The new video for Elton John's "I Want Love" is equal parts George Michael's "Freedom" and Lisa Loeb's "Stay." Summary: Robert Downey walks around, in a performance remarkable only for its fundamental sullenness. This latest unholy union (sanctioned, of course, by the powers vested in MTV) lacks the energy of Christopher Walken's softshoe in Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" or even the far less impressive energy of Cindy Crawford swinging her towel-turbaned head in the aforementioned "Freedom."
Stop for a second now.
And think about this: people make a living writing paragraphs like that. People are paid good money to look at what's going on right now and compare it to what was going on before now, and make judgments about whether it's better or worse or just different from what came before.
Even more remarkable: there are a whole lot more of us who don't get paid for it and talk about it anyway. And a lot of us are you. You. Yes, you. Reading this column. You wouldn't be here if you didn't think reading about and discussing pop culture were, on some level, worthwhile.
But is it?
Whatever writing about pop culture is, pop culture itself is a leech: slimy, warm, and insidious. It's inescapable but incomprehensible. You want to know everything there is to know. You want to be up to the minute. But you can't be. But you spend an awful lot of time reading -- and if you're me, writing -- about these up-to-the-minute things that, a minute from now, will be old hat. Old hat like a fedora or a derby-type hat, not even the beret that was oh-so-chic up until the moment the desk-diving Ms. Lewinsky spoiled it for everyone.
Because part of knowing what's going on right now consists of talking about what's about to go on. We speculate. We participate in the discussion of whether a particular movie will be any good, whether someone will win an Oscar, whether or when certain things will happen to certain celebrities.
One of my favorite pop culture retrievals happened by accident, when I picked up a movie preview issue of New York Magazine from Fall 1996. It made brief mention of The English Patient, but said the film "was sure to be overshadowed" by a war romance with a bigger budget and more starpower: the Chris O'Donnell-Sandra Bullock tearjerker In Love and War.
Somebody got that one wrong.
So we speculate, and we discuss, and in the end it really doesn't matter. In the long run I won't remember who did or didn't like Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. I will defend movies no one else likes (Reindeer Games) and demean movies everyone else loves (Schindler's List) for the sheer amusement of it all. I'm not the only one who behaves this way. You do too. And it makes no difference, in the end.
Then are we, as people, pointless? Are we, as a site, pointless? We don't like to think that either. We have a point. And if you ever wondered whether the very meat of our collective existence might be pointless, I can tell you this: it's worse than you might hope but better than you might fear.
The truth is, we spend an awful lot of time obsessing about things that don't matter. Things like Survivor and the Grammys and whether black is the new black or orange is the new pink.
Will we forget Alien Ant Farm's cover of "Smooth Criminal" as quickly as we've forgotten Cake's cover of "I Will Survive?" Will Jordana Brewster vanish as thoroughly as Gretchen Mol? Will the early, bright flame of Christopher Nolan slink downward into insufferable self-referential pseudo-genius director's block, like Quentin Tarantino's before him?
And if so, why bother?
After all, a trend is only a trend. What's of-the-moment will, by definition, be outdated very soon. What's hip will be unhip. Ask the boys with a closetful of parachute pants. Ask the girls with a drawerful of jelly bracelets. Open up your high school yearbook, look at the picture of the teen you, and ask yourself. Speculating about Mariah Carey's breakdown will one day be as useless and empty as ... well, that's already useless and empty, but you know what I mean.
Why bother? Because it's who you are. These details make us up. Sure, you may barely remember Tom Hanks' lackluster performance in "The 'Burbs," but you know for sure that on your first date, this was the movie you saw. And hated. What's of-the-moment just might be of a moment that you loved, a moment etched into your circuits, a moment that defines you.
But it's not just that. Pop culture is who you are, and it's who we are. We share that moment. You can reminisce fondly about buying The Beta Band EP, or you can reminisce fondly about Thriller. Both have their place. It's just that one place has a lot more people in it.
