Thursday, June 11, 2015

Simon Pegg's Last Stand: Paying the Celluloid Price

Oh, you thought you could make a POINT BREAK remake
with no consequences? Lock and load, bitches...
Recently, the one and only Simon Pegg caused a bit of a stir in certain social circles due to some comments he made in an interview with the Radio Times and, subsequently, his follow-up comments on his website, which I discovered exists. Specifically, he made several comments in regards to the state of cinema today, especially the realm of science fiction and fantasy, which seemed to cause a great deal of butt hurt to residents of them thar parts. Before I even clicked on the click-baity article (I'm only mortal, after all), I was ready to chalk up all of the indignation and hurt butts to the current social default setting of Taking Offence To Everything. Then I read the brief snipits of the interview posted online and, as a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy myself, couldn't help but begin to ruminate on his insights into these genres:

"Before Star Wars, the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie And Clyde and The French Connection--gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed... I don’t know if that is a good thing.
...Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things--comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.

It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about... whatever.

Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot."

First of all, when I walked out of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON I was also thinking a lot about Elizabeth Olsen and Scarlett Johansson and in a very adult context, if you know what I mean. (You know what I mean.)

My initial reaction to Pegg's comments was a vague feeling of having been betrayed and an instant categorization of a number of points to refute the fact that I was stuck in some sort of emotional arrested development. I'm a man, goddammit, not a boy. "I'm a man!" I felt like shouting to the heavens, fists raised in defiance of the cosmos, dick slung confidently over my shoulder like a lumberjack carrying a newly hewn log. As unlikely as it seemed, it felt as though Pegg were jumping ship. My immediate emotional response was defensive; something I loved was under attack, which meant that, by extension, part of who I was was under attack.

Then, unlike a lot of people on the Internet, I realized what a tool I was being, and actually considered the content and context of what was being said, a crucial step that many overlook in progressing dialogue.

My second though following quickly on the heels of my first, knee-jerk reaction was a bit more rational and introspective: the reason I probably felt such passion ignited in the loins of my brain wasn't because that deep down I believed that what Pegg had said was fundamentally wrong but because it struck a chord that was dangerously close to the truth. I--and I imagine a lot of other people without either knowing or admitting it--wasn't upset so much about what he had said but that he had said it. How dare he question me and try to nudge me--ever so slightly--out of my comfortable rut of complacency? Didn't he have any idea how long I'd been working on that ass groove in the Couch of Life? 

Whether or not I completely agree with Pegg, which I don't entirely, I appreciate the fact that he was willing to challenge fellow members of his community. Reflecting on the culture we consume and its meaning within a larger social context is an important yet often overlooked component of social progression. It's easy to sit around patting each other on the back, reassuring ourselves and each other of how right and awesome we are; it takes a true bro to hold our balls to the flame and call us out on our bullshit. For me, it feels like Pegg has got the backs of geeks everywhere precisely because he's willing to challenge their worldview. Anybody can stand firm when the waters are calm; it's a lot harder to hold your shit together when the tempest hits.

Just fucking relax and grab a pint.
I think Pegg is partially correct in that there has been a distinct shift in the focus in the film industry towards style over substance. That isn't to say that meaningful and insightful works aren't still being produced or even that gigantic blockbuster films can't have deeper levels of meaning or explore complex subject matter (see: Christopher Nolan), but that more and more cultural value is being attributed to more superficial elements of the medium. Pegg, in fact, clarifies this point on the follow-up post on his website:

"I guess what I meant was, the more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging the films can become... The best thing art can do is make you think, make you re-evaluate the opinions you thought were yours. It’s interesting to see how a cerebral film maker like Christopher Nolan, took on Batman and made it something more adult, more challenging, chasing Frank Miller’s peerless Dark Knight into a slightly less murky world of questionable morality and violence. But even these films are ultimately driven by market forces and somebody somewhere will want to soften the edges, so that toys and lunch boxes can be sold. In that respect, Bruce Wayne’s fascistic vigilantism was never really held to account, however interesting Nolan doubtless found that idea. Did he have an abiding love of Batman or was it a means of making his kind of movie on the mainstream stage?"

