The Reproducibility Trap, Or Why Everything Original and Curated Becomes Re-Heated Crap

Somewhere on I-81 in Virginia, there’s a billboard for Cracker Barrel, because of course there is. If you find yourself on the interstate and there isn’t a Cracker Barrel within 30 miles of you, then start taking pictures of the alien plants and the non-Euclidean geometry, because you’ve slipped into an alternate dimension. Anyway, this particular billboard caught my eye because of the slogan: “What’s the secret ingredient? Care.”

Now, I’ve eaten in many a Cracker Barrel, and enjoyed it every time, so I’m not coming from a place of dismissal. But there are 665 Cracker Barrel locations in the United States. How many Uncle Hershel’s Breakfasts do you suppose get served in them on a given day? Who invests care in them? How much?

To ask the question is to answer it. The cooks at Cracker Barrel are trained in making the food the way Cracker Barrel wants it done, so that whether you order an Uncle Hershel’s Breakfast in Tennessee, Arizona, or Maine, you are assured of getting the same meal. The cook doesn’t really care about the food, not in the same way as if he’d be cooking his own recipe. He’s following the Training. He’s working his shift.

Instead of care, the food at Cracker Barrel gets Quality Control, with Food Policies. Everything is 100% Sustainable and/or Raised Domestically, whatever that officially means. Stipulate that this isn’t just advertising, that the people who run Cracker Barrel actually want their food to have a level of quality and wholesomeness you won’t get at Denny’s. This is on-brand for them, and for the other thing they’re selling: nostalgia.

My point is that the ubiquity of Cracker Barrel is contrary to the image it’s selling. This isn’t their fault; it’s just what happens at scale. Perhaps the most relevatory film about American business of the last ten years is The Founder. Watch it and you’ll realize that there was a time when McDonald’s was revolutionary, a masterpiece of motion-study, space-management, and quality-control, when these things were new on the ground. The food was good too, simple and well-prepared. But the film also demonstrates, that at scale, commitment to care and individualization goes out the window. Why spend money refrigerating milk and ice cream when you can just make a milkshake with powder?

But at that moment, you’ve surrendered the thing that got you started. You’re no longer a chef, not even a businessman anymore. You’re a CEO, part of the network, part of the System. You may run your shop better or worse than others, but you’re a million miles removed from the customer experience. Yet however bad that sounds, it really doesn’t matter, because once you’ve created a product that reaches sufficient recognition, you don’t need to curate customer experience anymore. McDonald’s isn’t a burger joint, competing with other burger joints, it’s a brand, competing with other brands. The brand sells the burgers, not the other way around.

This is what’s happening in entertainment as well. People who bemoan the loss of original content might as well be speaking in Linear-A, for all the suits will hear them. A movie can succeed or fail at the box office. An Intellectual Property cannot fail once its hit critical mass. People screamed to the heavens about the Ghostbusters remake, and it bombed, but they made another movie, didn’t they? It doesn’t matter that its dumb, it doesn’t matter that they didn’t manage to create a Cinematic Universe out of it. It’s an Intellectual Property. It cannot fail, it can only require new recycling. There’s still a market for Halloween movies, isn’t there?

I’ve mentioned this before, and it’s been talked about on Shallow & Pedantic: the point at which the product no longer requires editing, because people who like it have become FANS. Fans aren’t always uncritical, but they’re always customers, and a hater’s dollar is just as good. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Therefore, you can screw up Star Wars as much as you want, and people will still buy tickets for it. This creates a perverse incentive for the creators. If I can butcher the story as much as I want, and pissed-off fans still buy tickets, then what difference does it make?

This is why they keep making Terminator movies. Of course they suck. Any film after T2 was destined to suck, because they could only make them by wrecking or rewriting the lore of the first two films. But if angry fans keep showing up, then announcing their criticisms to the world, then the brand still exists. Everyone hated Terminator: Genysis; but Terminator: Dark Fate happened anyway. Meanwhile, I haven’t seen a Terminator movie since 1991. I am utterly at peace with its flailing.

