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 a comment on last week’s Monday “tell us about your weekend” AVQ&A, commentor Skip, In Outer Space discussed a weekend of watching Akira Kurosawa films, and wrapped with this thought: “Toshirô Mifune is the coolest, and I’m worried about learning more about him and Kurosawa, because I don’t wanna find out if they had a falling out because one of them was a huge jackass.” That started the staff talking—in the Information Age, we’re all expected to have watched and read and listened to everything, and to all be familiar with the same Internet touchstones. But sometimes, you just don’t want a particular thing in your head, whether it’s the latest lousy sequel to a film you liked, or the exact details of why someone left a show, or got arrested, or whatever. Have you had experiences with expressly avoiding a piece of pop-culture, or a piece of pop-culture history or knowledge, because you just didn’t want to know?
I pretty frequently skip out on the gossipy celebrity news of the moment because it’s embarrassing for all concerned, whether it’s the upskirt getting-out-of-limosine pics and nip-slip photos or whatever Gawker or The New York Post are slobbering over today. I just generally don’t enjoy watching famous people make mistakes, mis-speak, or act awkwardly, probably because I don’t put them on pedestals in the first place, so I don’t get some kind of savage, smug joy whether they fall off them. To that end, it occurred to me the other day that I’ve still never seen Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch, or listened to the Mel Gibson rant tapes. Both were required cultural experiences a few years back, but I just didn’t want in on either gape-fest. I’ll stick to celebrities being gross and humiliating (or humiliated) when it’s scripted, deliberate, and funny, thanks. Also, sometimes Genevieve sends me horrifying links via IM that I know better than to open. Actresseswithoutteeth.tumblr.com, for instance. JUST NO.
I love David Lynch, but I love Richard Pryor more, and I’ve never fully forgiven Lynch for the way he used the deteriorating, wheelchair-bound Pryor in Lost Highway; he seemed less interested in him working with as an actor and collaborator than exploiting him as a piece of found-object weirdness. Maybe because of that, I’ve never had the balls to sample Pryor’s last attempts to translate his experience into stand-up comedy, some of which are included in the complete retrospective of his Warner Bros. recordings that came out in 2000. When Pryor was in his prime, he was able to spin the most horrible personal suffering into comedy gold, and his act was all the more electrifying because he didn’t seem fully in control of what he was doing. At the very least, these recordings are of considerable historical value, and in theory, I’m glad they exist. But if, as I suspect, Pryor was unable to make multiple sclerosis funny, because that was beyond the abilities of a genius who was literally no longer in control of his own body, I’d just as soon not know about it.
I would never consider myself an obsessive Bob Dylan fan, but I have a healthy knowledge of the man’s career, from his early freewheelin’ folk days to his current gig as America’s favorite frog-voiced creeper. I stuck with Dylan through his ’80s dry spell, choked down his batshit Christmas album, and even gave his infamous middle-finger-disguised-as-double-album, Self Portrait, more love than it probably deserved. But the one Dylan phase I’ve avoided is his much-derided “born-again” kick. Beginning (roughly) with 1979’s Slow Train Coming, reaching its zenith with 1980’s Saved, and more or less ending with 1981’s Shot Of Love, this bizarre run of albums found the estimable Mr. Zimmerman extolling the virtues of his newfound Christianity—and receiving some of the worst reviews of his career. So why avoid this period while still hanging in there for uninspired dreck like Down In The Groove? It’s not that I have anything against born-again Christianity—or even religious pop music in general—it’s just that the thought of the once whip-smart, acerbic Dylan spouting second-hand Bible lessons over some lousy early-’80s production is too much to bear. Better to stick with his vaguely funny—and strangely secular—takes on “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark The Herald Angels Sing.”
Normally, I’m fascinated by artistic missteps taken by musicians, especially those that happen early in their careers, when the stakes are lower and the musician in question has yet to cultivate an image to protect. But I’ve never been able to bring myself to listen to Attila. The short-lived drums-and-keys duo released just one album, and that self-titled artifact from 1970 is all that’s left of the group. That is, besides keyboardist Billy Joel, who has gone on to do a few things since then. Joel has always expressed how embarrassed he is of the album, which flopped with critics and the record-buying public alike. Apparently it was a sort of psychedelic metal project, which makes me think it just has to sound like Silver Apples meets Uriah Heep or something. Of course, there’s no way it can really be that good. It’s probably better that I walk around for the rest of my life with my weird, idealized notion of Attila intact.