I think it's a valid concern that the content and production of our cultural artefacts is becoming guided more by market forces that place greater value on the size of explosions rather than the depth of meaning. There's a common argument that the revenue generated by large, blockbuster films allows the big studios to finance lower-budget, more substantial cinematic fair, some kind of strange, symbiotic relationship. I think the facetiousness of this argument is becoming increasingly clear as studios concerned with only one metric for measuring success are involved in a current and dangerous game of one-upmanship where the single driving factor is the pursuit of money (But first, the whores!). As Pegg himself pointed out in another recent interview, the good folks over at Paramount were trying to figure out how to turn a hundred-million dollar franchise into a billion-dollar franchise instead of, you know, focusing on making a better movie.

Just because it sells doesn't mean it's a quality product. The concept of the Free Market has been bandied about so much in our culture and with a fervour bordering (and at times crossing over into) the religious that it's taken as a given that that's how the world works and that anything blessed by this holy force must, by definition, be justified. The fallacy at play in assuming the essential "rightness" of a completely free market economy is the conflation of what we want and what we need. It can also play to the lowest common denominator, trying to catch the most fish with the broadest net, instead of taking a risk and challenging audiences, forcing them beyond their comfort zones. I won't argue against the production or enjoyment of the visceral thrills of sex or violence depicted on screen, because I think there's a place and a need for that as well. The problem--and it is a problem--is when those superficial, visceral elements become the dominant driving force behind every artistic production.

People have been taught to read things in a certain way so even when something actually challenging comes along, say, for a recent example, SPRING BREAKERS, they can't see past those superficial elements to explore the deeper meanings. The problem now is not just producing challenging films but finding new ways to challenge a growing cross-section of the audience that has been programmed precisely to resist such challenging. The issue is how to develop the artistic, media, and social literacy of a culture whose economy thrives--at least in part--on stunting the development of such literacy and critical thinking in an effort carefully calculated to maximize profits. The free market doesn't give a shit about artistic integrity, or integrity of any kind, which is precisely why it is essential that we must make up for this shit deficit by giving as much as we can spare.

I think that the point that Pegg was making about the power of film, and science fiction especially, is its ability to inspire. Sometimes it's OK just to enjoy the spectacle of a giant, green rage monster fighting a (totally not almost alcoholic) dude in a giant cybernetic suit. But movies are incredibly significant purveyors and generators of cultural norms, and they have more range of influence than they are typically given credit for (unless there's a school shooting, in which case movies are suddenly imbued with powers typically reserved for Greek gods or maniacal oil barons with a stranglehold on a small, frontier town). But the ratio of sound and fury to thought-provoking substance is significantly out of whack. For every one COHERENCE there are about a hundred TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTIONs out there. Guess which camp gets the most press and the widest dissemination. Odds are, unless you're more deeply embedded in the movie scene, you probably haven't even heard of COHERENCE, which is a shame, because it's exactly the kind of engaging movie that can challenge people on a more substantial level while still being entertaining.

According to Simon Pegg, the current prevalence of cinematic properties based on comic books and toys is a result of deeper-rooted social undercurrents:

"In the 18 years since we wrote Spaced, this extended adolescence has been cannily co-opted by market forces, who have identified this relatively new demographic as an incredibly lucrative wellspring of consumerist potential. Suddenly, here was an entire generation crying out for an evolved version of the things they were consuming as children. This demographic is now well and truly serviced in all facets of entertainment and the first and second childhoods have merged into a mainstream phenomenon."

