Boredom and Consequenceby Brandon Edmonds / 24.11.2010
Two songs ambled to mind after watching a d/loaded trio of recent Hollywood fare (Megamind / Despicable Me and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World). Naturally, given that I’m probably not the intended audience, The Buzzcock’s “Boredom” – (‘so I’m living in this movie / but it doesn’t move me’) – a song almost always playing in my head – and The Notwist’s “Consequence” (‘I’m not in this movie / I’m not in this song’).
A song I sometimes convulsively need in the same way prayer works for acolytes, a song strong enough to, as Dinosaur Jnr. once put it, ‘feel the pain of everyone’.
Both minor masterpieces are ultimately about wanting more from entertainment, about feeling shut out by mainstream culture. And the personal fallout of that disqualification. In a nutshell, the stakes of being different. (Being different and finding acceptance, even redemption, beyond the confines of the self in conventional belonging, a deeply conservative impulse that movies never stop insisting on, sums up our three teen-targeted films quite nicely too).
And the songs are almost a timeline, if you like, tracing the deepening of a certain disaffection with popular entertainment and the related emergence of widespread disengagement with the products of the corporate culture industry. The yearning for an alternative. I’m assuming this. Either go with that or snort and dismiss me. For the rest of us, you’ll notice the earlier Buzzcocks’ lyric poses someone ‘in this movie’ – there’s still space for identification, for involvement (still passion in performance) – but by the early 2000s we’ve reached a kind of ground zero whiteout, (the be-numbed sensual switch-off of the Notwist, their music even feels like emotion being processed by machines), without any possibility of identifying with popular mainstream culture: ‘I’m not in this movie / I’m not in this song.’
You may well counter that the ‘entertainment industrial complex’ still rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Which suggests great swathes of satisfied customers. Remember prices have spiked. Stuff costs more. The actual number of moviegoers, for example, has generally fallen from the highs of the 1920s through the Great Depression and the War years until the onset of the stay-at-home habit of television. I’d also point to the chronic systemic crises in education globally – the deficit of critical minds – and sigh over how easily led we go on being.
Let’s try to fathom this falling away of popular culture from us. I feel that falling away. That loss of real identification with characters that matter to me, plots that work through real social issues and stories done in a way that isn’t entirely driven by an apathetic, corrosively cynical irony. I suspect you do too. Is culture or rather mass entertainment falling away from us? Should we expect more from it? Are we doomed to appear less and less familiar to ourselves in popular fictions? This at a time of culture glut, proliferating overload, when entertainment was never more available, gettable, torrent-able.
The glorious high romantic novelist Stendhal likened effective imaginative practice to walking outdoors with a mirror on your back – reflecting the world. Has popular culture turned its back on the crucial mimetic impulse to show reality? Has it abandoned us to jokey violence, actions without consequences and dizzying bouts of visual excess? By “us” I suppose I mean anyone who remembers the delicious anticipatory thrill of those parting clouds and that rollicking horn-heavy theme song from The Simpsons – back when it was as vividly unflinching as Dostoevsky, and about 11 million times more cogent than the news. Savvy consumers – who get it. You know who you are.
To the films then, shall we?
Scott Pilgrim vs the World is astonishingly empty. Violence has no material impact. Feelings are glossed over. Relationships are entirely interchangeable and disposable. Reality is completely given over to manipulative sensation. This film doesn’t relax, contemplate actuality or unwind for a second. The drift of mainstream movies towards the affectless, inconsequential smoothness of videogames is now complete. I hate, hate, hate this movie. Despicable Me and Megamind are both 3-D animated Obama-era features obsessed with retrofitting evil in the garb of goodness. Of course the unlikely ascension of a young, black senator to the Presidency was meant to do the same for US legitimacy, at home and abroad, after the disastrous Bush era. “Yes We Can” was the affirmative Obama pledge – since depressingly conflated to business as usual as he extends the ‘War on Terror’ and safeguards corporate interests. Anyway that (bogus) spirit of renewal sees Despicable Me’s Gru – an underachieving Shrek-shaped villain held back by an overbearing mother – softened into fatherhood and emotional maturity by a trio of cutesy orphans; ostensibly foregoing evildoing for guardianship. It has some good voiceover work by Steve Carell, whose accent falls ‘somewhere between Bela Lugosi and Ricardo Montalban’. But there’s really not much more to it. Megamind can be read as a working through of the trauma of the ‘capitalist breakdown’ of 2008. It posits the breakdown of the Manichean ‘superhero system’ of good versus evil when the guardian of Metrocity, MetroMan, bored by the rigmarole of heroism, stages his own death to become a bearded hipster musician. This leaves resident villain Megamind in control. “I want you to carry on with the dreary normal things normal people do,” he tells the masses. While chaos reigns. “No you can’t!” reads Obama-spoofing posters on city walls. It takes the love of a good woman and consequent self-belief to set things aright as the villain discovers the hero inside himself. The couple drinks to ‘being normal’ and a reporter tells us excitedly, “the banks are open again!” So the chaos that engendered the chaos is restored in what passes for late-capitalist normality. None of these films have a single moment of truth. There’s nothing to identify with. They are calibrated cash registers ringing up sales. Consequence: boredom.