The whole world is evanescent. Daily news is outdated the same day it hits print. Political figures rise and fall the same way stars do. And writing about them will win you a Pulitzer. Writing about the mammoth debt What Lies Beneath owes to the far superior Rear Window gets you a quick sidelong glance and an even quicker trip to the recycle bin. There are awards shows, sure, but with the exception of the Oscars, awards are just as evanescent as the performances they're rewarding.
Why bother? Because it's just as important as anything else we do. Why eat when you'll be hungry again in a few hours? Why sleep when you'll just have to wake up again?
Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
9.5.01 @ 12:11a
The only real "why bother" I can think of is making the bed. I SO do not get that.
I do think we pay attention to a lot of this pop culture stuff because we produce and consume it. We see that in the future, we may be defined by what we liked; because we define our predecessors by what THEY liked. And we're all a little control-freaky about that at times.
9.5.01 @ 12:54a
I think people have a fundamental need to know there place in the world - to fit in. Our culture and our society is changing so incredibly fast, that we're overwhelmed with it all. There's too much of it to ever know and understand it all, so we find security in tying the pieces we do know together. Connecting pieces of the past to pieces of the present allows us to move in a lot of social circles, and to hypothesize about the future.
Either that, or we just like Mr. Bubble T-shirts and GI Joe lunchboxes.
9.5.01 @ 2:25a
I think the world is becoming more and more sensationalistic. Don't think so? NBC Evening News lead off with 7 minutes on "Are there more shark attacks this year?"
And by its very nature, pop culture is sensationalistic. It's concepted, produced and marketed to be sensational. It's even more sensational when it's (semi) real. See: Reality shows, Lewinsky-gate and the fact that every major news story now comes with its own catchy graphic and title. "Princess Di: The Tragedy in the Tunnel"
No, none of it really matters. But as long as it's entertaining, even for a second, who's to say that's a bad thing? Where is it written that entertainment should be eternal and not ephemeral?
9.5.01 @ 8:34a
Identifying with popular culture (or "copular pulture" as Capitol Steps say)is indeed a way to fit it. What's interesting is the theme varies depending on the circle in which you move and shimmy. Each social and economic class has specific trends to follow. So pop culture isn't quite as general as some may think.
9.5.01 @ 8:49a
Roger, I think there's something to your Mr. Bubble theory.
Matt, I was going to try to define the difference between manufactured entertainment product and news fo r you, then realized that, as you pointed out, it blurs.
And what's great about 7 minutes on "Are there more shark attacks this year?" is that the answer is No. Then again, the media told me that, so how reliable could the info possibly be?
Curiouser and curiouser...
9.5.01 @ 9:07a
You think Rear Window is better than What Lies Beneath? You liked Reindeer Games?
Thank you for using the words "Jordana Brewster" in a piece. I thought I was the only one who remembered her fading flame...
9.5.01 @ 9:24a
Ladies and gentlemen, my Iron Sous Chef, Mike Julianelle. Somebody had to translate my expressed willingness to fight into a more firm invitation into the ring.
I will pay $5 to anyone who can make an argument for What Lies Beneath over Rear Window that has even a shred of persuasive credibility. Not that they're not almost identical for the first half hour anyway. At least Gus Van Sant's Psycho a) credited its source and b) had a mote of originality: color.
Jordana Brewster is destined for a life of "you know, that girl with the dark hair who was in that movie with that guy, you know, THAT guy."
9.5.01 @ 9:54a
Yes, but Jordana goes to Yale.
On a side-note, can someone explain to me why The Faculty was so revered when it came out? It's garbage.
Oh my God Van Sant's remake of Psycho is one of the worst movies of all time. Bad idea.
And I still haven't seen What Lies Beneath, but I might, if only to get in the ring with you, Jael.
I was going to say something like "Michelle Pfeiffer is better looking than Grace Kelly," and then I was struck by lightning.
9.5.01 @ 10:14a
What difference does Yale make? I learned this weekend that Jessica Biel goes to Tufts. My school rocks. Put that in your celebrity worship pipe and smoke it.
I don't recall anyone, ever, anywhere, revering The Faculty. Except Harry Knowles, because he was in it, and got to TOUCH SALMA HAYEK. (Hm. I guess if I were aiming for real AICN verisimilitude I should get off this whole "accurate spelling" thing.)