The only thing I'm going to "beam up" is my boot
up your ass.
This is where Pegg starts to lose me a little bit. It's stuff like this that smacks of middle age, that specific generational form of nostalgia that usually manifests in linguistic constructions like "Back in my day..." His assertion about the continuation of our collective childhoods and, by extension, the delay of our maturity at the hands of agents trying to sell our youth back to us wholesale seems to be confusing quantity with quality. It's not the fact that cultural objects that captured our imaginations as children still have that power to engage us as adults and are being repackaged and resold en masse; it's about the relative caliber of the the products being produced. What matters so much isn't necessarily the subject matter but how we engage with it. Pegg's own example of Batman perfectly demonstrates this as we see the character and his mythology adapted in interpretations as varied as the beloved campy '60s series to Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy and everything in between.

And regardless of what you may have thought of Nolan's interpretation of Batman, for example, there's no arguing that it was a very mature take on, when taken at face value, is an incredibly ridiculous concept. This iteration of Batman explored topics like terrorism, surveillance, and civil liberties through the muse of a man who dresses in a glorified Halloween costume and beats the shit out of whoever he finds deserving. As children, our engagement with the character of Batman was probably relegated to the level of good guys versus bad guys and the former kicking the asses of the latter. As adults,we can take that same character and explore some more nuanced shades of morality and real-world societal implications.

Slightly more troubling on Pegg's part, and where I kind of take issue, is a fairly archaic view of what constitutes maturity, specifically in relation to war:

"Before Star Wars, the big Hollywood studios were making art movies, with morally ambiguous characters, that were thematically troubling and often dark... This was probably due in large part to the Vietnam War and the fact that a large portion of America’s young men were being forced to grow up very quickly. Images beamed back home from the conflict, were troubling and a growing protest movement forced the nation to question the action abroad."

Our generation seems to have this chip on our shoulder about how there's something lacking if we're not involved in some kind of all-encompassing conflict of global proportions replete with atrocities of all varieties. Somehow, we have confused exposure to severe physical, emotional, and psychological trauma for maturity. War forces us to confront certain horrors of existence in a very sobering way, but that isn't the mark of maturity. It seems to me that of all of humankind's inventions, war is definitely in the running for the top spot of least mature. Beating/killing the shit out of people who disagree with you instead of engaging in some sort of dialogue is the complete antithesis of one of the core ideals that we espouse (yet routinely ignore whenever it's convenient). Don't we teach our kids that what makes a man is being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? (Sure, that and a pair of testicles.)   

I think Pegg hits closer to the mark with his observations about the purposes for which the subject matter is being manipulated: "On one hand it’s a wonderful thing, having what used to be fringe concerns, suddenly ruling the mainstream but at the same time, these concerns have also been monetised and marketed and the things that made them precious to us, aren’t always the primary concern (right, Star Trek TOS fans?)" The hallmark of maturity isn't the ability to endure and inflict violence; it's the ability to critically examine the available facts and make decisions that are in the best interests of both ourselves and our fellow human beings. And whether or not movies are helping or hindering that goal is a genuinely important question to examine because of their ubiquity in our culture. 

Pegg's take on the re-emergence of movies rooted in the deep, dark recesses of our youth definitely has some Marxist overtones in the sense of the manipulation and oppression of the majority by an empowered minority. (Also in the sense that he's a commie bastard who's after our precious bodily fluids.)

"Recent developments in popular culture were arguably predicted by the French philosopher and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard in his book, ‘America’, in which he talks about the infantilzation of society. Put simply... we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth? A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read. There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the The Force Awakens and the Batman vs Superman trailers than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election."

Now I get the whole bread and circuses angle, but I think it's a mistake to dismiss certain pursuits as childish and an even greater mistake to fall into the the trap of equating childhood with immaturity and conceptualizing it only in the derogatory. I think anybody would be hard pressed to legitimately argue that, as a culture in general, our priorities are pretty fucked. As I have argued before, I think the focus on cultural minutia is a way for people to feel empowered in the face of real world problems that seem too overwhelming to tackle. Again, I don't think it's so much the subject matter but how we engage with it, or in this case, prioritize that engagement.

