Pop Cinema, Loser
The best moment I ever had as a teacher of film studies was when I analysed, in front of a large, first-year-level class in the Germany of 2013, the opening scene of Joseph Kahn’s Detention – “Taylor Fisher’s Guide to Not Being a Total Reject”. I paused the scene every few seconds to talk, as I always do in such situations (they had already seen the entire film projected). Finally, when I reached the climactic moment of Taylor (Alison Woods) – after her throat has been slit by a gruesome, anonymous intruder – being hurled out the window and landing on the bonnet of her mother’s car, the accumulated intensity was too much for one girl in the room: she suddenly, orgasmically yelled out: “OH GOD, THIS FILM IS SO GREAT!” She had never heard of Detention, or Joseph Kahn, before that day. To tell you the truth, I myself had only stumbled upon the film a year beforehand, and Kahn was a name I didn’t recognise at all then. I know better now.
There are certain filmmakers that one encounters during one’s lifetime that are more than simply exciting or provoking. They, in fact, realise some dream inside you that perhaps you didn’t even know you harboured: the dream of a possible cinema. I am not speaking here of some lofty ideal of art or profound meaningfulness. I mean, in the literal, material way that the actors move, the way the images and sounds flow, in the colour and rhythm, there is the projection outside yourself and onto the screen of some delirious fragment of cinema you had lodged inside yourself. The experience of meeting these films, these moments, is very special, and does not happen very often to any of us. I have found it in the films of Bong Joon-ho and of Stephen Chow, and (in a very different register) of Stephen Dwoskin and Chantal Akerman. It’s enough for me: much more of that, and I would likely die while screaming: “OH GOD, THIS FILM IS SO GREAT!”
A long time ago, 28 years ago, I proposed a summary of a short book called Pop Cinema to an esteemed University Press (see Appendix below). For a variety of reasons, it didn’t happen (some of the material envisaged eventually found its way into my first book, Phantasms, in 1994). Back then, it was going to be about teen movies, Tim Burton, Robert Zemeckis, some action and horror films, mad comedies. A survey and a theory. Could I write it now? Maybe I’ve never stopped writing it, in tiny pieces, from one text to the next. But, of course, if I tried to complete it today, I would have to deal with the creeping cultural obsolescence that Taylor Fisher herself well theorises: “Indie rock trends do move fast”, she informs us. Twice, in these first three-and-a-quarter minutes, she notes examples of what has passed away, is on the verge of passing away, or is certain to pass away soon enough: the (fictional) Drunges (who are in the poster on her wall); and poor Ke$ha (Taylor abandons her nose-ring homage). This tidal wave of obsolescence is set against the one definite thing that will save the ideal viewer of Taylor from being a total reject: “Go see Cinderhella II on Friday night, loser”. This imaginary trashy horror-franchise will be of central importance to the plot of Detention.
Time moves fast, but so too (as Peter Allen taught us) everything old is new again. It’s the Law of Culture. As Taylor picks what is to be her final outfit: “The ‘90s are the new ‘80s”. We hear a string of messages on her phone referring to various make-out sessions with hopeless loser guys at the Pizza Pit – like the ubiquitous Peach Pit on the legendary TV series Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000). We are zipping between the Pop Cinema of now and the Pop Cinema of then, when I dreamed of my book on that subject: and all that ‘80s and ‘90s stuff is itself harking back to the ‘70s, to the ‘50s … Is it any wonder that Detention will henceforth be obsessed with uncontrollable time-loops? Steven Shaviro, among the few intellectual champions of Detention and Kahn in print, soberly noted in a 17 July 2013 entry on his blog The Pinocchio Theory: “There are many ways in which the movie combines old with new”. Maybe all pop movies do. But Kahn does so in a very special and detailed way.
Like every teen movie, Detention is a comedy of manners. Costume/fashion jokes abound (eg., skinny jeans & camel toe) – never too far from the body-vulgarity of grabbing a piece of toilet paper to wipe oneself (which we also see). Production design jokes, too: in this hyper-typical “teenager waking up in their bedroom” opener, we glimpse (apart from all the stuff plastered on the walls), under Taylor’s bed, fluffy dice slippers, pills for herpes treatment, and probably some black sexy lingerie. Self-induced bulimia (vomiting into the toilet bowl) rules.