9.5.01 @ 10:31a
I knew that Faculty comment was going to ruffle some (Jael's) feathers. It wasn't all that revered, I guess, but it got a bit too much positive press for my liking.
Chris O'Donnell went to BC Law, and he is very very talent-, well, at least more talented than Biel.
Oh, and Freddie Prinze Loser wears BC stuff in Summer Catch. Thanks for the endorsement.
I need to buy myself a celebrity worship pipe...
9.5.01 @ 11:23a
Feathers? I have feathers? Does that make me Hope?
And my left ear is more talented than Biel and O'Donnell combined. They could have a wooden-off and tie for last.
9.5.01 @ 11:44a
Nicely done, Jael. Nicely done.
Oh yeah, and just because you don't understand Pulp Fiction doesn't mean QT's a "pseudo-genius." 3 fantastic original screenplays, 1 masterpiece, 1 great movie, one good movie (Jackie Brown) and some stellar, ahem, acting, firmly places him in the established category. I don't think he is a fluke and I do think he'll be back. Times have changed, and he seems to be growing more and more niched with his choices, but he'll make some more good movies. Genius, well, who knows? Most people hesitate to call filmmakers geniuses, they rely on too many others for their art. And it's very easy to disappoint.
I have my fingers crossed that Nolan can keep it up. Following up something so original with a remake is a bit dicey, methinks.
9.5.01 @ 12:06p
Psuedo-genius was used as an adjective. And that's all I'll say about that.
Acting? Is that what QT was doing in Little Nicky?
(And yet again, an IM discussion devolves into a snippy, snappy movie debate between me and Mike. If Adam were here with a glib throwaway comment all would be right with the world.)
9.5.01 @ 12:22p
QT has become a caricature of himself. That's his biggest problem in my eyes. That and bad hair.
9.5.01 @ 1:00p
At the risk of sounding like one of those "kill your tv freaks" (second in freakiness only to the handing-out-jesus-paraphanalia freaks), allow me to make a suggestion: suspend (but by no means cancel) your People subscription, turn off the tube for a week, and go grab a taco with an 8-year old. Helps you get back to the basics. Hope that wasn't too optimistic.
(still awaiting snide comment from adam)
9.5.01 @ 3:35p
Allegra, excellent suggestion. Anybody got a spare 8-year-old lying around that I could borrow? I'll bring it back, I promise.
Speaking of jesus paraphenalia, my friend Dave has a "Your First Six Days In Hell" packet that's absolutely hilarious. And before anyone asks, this is a pamphlet he received, not a pamphlet he wrote. But it's rife with detail, and sheer Ha.
9.5.01 @ 4:30p
Since we got on the topic...
Who has seen http://jesus.com (with no www.)? It's the craziest thing ever. You can actually take a bath and have a beer with Jesus himself.
Jael, he lives in Virginia. He's tall. And he's the son of God. There's your man!
9.5.01 @ 5:31p
I checked it out. While I have nothing against either Jesus or a set of six-pack abs, the thought of the two in conjunction makes me oddly queasy.
It would never work out, anyway: he and I don't like the same restaurants. (Seriously, he recommends restaurants. And who goes to the Macaroni Grill unless they're actually physically trapped in the mall and the only other option is to gnaw off one's own arm?)
9.5.01 @ 5:37p
I enjoyed both his product endorsement of a sex lube, and how in lieu of a bubble bath you can "share a beer and some existential banter."
9.5.01 @ 8:01p
That is the best site I have ever seen. EXCEPT for: this.
Please, go there, scroll down, view the pictures. You owe yourself.
"Jesus shops for a Porsche."
9.5.01 @ 8:36p
Mike, somehow I knew you'd love Jesus. But then again, from his photo gallery, apparently there are others who love him just a bit more.
I love how we've effectively turned Jesus into pop culture.
9.5.01 @ 8:58p
2. Listen to "Da Number One."
3. Change briefs.
9.5.01 @ 9:54p
You boys scare the living daylights out of me. Do you spend actual time trolling for the sites of other men who use their sites to troll for women?
