Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Blockbusters for Blockheads

Here's my piece for The First Post : on the decline of American popular culture.
Anyone who doubts the thesis-only needs to compare the wonderful Batman tv series of the 1960s- with the dreary, charmless special effects-overloaded Batman movies of the last decade.

King Kong is Coming! One thing is for sure, you sure as hell can’t ignore the world’s biggest ape’-cries the Hollywood hype machine and as sure as hell we won’t be able to ignore the oversized primate in the lead-up to the world premier of Peter Jackson’s $200m blockbuster. Those enamoured of kiddies fare dressed up as adult entertainment are no doubt already counting the days to 14th December; but for the rest of us, who can remember when the world’s most commercially dominant nation used to produce films, music and television for those with a mental age of over 20, these are depressing times. There’s no getting away from it: the country which gave us Ship of Fools, Cole Porter, Citizen Kane and Ellery Queen seems to be in a state of terminal cultural decline. Who can we blame for the malaise? George Lucas is certainly high on the list, for the creation of the modern blockbuster in which special effects are more important than an intelligent screenplay and merchandising opportunities count for more than artistic merit. Steven Spielberg should be indicted too for inflicting on us a succession of overblown and overproduced pap. But most of all I blame the suits. I recently bought a CD of the 60s West Coast band Harpers Bizarre, whose harmonic blend of 1920s melodies with 60s psychedelia is as sweet to listen to now as it was in the Summer of Love. ‘We wanted hits, but we wanted them on our own terms’ recalls Lenny Waronker, the group’s producer. ‘We were trying to do something interesting and trying to turn our friends on’. Thankfully, Harpers Bizarre were allowed to do just that- and the result is with us for posterity. But with the Jewish furriers who ran the American entertainment industry in their graves, and the accountants and marketing wizz-kids ensconced in their place- ‘trying to do something interesting’ is no longer an option. Maximising corporate profits has become the be all and end all- and with the vast amounts of money at stake in the modern global village- that means the entertainment industry playing it safe. Very, very safe. Today, music as experimental as Harpers Bizarre’s simply would not be produced. Neither would a film as philosophical and profound as Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools. Instead we are fed a diet of second-rate dross, never-ending sequels to already established blockbusters, boy and girl bands who can’t sing, and the mind-numbing vacuity of hip-hop. The left in Europe has long railed against American ‘cultural imperialism’. But if this meant exporting Billy Wilder, Brian Wilson and Mama Cass to all four corners of the planet, then who, save the most visceral anti-American, could possibly object? Sadly, America's corporate-induced cultural decline means we now get Eminem, Sex and the City and Britney Spears. And we are all the poorer for it.

Neil Clark/The First Post 2005

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