Whither Pop Culture?
I've been thinking about television and film, particularly since the newest movie to cast a critical eye on the media has been released, Spike Lee's Bamboozled. There's certainly been no shortage of films on the subject. Think of Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd, the legendary Network, and now, Bamboozled.
From what I've been able to piece together from various sources (I've never seen this film), A Face in the Crowd (1957) is the tale of an honest hobo (remember those?) plucked from obscurity and turned into a TV star. Eventually, his fame corrupts him and he returns to the salt of the earth where he was found, a broken and bitter man. Network (1976) is a cautionary tale about what television becomes when the most bizarre human behavior and curiosities are packaged for production -- and how the public appetite for this programming snowballs with grave and disheartening results. When Network was first released, I remember talk of how the film's dire predictions were too preposterous and could never come to pass. Then came trash-talk TV, the Fox Network, and the "reality" genre.
Now, we have Bamboozled. The film stars Damon Wayans as Pierre Delacroix, the lone African-American staff writer for the fictional CNS network. After his contribution -- and his blackness -- is called into question by his boss (played with stunning obnoxiousness by Michael Rapaport), Delacroix seeks to make a vengeful point by proposing a preposterous new series, a return to the minstrel show, replete with black actors in blackface, shucking and jiving in a watermelon patch. Delacroix's motive is to create a satire so loathesome, so steeped in the worst of black stereotypes, that the public outcry will embarrass the network. Instead, the show becomes a hit. But Lee's film is much more than a diatribe against the representation of blacks in television, as it is often described by critics. His canvas is much larger, his focus much deeper. He offers a review of African-American images in all forms of popular culture from the turn of the 20th century to the present. Though many of these images are ludicrous and downright grotesque, the point of Bamboozled is to show how these images endure over time, re-create and sustain themselves in increasingly covert ways. Though most of the film's reviews have been mixed, at best, and dismissive, at worst, I think Bamboozled is one of the most important films to comment on television in general and the entertainment industry as a whole.
What seems to turn some critics and viewers off is the largeness with which Lee presents his case, particularly when he reminds us of the buffoonery many of us ingested as youngsters, but didn't take offense with, such as the rubbery faced and bug-eyed Jimmie Walker from Good Times, or the bantam rooster strut of George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) from The Jeffersons. Curiously, Lee doesn't include present-day buffoonery, as performed by Mo'Nique and Countess Vaughn in The Parkers (UPN). Instead, he turns his attention to the hyper-sexualized, angry yet inarticulate gangsta-rap culture (personified in the film by a group called the Mau-Maus), which terrifies the middle class at the same time it is emulated by teenage white boys.
Thanks to Stuart Klawans' review of Bamboozled in the November 6 issue of The Nation, and with heavy citation from lit crit scholar Northrup Frye, I've come to understand Bamboozled as a Menippean satire, a work that "deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire is ... stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent." In addition, Bamboozled has the added sting of remarking on the present as it reflects on the past.
Lee tries to cover considerable ground in Bamboozled, yet television, the "idiot box," has been the primary element that most critics have foregrounded in their discussion of the film. Why?
I think part of the answer lies in the desire, the hard-core need, it seems, to define pop culture, and especially television, as the thing that you're not. I was reminded of this at the Texas Book Festival last weekend. At a panel titled "Pop Culture and the Spoken Word," the panelists were ill-prepared to give a useful definition of pop culture, instead resorting to the "I don't watch TV" slogan. As a television writer and critic, I'm always bemused when this slogan is invoked. It's code for "TV and all of pop culture is beneath me." It also implies a detachment from pop culture, that it doesn't inform the way you see the world. Nothing could be further from the truth, which, I believe, is another point of Bamboozled.
So, what is pop culture, and why am I obsessed with it this week? I think of it as a ticker of experiences, events, and commercial and creative products that swirl above our immediate consciousness (think of the stock quotes that fly over the heads of stockbrokers and agents on the trading floor). From this ticker, certain things, by certain people, are drawn down, and in the drawing-down, are given value. The things that are not drawn down are used as cultural shorthand for defining what you don't believe yourself to be. Think of it as socio-cultural profiling.
Proposals for the future in Lee films are sometimes vague, often ending with a symbolic image or gesture. At the end of Bamboozled, Lee offers a litany of African-American images, both in the form of kitsch and in images from television and film. It's difficult to imagine that most of these images were at one time acceptable and even entertaining. It's also a reminder to question what present-day images are flying by on that pop cultural ticker above us all, without a second thought to whose expense and at what spiritual cost.
"I've always thought that just because the movie ends, and the credits have started to roll, these characters are still alive -- they still have life," Lee said in an interview with Tod Lippy for Projections 11, a journal on film and filmmakers. "What's happening to them now? Or what's going to happen? I'm not doing that because I'm planning for the sequel or whatever -- I've never done that ... I think it's interesting to leave everything open for thought sometimes."
This is the most challenging thing Lee offers his viewers -- not the content, but the lingering idea that maybe, just maybe, there is something viewers are responsible for doing once the theatre lights come up.
Take a station break at TVEye@auschron.com