But Taylor is not simply an old-fashioned embodiment of teen angst; she acts it out, histrionically, for us and for everyone around her, as if aware (as of course she is) that she’s in a movie, or the star of her own YouTube/Instagram channel. Her verbal obscenity is grandiose (“Fuck a duck!”, “Eat cock!”); her projection of family problems is unpredictable and extravagant (her Mom’s breakfast goes against her sudden new diet and arouses instant hatred; her little brother, an “ecstasy baby” pissing in the bathroom, is “ruining her life”). All men fail her: their dicks are not big enough, and the “parabolic graph” drawn by an obsequious Indian classmate for her homework is “bent” (one thing of which Kahn is utterly unafraid, in the Blake Edwards lineage: racial stereotyping for the sake of a good gag). Even the stalker who texts her in illiterate but functional gibberish (“biiitch going to kill uuuu”) – and is given a disguised auto-robo-voice on the soundtrack – is handed the mortal pronouncement of cultural obsolescence: “Stalkers are so 2011”. Shot in 2010, Kahn’s film already out-dates itself! What hope do any of us have in Taylor Fisher’s New World? Not even she (as turns out) survives it.
Let’s review (as I did for my 2013 class) the blizzard of techniques used in this amazing opening sequence. Direct address into camera. Text on screen: not just popping in and out, but also wiped away by the movement of bodies in the image. Bits of chintzy digital animation: a guy in the Drunges poster; and during Taylor’s fall out the window. Camera movement: whip pans, jerky pointing jolts. Editing: “Let me montage this to speed things up”. Music: non-stop, but changing its theme and mood through a seamless sequence of no less than six different pieces – four of them are songs (like in a Scorsese film), the rest are soundtrack score cues, and the ensemble hovers between diegetic (clock radio, car radio, bedroom music) and extra-diegetic status.
It’s all in a day’s work for Joseph Kahn. His film style is a giddy blender-mix of 1980s teen movies, several decades of The Simpsons and related tele-animations, the work of McG (his predecessor in the royal music-video-to-pop-cinema succession), and more. On the back of my Pop Cinema proposal of 1991, I find in scribbled handwriting a quote from the teen film Pump Up the Volume (Allan Moyle, 1990) that I fully intended to include in the never-to-be-finished book: “All the great themes have been used up – turned into theme parks”. In the pop ‘80s, we started to call this kind of thing postmodern, but that ex-hipster word won’t do us much useful duty anymore in 2019.
Back to the inventory of the scene: there is all its amazing split-second work with narrational point-of-view (POV). The scene is Taylor’s, it’s her voice, her list, her montage – and yet it is, simultaneously, not hers. First of all, and not inconsequentially, she dies in the course of delivering it. Before that, there are all manner of momentary deviations from, and contradictions of, her POV. At one point, she answers back to the silent but assumed scepticism of her spectator-listener on the controversial matter of the greatness of Hoobastank (which is the H in her proud identifying tag of BITCH): “What? They’re good!” (Don’t worry: I too, had to Google up Hoobastank, “an American rock band best known for their hit ‘The Reason’.”) Even the words of her own list – “Your lack of faith in the durability of Ke$ha is disturbing” – objectify her into the second-person and critique her. Then there’s the camera that jerks and dives and tracks and cuts with its own eye-rhythm, not entirely tied to Taylor’s eye. Finally, there’s what (thriller-pastiche style) we see that she cannot: the stalker-killer who she assumes, without turning around, to be her douche-bag brother – lurking in the back of the frame, dressed-in-rags to kill. And the ultimate, indelible, cap-off note of irony, after our teen narrator has just expired and a crane shot moves to show her impaled on her mother’s hood, as the final item on her list rolls out: “Drive a hot car”.
So the film will have to start over, begin again, with a new “central character”: Riley (Shanley Caswell). She’ll get another, matching, but very different “introductory montage”. And it’s going to be a fight-to-the-death to see whether Riley, in conjunction with Clapton (Josh Hutcherson), can get in control of time, of narrative, of montage. But we know that the ultimate master in this game, Kahn himself, will remain off-screen – except in the extraordinary “audio-video commentary” supplement he devised for the DVD release, which is a masterpiece in itself.
Joseph Kahn holds a paradoxical place in the contemporary field of audiovisual production. On the one hand, he is very well-known, popular, respected, and has a fabulous, well-paying career (he funded Detention himself, so he could do whatever he liked with it). Glancing at social media, we could even concede that he is pop cinema’s veritable cult figure. But, on the other hand, his major feature films, Detention and Bodied (2017), are – to many audiences and commentators – completely invisible, never-heard-of material. I am constantly astonished by the dark cloud of ignorance surrounding Kahn in the cinephile world – some sub-editors have even casually mistaken this Detention for a Dolph Lundgren action film of 2003, or a Philippine horror movie of 2006, or a Reese Witherspoon political drama of 2007, or … (curse you, IMDb!). His films’ world release, either in theatres or digitally, has been relatively slight, seemingly (like the production processes themselves) tightly controlled.
Kahn as the new Kubrick? Hardly, alas. The major cinema magazines (with the exception of La vida útil in Argentina and Cinema Scope in Canada) have largely ignored Kahn. Film festivals and cinémathèque retrospectives have yet to embrace and honour him. Only at the universities where Shaviro or I worked has his name ever echoed in the classrooms and corridors. What price glory? Kahn has the Last Word and laughs at us all: such institutionalised glory is so five minutes ago … Meanwhile, he will continue (like Terrence Malick) to do things in his own time, and in his own way.
