One magic pop-culture wish
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 email@example.com.
Here’s a question courtesy of our own Genevieve Koski:
You’ve discovered a genie, but he has some limitations: He can only grant one wish, and it must be within the pop-cultural sphere. You can change any one thing about popular culture, no matter how big or small, from “I wish Artist X was the bestselling musician on the planet” to “I wish musical formats stopped evolving at vinyl” to “I wish all media was free somehow.” Show your work: Why do you want this, and what effect do you think it’ll have?
I’m going to go big and use my wish for a socialist experiment: I’d like every executive in Hollywood to take a sabbatical—let’s say two years—and let “creatives” take over the industry. It’s such a common refrain among directors, screenwriters, and actors: “The studio screwed the movie up. It insisted on casting or editing changes the director didn’t want, it marketed the film wrong, it buried the release,” etc. Yes, I’m sure this would mostly result in chaos, particularly with regards to funding. (Let’s say, for the sake of this scenario, funding for films is somehow merit-based and committee-allotted.) But it would certainly be interesting to see what filmmakers did working within a system run by their creative peers rather than box-office-obsessed business types. I’m not saying the studio system should be completely overthrown and all Hollywood executives run out of town—hence the two-year limitation—but I like to think this experiment would prove there’s room for change in the way studios handle their movies, and hopefully help evolve Hollywood toward a system that values artistic vision and the bottom line in equal measure. Or it could be a massive, expensive failure; either way, we’d get a couple of really interesting movie years out of the deal.
Maybe for this one, it’s fortunate that GK’s genie is limited to the pop-culture sphere: I’d ask him to eliminate the public’s apparent desire for familiarity in art. No more endless sequels, remakes, adaptations, revivals, and re-imaginings. No more turning a TV show into a movie into a Broadway show and then back into a TV show. No more authors grinding out the 18th book in a bestselling series largely so readers can relive the last 17. No more über-formulaic rom-coms where every beat is spelled out before the leads even meet; ditto no more by-the-numbers slasher movies, where the only real question is exactly how 95 percent of the boring cast is gonna die. No more people bragging that they’ve seen a given movie or read a specific book upward of a hundred times. And no more trailers that show every important moment of the movie five months before it hits theaters. In its place, I’d like to see restless innovation and creativity rewarded, with people crowding to watch/read/hear/buy things based on their uniqueness, idiosyncrasy, and specificity. Granted, we’d also see a huge rise in creativity in marketing, with people attempting to bait a novelty-hungry market via deception, by making those same old rom-coms look like they’re actually about, say, banana-farmer fights over exotic-dog breeding during the Punic Wars. But at least we’d be rewarding creativity instead of attempting to squash it into a series of familiar pigeonholes.
Genevieve’s answer was so noble, it got me thinking about a utopian pop-culture world as well. Mine would be that I’d like women, people of color, and LGBT folks to have as much influence and power over movies as white males currently do. This answer applies to pop culture in general, but I’ll hone in on film. I may be freshly influenced by the Golden Globes, where Bridesmaids was mostly referenced for its poop jokes, and not its writing or performances. But honestly, this answer is as much for my own desire for less-shitty movies as it is for any high-minded or feminist wishes to promote the underdogs. While it would be wonderful if we all saw each others’ movies, if there weren’t “girl movies” and “black movies” that were separate and unequal to most everything else that gets put out, just think of all the crap we wouldn’t have to endure if that were the case. Ideally, the unnecessary sequels and unasked-for remakings of TV shows and board games and toys and so on would become irrelevant, because there’d be demand and room for good stuff from and for everyone, as opposed to good stuff plus a lot of garbage from and for one broad demographic.