I disagree with what Pegg seems to be suggesting here, that the widespread embrace of intellectual properties resurrected from the graveyard of childhood dreams is a matter of finding comfort in the sense of the social equivalent of curling up into the fetal position with a nice warm bottle of breast milk (which is, admittedly, pretty delicious). It has more to do with our sense of agency, which I think for most people has slowly been eroded by a too often justifiable cynicism. It's hard not to feel a certain level of impotence after watching political regimes both at home and abroad revel in their own buffoonery ranging from the asinine to the sadistic. We've had to endure the bullshit of "too big to fail" financial institutions running amok consequence free while the rest of us toil away in the face of ever-increasing economic odds stacked against us. Terrorism, climate change, LGBT rights, the legalization of marijuana, war, rape, atrocities of all varieties. Most of the time it feels like we're spinning our wheels. Focusing our energies on a much smaller sphere of influence where we can make real, if relatively-insignificant-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things, progress seems like the lesser of two evils when compared to focusing our energies on more significant issues and making seemingly no progress at all.  

What am I doing here? Well, I'm
Contractually obligated to appear in any
work at all associated with Simon Pegg
ever since I sold my soul to him in
exchange for a package of Twinkies and
the skeleton of a squirrel preserved
in amber. Probably some drugs, too. It's
all kind of hazy.
More than anything, I think that the occasional dose of youthful idealism might be part of the solution to the problem of widespread social apathy. Childhood is the time in our lives, more than any other, where anything seems possible. And nowhere can that childlike sense of wonder and optimism be cultivated more than in the realm of cinema (or, barring that, an opium den in Los Angeles). The genres of science fiction and fantasy in particular have the ability to inspire, because the very heart of science fiction and fantasy is a preoccupation with the human condition.

Sure, Captain America and Batman can be used as an escapist strategy to kill a couple of hours without having to worry about war and pestilence. But they can also be used as conduits to galvanize our resolve to stand up to injustice. The trick is not only using the subject matter in a mature exploration of important philosophical and social issues but coupling that with a sense of agency and progress, or else it won't last. No level of inspiration can hold out forever against the crushing weight of social inertia that we've witnessed in recent years. Without some sort of tangible sign or feedback, it's tough to keep players motivated. It's kind of a catch-22: we need to see progress in order to bolster our inspiration but we can't make any progress without achieving and maintaining a certain level of inspiration.

Which brings us back to Pegg's original comments that caused the bunching up of so many panties out there in cyberspace. Even though we may not agree on the subject, Pegg makes it clear why discussion is so important: "Also, it’s good to ask why we like this stuff, what makes it so alluring, so discussed, so sacred. Do we channel our passion and indignation into ephemera, rather than reality?" And it is this "channelling of passion" that really is the key to all of this. How do we get motivated to, as Star-Lord so eloquently put it, give a shit? It's more simple and more difficult than we may think: dialogue. Starting the conversation and, more importantly, keeping it going. Just like it says in an ancient Chinese proverb that I assume must exist, the mightiest oak begins with but a tiny seed. Dialogue is the precursor to change and words have more power than we give them credit for in igniting action. Movies are a huge component of our cultural dialogue, and they have the power to fuel dialogue or stunt it or circumvent it completely, so I agree with Pegg that we have to ask ourselves whether or not the forces at play in generating movies are motivated purely by short-term financial gain, whether or not that's a good thing, and whether or not we can--at least to some extent--have our cake and eat some of it too.

But we have to be willing to pay the Celluloid Price. For film makers this means considering motives other than profit and motivating audiences by focusing on engaging, insightful material that challenges them instead of caters to them: for audiences, taking that subject matter and ruminating on it and actively continuing the dialogue. Considering the possible stakes, I think that's a small price to pay for our own entertainment.


  1. Very informative, keep posting such good articles, it really helps to know about things.