Jason, can you translate "I asked her about the 'h' thing" from the Supergreg site? What's the H thing? Heroin? Help? A hug? Or something Horrendous or Horrible that I'm better, and more innocent, for not knowing?
9.6.01 @ 2:24a
Jael - "your own...personal...Jesus..."
Reach out and touch faith, baby.
Regarding QT: From Dusk 'til Dawn." What the hell was that all about? George Clooney is no Buffy, or David Soul, for that matter.
how 'bout that past to present comparison, huh?
9.6.01 @ 8:08a
I figured out the H thing. Nevermind.
What stuns me even more about From Dusk Til Dawn is the making of a prequel -- and a sequel, if I remember correctly -- that were released straight to video. Apparently there are so few ideas in Hollywood we're even borrowing from and building on the stuff that's not particularly good.
Buffy and David Soul. Now that's quite a space-time continuum leapfrog.
9.6.01 @ 8:15a
And by the way, since no one has jumped in to defend Robert Downey Jr.'s performance in that lifeless Elton John video, I assume either a) no one's seen it or b) I'm right. Odds are 50-50.
9.6.01 @ 9:01a
Haven't seen it. And you're right.
But I DID see some of Anne Heche's preposterous interview on 20/20 last nite. Celestia. Good stuff.
Believe it or not, I thought the 1st half of Dusk til Dawn was okay. It was the 2nd, Lost Boys half that lost me.
9.6.01 @ 9:46a
Jael - how about Darren McGaven to David Soul to Buffy? :)
Also, I've seen the Elton John video, but I was so surprised to see VH1 playing a music video rather than "Madonna's Greatest TV Moments" that I think the shock paralyzed my sensory perceptors.
Mike - my hubby use Event Horizon as the "what the hell...?" bad movie indicator, as in "well, at least it wasn't as bad as Event Horizon." I agree with you - I was intrigued by FDTD until Cheech Marin popped up in a "different" role 5 minutes later...right away, the sirens went off. Consquently, the movie sank into the muck where EH resides.
9.6.01 @ 9:47a
oops = my hubby and I, that is.
9.6.01 @ 10:32a
Hey Tracey, I wasn't bashing The Lost Boys! In fact, I used to LOVE it. How about Darren McGavin to David Soul to Corey Haim to Buffy. Awww yeeeah!
And Event Horizon often gets referred to as a very scary movie. It's scary alright. Scary bad.
9.6.01 @ 11:29a
Event Horizon was a waste of those actors, a lot of money, and my time.
9.6.01 @ 12:40p
I can only think of two movies that beat out Event Horizon for worst movie ever.
1) Highlander 2 - What the hell was Sean Connery thinking? Maybe he needed some cash to add another bedroom or something.
2) The Color of Night - with Bruce Willis. It's the only movie I've ever walked out of and asked for my money back. Not a single redeeming quality to it.
9.6.01 @ 2:34p
Mike, I didn't think you were bashing Lost Boys; after all, there are good vampire films (LB, Fright Night) and bad ones ( FDTD, Bordello of Blood --which, by the very title, made no apologies and fulfilled it's promise)...so I took the comparison as relative.
Corey Haim rocked in that film. As did Sutherland and Patric. No wonder Julia had an eeny-meeny-miney-moe problem.
Matt - I liked Highlander 2 , but only because I enjoyed the whole series in general. Well, 4 kinda bit, but overall.
GAK - I've fallen into the "talking movies" trap! The snare...it...is..so...tight....
9.6.01 @ 2:44p
Tracey! Quick! Gnaw your leg off and get out of the movie trap! The rest of us are doomed, but you can save yourself!
I loved Highlander 1. 2 sucked. I couldn't bring myself to see the others.
9.6.01 @ 2:48p
Oh - and another thing. Call me a heartless wench (Adam...?) but I know a lot of other talented, aspiring actors who aren't doing blow and blowing multiple chances who would have loved to have gotten that SAG job. Steve Geiger? Are you reading this, dear? Line up Downey's agent - apparently he/she can get work for anybody, no matter how many times they screw up.
