Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Centrist Dystopias

Recently remarking the way the YA boom that was so impressive in the early 21st century, and especially the early '10s, collapsed, I was mainly interested in the role of our digital devices, and especially that of the smart phone--the way the smart phone's proliferation had everyone carrying the whole package of entertainment options with them everywhere as a matter of course, not only providing more alternatives to reading, but being relatively inimical to reading, in situations where people used to get a lot of their reading done (commuting, flying, etc.); and this, perhaps, especially affecting the young, who may have been less accustomed to reading.

Still, I also thought the content being offered had distinct limits--and it seems to me worth enlarging on that now. Among much else I had in mind the dystopian scenarios we got. In Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry I used the term "centrist dystopias" to refer to them. At the time I used the term "centrist" in the more general way people use the term than I do now, to refer to a watery middle-of-the-road position--and "centrist dystopia" to mean a society that no one, at least no one anywhere near the mainstream of American political discourse (at least before these disgraceful last several years), would call anything but a deeply unattractive social order (Suzanne Collins' Panem, for example).

Even so, I still think the term applicable, reflecting as it does the essential features of centrism in the narrow sense--avoidance of deep and probing social analysis and criticism, an aversion to calls for change generally and virtual ruling out of anything but the smallest adjustments, a stress on agreement among those interests recognized as within the mainstream, with the same results that centrism produces, not least a shallowness about the conception.* (Yes, Panem is a horrible place. But why did we end up there? Of that she does not have much to say as compared with, for example, Jack London, George Orwell, Frederik Pohl and any number of other authors of really classic dystopias in their own works.) The result was that people could see what they wanted to--not just the center but right and left claiming it for themselves.

Considering all this it seems to me that (while this is not the only factor in the dystopia bubble's going bust) all of this has become less viable--for many reasons, but one of which is the tenor of politics, and especially the current and probably increasing level of of public polarization. If people were ready to accept centrist dystopias in the '00s and early '10s the wake of the presidential election of 2016, Qanon, Charlottesville, "Russigate," "1-06"--and pandemic, and full-blown major land war on NATO's doorstep as war brews at the other end of Eurasia, and so much else--I suspect watery "dystopia for everyone" will no longer do. Authors would seem less able to avoid taking some stance toward such events, and the developments behind them, rather than talking about a place that might be bad in some general way. Failing to do so the public is also likely to be less charitable to those who play it safe--thinking them cowardly and contemptible, or behind the evasions "on the other side," and feeling less charitable toward that, with all that means for those who do declare themselves, who get punished for doing so more severely than they would have been before. This may have factored into those who dared to play the game one way or the other having so much less less success, while those who were cannier about their careers opted not to play the game at all--save, perhaps, to continue milking some old success, as Suzanne Collins has done (with the prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes a bestseller, and the inevitable film adaptation coming your way in November 2023).

* These days I use it to mean that tendency originating in mid-twentieth century Cold War anti-Communist conservatism stressing pragmatism, pluralism and the sustenance of "consensus" behind the existing social order, which has tended to be the "center" in America, even if this is much more than mere middle-of-the-roadness.

Black Panther 2's Fourth Weekend

Black Panther 2 took in some $18 million in its fourth weekend, bringing its gross during the first twenty-four days of its North American run to $394 million.

But how much higher will it go?

Once more the original Black Panther can seem a good first point of comparison. That movie took in $562 million in the same period--working out to 80 percent of its total. If Black Panther 2 likewise manages to expand its 24-day take by another 25 percent then it will finish up in the vicinity of $500 million, which does not seem wholly implausible.

Still, there is the fact that the film is fading faster. The original Black Panther not only opened "bigger" ($202 million on opening weekend, which is $240-$250 million in today's terms, versus Black Panther 2's $181 million), but in spite of the particularly large opening in its fourth weekend took in 20% of what the movie made in its first three days ($41 million). By contrast in its fourth weekend Black Panther 2 made less than 10 percent of what it did in its more modest opening weekend (under $18 million)--a fact offsetting the better hold it got from a Thanksgiving day release.

Once again, its trajectory looks less like that of Black Panther than that of Thor 4, which made about the same relative to its first weekend in its fourth (9.2 rather than 9.7 percent). That movie made 88 percent of its gross by that point. Assuming Black Panther 2 to be doing the same it would be headed for a gross in the vicinity of $450 million.

Meanwhile the overseas earnings are likely to be proportionate. Currently running 86 percent of the domestic gross, should this trend continue down to the end of the film's run the movie would end up making $390-$430 million. The result is that the global take would be in the $840-$930 million range--once more, under a billion dollars, and especially at the low end of the range--which I think the more likely outcome--not much more than a disappointing Thor 4 ($761 million), somewhat less than the not-quite-all-that-was-hoped-for Dr. Strange 2 ($956 million), and in realterms, perhaps just half of what the original Black Panther made ($1.6-$1.7 billion in 2022 dollars).