The only thing that kills brands is indifference. Either indifferent leadership and bad management, or worse yet, public indifference. People have been hating McDonald’s as long as I’ve been alive. It’s still there. The day people stop caring about it, forget in their head that it even exists, that’s the day it stops being a brand, and becomes an artifact for historians.

The Three Tiers of Aesthetics

A long essay, but worth your time, which dovetails nicely with other things I’ve written on the subject. Our Cranky Professor lays out three “approaches” to aesthetics/beauty:

  • The Psychological Approach – In which one experiences beauty as an individuated response to the appearance of a thing. A Flower is Beautiful.
  • The Rational Approach – An understanding that beauty runs parallel to order. A well-ordered thing is a beautiful thing, whether or not you enjoy looking at it. The Human Brain is Beautiful.
  • The Mystical/Spiritual Approach – The idea that Beauty is rooted in the supernatural, as a reflection of a cosmic truth. The Buddah is Beautiful.

These can intersect (there are those prepared to argue that the Psychological Approach is simply the recognition of what is found in the Rational Approach), but what I like is that it covers the multiple meanings found in the word “beautiful”. Recall when I wrote this:

On top of that, the idea of objective aesthetics sounds to many people like “objective enjoyment” and enjoyment is an emotional response to something. You enjoy something. You cannot make yourself enjoy something that you do not, in fact, enjoy. The Star Wars prequels and David Lynch’s Dune are my personal evidence to that.

Originality is Not Art

This issue is handled by Approach Theory. Something can be “rationally beautiful”, while not eliciting a psychological response. A thing can be beautifully constructed, and still boring. This helps me understand what Camille Paglia was blathering about when she praised the end of Revenge of the Sith as a work of profound art.

The Mustafar duel, which took months of rehearsal, with fencing and saber drills conducted by sword master Nick Gillard, was executed by Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor at lightning speed. It is virtuosic dance theater, a taut pas de deux between battling brothers, convulsed by attraction and repulsion. Their thrusts, parries, and slashes are like passages of aggessive speech. It is one of the most passionate scenes ever filmed between two men, with McGregor close to weeping. The personal drama is staged against a physical one: wrangling and wrestling, Anakin and Obi-Wan fall against the control panels of a vast mineral-collection plant, which now starts to malfunction and fall to pieces. As the two men run and leap for their lives, girders, catwalks, and towers melt and collapse into the lava, demonstrating the fragility of civilization confronted with natures brute primal power.

Camille Paglia, GLITTERING IMAGES, pgs. 188-189

Stipulate that George Lucas had all this in mind when he made the scene. Stipulate that Revenge of the Sith is the closest thing to the pony in the pile of turds that is the Prequel Trilogy. It’s still a boring movie to watch, and this scene is only slightly less boring. For one thing, it goes on way too long. For another, the emotions Paglia find in the scene are turned on an off like switches, a problem that abounds throughout theses movies. Suddenly Obi-Wan is in tears, yes, and McGregor does his level best to make it real. But there’s been nothing building to this moment. We haven’t seen Obi-Wans’ face grow in passion. They’ve been staring at each other and fighting for what seems like an hour. I don’t suddenly feel attached to McGregor’s performance. It leaves me cold like everything else in this trilogy does. I understand what Paglia’s saying. I can see truth in her assessment. It doesn’t change my individuated experience of the film one bit, and I’ve watched this scene since I’ve read this book. The prequels are still dull robot-kabuki decanted in a lab.

Thus, adopting an awareness of Approach can go a long way towards settling our various disagreements about aesthetics. It recognizes the subjective and the objective. Read the Whole Thing.

Shallow & Pedantic 7: A Fistful of Samurai Pies

The best part of doing this podcast is the way the scrum of conversation keeps bringing up new ideas. Episode 5 gave us the General Theory of Creative Bloat (successful franchise = abandonment of editorial control), which gets mentioned again here. But this time we came up with what I call the Pie Theory of Popular Entertainment. It comes at the tail end of the episode, but it does kind of tie everything we jabber about together nicely.

These things keep getting longer, but we’ve sorted out all the audio issues, and are able to do this all from the comfort of our respective homes using CleanFeed.

Why in the Hell Does Anyone Care That It’s Carrie Fisher’s Birthday?