A Spanish-language translation of this text can be found in La vida útil, no. 2 (September 2019), for which it was commissioned. Copies of the magazine (based in Córdoba, Argentina) can be ordered here.
Appendix: Pop Cinema Proposal & Outline (April 1991)
Pop Cinema is envisaged as a forty-thousand-word book defining and exploring some of the characteristically contemporary features of mainstream popular cinema as it has developed over a decade or so (from the late 1970s into the early ‘90s). The book’s focus is on works of popular culture that have become routinely and elaborately self-conscious: hyper-aware of their own status as pop, leisure-time entertainments within a context of frenzied consumption. The title Pop Cinema alludes to the Pop Art of the 1960s because both these cultural movements – Pop Art and Pop Cinema – besides sharing many specific elements of content, can be identified by their obsession with style, a camp sensibility, and an extremely hip cultural knowingness.
The book will draw on a wide range of vivid examples from the mainstream of popular cinema, including Gremlins (1984), Pretty Woman (1990), E.T. (1982), Ghostbusters (1984) and the Look Who’s Talking series (1989- ). The films selected are primarily spectacular entertainments of the type that are rarely (to date) taken seriously in critical writing, because they lack the supposedly sophisticated aesthetic values of literary or theatrical High Art. This book, to the contrary, assumes that all popular entertainments are, on some level, intrinsically interesting – and often quite intricate in their workings.
Pop Cinema does not aim to be an exhaustive account of the aesthetics of popular cinema, nor a survey of the many themes and genres it treats. Rather, the book will isolate some crucial cultural dynamics of this cinema. A guiding theme is that pop cinema often allegorises itself, taking as its more or less explicit subjects the nature of popular taste, the personality-profile of the average consumer, the war between Low and High Art, and so forth. Thus, Pop Cinema will provide a critical map to popular culture’s ideas of itself.
The tone and pitch of the book will be serious, but not overly academic. It is not a summary of, or commentary upon, previous writings in the field of cultural studies or film studies; the topic is largely uncharted, and the ideas are my original ones developed over ten years of teaching cinema & media, and writing for a wide range of publications (magazines, catalogues, arts organisations, etc.).
The heart of the book is its constant evocation of key moments, scenes and elements from a wide range of films that are either well known (as in the above mainstream references) or easily available on home video. It is on the basis of this primary material that the book will advance its arguments. Pop Cinema, as a work of creative critical writing, aims at a point between journalism and the academy, taking what is at once most accessible and most challenging from both spheres.
Chapter 1: Introduction
Definition of the concept of Pop Cinema, through a discussion of some contemporary films that take popular culture as their major subject or theme – particularly the retro films of John Waters, Tim Burton and David Lynch, nostalgically plundering the mass culture and Pop Art of the 1960s.
Chapter 2: Entertainment and Spectacle
This chapter defines the principal aesthetic of Pop Cinema – namely, the love of spectacular surface display, and the use of specific popular culture references to solicit the audience. Comedic spectaculars including the Back to the Future series (1985-1990) are discussed.
Chapter 3: Cultural Drives
This chapter analyses the plots and premises of a wide range of 1980s and early ‘90s films in terms of the basic cultural drives they enact: envy, shame, aggression, nostalgia, and so on. Each drive constructs a particular conflict between specific aspects of mass culture: High vs Low Art, plastic vs authentic culture, modern vs old-fashioned styles, and so forth. Key screen personalities analysed include Bette Midler and Eddie Murphy.
Chapter 4: Manners
The genre of the comedy of manners is considered as an essential form of Pop Cinema, duly redefined (displaced from its Shakespearean and other roots) as lifestyle comedy, in which characters are typed by their cultural tastes and associations as much as by their given personality traits and temperaments. Teen movies such as key precursor Animal House (1978) and St Elmo’s Fire (1985) are discussed, plus the dramas of manners that have appeared in the wake of the TV series thirtysomething (1987-1991).
Chapter 5: Pop Life
In its fantasy genres (such as horror), Pop Cinema creates extravagant metaphors for the contemporary pop life (as Prince called it): what it means and how it feels to be a hyped-up producer and/or consumer of culture. These metaphors are evoked and explored. Films discussed include the A Nightmare on Elm St series (1984- ), Gremlins 2 (1990) and Earth Girls Are Easy (1988).
Chapter 6: Hip and Flip
The final chapter ties the themes of the book together by describing the complex “attitude problem” of Pop Cinema: its endlessly renewed attempt to find and affirm some worthy and worthwhile value system, while at the same time sending up the very idea as corny and/or deluded. Films discussed include Ghostbusters and Heathers (1988).