As is usually the case in such matters the entertainment press will look on the bright side--but it is still a far from overwhelming response to the first sequel to Marvel's big event movie of just a few years ago, and to the close of Marvel's "Phase 4." Indeed, with the profitability of the film possibly in doubt (even allowing for all the ambiguities in these matters one can only be sure if a movie makes five times its production budget, which $800-$900 million is not in this case) whether the movie was a hit or a flop is doubtless already the cause of the usual ferocious arguments among the culture warriors (on both sides of the line) who seem to think their arguments about (usually) mediocre, forgettable movies, the most important issue of an epoch of pandemic, war, economic catastrophe and ecological collapse--while adding immensely to the anxieties of Disney's shareholders, board and executives as, on top of the other troubles beleaguering the once unstoppable-seeming Disney machine, flop is piled atop flop piled atop flop. (Indeed, looking beyond the aforementioned Marvel-based disappointments, Black Panther 2 scarcely had a chance to let the company's "leadership" down before the megabuck autumn release Strange World crashed and burned, just months after Lightyear underperformed, while in America, at least, the $175 million Turning Red was sent straight to video, where, as Warner Bros' recent conduct reminds everyone, nothing that pricey can really make enough to cover its cost, even with the benefit of a far friendlier reception than it got.)

What, if anything, the management will do about the situation is another matter entirely.

"Neoliberal Superheroes"

It has long seemed to me that the superhero's popularity today is primarily a cinematic phenomenon, and that the superhero's stature as king of the box office has more to do with the need of film studios for splashy action-packed sci-fi spectacle with salable brand names attached than anything really to do with the narrative or thematic content of superhero stories.

Of course, that is not to say that the narrative and thematic content of those films is meaningless. Quite the contrary, I do think that those films reflect significant tendencies within contemporary culture as a great deal of the analysis demonstrates quite successfully (with, to cite but one piece, Keith Spencer's piece in Salon sufficiently impressive on that score to raise my opinion of that web site a notch, at a moment when my opinion of the great majority of media outlets has been plummeting).

Most of this comment stresses the right-wing tendency of the superhero genre (e.g. its affirmation of defense of the status quo by an elite using force as good), and in particular the neoliberal character of its more recent incarnations (in its ultra-individualism, its imbibing of the "Silicon Valley" mythology about technology even in the depiction of places like Wakanda, etc.).

However, as with so much else of what we get from the media (the entertainment media as well as the news media) all this seems to me to say much more about the values of the elite who get to make movies, and set the tenor for contemporary culture more broadly (which has been resolutely neoliberal in our times), than these ideas necessarily having all that much purchase with the public--precisely because of the way in which it experiences action films, as casually enjoyed, highly disposable spectacles received at a neurological rather than dramatic level (while taking rather less interest in the form in those media where story, character, theme would mean more--like the comic books from which these characters hail).

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Black Panther 2's Second Weekend: A Note

Here's the post I wrote after Black Panther 2's second weekend. I didn't get it posted in time, but thought it best to put it up here unamended, even if it is already a bit dated with the third weekend (the topic of an upcoming post) now behind us.

Black Panther 2 has taken in some $67 million in its second weekend--a 63 percent drop from its debut of a week before. This is, of course, no disaster for a highly anticipated and therefore front-loaded sequel coming off of an opening boosted by a holiday weekend release, which, seeing the film take in $181 million, was quite healthy.

But it's also not evidence of exceptional legs, either, a lack which matters the more because the big $180 million weekend was not all that was hoped for (actually on the low end of expectations), with this reflected in the film's take to date--$288 million in tickets sold in North America alone.

Compare that to the $403 million the original banked in 2018 in the same time frame. Given that Black Panther at that point had taken in about 58 percent of its total, the implication is that Black Panther 2, following the same trajectory, could yet take in $500 million. But that would be well short of the $700 million the original Black Panther took in (let alone the $820-$860 million with which we could credit it, should we adjust the numbers for inflation), while it stands to reason that, as sequels tend to do, the film will fade faster.

Again, I find myself thinking of the trajectory of Thor 4, which banked about two-thirds of its money in its first ten days ($233 million of its eventual $343 million take). If Black Panther 2 goes the same route that would mean the movie's winding up with that $430 million previously suggested as the low end of the range.

Assuming that $430-$500 million range the movie's even breaking the billion-dollar barrier globally seems in doubt now, and again the gross of $800 million or less still a plausible estimate of the low end of the range for the final take. Still making for a great hit by almost any other standard, where this franchise is considered it would, as about half what the original made in "real," inflation-adjusted terms ($1.4 billion in 2018 dollars, $1.6-1.7 billion in 2022 dollars), be something less than that. Indeed, in going by the rule of thumb that production budgets are matched by marketing budgets, and studios keep 40-50 percent of the take (while the contribution of subsidies and other supports is unknown), anything short of $1.2 billion is suspect as making for less than that profit on the basis of first-run release ticket sales on which producers bank.