Every now and again I like to indulge in the temptation to rail against the mindless repetition of uninteresting facts. I know it will accomplish nothing, and indeed is probably counterproductive, but I cannot help myself. This is stupid and I’m going to tell you why. Cry about it in the comments, nerds.

I could easily be mean about this. I could easily go the Ace of Spades route and declare her a coke-addled void-child of dysfunctional Hollywood nobility, who looked so elderly and fragile in the Sequel Trilogy that I expected her to shatter into pieces like a frozen T-1000 (that’s an old movie reference, kids).

Famous for her catchphrase, “Let’s go fuck injustice up!,” Fisher was known for her young-in-life rebellions and scandals, including her May-December romance with Lorne Greene, and playing Andromedan Whore #6, causing an uproar and national boycott due to her participation in Captain Kirk’s first and only non-interspecies kiss.

After her career in acting slowed, Fisher turned her attention to writing, where she turned in famous-but-officially-uncredited “punch ups” to scripts and books, such as Predator 3: Predators In Paradise and “The Bible.”

Considered Hollywood Royalty since her birth, Carrie Fisher was famously the daughter of Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher.

Ace of Spades, “Carrie Fisher Dies at Age 60”

But one wants to be fair, and the older I get, the more I appreciate what Fisher was able to do with the could-have-been thankless role of Princess Leia in the Original Trilogy. Honestly, her acting in that holds up, and her prickly aristocratic mien makes her role as the Resistance Leader in the Sequels at least plausible, however little she had in the tank at the time. Yeah, it would have been nice if they’d given her more to do in Return of the Jedi, but that’s expecting more of Lucasfilm screenwriting than it’s ever been capable of delivering.

And I can’t escape the notion that if she’d read Ace’s mock obituary, Fisher would have laughed hard at it. Because no one was quicker to send up her own career than she was. I caught one of her spoken-word shows on one streaming service or another, and she had her moments, perhaps not as “OMG, hiLARious” as people are wont to say, but seeing a celeb allowed to be merely human, and wryly comment on this, is always to be saluted.

Nor was this an isolated reality, the joke turn at Comic-Con. This was Fisher’s second career. She wrote a comical pseudo-fiction novel about her life, and had that turned into a movie she wrote the screenplay for, both under the title Postcards From the Edge, which is a pretty good title. Not many people actually have the talent and drive to turn their down-and-out moments into art. She did. Can’t take that away from her.

But she’s not a Saint. She’s not even a Blessed. You don’t know her, and you honouring her Feast Day is creepy.

This is gross. You’re being marketed to by sharps and drones. Her death took literally nothing from your life (if she’d been alive, she’d have done exactly what she did in Rise of Skywalker, which is to say almost nothing). It is human to honor the dead and the great. But celebrity is false greatness, the intersection of momentary marketablity and fragile talent. They are feeding you pap and calling it Spirit.

Stop retweeting this crap. Stop reacting to it (But aren’t YOU reacting to it? Yeah, you got me. Walk away and enjoy how much you totally DeSTrOyeD my point. Nothing to see here, move along). Stop pretending you were a massive fan of the next old rock star who kicks the bucket. Honor your family, your friends. Honor the art that stands the test of time. But stop building emotional cults of devotion to corporate product. None of them will ever reciprocate your love.

William Shatner, Red Letter Media, and What Everyone Gets Wrong About Fandom

Never meet your heroes.

I’ve mentioned Red Letter Media before. They’re a YouTube channel that discusses film in a serious way, but with lots of jokes – spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down. They’re different from most cinema nerds on YouTube in that they’ve actually undergone the process of making movies themselves – schlocky B-movies, that they themselves do not take seriously. But they’ve done it. They have some understanding of what it involves, so they talk about the nuts and bolts, which for a layman is an education.

Their infamous 70-minute review of The Phantom Menace taught a whole generation why the prequels weren’t working. Yes, they’ve savaged the Disney films as well. They especially made fun of Rogue One, which is the one everyone seems to love. They’re fair-minded and upfront about their perspectives.

