You Think You’re So Smart: Culture At Bay

So, there’s this:

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with the argument that big dumb summer blockbusters should be held to different critical standards than art films.  The thing is, though, the video short-circuits that argument, calling you a snobby effete hipster jackoff with a funny haircut for daring to equivocate that different types of art forms cannot be judged by the same set of critical rules. Check out the sniveling New York faggot-type who cringes that ballets, operas and Michael Bay movies aren’t really the same thing: I hope someone shoves THAT guy into a garbage can, right?

As to the meat of the matter, one could also argue whether or not Michael Bay works artfully within his own chosen framework — personally, I think his movies tend to fail even as big dumb blockbusters because he crams so much into to the field of vision that they come across as overstuffed and incoherent. (And you can certainly carry that argument over into other art forms — it’s a common criticism of Wagner, for example, or power metal.) I didn’t object to Green Lantern (to make this about someone other than Michael Bay) because it was a big loud CGI-stuffed superhero movie; I loved a lot about of the Iron Man, Spider-Man and X-Men franchises. I objected to it because it looked like a tiresome, boring, bloody mess.

But what really bugs me about it is something that’s been pointed out by plenty of other sharp cultural observers:  the allegedly anti-‘snob’ pseudo-populism that acts like it’s scoring some valuable critical point by making fun of straw-man ‘hipsters’ who only like indie movies, or who refuse on perhaps shaky general principles to go see explosion-packed CGI action blockbusters. As has been noted time and time again, these people have already lost. They are a small minority, the movies they like rarely make any money, and nobody really cares what they think. They have almost no say in what anyone does, says or believes about the culture, and are largely talking only to themselves.

The kind of people who love blockbuster movies, conversely, have totally and completely won. The movies they like dominate the box office to a ridiculous degree. The studios put the majority of their talent and resources into making the movies they want to see. (I live in a city of two million people, and I have not been to see an art film in a theater here in four years, because they simply do not play here.) They get the movies they want with the actors they want by the directors they want, and they make so much money that they’ll get the sequels they want until they stop wanting them. The only thing they don’t get is the respect of ‘snobs’, so they’ve now made it their job to make those people out to be phonies and weaklings and cringing fools.

It’s a bullying cultural attitude. It’s a triumphalist mainstream movement grabbing for the throats of a tiny minority of dissenters just because they can. It’s like finding the nerdy kids in high school who get beaten up for liking role-playing games, and then beating them up some more for not liking sports. It reminds me of some of the uglier aspects of contemporary politics (and some of the more obnoxious on-line practitioners remind me of the folks who espouse some belief or another not because they really believe in the ideology, but simply to ‘piss off the liberals’). I know most of the movies and TV shows and music that I like are never going to be very popular; isn’t that enough? The Michael Bays of this world have already won; I accept that the filmmaking approach of him and people like him has become culturally, stylistically, and economically dominant. Do I have to like it, too? Isn’t it enough to have 90% of the public on your side, without having to belittle the 10% who would rather watch something else? It reminds me of these people who use accusations of snobbery against those who dislike Britney Spears or Garth Brooks or Billy Joel. Isn’t the massive success and cultural dominance of these musicians enough? Can’t they be happy that their flavor of shit has been shoveled all over the landscape — do they have to make everybody eat it with a smile?

To me, that’s the real snobbery, a sort of cultural eliminationalism. I don’t care if some two-bit self-absorbed artsy schmuck doesn’t want to watch Transformers; Transformers is going to do just fine without him. But when the people who support Transformers are not only seeing the movie make enough money to buy God a new summer home, take up every inch of landscape on the cultural horizon, and guarantee permanent employment to the people who made it, but also making sure that anyone who dares speak against it is mocked, derided or fired…well, that’s a lot uglier and more insecure than the guy who only watches foreign films, right?

It may not seem that way in Brooklyn, and people whose cultural perspective is formed by a steady diet of Pitchfork and the AV Club may have a skewed perspective of the cultural clout of the hipster/snob minority.  Out here in the heartland, though, reality couldn’t be more obvious. Like I said, art films simply don’t play here, despite this being one of the biggest cities in the one of the biggest states in America. Most good bands don’t play here, either; I’d like to attribute that to the fact that San Antonio is close to both Austin and Houston, but that’s not entirely it. Philadelphia is close to both New York and Boston, but bands don’t skip it; they know they’ll find an audience there, and they know they won’t here. Every day, I get to see the dominance of the mainstream culture in a way I never did when I lived in Chicago.

It’s easy to see that if you look at the world through a specific lens, it can seem like certain cultural tendencies are far bigger than they really are. (I myself have often been annoyed with critics who talk about indie bands with marginal sales numbers as if they’re far more culturally relevant than metal bands and hip-hop acts who outsell them by orders of magnitude.) But that’s an illusion. Michael Bay’s movies are far, far, far more successful than any movie made by a hipster darling like Bela Tarr or Apichatpong Weerasethakul will ever be. And you can make a pretty convincing argument that every dollar that goes to funding a Michael Bay movie is a dollar that doesn’t go to someone attempting a more thoughtful, ‘artsier’ film. There’s more of a leveling of taste in music today because the industry is in the toilet, and the gap between quality and popularity is surprisingly narrow in video games, but in most every other artistic medium — film and television especially, but also stand-up comedy, visual art, and even in relatively weak sectors like literature and theater — the difference between the popular mainstream stuff and the edgier indie stuff is vast.

And that’s fine — the market will out, and all that; I can’t change the general public’s taste, nor would I want to. Which is why I find it so infuriating that they want to change mine. I’m fine with knowing that TV shows I like are forever going to be on the cancellation bubble, while Two and a Half Men will run until its leads are skeletal. I just don’t want to have to be told to like it.

4 SHOTS LICKED so far.

  1. Nullstellensatz
    06/28/2011 at 10:08 AM

    Your internet rant reminds me of an internet rant I made a while back on my blog. My rant was a bit more focused on the ‘populist’ label being attached to art that was designed by rich people for the purpose of becoming more rich, while art made by poorer people because they enjoy making it gets derided as ‘elitist’.


  2. ChardSwissnym
    06/28/2011 at 11:39 AM

    Hahaha. “Billy Joel.”

  3. heydave
    07/03/2011 at 8:26 AM

    I bet you’re not looking for attaboys, but attaboy!

  4. GregMc
    07/03/2011 at 1:24 PM

    I seriously doubt that 99% of Transformer fans who want to assimilate you ever think about it in these terms, but fascism always has a strong element of “winning isn’t enough: only the utter destruction of the enemy is.” As long as there is a person out there who proudly deviates in any way, then the battle is not over. In fact, it hits me as I type this that medieval Christianity was, from time to time, fairly serious about eliminating even the slightest whiff of wrongthink, and I’m suppose there are even older examples.


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