All that being the case the executives, going by the usual calculus, would not rush to green-light another $250 million production under the Black Panther banner.

Still, the Marvel Cinematic Universe means that the executives will not abide by that usual calculus. A $250 million budget does leave some room to make a still-big movie with a smaller budget the next time around, while cross-overs and the like can easily tie up the next trip to Wakanda with other characters and plots for the sake of propping up the next release. The result is that even the underperforming Black Panther 2 described here may yet be followed up by a Black Panther 3 in some form, and sooner rather than later.

Black Panther 2's Third Weekend

As of its third weekend Black Panther 2 has taken in just under $368 million--by all conventional measures, a healthy sum indeed. But this is, again, a case of exceptional expectations--not least, given the response to the original Black Panther.

So how does it compare with the first film at the box office thus far?

At the same point in its release--17 days into its North American run--the first Black Panther had taken in $502 million.

So basically that movie had taken in 72 percent of its total North American gross ($700 million).

Assuming Black Panther 2 to be doing the same then it would be bound for something in the area of $510 million--a little higher than my prediction regarding the high end of the range, but not by much, while I think there is reason to expect that it will not hold up quite as well after this point. The main reason is that Black Panther 2 has had a boost from having two of its first three weekends be holiday weekends, with Thanksgiving coming just two weeks after its opener on Veteran's Day, giving it an upward nudge. As a result the next weekend may see a commensurate dip, enough of one that I still expect the film to finish up below the half billion dollar mark--while, with the overseas gross still likely to fall short of the domestic, this would work out to the film falling short of $1 billion at the global level (as against the $1.4 billion of the first film in 2018, and the $1.6-$1.7 billion to which this works out in today's dollars), with all that implies for the bottom line, and if not the prospect of a Black Panther 3, then at least its likely shape.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Is the Media Trying Harder to Convince Us That Cinematic Flops Have Been Hits?

Not long ago I wrote about how film critics have become much more prone to give good reviews of films this past decade or so--in spite of the fact that no one (well, not anyone sane) seems to think film has actually got better (and many regarding the situation as having got worse, artistically).

These days it seems that the coddling of the film industry by the entertainment press extends to a similar bias in regard to appraisal not just of the quality of films, but their commercial performances--attempting to convince us that a move that, relative to the investment of resources in it and the expectations held for it, may actually have been a disappointment, was actually a success, more frequently than it might have done before. (Just off the top of my head I can recall such cases being made this year for The Batman and Thor 4 and Black Adam, with Black Panther 2 starting to seem to me a candidate for the same treatment.)

The motivation for this seems obvious enough. All other things being equal (for instance, if there isn't a bottom-line advantage in treating something as a failure, like the preference for taking a tax break on Batgirl to actually finishing and releasing the movie) no business wants its product, no Artist or Suits wants their creation, to be called a failure--and the press is highly accommodating that way. At the same time there is a desire to present films one personally favors--or wants to be seen as favoring--as successes; to depict the public as sharing their tastes and valuations. (Thus did the "woke" crow over Wonder Woman and Black Panther, while the right crowed over Top Gun 2, with neither much interested in the abundance of details of the films and their reception that complicate their triumphalism.) And the last three years have created enormous ambiguity about just what counts as a success. (People have very short memories--but the near-normal box office of the summer of 2022 was a long way from the still severely hobbled box office of 2021.) The result is that it was easier for people to come to the conclusions they wanted to draw.

Still, that what the mainstream of entertainment journalists says so often seems at odds with the reality--in this case, a more easily checkable reality than aesthetic appraisals (box office grosses and reported budgets are only part of the story, but plenty to enable even amateurs to make reasonable guesses about success and failure)--likely adds to the cynicism about the mainstream media and the bitterness of the culture wars in which argument about any given Friday's release has become so prominent.

Jack London's Anti-Nietzscheanism in Martin Eden

Jack London is said to have thought that, at least on the level of his intended conveyance of his critique of the individualistic outlook exemplified by the then-fashionable Nietzscheanism, his book Martin Eden was a failure. I understand his disappointment--but think that the point he was making was hardly obscure. Admittedly when I came to the book I already knew London's intent--from having read earlier works of his, like The Sea-Wolf (and his too little talked-about dystopia The Iron Heel, and his posthumously published The Assassination Bureau), and some of the associated criticism. Still, the critique of individualism seemed to me not just powerfully present, but often explicit. (Late in the book Martin's friend Russ Brissenden, telling Eden that his view of life simply will not do, says to him that "I'd like to see you a socialist before I'm gone," because "It will give you a sanction for your existence . . . the one thing that will save you in the time of disappointment that is coming to you," by "handcuffing him to life." The words prove prophetic by the book's close--as Martin's fate confirms what Russ said negatively.)

