These Childish Things: Are We Dumbing Down Art?

23 May
23/05/2015

Simon Pegg gave an interview for the Radio Times, in which he criticised -or appeared to criticise- genre movies for ‘dumbing down.’ This, in the words of Douglas Adams, made a lot of people upset and was widely considered a bad move. Pegg later clarified his position on his own website and, to my mind, made a lot of good points.

Here’s a quote from the RT piece that started it all…

“Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!”

First things first, whoever decided that a slammer was a way to go, needs to look long and hard in the mirror. It is never acceptable to do that. Never!

Okay. There’s plenty to unpack in this quote. I tried to sit and write a cohesive argument, during which I hoped to figure out whether I agreed or disagreed with what he was saying. The truth it, I have views that are somewhat contradictory of each other. I both disagree with Pegg and absolutely agree with him. I’ve decided the best I can do is to present all of my opposing ideas here, and then hope that my cohesive opinion forms somewhere in the middle of the venn diagram.

Point The First; ‘Childish things.’

I have an issue with the way we talk about things being childish, or child-like. Too often, these phrases are used to refer to things beings dumbed down, or simplified. However, children are hands-down the cleverest people on the planet. Their capacity for understanding and learning far outstrips anything we can do as adults. You think it’s impressive that Einstein managed to work his way through the theory of relativity? That’s fucking nothing. Sit and watch what a child manages to do in his or her first four years. From nothing, from absolutely zero, with no frame of reference, a baby learns the world. It learns days and nights, people, communication, it learns to talk without having a language in the first place, it learns the very concept of language. Moving, shuffling, crawling, walking, running. Touching, cheating, giving pleasure, causing pain. Cause and effect. It’s amazing what those little bundles of collected water achieve. And from there, children go on to become far more ambitious, daring, and adult than any actual adult.

That’s really my problem with the way we talk about children’s entertainment; it’s fundamentally wrong. Children engage with material that is exciting, fun, ambitious. Children tell stories with a freedom and imagination that get’s taken away from us as we grow. Children also grow to understand very deep and complex issues. They learn about life and death, love and loss, grief and hope. They learn to deal with, and engage with, stories that tackle issues that we now seem to shy away from as adults.

When we find art that can bring us a little sense of that, any story, film, TV show or song that can rekindle that spark, we should treasure it. Doctor Who has survived for over 50 years now, not because it isn’t a kids show, but because it’s the very best kids show. It’s a show that allows adults to be children again, in short doses.

Like many comic book readers -certainly ones of my generation- I spent my teens and twenties insisting that super heroes were meant for adults. (I also wondered why the industry was dying.) Now, by and large, I’m drawn to super hero tales that embrace what they really are. That accept they are absurd little morality tales, with grown-ups dressing as a variety of animal-themes heroes, and blowing shit up. I find that the heart of Batman isn’t the moody adult avenger that we see on the surface of the story, but the scared and angry little boy that we engage with in the subtext. Superman is just a normal guy from Kansas, he could be your neighbour or your best friend, but he has super powers and can fly into outer space. How fucking cool is that? How much does that get the little childish spark in you burning?

Children are simply better than us when it comes to hope, excitement and ambition. Genuinely child-like storytelling is one of the best things there is (maybe even better than milkshake) and we lose sight of that, because we’ve lost sight of the verve and creativity that informs it. And that, in turn, is what leads to the ‘dumbing down’ that people have noticed. Not because we’re given stories that are too child-like, but rather, because we’re given stories by people who’ve forgotten how to be child-like.

Point The Second: On ‘Dumbing Down.’

Alan Moore has taken a lot of shit in the past for pointing out that the comic book industry has been taken over by a form of arrested development. A relevant quote can be taken from this interview;

In the 1980’s, comics didn’t actually grow up. I know there were all those newspaper articles that said, ‘Bam! Sock! Pow! Comics have grown up.’ But actually, Bam! Sock! Pow! No they haven’t. No. What they did was, I think, and this might be a controversial statement, I think they met the emotional age of the general public coming the other way. I think there has been a retreat of things in this century. Because of the burgeoning levels of complexity that assails the entirety of our culture.

I don’t always agree with everything Moore says, because he’s prone to over-generalisation (he says, generalising…) but I think here he has a point. As the world is getting more and more complex, as technology is making it possible to see terrible events in real-time, and as our culture moves faster and faster, there seems to be a backwards shift in our entertainment. Not all entertainment, of course. Anyone reading this far is likely to have a mental list of adult, complex and insightful works of contemporary entertainment at the ready to rebut me. But those seem to be the outliers at the moment. They always were, the mainstream pop-culture level entertainment has always been a shallower-but-wider pool, but it seems to be getting ever shallower and ever wider.

