guilty pleasures

A few months ago, I saw Malcolm Gladwell give a talk at the Hammer and he was very polished, funny, engaging. Here he reviews a book that proposes how pop culture is actually making us smarter. From Gladwell’s review:

“As [Steven] Johnson points out, television is very different now from what it was thirty years ago. It’s harder. A typical episode of “Starsky and Hutch,” in the nineteen-seventies, followed an essentially linear path: two characters, engaged in a single story line, moving toward a decisive conclusion. To watch an episode of “Dallas” today is to be stunned by its glacial pace—by the arduous attempts to establish social relationships, by the excruciating simplicity of the plotline, by how obvious it was. A single episode of “The Sopranos,” by contrast, might follow five narrative threads, involving a dozen characters who weave in and out of the plot. Modern television also requires the viewer to do a lot of what Johnson calls “filling in,” as in a “Seinfeld” episode that subtly parodies the Kennedy assassination conspiracists, or a typical “Simpsons” episode, which may contain numerous allusions to politics or cinema or pop culture.”

Which reminds me of something George Lucas said when he was on CHARLIE ROSE. STAR WARS has spawned so many cliches, so many familiar and iconic images, that it’s difficult for someone of my generation to imagine just how strange and cutting-edge the movie actually was when it landed in theatres in 1977, amid films like SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, KING KONG and ANNIE HALL. One of the things that set it apart, Lucas said, was that the movie cut between different storylines, had several different streams going on at once. Executives were troubled by this. The audience, they warned, would get confused. They would despair. They would run shrieking from the theatres. The audience, of course, proved itself much smarter and more with-it than the execs, and now, as Gladwell points out Johnson pointing out above, that sophistication of narrative has become the norm.

The older I get the more I can’t help suspecting that there’s a smart, snarky class of people who maintain their jollies — and their treasured sense of superiority — by believing the masses to be much dumber than they actually are, at least where entertainment is concerned. Could it be that the reason pop culture is so afloat in crap — always has been, always will be — is not so much that The People demand crap but because crap itself is just so much easier to make, requires so much less intelligence and work and thought and talent? It’s not that the masses are stupid — again, at least not where entertainment is concerned — but that our appetite for story is just so deep, so ravenous, so unending, that we’ll eat the entertainment-equivalent of bugs and leaves when we have to, when there’s nothing else around. We’ll choke down a stupid remake in the absence of a SEVEN or a SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Which, sadly, happens to be most of the time.

Of course, intelligent snark can be an excellent form of entertainment in itself.


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