Still, I think that London's treatment of the theme here was less focused and forceful than it was in The Sea-Wolf in particular--the destruction of Wolf Larsen making a more powerful impression that way than the destruction of Eden. I suppose this had something to do with The Sea-Wolf being a shorter, tighter, more focused work, with a more conventional dramatic structure (and more melodramatic, rawer scenario) than Eden's long and comparatively formless struggle to make his way in the world as a writer (which was true to the "writing life," swhich gave that book's handling of the oft-treated theme a very, very rare truthfulness and force, but was not necessarily what makes for a dramatically satisfying work). The rhythm of the work, all the other things going on in it--the fact that Eden lacks an antagonist and foil to really compare with the challenge Humphrey Van Weyden presented him (Brissenden is too briefly present, too enfeebled, to be such a challenge)--worked against it.

All the same, a classic the book deservedly remains.

Is Black Panther 2 a Commercial Failure?

Hollywood's release schedule continues to normalize. The summer release schedule was thinner than usual (a mere four top-grade would-be action-adventure blockbusters), with the last released in July and the next three months, again, on the light side by the standards of 2019 and before. But from late October forward the slate, if not quite so packed with likely big winners as in some years (or it seems likely to be in 2023), does contain some plausible mega-hits. Most obviously there is Avatar 2, which seems far and away the film most likely to take the American and global box office crown away from Top Gun 2. However, there has also been the Veteran's Day weekend release, Black Panther 2--the follow-up to the #1 film at the American box office of its own year (2018).

That movie, of course, appeared just when Marvel was at about its peak as a commercial draw--the late '10s, circa what would have been regarded as the triumphant climax and conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe had the franchise's runners opted to go out strong at the end of "Phase Three." And there was the promotion of the film as a civil rights "first" (which was a major reason why, in contrast with the rest of the world, Black Panther and not Avengers 3 was the highest-grossing movie in America in 2018). Neither factor can be considered operative with Black Panther 2's release, while the film may also be said to have had the disadvantage of replacing not only its lead actor, but its lead character (in yet another gender switch Black Panther's sister Shuri taking up his mantle).

In spite of all that the movie seems to be selling a lot of tickets at the North American box office--if not so many as some of the more bullish initial projections (which ran as high as $225 million), then at least enough to make the bottom end of that range ($180 million), and leave the film's backers with what would ordinarily be regarded as a respectable sum banked at this stage of the game. Still, the film is a long, long way from matching the gross of the original--$700 million back in 2018, which adjusting for inflation is more like $820-$860 million today (depending on whether one goes by the Consumer Price Index generally or ticket prices specifically), and it is far from clear that it will close the gap, some projections anticipating the film's run ending with just half that $800 million+ figure in North America (a bit north of $400 million). Meanwhile the international box office (which, again, was less enthusiastic about the first movie than the North American, treating the movie as a regular Marvel film, not the milestone it was in the U.S.) would seem unlikely to compensate--especially with, once again, the Marvel movie not playing in China (where the first Black Panther film had made $100 million).

Accordingly it seems likely that the movie will end up with a good deal less banked than the original--maybe even falling short of the $1 billion mark that the first so easily crossed at the global level (and that in today's depreciated dollars, never mind any adjustment for constant dollar values). Indeed, given the likelihood of the gross being at the lower end of the range, and the reality that the first film did a bit less than half its business abroad, even with China included (just 49.3 percent), a Black Panther movie making, for example, $430 million in North America during a global release not unlike that of the last time, but with China out of the picture, might not unreasonably be expected to finish up under the $800 million mark globally.

Of course, having produced that number one is left with what they are to make of it. Judging the success and failure of particular films is a lot harder these days than it was a mere few years ago. This is partly because the bar for success has been raised so high by a handful of really big movies, and it must be admitted, by the immense resources and hype put into far more movies than can possibly attain that bar (the studios unavoidably making a great many gambles they know will not pay off much, or at all, even at the blockbuster level, because commercially blockbusters are their least-worst option). Part of it is, too, that the box office, like everything else in this age of pandemic, recession, inflation and war--of life as itself the Disaster Movie--becomes more volatile. And admittedly it still feels strange to me to call a movie that grosses $800 million (something maybe a dozen films do a year) a flop. Still, a sequel's making just a bit over half of what the original did is not usually considered a spectacular success. Indeed, thinking of this as a matter of Black Panther 2 making the same money as Thor: Love and Thunder did (and less globally than the original made domestically in inflation-adjusted terms) drives home the sense of, if a flop only in a very relative and marginal sense, at least less than might have been not unreasonably hoped for by the film's backers.

