Greg Oguss on Pop Culture
News from the 90210 District and Adjacent Territories
Everyone wants to be rich and famous. That’s a truism, like “You can never be too rich or too thin,” as the Duchess of Windsor said back in the 19th century when people were romanticizing the TB-chic look, the pre-cursor to today’s heroin-chic look sported by anorexic models everywhere. A truism is something that people accept in principle but is not necessarily a fact. In 2008, however, the truism that “everyone wants to be rich and famous” is a fact. As is the truism “Everyone wants to fuck young girls,” once spouted by noted child-fucker Roman Polanski in an interview with British novelist Martin Amis. Amis wrote that at the time of their conversation, he’d had the good manners not to retort, Yes, Roman, that may be true, but you went ahead and did it.
While the American media catches some unjustified flak for being pedophiliac, it’s undeniable that seemingly every image they spew out seems meant to suggest if you’re not as good-looking as J.Lo and Marc Anthony and as successful as Jay-Z and Beyoncé, you might as well throw in the towel. A critique of this notion was part of the “subversive” appeal of David Fincher’s Fight Club, based on the book by that guy whose last name I can’t pronounce. Sure, Chuck Palahniuk has thought up some great premises. But his narrative execution of his provocative ideas is fairly weak. It took the talents of a visual stylist like Fincher, fresh off the blockbuster success of Seven, to fully animate the anti-capitalist and anti-commercialist themes of Fight Club. Everybody remembers the Filmmaking 101 class taught by Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden midway through the movie, during which Durden disrupts the illusionism of what academics call “the cinematic apparatus” by pointing out those “cigarette burns” in the corner of the frame that alert the projectionist when it’s time to change reels. It also required the visual medium of cinema to transmit the “subversive” thrill in these scenes and many others like it. At the end of the day, however, it was primarily the charisma of noted hottie Brad Pitt, one-half of the two-headed monster known as Brangelina, which helped make Fight Club such a memorable experience and a box-office success. So while the film was justly praised for shouting “enough!” to the cultural imperative that success equals beauty, money and power, its casting of that hot-body tabloid fave Brad Pitt somewhat undercuts its own message. This is why I can only use a word like “subversive” ironically when discussing a movie like Fight Club, or any Hollywood film for that matter.
Mainstream Hollywood flicks can’t really be subversive. This is because they need to appeal to a large enough audience that will allow them to turn a profit. This leads to the use of studs like Pitt in movies meant to critique the idea that “success equals physical beauty, fame, fortune.” Pitt possesses all three of these things up the ass. And don’t get me started on his incredible ass. Fight Club is forced to undercut its own message because “cash rules everything around me,” as the title of this column tells you. I live in Los Angeles aka ground zero for all of the entertainment that consumers watch and listen to all over the globe. So I’m not being flippant or ironic when I tell ya, “Cream!, get the money, dollar, dollar, bill y’all,” to quote the Wu-Tang Clan, 9 distinct personalities from Staten Island who came together to form the most powerful cohesive force in the history of Hip Hop. The Wu emerged in the early 1990s, at a time when the West Coast had the rap game in a choke-hold. When the Wu, Nas and the Notorious B.I.G. all hit the charts almost simultaneously in 1994, New York briefly regained the dominance it had enjoyed in rap’s early days. While the nerve center of Hip Hop used to be NYC, the nerve center of capitalism has always been Wall Street at the southern tip of Manhattan. But in the digital era, geography matters less and less. Films and records are made all over the world, as are many television shows, although the majority of the latter are shot on soundstages in and around Los Angeles. But the decision-makers who decide what type of music you get to hear, and which films and TV shows are green-lighted all live on the West Side of Los Angeles, hereinafter known as the 90210 district after that great hipster show of the 1990s, Beverly Hills 90210.
