Cultural Poverty

Today, a new episode in the Star Wars saga hits theaters. The film, as the latest iteration of a series that spans nearly forty years, is representative in many ways of a broader cultural phenomenon, which has become the bread and butter of Hollywood: The sequel.

At its most basic level, the sequel is a mechanism for renewing or extending the revenues of an existing film or franchise, often to the detriment of plot. An existing film is converted into a brand identity, and the sequel draws spectators because of the name alone. Substance is sacrificed at the altar of profit, in many ways undermining the meaning and rhetorical power of the initial film – offering merely a higher budget, more sensational imagery, and ever-more worn out tropes (“I’m getting too old for this shit.”). Particularly for films not intended to have sequels, their continuation dilutes the message by repeating the medium ad infinitum. Sequels were long considered the easy way out by filmmakers, their ilk banished to the realms of cheesy horror and cookie-cutter action flicks – where the majority of sequels still dwell today.

Star Wars was different in that regard. The original three films were planned and written together: a trilogy. Together with The Godfather Part II, the 1970’s and ’80’s saw a change in the perception of the sequel. Suddenly, it was apparent how a sequel could be more than just a lazy screenplay, rather extending the story arc.

The mechanisms of the culture industry, however, are always at odds with each other. Culture is creative, it strives to be original, taking risks and freedoms. Industry is economic, it seeks to produce and profit. The trilogy briefly reimagined the sequel as a part of a larger whole. Now, it has become a formula for maximizing box office income by exploiting the human attraction to the familiar. New ideas, as an investment, are never certain, and the film industry has become increasingly stuck in the rut of profitability, where creative originality is forced aside in favor of profitable certainty.

The meta-trilogy (three trilogies) of Star Wars is no exception; Disney bought the brand from George Lucas fully aware of the massive potential for profit – just as it did with both Pixar and Marvel. When culture becomes a commodity, it ceases to be culture, instead only a fetishistic shadow of itself. Certainly, money has long been a part of culture, but the dynamic between the two has changed. The former no longer fosters the latter, it exploits it, subjecting it to the stifling impersonality of the balance sheet.

On the one hand, the new films will be a celebration of American cinema culture. On the other, they are an expression of just how poor that culture has become, treading water in clichés of its past.

Part two of this essay can be found here.

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12 thoughts on “Cultural Poverty

  1. This reeks of a neo-Marxism confident of its own superiority and dismissive of alternative interpretations. If something makes money it is commodified, processed, and almost rotten. As someone on the left I have found this leftist interpretation a puzzling one at best and destructive at its worst.

    So let me take a stab at your post and your claim. To be fair, let me summarize your claim briefly. In your words, sequels represent the horrors of Hollywood because it becomes, “a commodity, it ceases to be culture, instead only a fetishistic shadow of itself.” In other words sequels repeat what has been done until death.

    That is an incredibly reduced way of looking at every successive work. There are so many cases where you are utterly wrong, and the first is Star Wars. No, I don’t mean the prequels. I’m talking about the expanded universe. Stories from General Thrawn to Cade Skywalker are works of beauty. From Jacen Solo to the death of Chewie these novels, comics, games, TV shows, etc all built a massive world, history, etc. The story of Zayne in the KOTOR comic series was brilliant, funny, and tragic. Each of these works can be defined as a cash grab, yes, but by no means do sequels, spin-offs, prequels, and the like have to follow the same formula or explore the exact same themes over again.

    This all speaks to the power of world building a la JRR Tolkien, the first world builder and the greatest writer of further material since the Bible followed up of the success of the Old Testament. Tolkien wrote that the greatest act a person can do is world building, as that’s the closest thing to God (the first world builder). Continuing upon that work is beautiful and fleshes out the deeper creator within all of us.

    Even if we drop the Christian bit of Tolkien we can still see the power of the continued narrative, planned or erratic through the love many have for history. History is a disjointed erratic set of sequels and prequels swirling through the most complex world imaginable. Of course, you have your flagship films (WW1, WW2, Napoleon, The Fall of Rome, Alexander the Great, etc.), but within the larger narratives you create the space for so many other great stories, The sequel is the natural extension of the human experience, built on the works of many.

    I could say a lot more on this subject from so many different angles. I could point out the greatness of other stories that stretch over decades. I could point out the necessity of economic valuation. I could implore you to reconsider your hatred of the long and meandering story. I could talk about the failures of The Hobbit trilogy by Peter Jackson and how it had a chance but failed to bring Tolkien’s smaller story to the big screen. I could, but I won’t for time reasons. I will leave you with a nice lecture series on Tolkien and the Hobbit I hope you enjoy:

    http://www.tolkienprofessor.com/wp/lectures/the-hobbit/

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    • What can I say, I’m a neo-Marxist 😉
      Thanks by the way for responding. Dialogue is exactly the thing I think society needs more of. I’m not saying or trying to say that anything that makes money is rotten. Certainly, the process of commodification is inexorable, and a good movie will make money. I have nothing wrong with that.
      I am trying to question the system that the film industry is stuck in today, where more than ever movies are calculated for maximum profit (The link “stifling impersonality of the balance sheet” above points to an article that talks a bit about how movie selection has changed, less about gut feeling and more about business). Profit is fine – unavoidable –, but I like to see some new ideas, not just an endless cycle of remakes and sequels. The amount of money that is put into a movie like Star Wars Episode 7 could be used to forward new filmmakers. In the same way, I find it extremely annoying that old rockers like Ozzy Osbourne and AC/DC continue to be promoted, to the detriment of newer acts. Money should promote culture; culture shouldn’t serve money.
      As far as the Hobbit goes, I can’t stand those movies. I liked Lord of the Rings, the movies did a good job of addressing a wealth of content in the books, and I was a fan of the books to begin with. But you can’t tell me that turning a 300-ish page children’s book into 3 2+ hour movies isn’t an expression of commodification. There isn’t 8.5 hours worth of content in that book, it was just drawn out into a trilogy to be able to have people come to see it three times, cashing in on the LOTR imagery and the hype.
      As far a the Star Wars canon goes, Disney declared all the literature and everything that grew out of the films as unofficial, figuratively destroying what you accurately call a rich legacy of the first trilogy. I was a fan of that stuff as a little kid, and I think people wrote those out of genuine interest in the subject matter, extending the universe for it’s sake, to keep the story alive. I can’t say the same of Disney’s motives – their deletion of the canon on favor of their own story proves this in my eyes.
      History is neither prequel nor sequel to me, it is much more a series of variations. Similarities emerge, but each proves its singularity in the details. The arbitrary course of human events can’t be compared to a planned movie script. History as movie, however, can; a film about WWII can rely on so many different facets of the war, and create something original within a narrative that has been played out – Inglourious Basterds.
      On the subject of Tarantino films, Django Unchained was more or less a repackaged The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. But it didn’t pretend to be another film, or the successor to another film – Tarantino took the theme and made it his own. There are no new stories, and that originality only arises in the details. In that regard, J.J: Abrams has made a good film – but if it was really such a good film, then it could have been sold as a sci-fi work of its own, not reliant on a brand to attract viewers.

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      • I’m just going to write down a few more thoughts below:

        I’ve actually seen the film now, and you’ve seen a good deal of my posts on the subject.

        On the “Culture shouldn’t serve money, money should serve culture” little bit I have to show my neoclassical wings a bit. Money follows what people are interested in. I personally love prequels, sequels, etc. as they build a world, creating something that looks more like history. Money follows the interests of people, and you can make the argument that the people are stupid, but that smacks of a certain East Coast liberal mentality. People sadly enjoy nostalgia, big dumb action sequences, etc.

        I agree that the Hobbit films were pretty terrible. I do, however, think there was potential there, but Peter Jackson made two big mistakes. His first mistake was an over-reliance on CG that made the fights look blaugh or even laughable in the way they broke the laws of physics. His second mistake was to try to straddle the story telling styles of the Hobbit and the LOTR. If he would have stuck to his style he built up in the LOTR and drawn from the Silmarillion a bit he could have done a much better job.

        On HIstory:
        If your movie scripts don’t speak to the human condition as it exists in a historical context I don’t want to watch your movies.

        I like having Star Wars in the titles of my movies. It answers my burning desire as a historian for the question, “So then what?”

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      • Just to your first paragraph: If we take advertisement into account, money can often exaggerate real interest. People like familiar ideas, indeed, but there is also an attraction to the unfamiliar that is undervalued in the modern culture industry. You could argue that that is the very drive of a sequel, to present the unfamiliar familiarly, as it were. I think after a while it gets stale, though (how many death stars will they need to keep the plot going honestly?).

        On History: You don’t need a sequel to connect with the human condition.

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    • We are told the need to take risks and even fail. We are told that innovation is necessary. But we are told those by free market supporters. Are they the same as Marxists? Or do both factions have some philosophies in common?

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      • Advertisement budgets certainly do make a lot of what makes a movie popular or not. I feel you are onto something with your description of the unfamiliar. However, I would say that the unfamiliar is undervalued not by the modern culture industry, but by society as a whole. For instance, it took A LOT for me to watch my first Bollywood film or to watch an anime series. The only way I got to do either of those things was through something familiar (an Indian friend and fond memories of late night DBZ as a kid which I thought I outgrew, but later looked back on with fond memories).

        On History:
        Where do your characters exist? Without history there is no culture, no class, no grudges or alliances, and no life. Sequels build worlds and histories better than any singular two hour movie or play ever can. In other words, we want to build Rome in our stories, which, as you remember, was not built in a day.

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      • Society is wary of the unfamiliar, and the culture industry aggravates that by promoting the consistently familiar.

        On history: I like where history and fiction intersect, not where the latter tries to emulate the mechanisms of the former. Those efforts always only create myths, which become valuable if they can manage to be more than a simplification of history and human drives, or an escape from reality.

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      • Remember for a moment that the “people” you want to accept something new and unfamiliar are also the people who comment on youtube videos and the internet at large.

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      • The relationship between familiar and unfamiliar is complex; as a mass, we are weary of the unfamiliar, but as individuals, much more open to it. Advertisement bridges that gap, speaking to the individuals inside the mass and making the unfamiliar feel familiar, just as the “related videos” bar does on youtube, drawing people into the unfamiliar by a sense of relation. I’m not sure why you bring up comments specifically, but the tendency of those is either acceptance and praise or denial and insult, without real critique of content (something for which I am grateful to you).

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  2. Pingback: Cultural Poverty | timelord7202

  3. Pingback: Cultural Poverty: Episode II | Cigarettes & Capitalism

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