Additionally, with this coming on top of the performance of Thor 4--and Shang-Chi--and The Eternals--and Black Widow--reaffirms a sense of Marvel's "Phase Four" being on the whole a disappointment compared with the preceding phases, and very plausibly Marvel's passing the peak of its box office power.* Marvel's Phase Five, which will debut in February 2023 (with Ant-Man 3, and two more major releases in just the next five months), may restore the franchise's fortunes, but I have to admit that I am not too optimistic about that, the essential material simply too played out (indeed, the making and reception of Thor 4 seemed to me a textbook example of what happens when one exploits a character for far too long). And so a giant Marvel is likely to remain for quite some time--but a giant in decline. Just like that other Disney property, Star Wars. However, where Marvel was in the ascendant as Star Wars was declining (this tendency arguably evident from 2002, when for the first time a year with a main line Star Wars movie saw it fail to claim the #1 spot at the box office, beaten out for the top spot by the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man) no other franchise, no other genre, even, seems to be in the ascendant now--with this fact alone sufficient to compound the shakiness of the film industry in our time, especially insofar as it seems to be doubling down on its commitment to big theatrically released films.

* Yes, yes, the $1.9 billion-grossing Spider-Man: No Way Home was admittedly an unqualified success--but the only one, and an anomaly in many ways, not least the special multiverse premise that brought together the three 21st century big-screen versions of the character, which may be virtually unrepeatable. And the more modest performances of not one, not two, but three Marvel films since testifies to its not having set things aright by itself.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Did the Smart Phone End the Young Adult Fiction Boom?

Between the late 1990s and the mid-2010s there would seem to have been an extraordinary boom in Young Adult (YA) fiction. Hence phenomena like Harry Potter, hence Twilight, hence The Hunger Games. At its climax in the early-to-mid '10s, when College Humor brought us its famous Young Adult Plan for rescuing the economy, superstars of YA like Suzanne Collins, Jeff Kinney, Rick Riordan, Veronica Roth and John Green dominated the bestseller lists, collectively accounting for an astonishing 18 of the 30 places on the combined 2012, 2013 and 2014 Publisher's Weekly lists of those years' top-selling novels.

Then they didn't, the young adult titles seeming to fade from the lists. Many of those authors were still writing, but not making quite the same mark--while new superstars were simply not appearing.

There are likely a good many reasons why this happened--like those books tending to have just a few themes that people got tired of pretty fast, like young-people-rebelling-against-extremely-bleak-dystopian societies, with this seeming the more likely in as, at least in the view of this longtime science fiction reader, they just didn't have very much new to say, or anything very deep to offer. (I might add that as the country's polarization got harder to ignore, publishers--and writers, whose self-censorship should never be underestimated--became less comfortable with such themes, dealing with them in the vague, noncommital ways of the boom period novels.)

But I suspect that far and away the most important factor was the change in media technology, and especially how the Internet, and its ever-lengthening range of entertainment options, became far more portable than before, providing all those alternatives to reading in situations where reading had once been the main source of diversion (like during that commute), and all of this having that much more effect on the younger crowd (which had had less time to form reading habits)--with the smart phone critical here. In the form in which we know it the smart phone made its first appearance in June 2007, by way of the iPhone, after which the devices proliferated rapidly. According to the Pew Research Center's polls four in ten people had one less than five years later (January 2012), half had one a year after that (January 2013), two-thirds sixteen months after that (67 percent in April 2015), and a year and a half or so later, three-quarters (77 percent in November 2016). And while that data set focuses on adults other Pew Research Center data indicates that "teens" were very much included in the trend, with devices scarcely less ubiquitous in that demographic than among their elders, while their use of them became notoriously intensive (45 percent admitting to being online "almost constantly" according to the 2018 survey, with all that implies for when anyone would read anything).

Correlation is not causation--but the YA bubble bursting as the market became saturated with smart phones seems to me no coincidence, people with the devices in hand little inclined to put them down to pick up a book--and constantly tempted to do everything but read a book off of them, the more in as the devices are so much better-suited to just about anything but long-form reading (which, frankly, are easier diversions for most anyway). Young adult books were a predictable early casualty because, again, the young never had the chance to build up the reading habit their elders did--but it seems to me unlikely in the extreme that the changes in cultural life will cease there.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

George Carlin's Comment on "Offensive Language," and the Train Wreck of the English Language

I have in the past had occasion to remark George Carlin's remarks about the word "lifestyle"--which seem to me to absolutely hit the mark.

This is even more obviously the case when we look more broadly at the "language policy" he spelled out for the same performance, satirically rejecting a vast number of other usages.

Notably these usages he rejected were, some inane slang aside, just about all corporate buzzwords, especially as they relate to marketing and management ("I will not say concept when I mean idea. I will not say impacted when I mean affected. There will be no hands-on state-of-the-art networking . . ."); and "New-Age lingo . . . support-group jargon from the human potential movement" ("I will not relate to you and you will not identify with me . . . There'll be no sharing, no caring, no birthing, no bonding, no parenting, no nurturing . . . and we definitely will not spend any quality time . . .")