They also do a MST3K-ish panel discussion of bad movies, called Best of the Worst, and they’ve had other creatives on as guest stars. Schlock ninja filmmaker Len Kabasinski has been on a couple of times, as has comic artist Freddie Williams, screenwriter Max Landis (before he got cancelled), comedian Patton Oswalt, and Macaulay Culkin, who’s practically a regular at this point.

I mention all of this because they’re a growing brand that is gaining widespread awareness. They hit 1 million YouTube subscribers recently. People have heard of them. Now, two of the three RLM stakeholders (Mike Stoklasa, Jay Bauman, and Rich Evans) are big Star Trek fans (I’m not going to call them Trekkies, for reasons that will become clear later). They talk about Star Trek a lot. They’re critical of the Next Generation movies, but love the show. They have nuanced criticisms of the recent film reboots. They do not like the more recent Star Trek Series, such as Discovery and Picard. But they stood up for one of the least-liked Trek movies, the 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture – a movie I’ve been wont to dismiss as “two hours of blue stuff”.

These two trends explain why RLM fans may have gotten it into their heads that William Shatner might become a guest on their show. They never invited him, but it became a meme anyway. This is an important point I’m going to come back to later.

Now I’m going to let Mike and Jay explain what happened next:

If you don’t want to spare the 20 minutes, Shatner got tired of being bugged on Twitter by RLM fans to be on the show. He was polite at first, if a bit shakey on the definition of “podcast” (which is fine, as “podcast” has a shakey definition). Then he started being less polite, then he started casually dismissing the RLM crew, watching tiny snippets of their videos and picking nits. This being Twitter, the volume increased, until the RLM guys had to stop what they were actually doing to announce that this was all a tempest in a teapot and it should all go away. Mike ends with the words “Leave him alone, because I just can’t take Captain Kirk pulling up pictures of me on The Nerd Crew (a satirical show they do) set, and calling me a moron. I just can’t take it.”

That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. That video came on Thursday, (July 23rd). Yesterday (July 27th), Shatner unloaded both barrels at the RLM guys with a Medium.com article called “The Toxic Empires of Egoligarchies“. If you’re having a hard time getting past the title, I’ll summarize it for you: Shatner didn’t watch the video, even though he used pieces of it, and brings in GamerGate and a host of screencaps to prove that… RLM sent its fans on Twitter to harass him.

In William Shatner’s mind, this is the only possible explanation. Three guys from Milwaukee have a zombie horde of fans that they can turn on and off like tap water. That’s how fandom works.

The absurdity of claiming, in the face of no evidence, in the face of all contrary evidence, that the RLM guys signaled their fans to harass Shatner staggers the imagination. The entire pretentious diatribe (truly an accomplishment for Medium, a platform that specializes in transmogrifying peoples’ shower thoughts into “essays”) has enough circular reasoning in it to flatten a trailer park.

William Shatner knows better than this. William Shatner has had to deal with his own fans being out of control. So has George Lucas. So has everybody who has a fandom. Fandoms (oh, I how I loathe that word) are not armies, sent out into the world like digital stosstruppen to do their master’s bidding. If they were, then Red Letter Media, which is based on fans being critical of product, couldn’t possibly exist. Fans are human beings, and act along the gradient of human behavior. Some of them will be monsters, and some saints.

I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was small. I’ve never gone to a fan convention. I’ve never bought a lightsaber or any other Star Wars paraphanelia. The only T-Shirts I have were given to me as Father’s Day gifts. I sold my old box of Star Wars toys at a yard sale for $5. More to the point, I think people who do fill their house with junk and go to such conventions are spiritually depleted dorks. Am I still a fan?

Art is a worthy topic of discussion. That’s why I have articles about Star Wars on this blog. But art is meant to be enjoyed, considered, and critiqued, not worshipped. Liking something is not a substitute for an identity. The RLM guys get that, which is why I watch their YouTube channel.

But I would never bother an octogenarian actor on Twitter to be on their show. I don’t understand why anyone would. I think doing that is just brainless schoolyard trolling, of the kind that makes Twitter nothing more than a blood-pressure surge device. Anyone who bugged William Shatner about a YouTube channel he’s never heard of is a waste of a rational soul. There’s no reason for it; you didn’t achieve your goal, and you manufactured the phoniest kind of drama in a world that is filled with real-life, actual drama. You are shrieking gibbons flinging poop and bits of half-chewed berries at the gravestone of our culture.