This one’s easy: I would change the way media conglomerates and lawyers interpret and apply “fair use.” I’m all for making sure artists get paid fairly for the songs/pictures/what-have-you they produce, but it’s ridiculous that some old movies and TV series get consigned to limbo (or butchered) because the people who hold the rights to the show can’t use 30 seconds of “Tiny Dancer” without paying exorbitant fees, or because there’s some copyrighted artwork hanging on the wall in one scene. These companies either need to figure out some kind of reasonable flat rate they can charge for rights, or the independents need to be more aggressive about challenging what’s allowable. Let the courts take up the argument: What distinguishes a song used in a movie from a song played on the radio (which does involve a flat-rate system for compensating artists)? Why are some art forms precluded from reflecting the world in which they take place without paying handsomely for the privilege?
So much nobility! And here I was going to just wish for a Veronica Mars movie or something. So how about this instead?: A yearlong program designed to break filmgoers of knee-jerk stylistic and formatting prejudices. When I heard about the theater that posted a warning about The Tree Of Life being “philosophical” and not “traditional,” it struck me how much audiences have gotten used to not being challenged. I don’t know how we get there—maybe forced reeducation camps?—but by year’s end, we’ll have gotten everyone accustomed to films with non-linear storytelling, plots that don’t follow a three-act structure, black-and-white photography, silent films, subtitles, and running times that stretch past the two-hour mark. And everyone will be much happier. Or at least I will.
This kind of ties into Tasha and Keith’s answers, but I wish people would learn to appreciate honest-to-goodness middlebrow entertainment again. Somehow we’ve come to live in a pop-cultural landscape where Michael Bay’s Transformers 3 and Christopher Nolan’s Batman 3 (or Rise Of The Dark Knights, or whatever it’s called) are viewed as existing on opposite ends of a spectrum. But sometimes it feels like Nolan, and the Wachowskis, and all the other “brainy” blockbuster filmmakers, are the biggest charlatans of all—peddling ideologically overloaded, incoherent spectacles like they’re high art and propagating a virulent strain of enlightened philistinism. It gets exasperating. Meanwhile, the legitimately great genre spectacles of the past decade (Luc Besson’s Taken, Tony Scott’s Unstoppable, David Twohy’s A Perfect Getaway—all films which reward more repeat viewings than any cape ’n’ cowl summer tentpole) get consigned to the remainder bins. Where are the exhilarating, original genre pictures? Where are the Prime Cuts and Charley Varricks and A Simple Plans? The closest we get are films like Drive or Machete, which are so caught up in their servile nostalgic boot-licking that they feel more aspirational than original. So I’d want my hypothetical genie to nudge pop culture just a little to the left, knock its on its back foot, and reorient how it views contemporary genre filmmaking. And I’d expect this theoretical genie would probably look a bit like Armond White. Or maybe Tim Olyphant.
One wish, Genevieve? C’mon. Everybody who’s seen Aladdin knows you get three, and you can’t wish for more wishes, and you can’t wish for somebody to fall in love with you, and you can’t wish for somebody to die. Adhering to those rules, I wish first that TV networks would show rejected pilots online or in the summer. They used to do this, and though it’s usually immediately obvious why a pilot was passed on, there are always a few gems the networks reject because they’d be too hard to market. I want to see them again! Second: I wish that awards shows would show us the voting totals because I’m a data nerd, and I’d love to know if, like, The Full Monty almost beat Titanic. Third, and in keeping with our data nerdery (and, okay, if I have to narrow it down to one wish, this is the one): TV networks need to give us more ratings data. There’s no area of entertainment statistics more due for a Bill James or Nate Silver-style overhaul than TV ratings. Even if the Nielsens aren’t the world’s greatest system, they’re a good starting point, and knowing more data than we already have would give us a better idea of what networks do and don’t value. Right now, we just have a pretty vague idea that they like 18- to 49-year-olds, so when shows get renewed or canceled, we have to wonder what, exactly, caused that decision. Granted, the networks are spectacularly unlikely to ever do this, but it’s time to change the way we think about ratings from the simplistic TV By The Numbers Cancellation Bear thing to something more nuanced. But to do that, we need more data. And a genie, apparently.