90210 starred Shannen Doherty as Brenda Walsh and Jason Priestley as her twin brother Brandon, two All-American kids forced to move out to Los Angeles from Bumblefuck, Minnesota, thanks to a promotion Dad receives from his firm. In L.A., Brenda and Brandon get an eye-opening education about Life in the Fast Lane upon enrolling at West Beverly High School. The show was a trashy adult soap for teens and twentysomething hipsters produced by the legendary king of the nighttime soaps Aaron Spelling and created by Darren Star who would go on to produce that patently fake vision of New York City as a paradise of unlimited leisure time, affordable health clubs and acres of shoe stores known as Sex and the City. He got the acres of shoe stores right, anyway. Shannen Doherty’s tabloid-grabbing antics, obnoxious crooked smile and Brenda’s bitchiness helped make her the teen star that everyone loved to hate and “I Hate Brenda” fan clubs began to appear. These days, there would be a host of MySpace sites and Facebook Fan pages vying to see who could attract the largest number of friends. Priestley was the poor man’s Brad Pitt of his era, although Luke Perry’s James Dean wannabe Dylan McKay was the bad-boy heartthrob on the show. Perry and Priestley popularized the carefully trimmed, long sideburn look that’s still sported by hipster dudes circa 2008, which is indicative of something.
What all my time spent watching one of Fox’s lamest hits of the early 1990s can help us understand is that hipster shows like 90210 and hipster flicks like Fight Club actually matter. Sure, I think all those twentysomething hipster dudes skulking around Silver Lake in L.A. with their Flying Burrito Brothers t-shirts still wearing their sideburns like Dylan McKay and Brandon Walsh are all fuckwads to the nth degree. They only dig Gram Parsons (extra hipster points since he died a heroin addict!) because somebody told them they were supposed to. None of those Silver Lake wannabes have any idea that their haircuts were popularized by a show that hit the air when they were approximately seven years old created by the same gay man who created the recent hipster series Sex and the City. Sex and the City is important because it promotes a fantasy image of New York that’s unattainable. It’s unattainable because it doesn’t exist, although most people who’ve never lived in the city accept it at face value. This is because they’ve seen it on popular shows like Seinfeld and it’s more mentally retarded cousin Friends and in those great Woody Allen movies of the 1970s and 80s. Fight Club and Chuck P. are hipster faves, too. I know this because the former is the “most popular film” in the USC network on Facebook, of which I’m a member, as a graduate of the MA program at the USC School of Cinema-Television. I don’t have any solid numbers for you on how hip Palahniuk is. But he is a favorite of all the pseudo-literati I’m friends with on MySpace, few of whom could tell the difference between a quote by the Duchess of Windsor or a quote by Susan Sontag (who hipped me to that quote from the Duchess in her essay Illness as Metaphor) if their lives depended on it.
Trumpeting your knowledge of the oeuvre of Susan Sontag won’t win you any hipster points, although it might impress some snooty East Coast intellectuals who live in that fictional version of New York in those Woody Allen flicks I mentioned. These days, visual literacy is really all that counts. Most young people get their information about the world at large from films, television, music and non-fiction posted online. The simplest evidence of this is the fact that while illegal downloading has seriously harmed the bottom line of major record labels and movie studios, digital piracy hasn’t really affected book publishing, although thanks to the “copy-and-paste” function, literature posted online can easily be stolen. With that in mind, aside from the occasional reference to literary figures like the late Susan Sontag and that guy whose name I can’t pronounce, this column will deal artists who produce images and sounds that have turned a profit by capturing the imagination of the visual literacy generation. That doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally write about a highly anticipated box-office flop or a once popular artist who’s experiencing a rough patch in their career. But this isn’t a column on “Un-Popular Culture.” If you want to know my thoughts on the significance of Andy Warhol’s films with his stable of Factory Superstars, which nobody got paid to appear in, Warhol was never compensated for and have only been sporadically exhibited and distributed, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll discuss the per-word fee I typically charge for an essay. But here’s a warning from my homie Jay-Z, “We can talk, but mo’ money talks louder, so talk mo’ bucks.”