Now ask me: am I still a fan?

Go ahead, ask me.

Quick Review: The Rise of Skywalker

SWsplatterEverything in here is SPOILERS, because we’ve reached that reality in Star Wars movies. The guys at Red Letter Media have been saying since Rogue One that there are only so many things that can happen in Star Wars, so even if you technically haven’t seen the ninth (and final?) episode, you’ve seen most of the things it has on offer. There are escapes and jumps to lightspeed and blasting stormtroopers and epic lightsaber fights and grand space battles. Heroes will be tempted to turn to the dark side of the force. The villain who’s been THE villain will be THE villain again, and he will do the same villainous acts. There are one or two mild surprises, but even these are predictable. This is a Star Wars movie that approaches an almost mystical reverence for itself as such.

Thus, it veers hard away from whatever Rian Johnson was attempting to move towards with The Last Jedi, almost apologetically giving the fans every emotional touchstone they could want. Of course, such a course precludes any possibility of expanding on the Saga. What we are left with amounts to a do-over of Return of the Jedi, minus the Death Star (or with a million Death Stars, depending on your point of view). The only real emotions in it are feelings of being haunted by the weight of past actions and past glories, an unavoidable meta-commentary on the state of the story and the fandom and everything else. This movie, and Star Wars itself, is a run-down mansion haunted by ghosts.

Just to beat this point home, the climax of the movie is determined precisely by the past flooding back in to save the world from the past. Just as THE Villain (yup, it’s Palpatine), is back, standing in for *every* Sith, so Rey hears the voices of *every* Jedi. No one at Lucasfilm can think of doing things any other way. It’s either desperate or cynical and possibly both.

None of which is to say that it’s a bad movie. It moves along snappily. You’re not ever confused as to what’s happening and why. You never have a scene end and think “what was that all about?” J.J. Abrams’ trademark visual energy is very much present. I’ll even cop to one or two moves bringing about genuine emotion. But once it’s over, it feels entirely forgettable. It’s Star Wars: A Star Wars Story: Featuring Star Wars. It’s exactly what Scorcese was talking about with movies becoming theme park rides.

Which leaves us with that show about not-Boba Fett and not-Yoda. I’ve heard its pretty good. If they can keep that going a few more seasons, that galaxy might grow after all.

I Don’t Feel At Home in Pop Culture Anymore

Probably that’s not news. I haven’t felt at home in some time, really. Maybe that’s just getting old, but even when I was young I’ve found the pseudo-devotion off-putting. One thing I’ve said for years is that the reason I never became a Trekkie wasn’t because I didn’t like Star Trek, but because I didn’t want to have conversations with nerds about it.

Nerds are the absolute worst. I never felt comfortable as one. I refused to dig deep into comic books, D&D, or anything else, because having to devote that much mental energy about being right about something that doesn’t matter felt strange to me.

But Andrew, you say, there’s like fifteen essays scatterered around this blog about Star Wars. You’re absolutely a Warsie.

No, I’m absolutely not. I tried to be. I found it distasteful. I loved Star Wars when I was a kid, wanted to transfer that love to new movies, and couldn’t. The idea of raging at someone on Twitter about it seems like dumb games for dumb prizes. Star Wars is over. Even Disney has said so. It will exist as a niche market for streaming content on the Disney+ app, until the cost overlays get to be too much, and then it’s over, it’s done.

And don’t get me wrong, I’ve got some comic books. If you want to have a chat about Watchmen, or From Hell, or Superman: Red Son, or a handful of others, I’m your guy. I’ve got no animus against the MCU. If those fans are happy, great. Keep doing more of that, or whatever.

But this I do not get:

Again, nothing against Stan Lee. I always reckoned him a cool dude, and have since he showed up in Mallrats for no particular reason. And it’s fine to admire him as an artist and creator. But crafting icons on his feast day is bizzarre, creepy, and kind of blasphemous. Yet this is what so-called “nerd culture” seems to bring out of people: the glorification of the mundane.