Sorry. Sympathy ran out a while ago.
9.6.01 @ 2:53p
Regardless of Downey's drug-scapades, and his second-plus chances are a bit much, but he has established himself as a talent. it's a lot harder to break in than break out.
Fright Night is good stuff! The first Highlander is great, but how Christopher Lambert got any roles where he was required to speak English is beyond me. He is miserable.
I never saw Highlander 2, thankfully. But I did see the miserable 3rd one with Mario Van Peebles. On tape. With my dad, who likes any and all fantasy/sci-fi, no matter how bad.
9.6.01 @ 2:57p
Jael, the two ultimate cheesy guy sites:
1. rubberburner.com (Watch "Tiger Gold Master Edition")
The amazing thing is that #2 is real, the guy's really trying.
9.6.01 @ 3:07p
Oh man Jay, that 10k4awife site RULES! In his list about himself he says: "living to be 110 years old is not unrealistic at all, I cannot tolerate arrogance!"
9.6.01 @ 3:36p
More from that clown:
"I am a closet Oprah fan. I think she should be shown in school classrooms to children."
Yeah, I bet the ladies are lining up.
9.6.01 @ 8:48p
So that's a yes to my "you guys troll the internet looking for guys who troll the internet for women" question?
Is this a "at least I'm cooler than THIS schmuck" thing?
And, out of curiosity, are there any similar sites of women trolling the internet for men? I bet not.
9.6.01 @ 9:11p
You mean other than the 50,000 mail order bride sites?
And whether Mike or Jason are cooler than that schmuck is up for debate.
9.7.01 @ 8:30a
I'll vouch for Mike, although I do know about his affection for/obsession with certain celebrities (whose initials are ED and SMG) which sometimes manifests on the internet. By the way, Mike, have you seen JASBSB about 80 times for the catsuit scene alone?
Matt, you'll have to vouch for Jason, taking into account the overengineered ambience lamps and everything.
9.7.01 @ 8:58a
Thanks, Jael, and no, I haven't seen it more than once. I don't even own Bring It On. Yet.
And I'm pretty sure I'm cooler than the 10k4awife guy, but I am DEFINITELY NOT cooler than Jesus. I want that robe.
9.7.01 @ 10:10a
I'll vouch for Mike, although I do know about his affection for/obsession with certain celebrities (whose initials are ED...)
Hey, you promised you wouldn't reveal me Ellen DeGeneres obsession! No fair!!!
9.7.01 @ 11:43a
Speaking of, um, Ellen DeGeneres, I didn't realize Soul Survivors was opening this weekend. Always a good sign when the studio "declines to screen [the] movie for critics," isn't it.
9.7.01 @ 11:51a
I didn't realize it either! But it's been pushed back for months! And I hear it has a very obvious 6th Sense-y storyline.
She don't got top billing either, so I'll wait till she has a) a more substantial role or b) a small role in a good movie I actually want to see.
9.19.01 @ 6:42p
Am I the only one who's seen Johnny Mnenemenonic? I think not.
The video is very good. The song is all out crap that makes me want to rip my own throat out.
9.20.01 @ 9:23a
I have seen Johnny Mnenenenemonic and wish you were the only one that had.
The video is smooth, and I'm sure they planned it with little X's and dotted lines like a Family Circus cartoon tracking Billy around the neighborhood. But Downey looks like he's working so hard not to overemote that he's sort of anti-emoting, and looks like hell. Absolute hell.
9.24.01 @ 8:46a
Yow. It always gives me pause to read sophisticated intellectual observations from people I've known since they were, what, three years old?
We are all acting all the time. Whether we can take lessons from the stars is up for debate. Is Chris O'Donnell then teaching by cautionary example?
9.24.01 @ 10:16a
I object to the possible anti-BC subtext in the above bashing of Chris O'Donnell.
It was obviously his undergraduate college that failed him. And bad genes.
