Thursday, August 1, 2013

Oh, for Goodness Sake, Grow Up. Grow Up! Grow Up!!

For the last few mornings, I have been gritting my teeth while my bus passes a billboard which advertises a film by the charming title Kick-Ass 2. As I am an avid cinema-goer, I saw the trailer for the first masterpiece in this series. That made me grit my teeth too. There won't be much left of my teeth at this stage.

Can there be any greater indictment of our culture than superhero movies? (Yes, there can-- superhero comics. But forget that for the moment.) It isn't just the sheer volume of these infantile productions that offends. It isn't the fact that they are increasingly taken oh-so-seriously, often treated as profound dramas in their own right.

It isn't even just that every superhero movie is exactly the same. It's exactly the same themes, over and over again-- the conflict between the private individual and the public persona, between personal hopes and dreams and the stern Call of Duty. But even the monotony of the genre is beside the point. The point is that the whole thing is so agonizingly, maddeningly puerile. Men and women dressed up in bright colours and skin-tight outfits, going by ridiculous names like Batman and Daredevil and Cyclops? Fighting villains who are also dressed in bright colours and have ridiculous names like Dr. Octopus and the Penguin? Doesn't anyone see how ludicrous all this is? Doesn't anyone see how debasing it is? Doesn't anyone find something jarring about it?

More than anything else, what nauseates me about the superhero genre is how it is such a pathetic power fantasy. It is as though our culture has no greater aspiration than to have perfect abs and to beat the living daylights out of other people. I'm well aware that the superhero genre tries to balance the power fantasy with a moral about responsibility and duty and the dark underside of having such phenomenal powers. Big deal. A little bit of pseudo-intellectual or pseudo-artistic seasoning hardly takes away from the sheer, inescapable childishness of the basic premise.

It's not just the superhero genre that exasperates me, though. Increasingly, it's popular culture as a whole. I'm sick of it, and I'm especially sick of it when it tries to be serious and thoughtful-- only then is its sheer superficiality most obvious. The Sopranos (which I've never seen) is a wonderfully complex and human drama, you say? Well, why is it about the Mafia? Why not make a drama about an ordinary family? Why do we need guns and violence and fast cars and vast wealth to sugar the pill of serious artistic intent?

More than anything, though, I resent all the popular culture that I've swallowed myself, usually with the sauce of nostalgia. I have a post on this blog analysing Star Trek in depth. Star Trek is trash. The Transformers comic that I read in childhood was trash. So was the Eagle comic. So were the Indiana Jones films that I went to see in the cinema, despite the golden glow of those childhood memories. Sherlock Holmes is trash-- I don't just mean any of the films or the TV series, but the stories themselves, which provided the template for so much detective drivel. Conan Doyle was quite right to disdain them. All the horror films I watched and analysed so avidly for so many years were and are trash. It's all trash. It's all stylized, caricatured, episodic, babyish, day-glo, puerile, developmentally arrested, vulgar, glib trash.

(I make an exception for Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day is a great work of serious art.)

I am hereby checking out of the popular culture theme park. Henceforth I plan to read only grown-up books-- mostly poetry, especially long poetry. Nobody reads long poetry anymore, so that is a good sign. Anything that is ignored by our trash culture has to be good. Currently I am reading The Faerie Queene, which I'm finding tough going. But of course I'd find it tough going. I find it tough going because I've been infantalised by thirty-five years of trash culture. Finding it tough going is a very, very good sign.

(Note: There is some interesting discussion in the comments section, below).


  1. Hi, I have been following your blog for ages as I really enjoy reading your opinions on many diverse subjects. Often I argee, sometimes I don't. But I also appreciate your erudite and well written posts. I don't have a lot of facility in explaining myself in print (or in speech) so I never feel that tempted to respond (I'm also very lazy!) I felt that I had to respond to this as you sound so fed up.
    I agree with a lot of what you say ie that popular culture is filled with derivative, badly written, morally vacuous, vulgar rubbish. But I don't agree that all popular culture is trash. Popular culture by its nature does reflect the interests of the culture which leads me to think that the hoi poloi (or groundlings) of Shakespear's time where a lot more thoughtful than their counterparts today - similiarly with the ancient greeks and nearly every one else upto recently. (Of course I know that there were filty obsene plays etc during these eras which have not survived but I don't think that real obscenity is exactly 'popular'.)
    I don't think that the Sherlock Holmes books are trash. They are well written, thoughtful, interesting and conventually moral. The genre of dectective stories may not be profound but I don't see anything wrong with light entertainment. I would say the same about a lot of other similiar things like PG Wodehouse or indeed, Star Trek. There is a need for light entertainment which is well written and absorbing and which can enlighten and distract.
    However, I totally agree about the films at the moment. They are rubbish. It is rare to watch anything that can capture the imagination, interest or heart or even prevent one from doing numerous other tasks without losing anything. Although I am not a real film or tv fan, I do think that there has been a huge deteriortation in the last 10 or 15 years. Sadly I think years of dumbing down and brain washing has paid off.
    Sorry for the lecture. I really love your blog and have missed it when you are on a dry spell.