And quite frankly, I find this boring, and much of the conversation about his creation: stupid games for stupid prizes. That’s why I’ll ignore everyone who tries to get me to care about Mandalorians. It’s not that I’m prejudging it as being poor quality: I don’t even care if it’s good.

I want something else. I want to make something else.

That’s why this exists.

It Appears Disney Is Going All-In on Streaming

So suggests Variety.

This explains what I’ve been wondering about, both here on the blog and on my podcast: Disney’s current strategy of “nothing but live-action reboots and Frozen 2.” It also jibes with the news that they’re done making Star Wars films for the time being (and with the rumors that the test screening for Episode 9 have not been going well).

In a nutshell, movies are too expensive and risky to make when there’s a cheapier method to getting content onto the screen.

If you spend $250 on a movie, you’ve got a single run in theaters plus home-video sales to make your money back. If the movie doesn’t find an audience, that’s a bunch of sales you aren’t going to get.

But if you have a captive audience of people throwing down $7 a month for all of your content, you don’t need to worry so hard. They’re paying, and you just have to keep putting half-way decent content up, and they’ll be happy.

So it appears that the Spielbergs and Scorseses are wrong: this is what cinema is going to be. If a powerhouse like Disney decides it’s not worth it to put Star Wars movies in theaters, then movie theaters are going the way of the dodo.

And Now, More Mindlessly Speculative Guff about Star Wars

First, the rumor mill: reshoots, secret cameos, six different endings, a bunch of “sources say” folderol. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. There’s really no way to know. Even after the movie’s out, we don’t get a lot of facts about what actually goes on in a movie shoot. Until the last Blu-Ray sale, no one wants to go on record.

Also, I’m kinda tired of the idea that it was The Last Jedi that broke Star Wars, as if the last 20 years hadn’t happened. This franchise has been coming apart at the seams for a while.

And honestly, the whole point of doing movies is to re-shoot them if you can. This is especially true of large corporate popcorn movies. Everyone with a stake gets to put their 2 cents in. It’s not inherently bad that they’re trying to please as many of the fans as they can.

Still, not a good look.

Then we’ve got completely speculative horse-puckeys about what can even be done with the story at this point:

This sounded terrifyingly plausible to me, but that doesn’t mean it’s what’s happening. My instinct says that Skywalker is going to be blandly competent and mildly forgettable. But again, this could also be wrong. Every thought and process we have about this right now is locked into essentially the same place it was in the Prequel era – Please don’t suck, please don’t suck, please don’t suck.

Because, Solo aside, they haven’t done anything to expand the universe (Solo was a good movie. It didn’t deserve its fate). It’s the same blues-vs-reds that it was before, only now it’s done with different sensibilities and feels about 20% as fresh. And maybe that’s because we’re all too wrapped up in it as fans. Fandom is inherently obsessive and perspective-warping. Turning enjoyment into devotion messes up the relationship between art and audience.

The question is, when Lucasfilm busted its ankles to profit from that devotion, and still does, do they not bear some responsibility for that skewed relationship? Especially when they feel no obligation to the art as anything other than a bland corporate product? It’s hard to find much sympathy for an organization that refuses to manage basic continuity in what’s supposed to be an ongoing story.

But again, nobody knows. And my attitude has become so clinical and noncommittal towards this, that I’m beginning to ask myself if I even care.

The Rise Of Skywalker

I must admit, the title intrigues me.

I don’t want to speculate too much, but the title suggests an ending on a high note.

A Rise is something coming into being, gaining in power and prominence. This is distinct from a Return, something gone coming back, or a Revenge, the destruction of a foe. A Rise can include these things, but does not have to.

Skywalker has been, heretofore, a name. A surname. Three characters in Star Wars have had that surname: Shmi, Anakin, and Luke. Leia had the right to it, but never used it, retaining the Organa she grew up with. Kylo Ren was born with the surname Solo.

But this title doesn’t feel like a surname. It feels like something else. It feels like a mantle. An order, perhaps.

Who knows. Maybe it means nothing at all. The Force Awakens” has no particular meaning to the plot of that film. However “The Last Jedi” did.

We shall see.