I’ll preface this by saying that this isn’t meant as a response to Todd, even if I am thinking about some of the same themes. I’m just coming at it from a different angle. Anyway, I wish we could move past the obsession with reducing culture to numbers. Everything has to have a goddamn score out of a hundred, or marks out of 10, or a letter grade, or a star rating, all of which gets fed into the digestive systems of Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes and the like, which turn already insipid, pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo into something even more meaningless. Then critics and fans pore over the color-coded entrails of these beasts, like modern-day witch doctors, as if we’ll divine some deeper truth by staring at them long enough. I’ve said this before, but as far as I can tell, it remains true: The more people are talking about scores, the less they’re talking about ideas. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love math. I’m very much into sabermetrics, Moneyball, and the like, but I’m troubled to see how often the lesson that’s often taken away from Moneyball is “we need more statistics!” Moneyball isn’t so much about numbers as it is about truth—it says that a hard-fought struggle for truth can find success against the overwhelming inertia of conventional wisdom. The revolution in baseball thinking was ignited by a renewed focus on a meaningful, true core calculus: Whoever scores more runs wins. There’s no such core calculus for art. As a result, no matter how many data points and regression analyses we might employ in our efforts to quantify the artistic qualities of a thing, it’s all built around a rather hollow center. So as much as I understand the fun of toting up box-office profits, Nielsens, Q-ratings, Metacritic ratings, and what have you, I think we give them more gravity in our pop-cultural cosmos than they deserve—we treat them as a fundamental reality, when they’re mostly fluff. The allure of assigning tidy numbers to complex concepts is pernicious. Culture isn’t a war of numbers; it’s a dialogue of ideas, and my wish is to see a heartier focus on that core truth.
This is the most challenging Q&A I’ve had to answer thus far, but when I think about what I, as a fan and consumer of pop-culture, really want, it would be better horror films. I loved American Horror Story because of how much ghoulish fun it had resurrecting and re-staging classic genre touchstones (Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, Demon Seed, The Haunting, Freaks, et. al.) to express a very real sadness for the past 30-plus years of actual American tragedy (from Columbine to homophobic hate crimes). It was personal but not internal, cheeky and perverse without simply being novel or soulless. It’s not perfect, but what am I to turn to? More choppy, slapdash remakes of second-tier teen-slasher flicks from the ’80s? Continued Western reductions of Japanese style that rarely translated well? Eli Roth continuing to puff out his chest and parade around as Sam Raimi for dummies? Substance-free stylists like James Wan who have no sense of what’s really scary? More movies about exorcisms that exist in some cynical but lucrative universe where viral campaigns and low budgets are contrived means to ends by insidious studios? Blah, boo, hiss. Give me Clive Barker or John Carpenter or Joe Dante, or Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper when they had nothing to lose. Just give me storytellers with vision and balls, humor and hubris. Alternatively, give me my money back.
Maybe this won’t surprise the most heartless of cynics, but I find that when it comes to my two favorite pop-culture arenas—comedy and videogames—there are lots and lots of people eager to dismiss the entire medium simply because they had one bad experience, or they don’t like one particular popular comic/game style. In the case of comedy, people don’t want to come see shows with me because they think all stand-ups are crude, all sketch shows are outrageously hacky, and all improv shows are masturbatory. Or maybe they just hate Dane Cook. Whatever the reason, I’m surprised how many people shut down when I mention live comedy to them. Comedy is getting more nuanced by the day, with perspectives and voices as diverse as there are people to watch. It’d be nuts to dismiss all music and film because you don’t like Beyoncé or think Transformers 3 is Hollywood bullshit. Same goes for videogames, which for some reason is a medium that, when mentioned, still elicits the kind of shock and pity that I experienced from grades 3-12 when someone found a Super Nintendo cartridge in my backpack (because they rifled through it without my permission—and oh yeah, the guy who found it was the guy who sold me his copy of Secret Of Evermore mere minutes earlier, then had the gall to make fun of me for playing videogames, BUT I DIGRESS!). Seems there are lots of folks who believe that all videogames are violent and sucking the souls from our nation’s children, who would be winning world science fairs if it weren’t for just a few more minutes in the Lanayru Mines. I’m very grateful that the e-pages of The A.V. Club are filled with fine people who are keen to experience all of pop culture with as open a mind as possible. But my wish for the rest of the world, for the betterment of my beloved comedy and videogames, is please, people, don’t dismiss an entire artistic medium before experiencing a decent amount of it.