Several of my favorite girlfriends have read Fifty Shades Of Grey and enjoyed it, so I don’t want to be a dick about this, but it’s a bit of a point of pride for me that I’ve never even been tempted to check out the book. Part of it is that I am strangely stubborn when it comes to checking out popular books. For some reason, I think, “If everyone likes it, it can’t be that good.” Which is stupid, because I resisted Gone Girl for that very reason for a while and ended up really enjoying it. I’ve also just heard that the book is not very good, aside from the erotica. (And some people say even that’s not so hot.) It’s not like I’m reading dirty literature all day and all night, but I know where to get it if I do—I mean, it’s featured in every issue of Bust magazine, so why would I fight my way through a stinky book just for some smut when I have it delivered to me, not to mention access to the Internet? And finally, back to me being a dick, there’s just a stereotype in the “mom reading Fifty Shades Of Grey” thing that I don’t want to let myself fall into. You could find me at the salon getting my toes painted while reading People or Us or O magazine while watching Sex And The City, but not that book. Because clearly, I have standards.
I try to be adventurous in my pop-culture intake, but Charlie Sheen updates are as close I see myself coming to extreme horror. I’ve nibbled around the edges, looking for my next adrenaline rush. I treasure the camera-flash strobe sequence in the first Saw. Nobody gets my heart racing like Rob Zombie. I even tried to make sense of Eli Roth’s ugly Americans in the first two Hostel movies, the second sanitized for my protection on Syfy. But I have trouble seeing the upside to sustained visceral revulsion, not dread or fright but revulsion, from hopeless thumbscrews like Martyrs to over-the-top gross-outs like The Human Centipede. Even as I write this, I keep finding reasons to narrow my embargo. “Wolf Creek sounds fun, actually. I could maybe handle High Tension.” But there’s a line for me, and A Serbian Film is well on the other side.
Anyone who knows me is going to immediately list a whole set of cult favorites that I somehow have never gotten around to seeing or enjoying—Doctor Who, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, The Simpsons, Lost. I have no doubt that at some point I will watch at least the important episodes of all of those shows, because at the end of the day, I am a total bandwagoner, highly susceptible to pop-culture peer pressure. The only time I put up my pop-culture boundaries are for shows that have jumped the shark and/or broken my heart. Then it doesn’t matter what everyone else says—if anything, their dedication just adds fuel to my stubbornness. The best example here is Battlestar Galactica. I refuse to watch anything past the end of season two—I watched maybe the first two episodes of season three, and I was so confused by what I saw happening to my beloved characters that I just stopped. In my mind, Battlestar Galactica is frozen in time after “Scar,” back when I can recognize all the characters and tell myself they might be happy someday on Earth. Final Five? Magical mandala thingy? Kara Thrace is an angel? La la la, I can’t hear you. I just don’t care at all, and I don’t even want to know more. Leave me and my beautiful show alone!
I’m willing to give almost everything at least a try. Hell, I read much of Twilight at the behest of a dear friend who had it in her bathroom and laughed as she told me, “You have to read it! It’s so bad!” But I draw the line at any reality show that exploits colorful rural folk as high-larious bumpkins. Technically, I suppose, I should be getting into Duck Dynasty and Honey Boo Boo, because they’re drawing big ratings, and part of my job is to be involved in the cultural zeitgeist. And at least in the case of the latter, I’ve been told by critics I respect that there’s more there going on underneath the surface. But as with all docu-soaps (Real Housewives, etc.), these shows have seemed to me, from my extremely limited exposure, to mostly just be about putting people up on a pedestal so an audience can laugh at them. Any time a show treats real people with a “Haw haw! Maw! Look at the freaks!” attitude, it makes my skin crawl, and I have to abandon ship. I will leave these shows to my colleagues and hope for better from the genre in the future. For now, there’s enough good scripted TV and enough good reality shows that don’t seem based entirely on mocking rubes for me to have more than a full week. I mean, have you seen Chopped?
Like Todd, I’ve purposely given myself some pop-culture blind spots because I just don’t want to expose myself to certain reality shows, confident that I’d likely be disgusted the minute I start watching, anyway. Take Jersey Shore and all its offshoots. Do I know who Snooki is? Yes. I met The Situation at the TCA press tour, and he reminded me of all the lunkheads who used to drive their Camaros down to Atlantic City in the summer and gamble away all of their money, their roommates’ money, and the money their parents gave them for the phone bill. Being from New Jersey, I’m just too familiar with the types of people who go down the shore every year—most of whom, like the JS cast, aren’t from New Jersey—to want to see them get drunk and hook up on a regular basis. So I’ve only seen isolated snippets of the show when I happened to walk into the room when my wife was watching, or if Joel McHale was making fun of it on The Soup. As for Snooki & JWOWW, I somehow managed to watch the first episode of the first season, and decided that show would never use any of my mental bandwidth again, either.