9.24.01 @ 1:55p
I have no idea why I never got involved in this conversation. Might as well jump in now. a) The Color of Night had one redeeming quality - Jane March, naked 90% of the time. b) Worst movie I ever saw - Surf Nazis Must Die - not because it was bad (we expected it would be), but because it was mind-numbingly boring. c) Tracey's a heartless wench. d)To Allegra: I've also discovered that just eating an 8-year-old taco can also get you back to basics pretty quickly. e) Since when did I go from glib to snide? I resent that.
9.24.01 @ 2:12p
If you think "Surf Nazis Must Die" is the worst movie you've ever seen, you need to see more movies. There are at least a couple of circles of Cinematic Hell below that one.
Find a copy of "The Wizard of Gore" and get back to me...
9.24.01 @ 2:29p
Well, it's all personal opinion when they get that bad, isn't it? I just don't think I've ever liked a movie less.
9.24.01 @ 2:49p
It's all personal opinion at all levels, isn't it? One man's trash is another man's treasure etc.
Good movies of the past few weeks for me: Last Days of Disco, Eye of God, Hi-Life. Hard Eight wasn't bad either. The last really truly awful movie I saw was Moulin Rouge. Even Osmosis Jones and The Mexican had some redeeming qualities.
9.24.01 @ 3:40p
I saw the first 30 mins of Eye of God on IFC a few weeks ago, and if I hadn't had to drive to Connecticut, I would have watched it all. Sucked me in.
I like Hard Eight a lot, good cast and you can tell PT has skills.
9.24.01 @ 4:04p
Oh yeah, it's all about IFC. Both Eye of God and Hard Eight, which I'd wanting to see for a while, were fortunate surprises.
Mike, you and Matt can bond over pro-PT discussion, and leave me out of it. At least Hard Eight was, y'know, edited, in a way that would have greatly benefitted his other sprawling "epics."
9.24.01 @ 4:19p
I'm sure if Anderson had his way, Hard Eight would have been 3 hours long, too.
9.24.01 @ 4:24p
First of all, the only thing PT didn't get that he wanted on Hard Eight was his original title (Sydney), and SECOND OF ALL, Boogie Nights, in my opinion, doesn't need 1 trim. Not one. Top 10 of 90s. Magnolia, now you can make an argument for some editing there, but it's still one of the most ambitious, excitingly filmed, dynamically acted movies in a while. I'll take 10 overlong, flawed, questionably ended masterpieces over a Gladiator, a Green Mile, an Erin Brockovich (Soderbergh's mainstream piffle) or a Snatch any day. And TWICE on Sundays.
9.24.01 @ 4:32p
Hard Eight is a better title than Sydney.
Boogie Nights, while beautifully filmed and beautifully acted, was too self-consciously epic (epical? epicine?) and Magnolia's excellent performances (Tom Cruise) were more than countered by its unforgivable waste of the wonderful Julianne Moore and its complete failure to hang together thematically.
And you know I would never, ever use any of those examples (Brockovich?!?!) to claim superiority over PT's work. On the other hand, I think Magnolia was far inferior to its temporal counterparts The Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich, and even The End of the Affair.
If you're going to bash my boy Soderbergh's mainstream work you better take Out of Sight into account. Now that was a movie.
9.24.01 @ 5:03p
Hey, I LOVE Out of Sight, and The Limey, and Traffic. But Erin Brock was by the numbers, and will never be forgiven for getting Julia an Oscar when she was clearly trumped by Ellen Burstyn.
I think Magnolia is more self-conscious than Boogie Nights, it just tried for too much. It's easily Cruise's best performance. Far inferior to The Sixth Sense? The first 45 minutes are incredible, John C. Reilly is SO underrated, etc, etc... I like The Sixth Sense a lot, and M. Night has skills himself, but it's The Sixth Sense.
Boogie Nights is one of the funniest, well-acted movies around, and it handles a 70s/80s time frame with more subtlety and hilarity than dozens of other comedies deadset on mocking those decades.
Haven't seen EotAffair, prolly never will, and while Moore is a great actress, I think her performance in Mags is as much to blame as the writing of her role. Although I liked some of her stuff in it.