My pop-culture-genie wish is pretty far-reaching, and admittedly vague, but I wish I could make the American populace at large care more about art, arts funding, and culture you can learn from again. If we cared half as much about funding for the National Endowment For The Arts as we do about what happens on Real Housewives Of Wherever, we’d be a little better off. Look at it this way: If people diverted just a few dollars a year toward their local NPR station and waited for Paranormal Activity 5 to hit Netflix, there’d be less pledge drives to listen to. Everybody wins! That’s not to say there isn’t room for both low-brow and high-brow entertainment and pop culture. Everyone needs a little Married With Children now and then. But it feels like we’re inching more and more toward an Ow My Balls society.
I’m with Steve Heisler on this one, in that I find myself endlessly frustrated by people mouthing off on things they don’t really know anything about. Like he said, it’s inane to hate all videogames just because your brother was annoying when he played them, or all comedy because one Dane Cook joke really turned your stomach. My wish, though, goes in another direction, in that I would absolutely love it if everyone could just stop forcing themselves to have an opinion about everything. None of us know everything, or even close to everything. Don’t wax rhapsodic about your thoughts on jazz if you’ve only listened to Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue a couple of times, but think you heard it’s cool to dis Dave Brubeck. Hold off on posting those 65 tweets about Lana Del Rey’s one big single, because really, who cares? Take some time—like weeks and months, not minutes and hours—and think about her contributions to culture. Maybe by the time you come up with something profound to say, you won’t even have to care about her. Moreover, those thoughts won’t just be contributing to the haze of noise that exists around all of us now. I would love it if before people opened their mouths or their Twitter apps, they’d think about what they’re putting into the world and whether it really matters. Think of it this way: If you don’t want to read about someone’s lunch, why would anyone want to read your knee-jerk reaction to some Tyler, The Creator song you heard 14 seconds of?
My wish is pretty simple: I really wish someone would make a quality multi-camera television comedy again. It’s a format that is a challenge, and not many have been up for the challenge in recent years. In multi-camera, the laughs have to come faster and more emphatically than they can in single-camera comedies, mainly to keep the live audience entertained. It’s a more immediate format, and it’s led to shows like Whitney, Rob! and Work It, which seem to hit the funny lines—and the laugh track—hard at the expense of getting to know or care about the characters. What we’re left with are 2 Broke Girls-style caricatures that just aren’t sustainable if the show hopes to be on the air for years. When a show like Frasier or Everybody Loves Raymond comes along, the comedy seems so natural and effortless that it’s easy to forget the show is being done in front of an audience. Thanks to CBS, TV Land, and—surprisingly—Disney and Nick, the format is far from dead. But with more writers coming up who were “raised” on web shorts, Adult Swim, and single-camera shows like The Office, the legions who were students of the multi-camera form are starting to disappear.
Mine is equally simple: I wish Hollywood still knew how to make great romantic comedies. These days, most romantic comedies are irredeemably awful, and the most audiences can hope for is something that’s watchable in an only-on-an-airplane kind of way. I’m not sure what happened since When Harry Met Sally, but part of the problem is that Hollywood executives and producers are guilty of major group-think, casting bland but supposedly “relatable” actresses like Katherine Heigl in every tepid project that crosses their desks, when they should be looking for good old-fashioned sassy dames like Kathryn Hahn. Another problem is that back in the day, great writers and directors used to make these movies—Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, George Cukor. Maybe this connects to Claire’s point about the ghetto-ization of “chick flicks,” but wouldn’t it be better for everyone if top Hollywood talent would quit it with all the Oscar-baiting biopics (that’s the second of my genie wishes, by the way) and commit to making a really terrific romantic comedy? Just give it a try, guys. There’s no way it could be worse than J. Edgar.