Let’s take comic books as an example. Too many people want to deny that superheroes were created for children, too many people want to steal those creations away and wrap them in some kind of protective ‘adult’ bubble. This behaviour misses the point that truly allowing the characters to be great children’s literature would be the best way for us to enjoy them as adults, and that we’re trapping ourselves in a feedback loop by ignoring that.

There’s a form of extended adolesence that we as a culture seem to be trapped in. One that manages to stop us from truly growing up and embracing the childlike parts of ourselves.

I had an odd experience when I first watched SPACED. I was a bleach-blonde comic geek, mooning over a woman, and every single thing I said during any given conversation was some form of pop-culture reference. By the same token, when I first read HIGH FIDELITY, I was working in an independent record shop, mooning over a woman, and spending my days making top-five lists. I WAS those guys. I felt like they had somehow stolen my life for comedy gold (because I am a pretty funny guy, so who could blame them?) Somewhere along the line, I stopped being that guy, and I realised that the people who continued to identify with these characters were maybe missing the point. It’s much healthier to be identifying with the protagonist at the end of HIGH FIDELITY than with the snarky, mean, immature and self-obsessed character he is during the book. People still call for more SPACED, without accepting what a horrible, weird mess that would be. Those actors are in a different place, those characters would be in a different place. People who are still calling for a sequel to SHAUN OF THE DEAD are somehow missing that there was a sequel. There was a whole trilogy, and it was about growing up.

 We’ve….grown up. Or have we?

Too many of our conversations are just reheated references to films we watched twenty years ago, and too much of our pop culture is driven by nostalgia as a result. But the damaging kind of nostalgia, the one that has no real warmth, and is making us think of a time that never really existed. (I’m going to let you all in on something; George Lucas has done absolutely nothing in the last twenty years that ruins your childhood.)

Point The Third: On Life Before And After Star Wars.

There is a line of argument that blames STAR WARS for some mass dumbing-down of SF. (Which is odd, since STAR WARS isn’t SF…) The reasoning is to point out that SF used to deal with things. That PLANET OF THE APES was about racism and society, that 2001 was ambitious as hell, that SILENT RUNNING was fucking grown-up. And then along came STAR WARS, which either lacked subtext or had one that we chose to ignore, and featured a slave trading white kid as the hero, and Jedi Knights who were happy for bars to refuse to serve droids, and pop culture has been a dumbed down place ever since.

I don’t really buy into the whole argument. There were dumb SF films before Star Wars, there have been intelligent ones since. The biggest films in cinema have always tended to be some form of popularist, sentimental fare of varying quality. Subtext is often subjective, and no one era of art has a real claim to be any more or less pure than another. Hollywood has always made money off sequels and reboots.

However, I do see some value in the argument. Just as the Bechdel Test isn’t really a valid way to judge any single film, but is a pretty accurate way to attack a body of work, so I think people who lay the blame on STAR WARS are being unfair to focus on one film, but they are correct to notice that something in the culture shifted around that time.

If entertainment is still art, and if art is where we deal with our modern world and the big questions of life, then what does it say about us as a culture that we are less and less dealing with these big issues in our entertainment? Which leads to….

Point The Fourth: On Consequences, Violence & Grief. 

Here’s where I’m starting to feel an opinion forming, a through-line that’s pulling all together. Being genuinely child-like in our art is important, and all too rare, but we’re replacing it with an odd adult form of arrested development.

Our biggest films now all seem to end in final Acts that are filled with explosions. Cities are falling. Aliens are being wiped out. Robots are being blown up. Both AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD have filled our screens this year with lessons in visceral, amazingly choreographed, immersive action. (For what it’s worth, FURY ROAD does it far better than AGE OF ULTRON.) Amazing amounts of work and detail are going into putting these things together. A veritable orgy of shit blowing up and people doing amazing stunts. In theory, the stakes in these stories are getting higher and higher every year, but in practice? I’m not convinced.