In the preface to our 2009 book, Inventory (available new for less than $5 on Amazon!) I mentioned in my bio that I’m “generally uninterested in entertainment that involves any of the following: 1) space civilizations, 2) gladiators, 3) wizards and shit.” The last one speaks to my willful ignorance of Harry Potter. The biggest literary phenomenon of the past 20 years, and one of the biggest movie franchises of all time, affected me no more than some short-lived fad like the Macarena. I had no desire to read the books, and I only saw the first movie (on video). I can’t explain my distaste beyond saying nothing about it really interests me, even when the film and books were ubiquitous. The magic, the complicated Potter universe, Harry’s identity crisis, the moppets/adolescents waving magic wands… my eyes glaze over just typing that. It’s the epitome of wizards and shit, and it’s like kryptonite for my attention span.
I enjoy watching things I know will be enjoyable but not good. It keeps me coming back to True Blood and Dexter every season. But I have zero interest in anything Twilight related. I like vampires. I’m cool with werewolves. I don’t mind adventure series aimed at kids—hell, I even watched the first Chronicles Of Narnia movie. But Twilight crosses some kind of weird line for me, and I don’t understand why, exactly. I assume all of those movies are bad (I’d never consider reading the books), but lots of things are bad, and I still watch them. But I have only a passing knowledge of what they’re about, really, and zero interest in the actors. Perhaps I’ll dive in when I’m 60, and I’ve already watched everything else that’s ever been released.
The older I get, the less I am able to stomach. If something seems unbearable, I am more than ever likely to write it off completely. So while the film-critic part of me thinks I should see Irréversible because it’s an important film and masterfully done and borderline-essential, the rest of me doesn’t know if I’d be able to stomach its intensely graphic sexual violence. So I fear I will likely go to my grave having never seen that film or its incredibly long, graphic rape scene.
I will never watch Downton Abbey. Pretty much everyone I know raves about it, to the point where I’ve sat through multiple discussions over various plot points, not knowing what was going on. And I’m sure I’d at least enjoy parts of it. But it’s come to the point that I’ve ossified in my opinion: I’m never going to love a show about a British manor in the early 20th century, and I have no interest in trying it out. I’ve admittedly been kind of a dick about it, too: I refused to watch it with my girlfriend, and made her Netflix it on her computer while I played videogames on our TV. I’ve reached a gleeful level of recalcitrance toward what most likely is a perfectly decent show, but it’s more fun at this point to categorically reject Downton Abbey than watch an episode, shrug, and never see another minute of it.
Look, an institutional bias is forming: Not to keep ragging on reality TV, a medium like any other, with its peaks and valleys. It just so happens that the reality valley is very, very deep—and everyone down there seems to be yelling. I’m personally hesitant to get into any reality show where the main form of communication is a shout, be it the Real Housewives franchise, Dance Moms, or the Gordon Ramsay empire. It’s not that I want to avoid confrontation or shows that portray conflict—in my limited experience with these screechy reality shows, the conflicts are so false and petty that the volume of onscreen speech drowns out any hope for schadenfreude. Give me people working toward a common goal, whose tempers flare over the inability to finish a Project Runway design or a Top Chef course. When something’s actually on the line, then the yelling feels justified.
My love of videogames is only trumped by my lack of skill in playing them. That’s okay, though: For the most part, I can set the skill level so I get through most games and enjoy the experience nonetheless. But while I have a vast array of genres in my collection, there’s one I simply can’t penetrate: real-time strategy games. Last year, there was an incredible buzz around the release of Starcraft II. But I couldn’t even muster a semblance of a care. Watching how people played, the attention to detail needed to play, and the sheer speed at which the top players controlled their armies simply overwhelmed me to the point where I saw no possible way to ever engage with it. That’s held true for other games in the genre, which seem to be so much work that there’s little room for actual play.
Two answers leap to mind, and they kind of tie into each other, in that they’re both experimental efforts from artists whose work I ordinarily enjoy. The first has been on my radar ever since I read Lester Bangs’ Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung, and I’ve toyed with listening to it just so I can say I have, but every time I come close, I realize I just don’t want to hear Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. I know it has its fans, but it has far more detractors, and I can’t imagine what I’d possibly get out of the experience beyond the ability to say, “Yes, it really is excruciating as you’ve heard.” People whose word I trust have told me it’s terrible. That’s just going to have to do. Same goes for the infamous Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I’ve seen the cover. I can’t unsee it. That’s more than enough for me, thanks. (By the way, I would’ve thrown Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions into the mix as well, but as the father of a 7-year-old, I’m actually a big fan of “Two Minutes Silence.”)
Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow is one of my favorite films. I’d put it right up there with Brick as one of the best independent films of the last decade or so. And though I’m tremendously glad that it launched him to a successful directing career—and that it got Korean-American actor Sung Kang a lot more work—I’ve never seen another one of Lin’s movies all the way through. I have absolutely no interest in seeing any of his entries in the Fast And Furious series—car porn is exceedingly boring—and Annapolis looked dreadful as well. There’s a great director in there still—just look his work on Community’s first-season standout episode “Modern Warfare” for proof—and I hope someday he lays off the schlocky action films and returns to something more befitting the legacy of his breakout film.