Movie studios are in a hurry to get rid of film and switch to an all-digital future: news that Warner Bros. is now flat-out refusing to ship its prints to revival houses (instructing them instead to project a DVD or Blu-Ray—and, of course, pay the studio a royalty fee anyway) recently made the Twitter rounds, as did the odd discovery that out of hundreds of prints made less than two years ago for Never Let Me Go, only two remained, one of which was irreparably damaged. Where’d all that celluloid go? Meanwhile, a study released by the Motion Picture Academy last week warned that digital formats can go obsolete in years, meaning a movie could become inaccessible to its makers before it even finds distribution. Without film prints, we may well lose a great deal of film history by accident, the same way 90 percent of all silents are now lost. We’re reaching a tipping point, and it’s impossible to imagine a future in which digital projection isn’t the dominant format worldwide; still, I’d like to wish for studios to keep making, distributing and preserving 35mm prints of their films for as long as it takes digital formats to stabilize. Whenever that is.
I’ve actually got two wishes, but since this is all hypothetical, anyway (and since Todd set the precedent for more than one wish), I’ll offer them both up. First of all, I wish all TV studios would follow the lead of Warner Archive and start digging deeper into their archives to make more short-lived shows available as complete-series sets on demand. If there’s one benefit of doing deep research for Random Roles interviews, it’s that I’m constantly reminded of shows from my youth that I’ve almost forgotten, or in many cases, becoming aware of obscure shows I never knew existed. I want to live in a world where, if I were to suddenly wonder if the second season of Carter Country still holds up, I could go to Sony’s website and order a copy on DVD. My second wish is a little more general, but it has a direct tie to its predecessor, since it’d have to come to pass before the first wish ever would: I wish studios would chill the fuck out when it comes to the cost of music licensing for old TV shows. I’m not denying that songwriters and music publishers deserve a certain amount of financial due when their work has been used on the soundtrack to a series, but I also think it’s a travesty that huge chunks of TV history have been left trapped in studio vaults because it’s now cost-prohibitive for them to be released. Imagine what kind of lost treasures or time-honored classics (I’m looking at you, The Wonder Years) we’d be able to watch again if musical artists bonded with their TV brethren and said, “Y’know what? Just give me 20 bucks and a copy of the DVD set, and we’re good.” Instead, as it stands, we’re forced to endure the creative dismemberment of shows if we ever want to see them on DVD, which is what happened with WKRP In Cincinnati. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have come up with this wish if I wasn’t still pissed off that the studio wouldn’t pony up the dough to use the original song clips from the medley in “The Contest Nobody Could Win.” But I am. So there you go.
Here’s a simple wish I think much of the world can get behind: Figure out a way to make convenience profitable for everyone. That sounds vague, but here’s what I mean: Get the licensing straightened out so anyone can watch high-quality old concerts (and whatever else) on YouTube. Make just about any album I could want within my grasp legally and at a high quality. Get all the old TV shows currently without a DVD release out of studios’ vaults and online. We have the tools in place to make this work, and parts of it are working. But like Will notes with his bit about studio licensing, it’s all tangled up in a morass of rights, dependent on the medium, that takes a team of lawyers to decipher. Meanwhile, revenue is lost while people pirate work they would otherwise consider paying for. My genie would figure out a way to get it all out there and get people paid for it.
At the risk of being a pussy, I would love to see a higher level of civility, compassion, and understanding across the pop-culture spectrum. Thanks in no small part to the Internet and the rapacious 24-hour news cycle, we inhabit such an era of knee-jerk cynicism that it’s hard to express intense, unironic affection for anything without being derided as a fanboy or naïve chump. Sneering cynicism has become such a default posture in our culture that, as Marah noted, people often don’t even need to be familiar with a pop-culture phenomenon in order to dismiss or deride it. We live in the age of Everything Sucksism, where new stars are seemingly created (Lana Del Rey, cough, cough), just to be torn down. If we could all just be a little bit kinder and a little slower to judgment, I believe the pop-culture realm would be a much nicer, less toxic place.