About a month ago, as several friends got drunk and prepared food for a party later that evening, the TV droned somewhere in the distance. At some point in the afternoon, Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein appeared onscreen, and no one bothered to shut it off. For an hour or two the hypnotically grating high-pitched rodents serenaded us with their screams and weirdly precise vocal delivery; I caught very little of the movie as I wandered in and out of the room but what I saw (and heard) fascinated me. How bizarre that from a dark and stormy night early in 19th century Geneva, as a group of Romantic poets and intellectuals told ghost stories to keep themselves amused, we wind up with a colorful cartoon of squeaky-voiced, commercially-driven anthropomorphized animals chased around by a creature so familiar to us that it's naturally assumed even the toddlers watching will already know his name.
Interestingly, the movie itself - from what I saw - is not just about "Frankenstein" (or rather, Dr. Frankenstein's creation, but who has the energy to contest it anymore?); it's also about the Frankenstein legacy. The characters meet the monster in a theme park (that perfect 80s/90s symbol of pop cultural experience boiled down to its essence) devoted to monster movies, relics of a past which can be played with and repurposed. Meanwhile, with the passage of time even Alvin and the Chipmunks Meets Frankenstein itself belongs to the pop cultural past - no longer a casual exercise in postmodernism, but a relic of nostalgia. (If that thought makes you feel old, try this on for size: scrolling through You Tube, I came across a trailer for the terrible-looking live-action/CGI Alvin reboot from a few years ago, with its raunchy jokes and hip-hop references. One commentator nostalgically remembered how young he was when this film came out - in 2007! - and how time flies. He ain't kidding...)
Alvin and his monster pal were hardly alone in reappropriating history and filtering it through a vividly contemporary framework (the cartoon begins with an elaborately recreated "spooky" black-and-white sequence which is of course more about how the 80s half-remembers 30s horror films than how they actually are). In the 80s, kids' entertainment went into hyperactive hyperdrive, partly because movie studios and TV networks had discovered the goldmine of school-age audiences (to the point of refocusing the entire pop culture on them), partly because thirty- or fortysomething baby boomers were rising to positions of creative influence and financial power within the entertainment industry. This generation fused its pursuit of pleasure with its self-conscious absorption of previous cultural iconographies to give 80s child culture its distinctive flavor. For example, just contrast the crude drawings and simple storylines of the 60s chipmunks with the almost excessively lavish illustrations and narratives accompanying their 80s incarnations.
Perhaps the best example of how kids' culture swallowed and regurgitated pop (and for that matter, "high") culture is "Muppet Babies," itself a spin-off of a (relatively) more adult phenomenon, Jim Henson's highly original and culturally ubiquitous marionette-puppets. In the 1984 film The Muppets Take Manhattan (the third spin-off movie of a TV variety show which was itself a spin-off of 60s commercials and talk show appearances) the ever-romantic Miss Piggy imagines a childhood singalong in which she and Kermit the Frog devote themselves to love at the tender age of two. This elaborate one-off joke quickly evolved into a long-running animated series; the nursery set and costumes were adopted whole-hog from the musical interlude.
The resultant cartoon also utilizes Yellow Submarine-inflected, Gilliamesque stock photos and film footage as surreal backdrops. Frequently the characters on "Muppet Babies" will transform, via their overactive imaginations, a potted plant into a forbidding jungle, a baseball rolled under a couch into Wrigley Field, or a dark and spooky basement into the Temple of Doom itself (literally; footage from the Indiana Jones film is spliced into the cartoon). Entire episodes are elaborate recreations of 70s/80s blockbusters like Star Wars or E.T., cutting between the "real" nursery set and the world as imagined by the excitable tots, while others draw on storybooks (or more likely, the movies made from storybooks) such as Wizard of Oz, Snow White, or The Three Musketeers. Meanwhile more generic signifiers - from western saloons to jungle safaris to sci-fi space voyages - are sprinkled throughout the show, intercut with the sparkling-clean and brightly colorful nursery, from which the mini-adventurers safely stage their playacting. The result is a rather trippy meta-examination of the discrepancy between reality and imagination, the world we actually move in and the way we reimagine it in our heads - a kind of Celine and Julie Go Boating for the preschool set.
Even having grown up with this stuff, maybe especially having grown up with this stuff, I'm bewildered and fascinated by the leaps of association and cross-references taking place here. Already children's entertainment seems to have shifted toward a different approach today, perhaps more basic and less allusive, but an entire generation had its omnivorous sensibilities shaped in the process. You can see the results in the popularity of aggressively and ironically hyper-referential cartoon comedies like "Family Guy" and "Robot Chicken," or the youth-fueled mashups of You Tube. These products lack the good-natured unironical attitude of "Muppet Babies" (as well as its unapologetic, coyly unaware commercialism); both they and it could and have been condemned as glib postmodernism, pop cultural narcissism taken to its extreme, a kind of airless bubble of endless free-association in which context is sacrificed for content-free content.
I myself have taken this dismissive tone at times, especially regarding the Ouroborosian nature of 00s pop culture, greedily gobbling its own tail while ignoring the vivid and dramatic reality surrounding its narcisstic coil. And yet I think there's something else going on too, something valuable and rich with potential. A month ago, David Thomson observed this as well, cautiously celebrating discursive viral reinventions of pop culture while wondering where it could go. Really, though, the possibilities are endless. If Alvin and Kermit felt free to simply incorporate and recontextualize the familiar to tell a story (or sell toys) why not connect this hyperawareness to a deeper sense of meaning - perhaps including the work which originally inspired all the associations to begin with!
One of the central tenets of postmodernism is that you can't go home again (and unlike modernism, this is typically taken as a good thing or at least something not worth brooding over). Pandora's out of the box and from now on everything of significance has merely become - or will soon become - empty shells with sharp outlines carrying only a faded impression of their old spirit. But this cheerful pessimism strikes me as shortsighted. "Frankenstein" is both an absorbingly Gothic romantic tale, with a straggly quasi-human baring little resemblance to the flat-topped monster embodied by Boris Karloff and an iconic green figure recognized from Halloween costumes and Saturday morning cartoons every year. A great painting is a vivid, arresting experience and a mechanically-reproduced shorthand usable without half a thought in a print advertisement.
We can move freely, not without effort but the effort's up to us, between Plato's cave and the shadowless world outside (and, importantly, back into the cave to take what we will). Once we realize this, the tools at hand to express ideas, feelings, experiences, experiments, become thrillingly wide-ranging and flexible. The ability to borrow, adapt, and repurpose the culture that surrounds us may begin in the nursery or the theme park - but where it leads is ultimately up to us.