Movie in a packed theater, I had a similar response to Claire (and myself) watching Goldmember: I wanted to turn around and ask the people guffawing, “Who are you? How is this funny? Why are you accepting this? Don’t you understand that film—even stupid, ridiculous comedies—can be so much more, yet really cannot be much less?” The incredible contempt these movies have for an audience they assume has the attention span and intelligence of an amoeba is absolutely staggering and depressing, as is the fact that the dastardly duo scored a couple of big hits before audiences wised up. Other films that have thrown me into a murderous rage with their awfulness: Father Of The Bride 2, Meet The Fockers, Monster-In-Law, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
Josh and Kyle routinely tease me for my love of so-called “girly music,” which translates roughly to “pop music sung by chicks.” Despite the glibness of that designation, for the most part, I embrace it. While it certainly isn’t all I like, I do have an affinity and even respect for well-crafted pop artifice; I don’t require my music to be “authentic” (whatever that means), as long as it’s entertaining. It’s often a tough position to defend, particularly around these parts, which is why the success of Ke$ha infuriates me so—she makes it so much harder to defend a corner of the music industry that already has, in most people’s opinion, little to no redeeming value. I don’t have an inherent problem with a calculated image or highly produced sound, both of which Ke$ha has… but Jesus, couldn’t she at least do it with a little flair? Setting aside her teeth-gnashing “singing” and laughable, Valley-Girl-inflected “rapping,” my problem with Ke$ha really boils down to how uncomfortable she seems in the image she’s created for herself, or that’s been created for her. Her bad-girl posturing and lame attempts at arty spectacle are so uncomfortable to watch—see her recent SNL performance—that it saps all the fun out of music whose only criterion for success is “Be fun.” Whatever your position on Lady Gaga, whose theatrics are no less calculated, you have to admit that she at least commits to her shtick and sells the shit out of it; with Ke$ha, every string that’s being pulled is totally visible.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so agitated at a movie as I was during the Julie half of Julie & Julia. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a blog for a long time and have looked back in shame at things I’d said or expressed without thinking too hard about it beforehand; some part of me was watching that and wondering how close to the onscreen Julie Powell (and only onscreen; I haven’t read the book) I’d gotten, or risked getting. But you hardly need to be in those shoes to see what’s wrong with this movie every minute Amy Adams is onscreen. This isn’t Adams’ fault: Her role is so unappealing that there isn’t much anyone could do short of trying to smile her way out of it. Just so many wrong notes: She works at a call center for the families of 9/11 victims, but we’re supposed to feel sorry for her. Her husband spends the night in an office because her project is making her self-absorbed: Uh, you noticed now? It’s sad for Julie that Julia Child disliked her blog about Child’s book, but how can anyone else be surprised?
I feel like I’m a little long in the tooth to be getting mad at bad art: Anger is just one more way of taking up my time with junk that doesn’t deserve it. But I see a particularly vivid shade of red with regard to crap aimed at children, for which the entire Shrek franchise serves as a perfect example. Loaded with low-grade pop-culture references designed to flatter their audience’s pseudo-sophistication, they allow juveniles of all ages to congratulate themselves on feeling superior to fairy-tale ideals, as if honor, true love, and the rest were stuff even the dullest tot could see through. I hate the way the Shrek films flaunt their CGI sheen (and, in the latest installment, superfluous 3-D) without putting any thought into the best way to employ the technology. Just because you can render the texture of an ogre’s pores doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Worst of all is the bludgeoning use of pop songs, which effectively order impressionable audiences to enjoy themselves, even when the film doesn’t bother to deserve it. The Shrek movies may not be the most egregious instances of the lousy product churned out in the knowledge that, no matter how bad the movie, a certain number of children will force their parents to see it. But their cynical calculation ires me no end.
I’d never call them “art,” but the wave of TV shows about girls that David Cross described as “rich, giggling cunts who have no respect for anyone and get away with anything” drive me bonkers. He was talking about The Simple Life, but it’s really a genre unto itself at this point, with the latest and perhaps greatest offender being Pretty Wild. Now why wouldn’t I just avert my ears and eyes when such a thing comes on TV? Mostly because my highly intelligent, forward-thinking wife—she has a Ph.D. from the University Of Chicago!—is just bananas for all of these shows. She loves them. But when she watches them—after taking up precious DVR space with them!—I actually have to leave the room, because they make me hate humanity and believe that we live in a reverse meritocracy.
I’m with Josh on this one, but I’d go even further. I can’t stand reality shows that follow semi-famous folks around either. Shows like The Hills and Jon & Kate Plus 8 are bad enough for the way they make people no one really cares about suddenly behave like they’re the most important, most talked-about people in the country. (Which then becomes the subject of episode after episode.) But the series that follow the likes of Paula Abdul or Denise Richards around are even more depressing. They promise insights into lifestyles of the rich and famous that they have no real intention of providing; instead, we get the boring everyday moments of fading stars, punctuated by self-serving interviews that try to make the mundane seem ridiculously dramatic. The only value of these shows is as fodder for The Soup—and maybe raw material for some future documentary about what the hell was wrong with this country at the beginning of the 21st century.
