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? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question is from frequent contributor Noah Cruickshank: If you were sent to the underworld, what’s the worst thing the devil could do to you, pop culture-wise? For me, it would be being stuck at a concert by one of my favorite artists, surrounded by people who won’t shut up. Enduring that for eternity would be more than I could stand.
Mine’s semi-similar to Noah’s but not entirely the same. If the devil really wanted to fuck with me, he’d make me spend eternity at a quiet concert or comedy show where other attendees insist on yelling stuff out. If I were at a Bon Iver show, for instance, I’d spend an eternity listening to groups of girls yelling “I LOVE YOU JUSTIN” just as the singer was about to launch into “Skinny Love.” If I were seeing my favorite comedian, the crowd would be full of “hilarious” audience members who think they have something to say about the jokes. If Beelzebub wanted to get to me even more, he’d make sure the person on stage always engaged—“What? I didn’t hear you up there in the balcony. Say it again?”—thus encouraging the madness. God have mercy on my soul.
Much like Marah and Noah, mine is also inspired by a concert experience, but it’s one that comes from the stage instead of the floor, and it’s when bands disrupt their shows with mindless banter. While it’s important to note I actually enjoy banter when it goes somewhere—or at the very least has some form of comedic timing—I can’t deal with the rote calls of “Get into it!” or “I can’t heeeeaaar you, [insert city name]!” A couple years back I saw a band consistently derail its moment by trying to keep a running commentary going about just how much they were totally rocking us. A point came where the singer said, and I shit you not, “Now we’re moving on to the sweet part of the set.” It took everything in my power not to yell out “You do not get to tell us how this show is going!” but instead I just listened to him ramble on and on about the power of “rock” before leaving the show disappointed, so much so that I can’t even listen to this band anymore. If the dark lord really has it in for me, he’ll find a way to trot out every artist I’ve ever liked and imbue them with the gesticulations of Paul Stanley from KISS, making me suffer in the present while retroactively ruining my past.
A never-ending playlist that only plays the first 10 or 15 seconds of any song before skipping to the next one. When Sony brought the first CD players to the market in the early ’80s, the corporation introduced a uniquely modern form of torture in the form of the “skip track” function. It’s a device of acute anxiety for anyone in close proximity to listeners who can never remember the track number for their favorite song, later exacerbated by the schizophrenic trigger finger of MP3 player shuffle technology. To hear a song start to gain a few measures of steam, only to be cut down by someone else’s fickle finger—it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. In fact, I would take an infinite loop of infinite nails on infinite chalkboards over an eternity with someone scanning through the first Weezer album in search of “Surf Wax America.” (It’s track six! It’s always been track six!)
I think mine would have to be getting to watch movies and TV shows with an audience full of people who think pointing out the most minor of nitpicks counts as criticism. The spread of the “Cinema Sins” style of YouTube criticism might seem innocuous to many, but underneath it all there’s this pernicious belief that criticism is applied not to the whole of a work but to its bits and pieces. These videos often seem to confuse “pointing out continuity errors and logical inconsistencies” with offering insightful thoughts on a work. Don’t get me wrong: A great, scathing review is one of the best pleasures in life. But these are not assembled via the anal-retentive means these videos apply. And while I liked Mystery Science Theater 3000 more than almost anything, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to watch a movie with someone shouting at it if they’re not a robot with a gumball-machine body.
Laura M. Browning
I binge-watched all of Scandal this past Christmas, and continued watching the third season when it picked up again in February. Like anything Shonda Rhimes does, I have a love/hate relationship with it: She’s so good at normalizing interracial relationships, gay relationships, having a female black lead—but it’s also really fucking soapy, and it feels more like a guilty pleasure than anything else I watch. But my personal pop-culture hell isn’t filled with hyped-up cliff-hangers or Emmy-baiting monologues or even asking viewers to believe that the top intel agency in the world can be completely shut down—even all the cell phones and office lights!—with a single keystroke. No, if I don’t start being a better person, I will rot in a very specific pop-culture hell of Scandal’s camera-shutter transitions that signal the change of scene throughout every episode. It’s like having a dozen establishing shots rammed into my brain at nanosecond intervals, with sound effects, multiple times per hour. Whatever my penance is, I will do it three times over to avoid this eternal hellscape.
Awards show banter. Oh God, save me from awards show banter. It is, nine times out of 10, two people who have no particular affection for each other, reciting lines so badly that you would never believe one of them won an Academy Award or an Emmy the year before. And that always gets run time, while actual heartfelt words, like the thank-yous, get dragged off unceremoniously after 30 seconds. In hell, we are stuck in a perpetual segue between applause or commercial break and “Here are the nominees…” a moment completely devoid of meaning, a moment that leeches my soul.
Hmm, what about having my nails slowly torn out for eternity by a fire-breathing devil? Oh, pop culture-related personal hell? How about a never-ending marathon of treacly, badly acted movies about the terminally ill? They won’t be so awful that I can laugh at them—that wouldn’t be hellish enough. They’ll be just good enough to make me slightly care about the characters, who will then bravely face whatever is ailing them, learn to love life and those around them, and expire. (Their loved ones will have a brief period of time in which they can’t handle being around the sick person, and shut them out.) I will cry in spite of myself, and not from the burning hellfire—from the feelings.
I’ve glimpsed the fire and brimstone of hell before, and it’s being with the person who insists arriving late to a movie is acceptable. “You’re just missing the previews, we’ll be fine,” they say. If I had to endure an eternity of sneaking into an already dark and quiet theater before finding an awful pair of seats just in time for the title card to flash on-screen, the level of anxiety gripping my body as I distractedly thought about everything I missed because of my sloth-like friend would be more than enough punishment for all the sins I’ve committed. One of the most relaxing activities available to me is going to the theater alone. That way I can sit in the front row, center seat, with my feet up, and most importantly be there on time for the previews and stay until the last credit rolls without being nagged by a movie-going pal. That is my heaven on earth, and I hope I never have to face its alternative.