What real emotional consequences were there during the battles in either Avengers movie? What was to be lost, or grieved over, or paused to contemplate, in all the robots and aliens blowing up? Where did we see the cost on human lives and emotions as Metropolis fell in a pornography of destruction during MAN OF STEEL (and I don’t mean the good kind of pornography…) Star ships crashed into cities in the last STAR TREK film, how did that feel? What did we care? A lot of people died during MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, how many of them were we led to care about? How many of the people who were blown up, incinerated, chopped up, stabbed, run down, or crushed did we really care about? Or get a chance to care about?

Much has been made, naturally, of the idea that our popcorn movies have been affected by 9/11 and, to a lesser extent, the ‘war on terror’ and 7/7. We’ve all seen the images of buildings falling, of explosions, of dust clouds. But if that is what is informing the subtext of our movies, then why is it only the physical destruction that we’re dealing with? Where is the emotion? The reflection? The human cost?

It sees to me, and maybe I’m wrong, but that there’s little difference between the various reavers in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, or the robots and aliens in avengers movies, and the old villainous Indians in westerns. The characters that we’re asked not to care about, there only so that we can shoot things, kill things, and run away from things without having to think any deeper. Except, there seemed to be a moment in time when we as a culture realised that was wrong. Not only because of the implicit racism of that trope, but also because that, in turn, made us face up to complexity. We stopped making those kinds of westerns (and boy, did the genre die a quick death after that) and started to make films that explored deeper issues, and looked at more sides of the story. Then, somewhere along the line, we just wanted to have Storm Troopers to blow up again.

I don’t really know if what I’m arguing here is that we’re regressing, or simply getting better at lying to ourselves. I just wonder if, in an age when we’re all supposed to be hyper self-aware, if we’re maybe all participating in a culture that fundamentally lacks self-awareness.

Point The Fifth: The Wrong Kind Of Childishness.

Pretty much coming back to where we came in. Simon Pegg took a lot of heat for his words. Very quickly. The very fact that he needed to backtrack shows that maybe he was onto something. As much as I opened up this piece by defending the childish imagination, I think there are other sides to childhood that we can recognise as destructive. The possessiveness, the anger, the lashing out. Those of us in our various fandom sub-genres hate nothing more than having our love of something challenged, or even having the thing we love face any level of criticism.

I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it. Someone criticises a film, TV show, comic or novel that we’ve loved, and we react in anger. We take it personally. We maybe lash out. I think we need to stop and pause, and think about why that is.

I’ve argued before, that nothing proves literary writers correct in their disdain of genre quite as much as the way genre writers react to that disdain. We get angry and defensive fast. And the same appears (to me at least) to be true here.

Pegg raised the notion that certain aspects of out culture are overly dumbed-down and infantilised, and the response was that certain people in our culture instantly started shouting at him and calling him names. I think they’re maybe not proving what they think they’re proving…

Point The Sixth: A New Hope

Maybe this is all the end. Maybe the pop culture mainstream, driven by straight white men who steal from elsewhere and then repeat over and over, is in it’s death throws, and this is merely the end of a long game of Chinese whispers. Maybe all of these blogs, interviews and think-pieces really only speak to the fact that ‘we’ -in this form- have had our time and deep down we’re panicking about that.

As the mainstream slowly makes more room for diverse voices, as we (at glacial speed) are opening up to intersectional arguments, and to wider representation, maybe all of these issues that I’ve been arguing about will become irrelevant, as new art and culture is born. Maybe it already is irrelevant, and our mainstream culture is merely showing that the game is up, and that it’s time to change.

Or maybe this whole essay today is the one thing that’s irrelevant, who knows?

Common Ground: Centrist Politics In Modern Britain

14 May
14/05/2015

Or is it true
The common ground for me is without you?
Or is it true
The common ground for me is without you?

Oh is it true
There’s no ground common enough for me and you?

-Lou Reed, “Good Evening Mr Waldheim.

A quick word on “the centre” of British politics. It’s a phrase that gets used a lot. I throw it around myself, often as a pejorative phrase. The truth is, we’re not really meaning what we say. But in the current narrative, in the “Left VS. Right, Us VS. Them” fights, it feels important to point out if someone isn’t left-wing enough, (or right-wing enough, if that’s your ideology of choice) and we end up accepting certain terms as a cultural short hand.

The accepted wisdom is that Blair and New Labour won huge votes by moving to the centre, and the people who accept this are finding it easy now to also think that Ed Miliband and New Labour Lite lost because they were too left-wing. They will extend that idea, to suggest that Labour need to pull back towards the middle.

Everything that I wrote in that paragraph is accepted as true in mainstream political discussion, but it’s all a load of nonsense.