These may seem two different sources of befoulment of the English language, but one can argue that they are actually just one common source. The corporate idiocies and the New Age idiocies of that generation are virtually inextricable. This is not simply because of the innumerable influences they exercised on each other (with corporate gurus displaying their superficial "out-of-the-boxness" by flogging New Age concepts to business-suited executives, with New Agers displaying their utter conventionality by taking lessons from the corporate folk they implicitly put on a pedestal--profits, profits, profits, that is the kind of hippies they are), but because they were both dimensions of one phenomenon pushing the culture in a single direction, and all of this summed up in the inanity of today's cynically promoted vulgarized pop version of "mindfulness," which I think can be usefully compared with what C. Wright Mills called the "sociological imagination." That sociological imagination connected the individual life with the broader life of society and humanity--sees in the "private trouble" the "public issue." The so-called "mindfulness" I am talking about, and the whole mentality it reflects, does the opposite. It endlessly induces the public to understand public issues as only private troubles, to be dealt with privately--the New Age-ism just another "management technique" applied to the public for the sake of the crassest profiteering in the large and the small.

The result is a grotesque mockery of all that ever meant anything in genuine mindfulness.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Ian Fleming and the Culture Wars

Recently I had occasion to remark the irony of the view widespread on the right that Star Wars had "turned left." This is because, apart from the too little made argument that identity politics is not really "left" (my reading of the matter has long been that the prevailing version comes from the anti-left postmoderns, and their embrace by the center), but the fact that the Star Wars movies were left at the very start (and may actually be less left-wing now).

With the James Bond series it is different. Ian Fleming's personal views could be idiosyncratic, with his literary idols--people like Maugham and Hammett and Greene--often politically of the left rather than the right with which he so identified. And every now and then he might do something in his writing less than fully consistent with the view of him as a reactionary right-wing figure. Still, reading books like Goldfinger one can hardly deny that he was a reactionary, and as a reactionary threw himself into the culture war with gusto--while the films of more recent years, within the framework of today's mainstream (where identity politics are paramount), has tended to do the opposite, throwing itself into the culture war from the opposite, identity politics end of the spectrum.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Just How Many Hardcore Superhero Fans Are There?

Recently writing about the popularity of superheroes in contemporary culture I emphasized that this was a matter of film above all, and in particular of superheroes being convenient material for big-budgeted sci-fi/fantasy action-adventure franchises—and, moreover, that the films are of a kind that most experience at a lower neurological level than conventional dramatic pleasure, rather than a clear expression of the appeal of the idea of the superhero.

One way of testing the supposition would seem to be to look at just how many people enjoy superhero content in other media, where the premise, characters, story are more important, more clearly "the draw," than in those big-screen movies with their sensory bombardments. Of course, this is difficult to assess because there is less comprehensive commercial data about other forms of media--with the situation with regard to TV and books less satisfying than in regard to film, and the picture offered of the comic book market from which these superheroes almost exclusively hail, and in which really hardcore superhero fans could be expected to most clearly show their interest, is even less satisfying than that.

Still, the slight information we have on the matter suggests that real comic book readers are few. It is plausible that only 1 in 3 persons reads comics, while perhaps fewer than 1 in 10--or even much fewer than 1 in 10--read comics with any regularity. Moreover, the term can hide a fair amount of diversity in the content these days, with "graphic novels," manga and the like containing quite other content. The result is that even among younger age cohorts those who really keep up with comics may be a mere 2 percent of the population.

This seems to me to be ample confirmation of the smallness of the really hardcore interest in superheroes--and the essentially superficial character of the superhero boom. Were the economics of the blockbuster to change (as had seemed possible for a while amid the plummeting box office grosses of the pandemic and the failure of video-on-demand to compensate), or were something else to turn up that fit its parameters better (I can't imagine what, but all the same I don't rule it out), we would probably see the prominence of the superhero in contemporary culture contract in a hurry.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Why Do American Film Historians Slight the Bond Movies When Recounting the Blockbuster's Rise?

I remember that when reading RJ Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars I was impressed with it as a hugely impressive work offering pretty much everything that a reader could want to know about the making of the films.

Still, there were lacks here and there--not least the slighting of the influence of the Bond films on George Lucas, to which there was not a single reference (in spite of the fact that Lucas himself mentioned them many a time, not least when he was attempting to sell the film studios on his idea). And this has struck me as characteristic of American film historians generally, who tend to give the Bond films less than their due when discussing the development of the contemporary blockbuster.

Why is that? Perhaps the most important reason, I think, is the provincialism of those who write about American film in the U.S., tending to slight "foreign" film--to think of others as not doing much worth talking about. Moreover, when they are ready to acknowledge foreign filmmakers they are more willing to do so when their work is for arthouse highbrows, rather than for a mass audience--to think of blockbuster filmmaking as America's turf, and take a rather snide attitude toward anyone else setting foot on it (witness the critics' treatment of, for example, a Luc Besson). Thus an Akira Kurosawa was never in the running for the "ordinary" Oscars (e.g. Best Director), but there is a willingness to acclaim him as an influence on Lucas when he set about making Star Wars (the more in as some Star Wars fans like the thought of associating the franchise with highbrow cinema). There is less readiness to give similar credit to the Bond films as an influence (even apart from the lack of highbrow cachet). And this goes as much for those who see Star Wars as having been a disaster for American cinema (for instance, a New Hollywood-singing Peter Biskind) as for those who glorify it and its director as having saved American cinema.