Steve Hyden IM’d me the other day asking if I’d ever heard “Crazy Bitch” by Buckcherry. “A thousand showers can’t wash it away from your soul,” he said. Oh, I was familiar all right. No other song incites the punk in me more—just hearing “Crazy Bitch” makes me want to don a black mask and hurl Molotov cocktails, because any state that allows such utterly worthless misogyny not only to exist but to thrive NEEDS TO BE SMASHED. When Buckcherry first broke through at the turn of the ’00s, I dismissed it as a harmless GN’R/Aerosmith knockoff. Then “Crazy Bitch” catalyzed the group’s comeback with its sub-Nuge cock-rockery: Against generic Sunset Strip sleaze-rock, perpetually shirtless frontman Josh Todd howls in the chorus, “You’re a crazy bitch, but you fuck so good, I’m on top of it.” Later, it’s ”Get the video, fuck you so good!” then “You’re crazy, but I like the way you FUCK ME!” A legion of misguided ladies then turned it into a girl-power anthem, making Buckcherry’s ample “Crazy Bitch” merchandise badges of honor for girls who like to paaaaaaaaaartayyyyyyy! Wooooooooooo! The video was as classy as you’d expect, with an R-rated version featuring a lot of topless women grinding on Todd and guitarist Keith Nelson. (Naturally, they were later sued by the mother of an underage girl who conned her way into the shoot.) “Is Buckcherry’s ‘Crazy Bitch’ the worst song ever, or simply the most abhorrent?” Steve asked later. My response: It has the onerous distinction of being both. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to detox with some Bikini Kill.
Since I’ve become so famous on The A.V. Club for hating Mark Millar that people assume bad reviews of his work are written by me even when they aren’t, I might as well address the thing he does that drives me so crazy. There isn’t really a name for it, but he’s at the forefront of a wave of writers who create witless, arbitrarily violent, “cinematic” action comics that cater to the lowest common denominator of readers and aim for no greater response than “Awesome!” Comics already have a (largely justified) reputation as cretinous fodder for arrested adolescents, but writers like Millar, Geoff Johns, Jeph Loeb, and Garth Ennis do the medium no further favors by continually writing brain-dead, utterly thoughtless stories whose only value is shock value, and whose only standard is the double standard. Their crimes are nearly innumerable: They’re badly written (the dialogue of any given character could easily be assigned to another with no loss of tone), they’re badly edited (what’s canon in one book is ignored in another), they’re lazily imagined (almost all of them use the incredibly uncreative trope of having the characters resemble real-life celebrities), they’re incoherent (they’re “realistic” when that means extreme gore, but unrealistic when that means plots that make sense or consistent characterization), they’re sexist (Ennis actually gets away with calling the only major female character in The Boys “The Female”), and they substitute cheap shocks (in the form of mutilations, rapes, and murders, especially of beloved characters) for thoughtful stories. I’ve got nothing against the darkening of comics, but these books are literally amoral—that is, they have neither a traditional moral stance, as in the great books of the past, or a philosophical inquiry of same, as in the best works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison. They’re just insipid, empty brutality and bombast.
One thing that makes me pig-biting mad is shoddy, hacky music biographies. It isn’t just the fact that so many books written about pop musicians suck—it’s that the greatest artists sometimes attract the worst writers. It’s a statistical thing, I suppose; for instance, someone of the stature of Elvis Costello is always going to create a demand for a fresh stream of book-like product. That void sadly gets filled year after year with subpar bios like Graeme Thomson’s recent Complicated Shadows: The Life And Music Of Elvis Costello. I’m not saying that particular book—or the hundreds like it, written about everyone from ABBA to ZZ Top, that get published—is entirely devoid of value. After all, there are always those nice glossy photo sections. But when your book has been out-researched, out-interviewed, and out-written by your average Q Magazine feature, it may be time to pack it in. Even worse? When the biographers don’t actually have direct contact with the subjects other than having seen them in concert a few times. Sans any fresh insight into an artist’s thoughts or character, these books are padded with quotes from old articles and previous bios; interviews with lackeys, former lovers, and disgruntled ex-bandmates; and worst of all, empty speculation dressed up as journalism. It’s easy to ignore these books, of course—unless you’re a music journalist yourself, in which case a) you have to scour them for fruitlessly for research from time to time, and b) your family always gives them to you as presents.
I am basically unaware of anything ’80s, even though I had my formative years then. When people talk about the grand mythologies behind Transformers, He-Man, or My Little Pony, I just have to stare at them blankly. I’ve never seen The Goonies, for God’s sake. I’m a walking, talking Better Late Than Never? about ’80s trash culture. So I’m not going to say I’m angry about the constant celebration of all things ’80s that the last five years have become at the multiplex and on basic-cable channels that can save money by producing weird nostalgic specials about how much we all loved that game SIMON. Mostly, they just confuse the hell out of me. But what does make me angry is the sense I get from these films that I’m supposed to like them just because they connect to my childhood. I watch, say, Transformers as some kind of outside observer who’s vaguely aware of what this is all about, but really doesn’t know who Optimus Prime is. And watching the movie makes me a little angry, just to see the way the movie treats something a lot of people evidently value from their childhoods as just another thing to turn into a giant, plastic piece of crap. Or maybe I’m angrier at the people who demand to see a Transformers movie in the first place? I don’t know. Like I said, I find this all very confusing. Who the hell is Sloth?
