Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is he legend?

I Am Legend was a surprisingly decent film for a Will Smith action flick directed by someone mainly known for music videos. The CGI was good, the plot passable, and Smith's performance as Robert Neville was surprisingly solid. But the thing that really stuck with me was the transformation of this tale through its various incarnations to now, and how each reflects a different culture. The original novel was written in the "paranoid fifties", and it raised deep philosophical questions about humanity's need for control of others and the tendency toward revisionist history; it has been viewed, as it should be, in the context of the "Red Scare", and the language it uses is far more politically-oriented than subsequent versions. Vincent Price's The Last Man on Earth was a 1960s schlock-horror mutation of the story, which reflects more of the fact that much of pop culture became almost irrelevant in the face of drastic social change. In the early 1970s, Charlton Heston cooed his way through The Omega Man, which transformed the story into more of a social dialogue by having Neville's adversaries conversing with the hero as non-threatening communalistic rational zombies. The culture in that film was one of social commentary, not political, and it seemed to deliberately avoid making much impact. In the 2007 version, the "Darkseekers" are despicably inhuman, and any social activity is only observed through suspicion on the part of the viewer. But what is really interesting is that, unlike Heston's Neville who achieves his humanity through quoting Shakespeare and the greats, Smith's Neville communicates through pop culture. New York in 2012 is full of not-yet-realized pop cultural touchstones, such as a Batman-Superman movie. Several scenes focus on a movie rental store, and it is implied that movies are Neville's only entertainment. In one scene, he quotes Shrek at length to tell his perspective - the scene does work very well, but that is perhaps in spite of itself. And most distinctively, the movie ties Neville to Bob Marley, even using "Redemption Song" over the end credits to drive home its point. The manipulation of pop culture is very well done, despite the constant presence of product placement, but it is most interesting that pop culture is portrayed as the language of the culture, and that the most meaningful dialogue seems not to be political, social, or even from high culture, but on the mass culture to which this film appeals. Perhaps this is merely a tool for connecting with the audience; but perhaps this says more about our society now. I don't think the movie was going this deep, but it seems to me that the parallelism between the dehumanizing of the Darkseekers by a virus and the dehumanizing of Neville by pop culture is unintended but inescapable. Pop culture, and our obsession with it, could be responsible for what has happened in this supposed future. Or maybe it is just all "sound and fury, signifying nothing." Either way, it is interesting that pop culture is now perceived to be the language of the whole culture, and that this truth is shown in I Am Legend.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Hidden gems

One of the best parts of being a culture-watcher is the moment of discovery of a hidden treasure. It's that moment when you realize that you are experiencing something that is worth experiencing, but that does not have exposure (or sometimes even appeal) to the masses (or has not yet had the opportunity to have that exposure). As I have continued to develop my tastes and awareness of both myself and the media I follow, I have learned much more effectively how to spot those very special films, albums, television programs, books, or video games, and how to begin to tune out the need to be in touch with everything that happens in the mainstream. Note that these hidden gems are not necessarily always "indie" by definition; sometimes they are just neglected children of the mainstream. Sometimes these discoveries are on my own (like when I randomly started listening to Mika in February, when he didn't get popular until May), but they are often conducted with a braintrust of peers who have the same mindset and goal: to find the best of what is out there. I have people who back that up in music, movies, and TV, and it adds an extra level of satisfaction to share those discoveries with someone. Recent examples in my viewing include The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson's completely ignored tale of brothers travelling through India, and Rescue Dawn, Warner Herzog's masterful depiction of an American soldier (Christian Bale) escaping from a Vietnamese POW camp, and To End All Wars, a 2003 film about Americans living in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. I believe that good examples of media will have staying power, and that this kind of discovery can take a lifetime; my hope is that I never stop in my pursuit of discovering the best culture out there, however I may do that.

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