However, if that would seem the most important reason it is by no means the only reason, and I can think of at least two others.

One is that there is a tendency when thinking about film history this past half century or so to think in terms of movies as director's productions--and in the case of the Bond films, at least until the reboot, one did not have prominent "auteur"-types strongly associated with the productions, or indeed, much grounds for thinking of them in auteur theory terms at all . Instead the films harkened back to the days of the Irving G. Thalberg-style "creative producer," who dominated the production while directors were hired and fired, perhaps not wholly without leaving some mark on the production, but all the same, not conveniently fitting into the framework.

The other is that it is easier, even for highly experienced and knowledgeable critics, to talk about content rather than form in art, especially when they are writing an articles and books rather than offering an audiovisual demonstration in which they can more easily and precisely match analysis to material conveniently being presented to the audience. And the Bond movies' contribution was on the level not of content, but of form--how one puts together a "high concept" action film--with the disinclination compounded by the fact that "serious" critics generally take little interest in this dimension of such movies.

And so recountings of how the blockbuster as we know it emerged in the 1970s tend to be all-American stories, with Barry Diller and Don Simpson upending the conventional wisdom at Paramount, and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas toiling on movies that became far bigger than they had dared to dream.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Are We Seeing the Beginning of the End of College as We Know It?

It is difficult to speak frankly and substantively about the "higher learning in America" for many reasons, the one that seems to me to matter the most is the piety that surrounds "education" in this country, and because of the numerous other subjects with which it is linked that are even more taboo--like economic inequality, and social class. Nevertheless, I will try to do that anyway here, starting with the matter of just what college is generally understood to be for--why it is that young people are expected to sacrifice childhood and adolescence to getting "good grades" and other little tokens of academic achievement (or at least, conformity to societal expectations) not merely for admission to a college, but an admission to the so-called "best" college available to them; why they are expected to suffer through the stupidity that is the "college search," pouring enormous energy and passion into making ill-informed and irrational selections from among the available schools, and suffering the cumbersome and expensive and unbearably pretentious application process many, many times over; why they are expected to sell themselves into latterday "debt slavery" to pay for the schooling they undertake at the end of the whole process. This is not a desire for intellectual improvement or cultural enrichment or the making of "well-rounded individuals" or any of the other sorts of things to which college presidents grubbily seeking handouts from big donors speak so pompously in their speeches, but rather the belief that a college degree is the best guarantee that a young person can have of a "middle class" life, permitting them an existence with a measure of security and comfort and respectability that they would not otherwise have.

Of course, as my description of the process suggests, the effort required to get the degree has gone up immensely (a reality Mark Ames, among others, has described well)--but not so the reward, which seems to be declining. Certainly Americans, while loving to toss around the word "middle class," have long been fuzzy about what being middle class actually entails--in part because this is convenient for those looking to promote a politically convenient myth of nearly universal middle classness. However, if one does not lower the bar from what it appeared to be at that mid-century point which has been so formative for contemporary expectations--the ability to support an average-sized family (two adults, two to three children) with a minimum of "pecuniary decency" (e.g. a three-bedroom+ house, two cars, health insurance, college for the kids, retirement for mom and dad, with enough left over to get through rainy days and have some little pleasures) on one income (not two, one), then it may be that less than a tenth of the country is really "middle class," maybe much less, given how much more expensive many of the requirements (housing, health insurance, college, retirement) have become. (The children of truly middle class people finish their schooling--even if that means graduate or professional school--debt free. How many do that these days?)

By contrast some forty percent of adults have at least a bachelor's degree, while over a tenth have graduate or professional degrees.

The obvious conclusion is that only a small minority of those with a B.A. are really middle class; and that even many who have graduate and professional degrees, whom one would expect to do still better, and on average actually do have higher incomes than the B.A.-holders , still fall short of that level.

The result is that, in stark contradiction of the conventional wisdom, a college degree does not equal middle classness, and while some might make arguments about too many people studying the wrong things, and so forth, the fact remains that people looking to get more money and told to get more education got the education--but not the money.

The disconnect between "investment" and "return" here would naturally be expected to change people's behavior, especially if that disconnect becomes as extreme as it has--and indeed many in the press, even before the added disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic bemoaned declining college attendance (with the events of the last three years, of course, deepening the decline). The conventional view of that trend has been that it is "the kids" who are in the wrong here--that they need to be persuaded to see that college is really worth their while and that they should make the required sacrifices of time and money.

But the hard reality that college is not the "path to the middle class" they are told it is may mean that they are only responding rationally to a situation of rising costs and declining benefits--and that it is the generally comfortable older people who lived in another time where the cost-benefit ratio was different who should be rethinking the situation.