One thing that always makes me mad is when a film thinks it’s making a brilliantly insightful point but is actually way off the mark. I love Annie Hall, for instance, but the moment when Shelley Duvall quotes Bob Dylan lyrics and it’s supposed to be all the evidence we need to recognize the vapidity of rock music always makes me cringe. (See also: James Bond mocking The Beatles in Goldfinger.) Here’s another example: One scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise Of Love holds up for mockery some characters’ desire to see The Matrix translated into Breton. Had Godard actually seen The Matrix, he might have recognized it as a film sympathetic to some of his own concerns, big Hollywood blockbuster or not. (Maybe he only saw Reloaded.)
Look, we all know bad art is annoying. But when it comes to art that inspires full-bodied, tear-your-hair-out hatred, I reserve a special place in my spleen for disingenuous “documentaries” that intentionally set out to mislead people in order to score cheap political points. This isn’t merely bad art; this is art with the power to actually harm society by distorting reality, actively promoting falsehoods, and re-enforcing troublesome social and cultural divisions. You can probably just go ahead insert the title of your least favorite Michael Moore doc here, but as a bed-wetting liberal, I cut the preeminent left-wing propagandist of our time some slack, because I believe his causes—health-care reform, gun control, etc.—are righteous. At worst, Moore’s films might convince the audience to help the poor when they’re sick, or prevent 13-year-olds from procuring bazookas. I also kind of like stuff like Bill Maher’s Religulous, which was essentially a stand-up routine on religion with a clearly defined (albeit smug) point of view, with no pretenses of being impartial journalism. (I’d also argue that in a mainstream-media culture so biased in favor of believers, a little bit of atheist shit-talking in the mainstream is more than forgivable. But that’s for another AVQ&A.) I guess the only film I really have in mind here is the abhorrent “intelligent design” documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. I think a worthy, interesting film could be made about scientists trying to reconcile scientific theory with religious beliefs, but apparently director Nathan Frankowski and star Ben Stein didn’t agree, since they decided instead to make a bewildering attack on Darwinists that culminates with a trip to a Nazi death camp and a discussion about whether survival-of-the-fittest thinking caused the Holocaust. Don’t think so, guys, but your film did almost cause me to burn down the movie theater.
I spoke in a previous AVQ&A about my disdain for movie-trailer antics—the misleading intro, followed by the record-scratch sound, then hilarity! But what I hate even more are the movies those trailers are meant to promote, a.k.a. movies that are clearly the result of market research and very little ingenuity/creativity. What I mean is, movies where the pitch meeting went something like this: “[Celebrity] is hot right now, and so is [Other Celebrity]. And so is [insert activity, something obscure like parkour]. What if they were in a movie together doing that activity—it’s gotta have romance… and comedy… you know, like one of those ‘ance-dys.’” I’m talking about movies like When In Rome (which Kristen Bell promoted incessantly), every Amanda Seyfried film, and the movie the Jack Black character in Tropic Thunder made where he plays all the farting characters. I guess it frustrates me so much because in those cases, the commercialization and marginalization of this art form isn’t even hidden. They don’t even try. The other day I saw the trailer for The Kids Are All Right, that new film where Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are lesbians whose kids seek out their father, Mark Ruffalo, and bond with him. They bicker, but they also love. It’s a new breed of “modern family,” they’re calling it. Get it? Like the TV show? They sure did, and other than the pretty minor twist of the same-sex couple, the film has “unimaginative” written all over it. The motive that went into creating this Franken-movie is all right there on the surface. Infuriating.
A few months ago, I decided to start up a (now failed) Twitter meme in which I wrote “IDEA FOR FREE,” then something pretty random. One time I was on the train and there was this poster for a medical clinic, and one of the doctors looked a lot like Michael Cera in 30 years. So I wrote on Twitter, “IDEA FOR FREE: Michael Cera is my doctor. That’s it. That’s the idea.” Or something like that. Anyways, my Twitter links to Facebook, and one of my tens of friends wrote me an e-mail after seeing my post. She’s a friend-of-a-friend who lives out in L.A. now, and the e-mail read, “So I’ve been living in L.A. for almost four months now and writing a screenplay. But I really love your Michael Cera-as-doctor idea. Are you seriously considering turning this into a screenplay? If so, I would love to help write!!!” My first thought was, “Uh, what idea?” But then I realized, you know, in Hollywood, maybe that’s enough.
Long story short, I’m enjoying my mega-millions poolside as we speak. The pool is made of iPads.