I was going to post about this last week, after local blogger (and, in general, a voice I respect) Christopher M. Smith did a podcast in which he crankily outlined all the ways he thinks US society is unserious and immature, but I ended up not posting it, because it just struck me as a waste of time. But now he's visited the topic for a second straight week, so here are some random thoughts.
1. Any statement of the form I no longer engage in [INSERT ACTIVITY HERE] because I'm [INSERT AGE HERE] is inherently dumb. Sorry, but I don't take anything of the sort seriously. I can probably think of a very small few statements of this type that are well taken, but I wouldn't even try to universalize them to a general rule, to invoke Immanuel Kant. People who say "I don't see superhero movies because I'm 38" are little different from people who say, "Edna shouldn't have long hair at her age." I've been told that if you're over the age of five, you shouldn't eat peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches or wear overalls. Well, I'll keep my own counsel on that.
2. Equally obnoxious is I no longer engage in [INSERT ACTIVITY HERE] because it's a waste of time. Again, this is pure obnoxious snobbery. You may decide that some things are more important than other things, and adjust your time use accordingly. That you've decided that a given activity is a waste of your time does not imply that it's a waste of everyone's time.
3. Smith argues, or at least attempts to argue, that various leisure activities are commanding too much attention from Americans to allow them to focus on the more important things. He doesn't really argue this, though, because he provides zero evidence to back this statement up. Where's the data that show this?
4. At the same time, he states that well, OK, it's fine to have hobbies as long as you don't let them 'define you'. No clarification on what it means for a hobby to 'define you' is given. He does speak derisively of people who cosplay at the San Diego Comic-Con, again leaning on the 'you shouldn't do that when you're a certain age' line of thought, but how are we to know who is allowing their hobby to define them and who is not? I have a friend who is really into sports-related hobbies, mainly autograph collecting and fantasy sports leagues. He attends a lot of sports events, has Bills season tickets, and so on. He is also deeply involved in the activities of his church. Does sports define this man? I think not. Are there people who are too deeply into their particular hobbies? Of course. Are there too many in society? Ahhh...that's a question that requires a lot more evidence to support it than Smith provides.
In fact, he undermines his own point when he cites people he knows who have hobbies of the type he's deriding, but proceeds to indicate that those people are fine, because he knows then and knows that they aren't the ones taking things too far. But who are, then? A bunch of people he's never ever met? Is he able to read minds now?
5. "We don't do big things anymore." I'm sorry, what was that? I was too busy reading up on the achievements of our Olympic athletes and looking at the latest data beamed back from the Curiosity rover that we just landed on another planet.
That's overly snarky, I know. There really is a case to be made that our society isn't getting enough done to confront our serious problems. But is there a strong case to be made that our entertainment is proving to be a massive distraction thereof? I'm not convinced, because Smith's argument simply doesn't have enough connective tissue to convince me. Instead, it basically sounds like, "Too many people like stuff that I don't like, and they like it too much." Meh.
6. Smith and his interlocutors slam Hollywood's filmmaking culture for making too much crap these days, and there's some real hay to be made here. But extending our movies -- and not all of our movies, but just the biggest profile movies -- to an argument about all of culture doesn't seem to really hold up. First off, he quotes Francis Ford Coppola as saying that he couldn't get The Godfather made in today's Hollywood culture. And that may well be: I completely agree that movies are too homogeneous right now, too focused on a narrow subset of subject material, and too focused on resuscitating existing properties as opposed to taking risks. But he keeps singling out the entire superhero genre, without even bothering to consider the idea that maybe a good movie can be made of superhero material. One wonders if he similarly dismisses fantasy and science fiction.
Two sub-points here, though. First of all, maybe Coppola couldn't make The Godfather today. But somebody could, and I know that somebody could because somebody did. His name is David Chase, and he made it as The Sopranos. He just did it for teevee.
Could a movie about inner-city crime in Baltimore get made today? Maybe, maybe not. But an extremely well-regarded teevee show called The Wire got made. How about a movie about a successful teacher-turned-drug dealer? Maybe not, but there's a teevee show called Breaking Bad. How about a gritty and violent fantasy series that at its best overturns the tropes of its genre? Game of Thrones. Or a science-fiction series that depicts the choices faced by a society that finds itself at permanent war? Battlestar Galactica.
Objecting "But we're talking movies, not teevee!" doesn't hold up. Neither, really, does a rejoinder that those are mostly cable shows and not network shows. Cultural media don't exist in a vacuum. You can't cite a ton of crap movies as evidence of the increasing crapiness of our popular culture whilst ignoring the other things, in other media, that stand as evidence that the quality exists and has simply moved someplace else.
Secondly, it's been my belief for years that the denizens of any particular era are the worst people to judge the quality of their era's artistic and cultural endeavors. Quality takes time to rise, sometimes decades, and the history of every art -- not just movies, but books, music, poetry, you name it -- is replete with examples of things that were loathed in their day but later became cultural touchstones. There's a wonderful book called A Lexicon of Musical Invective that makes this point very simply by providing excerpt after excerpt of scathing reviews of works of classical music that would go on to become beloved standards of the classical repertoire, by the critics of the time. We remember the hits and forget the misses.
7. Remembering the hits and forgetting the misses also applies, I think, to regarding too highly the eras gone by. Smith seems to believe that there was a golden age of civic involvement in the past. Is this true? Maybe it is, actually. There is evidence to be cited that in some ways, earlier incarnations of American society were more 'serious' than they are now. But I'm not sure how true this is. We don't vote enough, certainly, and in terms of public policy, we tend to stick rigidly in some odd middle, neither particular liberal nor rigidly conservative. But I'm not prepared to grant that we're stuck in neutral, either. This deserves greater discussion, but again, not from the rhetorical framework that Smith establishes. Our problem is not that we're seeing too many superhero movies.
Smith cites a relative of his -- an uncle, I think -- who did a lot of civic stuff, and Smith cites himself as a further example of the way everyone should be. This is sheer nonsense, and it's basically equivalent to Professor Henry Higgins when he wonders, in song, "Why can't a woman be more like me." If your argument for what's wrong with society literally sounds like "Not enough people live their lives the way that I choose to live my life", then maybe you might want to think about reframing things a tad.
8. My final point here: at one point, Smith argues that a big problem is our increased connectivity, with stuff like texting on smartphones. He complains that even when we're standing in line at the post office, we're so busy checking Facebook and tweeting and texting and stuff and dammit, "Can't we just wait in line anymore?" And I'm thinking, "What in God's name is so great about standing in line?!" I mean, seriously: are we really supposed to romanticize the act of standing in a long line at the post office or the bank or the DMV? What are we supposed to do otherwise? Look at the cinderblock walls? Maybe talk to the person in front of us or behind us...but what if they're not feeling conversational? In having new options for things to do while we wait our turn at the counter, am I really supposed to think that we've lost something as a society? Because...I don't.
9. Finally: if this reads like me trying to defend the honor of superhero movies or 'comic book culture', well, it's not. I don't read too many comics, I don't see very superhero movie that comes along, and so on. But as far as 'comic book culture' goes, I am reminded that comic books are a much bigger part of the cultural landscape in Japan than they are here. If we're truly unserious as a culture -- and there is an argument to be made thereof -- one has to do a bit more heavy lifting than pointing to some movies to demonstrate it.
OK, that's enough of that. Back to doing what I usually do on this blog: indulging my love of things that I'm sure would be judged as 'manbaby' material by my societal betters. 'Tis a cross to bear, but bear it, I shall!