Rather than insisting that all young people must plan their whole lives around the prospect of a college education we might be asking about that connection between college and middle classness and whether there might not be other ways of achieving a high-productivity, high-wage economy than the current educational system--and possibly better ways, less brutal for the individual, and more cost-effective for society as a whole.

Personally I am not optimistic that we will see very much such questioning very soon. After all, there is the fact that the mainstream political spectrum is virtually defined by its regarding any deep discussion of society and its problems as illegitimate--regarding people as needing to accommodate themselves to the existing conditions rather than ever wondering if the system might be changed, even where that means doing much more for much less--especially where to speak of anything else would offend a politically weighty interest (this, in the end, is what the term "centrism" really means).

This is all the more the case given who is suffering here, and at the same time, who actually has the power here.

After all, if it is the case that the cost of college is rising, and posing growing obstacles in the process, many welcome the fact, not particularly wanting entry into their corner of the world of work to be easier and cheaper. (As described by one character in George Bernard Shaw's classic The Doctor's Dilemma, every profession is a "conspiracy against the laity," and there is always room for the argument that a good many barriers to admission are first and foremost about keeping outsiders out, the number of practitioners down, the remuneration high for those already in the club, with the high price of college, graduate, professional school contributing to that.)

There is the reality that there is a vast institutional investment in sending everyone to college--extending far beyond those who have jobs in higher education to investors in for-profit schools, the equally for-profit apparatus of testing and testing, the "college placement" industry, the vast financial machinery revolving around the over one trillion dollars in student loans on the books. (They securitize student loans just like they do mortgages, after all.)

And there is the reality that the old generally lack empathy, sympathy and respect for the grievances of the young ("Back in my day . . ." they always say), and that this is especially the case when what the young want seems to them like an easier life than they had at the same age (which they tend to begrudge them). And just as this makes a difference when we discuss a matter like Universal Basic Income (UBI), it makes one when we discuss the cost of schooling.

Still, in spite of the exceedingly formidable obstacle it does seem to me possible that, with young people turning away from college; with colleges increasingly facing a situation where fewer people are paying fees or justifying their claims on government support, when they are already hard-pressed financially (as the changing age structure of the population itself makes for that many fewer attendees); with college graduates wondering at the value of the degrees for which they strove so hard as their debts weigh ever more heavily on them in a positive shambles of a job market that may get much worse than it is even now; we will get to a point where people will look back and realize that college has simply lost its old place the center of young lives, and that "peak college attendance" is well behind us.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Where the Crawdads Sing and the Bestseller List

Not long ago I returned to the depressing activity of perusing recent bestseller lists. I say depressing because of how consistently they confirm every one of my worst suspicions about the state of American publishing--most obviously that an industry which, behind its wearisomely upbeat PR, is in terminal decline in an age in which long-form reading is dying out, and ever more reliant on trafficking in the long superannuated Big Names of the last century, ever more closed to new talent and new ideas, ever more repetitive in its content, ever more blatant in a crassness that has never been better than unbearable, ever more sanctimonious in regard to those outside it and critical of it.

This has certainly seemed to me the case with thrillers after my attempt at a systematic examination of that important corner of publishing, where one finds nothing but the big names and themes of the '90s (legal thrillers by Grisham, forensic thrillers by Cornwell, Patterson's stuff, remained dominant, further down the list "new" Clancy and "new" Cussler novels continue to appear, etc.). And so does it go wherever else I look, with this even proving the case with apparently "new" names offering what may be sui generis work.

Like Delia Owens, whose Where the Crawdads Sing was a bestseller for three years--still on the list as Reese Witherspoon (whose book club, which apparently rivals Oprah's now, did much to promote Owens) produced the film.

Contrary to what some may have thought Owens was not some "first-time" writer catapulted to fame and fortune by her fiction, but, in what is the pattern less touted by the sleazebags of the "You Too Can Become an Author!" industry and the rags-to-riches story-flogging mainstream media but always far more common, an already famous person cashing in on their position with fiction. Already an internationally bestselling author in the 1980s with Cry of the Kalahari, she even enjoyed considerable non-authorial celebrity--as a result of her husband being suspected of murder in Zambia.

Such people can reasonably hope to get a novel into print via trad-publishing with all its resources--not least the ability to command the applause of les claqueurs and make the other "ugly" preparations required for success in the "theater of literature." And when what they offer is, in spite of its superficially non-genre appearance, a murder mystery which in its identity politics and "ecological" sensibility and, above all, its misanthropic outlook, is in line with the zeitgeist as felt by those postmoderns who lead the book-buying audience these days, they can hope not just for success, but grand success--in this case, one of the highest selling books of all time.

By contrast, others can't hope to get their books even looked at--especially if they offer a different point of view from that prevailing among the middle-aged, middlebrows of Park Avenue and the coastal elite to which it never lets us forget it belongs.

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