Lost in the Movies: You Don't Need a Metro To Know Which Way The Wind Blows (or It's All Over Now, Hollywood)

You Don't Need a Metro To Know Which Way The Wind Blows (or It's All Over Now, Hollywood)

Some thoughts on new media at the end of the Zeroes, on the cusp of the Teens

When the buzz hits the Metro, that ubiquitous subway news freebie, then it’s probably hit the mainstream. Sometimes this means the ebbing of a tide – as I suggested with July’s (500) Days of Summer free media blitz. With that campaign, it seemed that “indie” quirkiness had reached saturation point and it was time to start looking elsewhere for pop culture trends. Perhaps that “elsewhere” was the Metro itself. If their cover stories can mean the tide’s gone out, sometimes they seem to suggest a tide coming in, and that appears to be the case this weekend. Their picture of the Hollywood hills, partially obscured by the light bulb-crowned head of a young woman, is headlined “How recession is forcing creativity.” The cover image and inside article are just vague and suggestive enough to suggest that a “meme” (that increasingly popular academic word hijacked to mean a pattern of thought sweeping the culture) has begun to form.

It goes like this: a bad economy and new technology are combining to force new opportunities in media, both for consumers and creators. The Metro doesn't quite know what to make of this, and the short article by Heidi Patalano is more suggestive than demonstrative. A few names are mentioned, but they're mostly high-profile: Will Ferrel's Funny-or-Die.com, or pLot Multimedia, an "integrated marketing social networking solutions group." In other words, not exactly Joe Q. Public. However, the article also references "Chicago to Coronado," a Twitter-based soap opera text whose author claims, "books are being written on Twitter 140 characters at a time." She is also launching multimedia tie-ins to the ongoing story, and encouraging readers to participate in the plot.

Where all of this is headed, and what it means for "old" forms - in our case, narrative (or even experimental) films as opposed to viral one-off gags - remains unclear. Also unclear from the interesting, but necessarily brief, article: is this a "top-down" phenomenon, in which venture capitalists and celebrities are driving the market? What of the "long tail" phenomenon - the many bloggers, video uploaders, viral series creators - who have small audiences, but together form the majority of what's out there and have a combined viewership which equals or surpasses the big names? Patalano mentions marketing possibilities and quotes a pLot affiliate: "it’s a new revenue source that didn’t exist before."

Maybe so; it's certainly true that money has driven or at least facilitated creative endeavor since the first days when artists were commissioned to decorate public works. But could an important aspect of this phenomenon be a shift away from "revenue sources" and "top dollar"? Is there the possibility that opportunities for creative expression - in which one's work will actually reach an audience - are increasing for those who previously felt shut out? The article opens with a hat-tip to "grassroots creativity" but most of its examples remain on the high end. The piece mentions "consumers 'hav[ing] become filmmakers by creating their own films, uploading them and broadcasting them'" but does not expand on this idea. Are these films destined to stay within the relatively one-note, high-concept realm of gags and spoofs? Is there dramatic potential? Could features have an audience online? Of course, given the forced brevity and desired digest format of the free paper, these questions can only arise in this context, without being answered or even addressed.

Granted, these questions are not new. The mainstream celebration of user-created content arguably hit the mainstream in a big way three years ago, when Time Magazine controversially named "You" the Person of the Year, their cover featuring a computer screen with a reflective mirror inside the monitor. This was one of the signature moments of the passing decade, so the Metro is possibly a little late to the parade. But their cover story shows that the concept has legs, that it's shifting to accept new realities (with the emphasis on a "recession" escalating the transformation), and that the contours of viral potential still remain rough, vague, and nebulous. Which is a good thing for those hoping to participate in the definition and expansion of that potential.

I submit that we could be on the cusp of major new developments in art, entertainment, and pop culture - a bottom-up reorientation - but that there are big risks involved. One can be noted in the fact that Time Magazine celebrated "You" while the Metro focuses on bigger names and the consolidation of viral potential within high-end quarters: marketing firms rather than small homegrown cooperatives, Will Ferrell rather than the guy next door. There's no reason, with the tools and audience at hand, that media should continue to function in a top-down form.

Secondly, new creators could essentially ghettoize themselves in broad comedy, short-form one-offs, pure self-expression. An embrace of new technology and wider distribution should not mean an abandonment of old forms. When classic stories, artistic experiments, meaty drama are establishing a foothold in new media, then we'll know it's here to stay and is not merely a fad. (The emergence of Netflix with its catalog of previously difficult-to-find titles, the Criterion Collection with its high-end releases of great works on DVD, and online blogs facilitating discussion of classic films, has shown that - on the movie front at least - the digital revolution can encourage a renewed interest and celebration of a form's tradition, rather than the reverse.)

Meanwhile, as a corollary to the second point, the flip-side to this idea is equally true. When new developments in new media defy categorization and pigeonholing, they will really be doing something worthwhile. Start with tradition - not the ephemeral tropes of contemporary popular culture, but the deep roots that have nourished great works throughout human history - and then strike out for unknown territories. Such has always been the route for creative breakthroughs, artistic achievements, and truly resonant entertainment.

Finally, there's the risk, related to the second, that new media can have a cocooning effect. As works become more diverse, as social walls break down, as creators and viewers become more self-oriented, we could lose the sense of a culture which connects us with the outside world and with one another. Last year, the Obama campaign showed the potential for new media to do just the opposite - bringing people together, focusing their attention on society and creating a zeitgeist. In the light of 2008, this danger has abated, though disappeared it has not.

The real test will arrive in the coming decade. The Zeroes was a rather crummy epoch by most accounts, with war, terrorist attacks, economic collapse, and - less physically damaging, but further dispiriting - a cultural vacuum in which few major works were created and pop culture became more fragmented, trite and banal. But there's always been a silver lining in that cloud (increasingly sophisticated and appealing design, clever concepts and execution in television, most importantly the explosion of the internet). The next ten years could exploit this gathering potential and fuel a genuine cultural renaissance - one so spontaneous and individualized that it does not fit the media's preconceived notions and categories. God knows we're overdue. And whether your preferred meteorological metaphor is a sunburst or a cleansing storm, when the weathermen can't figure out what to say, we'll know we're onto something.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner, although - unlike many Examiner posts - the intro and a link were also cross-posted on this site at the time. Comments appeared on Wonders in the Dark, where this piece was linked as well.


Adam Zanzie said...

Liked that part where you pointed out that the Metro does a better job of honoring big names than Time sometimes seems to. At least when Vladimir Putin was their Person of the Year, it was a person.

"You" isn't worth a whole magazine issue cover, in my opinion.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks for dropping by, Adam.

I actually didn't really like the fact that the Metro "honored big names" in this case; it seemed to divert attention from what's actually exciting about new media potential. I mean, if all these new forms are going to bring us are Will Ferrell's jokey home movies, however hilarious, it's going to be a bit of a letdown.

As for the "You" cover while easy and somewhat amusing to poke fun at, I think it was a stroke of genius. They've toyed with the "Person of the Year" designation so many times, that it's no longer a huge shock when they don't pick a singular person; and by designating "You" they probably spotlighted the signature trend of the decade.

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