  2. Hi there

    Thanks for your very kind comments! I'm relieved to hear that you don't always agree with me because that would be a worrying sign...!

    As you detected, my post today was written in a spasm of irritation, and it was a little on the rhetorical side, but I still would maintain my views even in cold blood (so to speak). I think the point I was making is that popular culture is (I think) trashy even when it's well-done-- ESPECIALLY when it's well done. I think it is, as Samuel Johnson said about something else, "a foolish thing well done".

    I actually picked Sherlock Holmes very deliberately as an example, because I would actually agree with everything you say about them. They are well-written (despite the anomalies in Holmes's character-- at first, he has no interest in music, then he is a virtuoso violonist), they are thoughtful, they are interesting, and they are moral. But I have come to suspect that Sherlock Holmes is the fountainhead of everything bad about popular culture. These are my charges:

    1) Sherlock Holmes is the first superhero (let's forget about myth and legend for the moment). He is good at EVERYTHING. He is a brilliant boxer, violinist, impersonator, marksman, etc. etc. He writes monographs about different types of tobacco smoke. It's ridiculous. This has been the pattern for heroes ever seen.
    2) He is an eccentric genius. Every single detective ever written since Sherlock Holmes is an eccentric genius, with some tragic flaw or character defect(s). It's so formulaic and boring.
    3) He has a sidekick, who is doughty and loyal but rather unimaginative (although Holmes faults him for being too imaginative).
    4) He has a landlady and a brother who are recurring, equally caricatured characters.
    5) He has an arch-enemy.
    6) He has a base.
    7) The stories are episodic. This is my biggest gripe with Sherlock Holmes (and indeed with popular culture). I think that, once we let go of the plausibility of demanding a proper story arc, and put up with the silliness of amazing things happening to the character in each instalment, we are inevitably thrust into the world of blockbuster sequels and Happy Meal collectable toys and Comic Con and all that nerdiness.
    8) The stories appeal above all to curiosity and suspense, rather than to any appreciation of atmosphere or character or theme or anything else. Actually, this is a moot point when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, since it IS the atmosphere and the character that draw readers, rather than the "whodunnit" element. But the point is that, since Sherlock Holmes was pretty much the progenitor of all literary detectives (I know there were forerunners), the POINT of the stories is suspense and curiosity-- they are puzzles rather than stories.

    I guess where I would disagree with you is when you say, "There is a need for light entertainment which is well written and absorbing and can enlighten and distract". But should we really need light entertainment? It seems to me that light entertainment is a descending lift that just keeps crashing through floor after floor-- Sherlock Holmes and other literary detectives are the light entertainment of the late nineteenth century, but the serious reading of the early twenty-first. The light entertainment is....God knows. The X-Factor?

    I am conscious of hypocrisy when I write this, since I am also guilty of going on "trash vacations" when I watch old rock videos and comedy sketches on Youtube, etc. But I'm trying to cure myself of this!

  3. I have twice tried to read The Faerie Queen but gave up on both occasions, in part, I think, to an instinctive aversion to allegory, at least on that scale.

  4. This is part of why I'm reading it, though-- all the companions and guidebooks to English literature comment that modern readers find Spenser uncongenial (partly because we dislike allegory!), and (as his admirers point out), even literary critics and historians find it hard to summon up any enthusiasm for The Faerie Queene. And yet it was wildly popular in its day, and C.S. Lewis said that he hoped, in Heaven, to find out that the missing six books were waiting for him to read...I'm trying to get away from being conditioned by my time, so this is an act of deliberate deconditioning.

    Anyway, I'm only on Book Two, but I am beginning to enjoy it more.

    1. Mick, I accidentally deleted a comment from you where you pointed out that Tolkien was a very old-fashioned reader and he detested allegory. I do take the point but on the whole I think allegory is a form that was once widely popular and is now in disfavor. My attitude is that I feel limited and conditioned by my time if I can't overcomes that conditioning. And given much of the pure trash about which broadsheet newspapers and articulate, well-read people take seriously (like superhero films) I feel our culture has taken a seriously wrong artistic turning somewhere.