It took a negative review of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom to really cinch together a lot of the unspoken sentiments I've had about popular culture for a long time:
This is a movie that’s annoying in part because it doesn’t care if you’re annoyed by it. It doesn’t need you, the individual viewer, to like it. It just needs a crowd to see it. Whether you’ve been entertained or enlightened is immaterial.
And I thought, that's just it. This stuff doesn't need me, and I never asked for any of it. It's just something that's dumped out in front of me, because there's a crowd of people somewhere who want it.
I hate having sentiments like this, though. For one, they denigrate all the people who are in some way sincerely connected to, or get some genuine charge out of, some piece of popular culture. It's snobbism for me to think they are all deluded or suffering from some kind of false cultural consciousness. Down that road lies Allan Bloom and all his embarrassing old-man-yells-at-cloud-isms, and I don't want to end up stranded there.
When I first started having impulses of this kind, they seemed to amount to a program something like this: Ignore what's going on in the "mainstream", focus on the few things you think matter, and produce what you can with that. Don't waste anger on the fact that popular culture is a cesspool; this is like getting annoyed with the ocean for being salty. Popular culture is just whatever lots of people happen to like at any given moment, to paraphrase Irving Berlin.
I still think this is a good program of personal action, if only because it keeps me from wasting my time being snobby-pissy about things I can't change anyway. But it forces me to make a very fine-grained distinction between the people who like this stuff, and the material they like. The enthusiasm they have is something I have to treat entirely separately from everything else, and in such a way that I am not tut-tutting them for wasting their energies on That Trash.
Walter Kerr, in The Decline Of Pleasure (paid link) (a truly underappreciated book) once noted that the wise thing to do with a kid who liked comic books was not to tear them out of his hands, but to smile and hand him five more. One of two things would happen: he would either get burned out in due course, or he would develop an appreciation for them that was genuine — and a genuine and thoughtful appreciation for comic books is better than a false and forced appreciation for High Culture. An oversimplification, but with a particle of truth in it all the same.
So that's one thing: the fans and the fandom. The other thing is how studied ignorance of the mainstream blinds you to the ways popular culture shifts over time and why. To say that it's all the same and always has been because they rely on the same tired old tropes is a little like saying the economy now is the same as it was in the 1950s because we still use the dollar as currency. Looking at this stuff analytically does not mean trying to pretend all of it is good or valuable, but trying to understand where it came from and what that says about us. Mere contempt for it won't do that.
The last touchstone I return to with all this is how there should be a self-consciously different standard for creators than there are for lay audiences. People who want to make something should feed their heads and hearts a little differently. But I can't force anyone to do that, or insist that noncompliance with such a program is a moral offense. The only thing I can really do is lead by example. And that example isn't even intended to be taken in whole. Someone else out there is going to see a whole hell of a lot more in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom than I ever could. Bully for them, says I. Good that someone can do it.
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