I’m going to go with a variant of what I and my best friend (who is also 5 feet 1 inch tall) call the short chick’s dilemma: going to a live show for one of my favorite bands and being trapped behind someone who can only be described as a giant—a giant who has the unmitigated gall to then record the entire show with his (or her) smart-camera-phone-device-ruining-my-life thing. Live shows when done right are almost like some kind of mass hypnosis, with the performing act as a sorcerer practicing an odd necromancy I haven’t studied enough psychology to try to explain. So congratulations, random person with an overactive pituitary gland: You’ve actually managed to ruin magic. You’re also the reason I can’t carry around a blade anymore, a decision that was supposed to keep me out of hell in the first place.
Imagine, if you dare, a parade of washed-up rock stars practically falling over themselves to garishly pay tribute to each other’s success. Imagine that some of them aren’t actually washed-up, but the mere fact of being on the stage of this event taints them with the greenish sheen of encroaching obsolescence. Imagine an infinite number of tedious arguments about what rock music is or isn’t, and who’s been snubbed or not. Imagine my idea of pop-culture hell: being stuck watching Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies until the end of time.
If there’s a hell, this lifelong atheist and unrepentant shellfish eater is certainly going, and the devil will be waking me up at 5:30 every morning for laser eye surgery, a big breakfast of kale, and a fun afternoon of every girl I knew in college telling me she just doesn’t think of me that way. But to whip up a pop culture-specific hell, all Old Scratch has to do is score me a ticket to an eternity-long Dave Matthews Band concert. The winning combination of Matthews and his audience manages to bring together two of the worst things in America—bro culture and easy listening music. A lake of fire will look like Club Med after the 50th run-through of “Crash Into Me.”
Remember the end of the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last,” when inveterate reader Burgess Meredith, whose nagging wife wouldn’t let him read, ended up alone in the rubble of a post-apocalyptic society, with all the books in the world, busted eyeglasses, and bad eyes? Imagine that, plus eternal life, and that’s pretty much the definition of hell for me.
The worst thing about my personal hell is that it’s inevitable—a world without video stores. Sure, since I still work in a video store (when not working here), that may seem self-serving. But the point is, I’ve worked in video stores my entire adult life because video stores are the places where people like me feel at home. Leaving the house, walking the aisles, fingering dusty, obscure cases (once VHS, now DVD), and actually making movie choices deliberately, thoughtfully—even lovingly. Talking to like-minded cinephiles who love nothing more than sharing the love of movies. When all of recorded entertainment is a (buffering, glitchy) click away, movies and TV shows become disposable, just one more ephemeral, disregarded rectangle on electronic devices, fighting for attention with celebrity sex videos and mindless click bait. Windswept, garbage-strewn empty storefronts whose lovingly curated collections of Criterion and Something Weird Video DVDs exist only in the dank basements of pale, scrabbling collectors whose devotion to film as art and plentiful extra features mark them as outcast mole people. The whole of cinematic history in the hands of media conglomerates deciding what is worthwhile and what is to be discarded. That’s hell.
Going back to the old chestnut that hell is other people—and yes, I realize I’m not using this in the sense that Sartre meant it—I can’t imagine a much worse fate than spending eternity watching a TV show or movie with someone who is constantly asking me to explain what’s going on. This only represents a tiny fraction of my real-world experiences, but I’ve occasionally encountered people who just aren’t comfortable waiting for a story to reveal itself on its own terms, and constant requests for clarification and explanation—even when part of the point is that viewers aren’t supposed to know what’s going on just yet—can get pretty darn wearing. If the devil has a sick sense of humor, and I’m going to go ahead and assume he does, I’m guessing he’d ensure that my eternally befuddled viewing companion would always ask me to explain something mere seconds before the movie or show answered his question, just to make any help I gave that extra last bit of pointless.
A few years ago, I watched The Office (U.K. version) for an A.V. Club assignment. I pitched the assignment myself, partly because I thought it would lead to a good article, and partly because I knew that the only way I’d ever see the whole series was if I was required by work to watch it. I am not big on cringe comedy, and while I survived (and enjoyed) the show, there were several scenes where I caught myself starting to reach for the remote without realizing I was doing it, as though in my agony, muscle memory took over in a desperate attempt to save me from the awkwardness. So I’d have to say my hell would be watching an extremely embarrassing scene that never ends. I picture myself strapped down in a chair, eyelids forced open à la the Ludovico Technique, as Ricky Gervais stumbles through a celebrity impersonation contest dressed like Austin Powers. It may not sound that bad, but to me, it’s the stuff of nightmares, and I’ve never, ever gotten used to it.
Becca’s personal hell caused me to think of mine: a movie theater that’s showing the perfect popcorn movie but is filled with parents who’ve brought infants. Look, I’ve got a kid, so I’ve been that parent who desperately wants a respite from parenthood to see that super awesome new movie that’ll help me escape from any and all troubles for the duration of its run time, but with the quick turnaround time between theater and home video and the absurd number of streaming options that are available once a film reaches that point, it infuriates me when a couple can’t just accept that not having a babysitter means that you don’t get to go to a movie. And don’t tell me that your son or daughter never cries, or that they always sleep when they’re in the dark, because that almost makes it worse: You’re convinced they’ll stop crying at any second, so you won’t get up and leave the theater, because God forbid you miss a single minute of the movie. Basically, as soon as I hear the sound of a baby, happy or otherwise, I’m instantly in waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop mode… and, oh my God, do I hate that.