Here’s the truth about the centre; It moves. It’s progressive, always advancing. It moves too slowly for many of us, but it is always making positive steps. A decade ago -hell, even five years ago- there was no room in the centre for equal marriage. In a few short years, the middle ground has taken the huge step to say, of course we should have equal marriage. The centre keeps finding ways to be more inclusive, more open, and to invite more people to stand in the common ground.

Up here in Scotland, many of us spent the election campaign (and the mess that followed) pointing out that the SNP are more Left-Wing than Labour. We sometimes even went as far as to say they were a Left-Wing party. I’ve seen a few commentators on social media call them socialists. Let’s stop being daft. What the SNP represent currently is true centrist politics. That is, politics that probably reflects a large common ground in Scotland. People who want free university tuition. People who want the NHS protected from privatisation. People who want an end to the bedroom tax and are getting pig-sick of austerity. A majority of the Scottish electorate disagrees with the SNP’s central position, but the same people seem to pretty much agree with the SNP’s current policy priorities.

The narrative in the media (and we’ve all played along to varying degrees) is that these are Left-Wing positions. Maybe they were, once upon a time. But in the modern-day, they simply represent the centre ground. They represent the things that most of us, on all ‘sides’ pretty much agree on.

That’s the centre of Scottish politics and, I still believe, the centre of English politics, too. Am I in the centre? No. I want more than that. Much more. I want more radical programmes and much faster progress. But I would like to take a moment to stop demonizing the centre ground, and to reboot our terms of reference. The problem isn’t the centre, the problem is that what we keep allowing Labour, the Tories, and the media to call ‘the centre’ is actually the right.

What Blair and New Labour did was pull votes from the right. It’s the same trick Bill Clinton used. It’s a political tactic called triangulation, you can look it up. And during the 90’s, the conversation was changed, so that the real centre was made to look like the left, and the new centre was moved a few inches over to the right.

Make no mistake, New Labour were not a centrist party. Sure, they introduced a minimum wage (that was at least 5 pounds lower than was needed at the time) but they also flirted long and hard with identity cards, they introduced the asylum and immigration bill, they sold arms, they invaded foreign countries, they used the threat of terrorism to impose unprecedented invasions of our civil liberties and privacy (anyone else remember the time they made it illegal to protest outside parliament without Police permission?)

New labour were a centre-right party of government. So anytime people say that they need to move back in that direction, let’s be clear on what they mean. The long slow death of Labour is a direct result of this shift, because people on the right already have other parties who speak for them, and now, people of Scotland have a party that speaks for the centre. England may well follow. The result is that a lot of genuine Left-Wing voters are confused about where to go, and Labour have cast themselves adrift without a lifeboat.

Keep an eye and ear out for the arguments made by the candidates, during their leadership election, because it’s going to be important.

Where Next For England?

08 May
08/05/2015

Ever since I moved to Scotland, I’ve consistently argued back against one particular idea; “England is simply more right-wing than Scotland.” Initially, I argued against it in defence of the union, because I saw the idea as a calculated tactic to bring about independence. Then, after being given endless better arguments on the case for independence, I switched sides and started campaigning for a YES vote last year. Even then, I still argued that England isn’t more right-wing than Scotland. I invoked the names of people like Thomas Paine, and I talked of how election results always showed that the left got more votes than the right. I argued that the system was the enemy, that first-past-the-post was the enemy, that an outdated economic union was the enemy. I believe that very spirit of internationalist solidarity that underpinned Marxist and socialist thinking, would mean England and Scotland could thrive as separate countries with shared values.

I still believe all of that. I still believe, deep down, that England isn’t a right-wing country, and we simply need a reformation in the political process to make the left shine. But, man, England, you are not making it easy to believe.

In the early stages of the electoral counts last night, there were two very different sets of figures doing the rounds. Both of them spoke of either minority government, or of some form of coalition being necessary. And straight away, there were voices starting to lay the blame of a new Tory government on the SNP surge in Scotland, and the suggestion that, if those people had all simply politely voted red, none of this would be happening. As the night panned out, that line of argument vanished, as we all realise what was unfolding. A Tory majority. The truth is that it didn’t matter who Scotland voted for, just as it never matters. Scotland voted Labour in 2010 and got Tory. Scotland voted SNP in 2015 and got Tory. The entirety of the Scottish electorate could spoil their ballots at every general election, and it wouldn’t make a dent against the political will of England.

What these results do show is that, for whatever reason, there is a growing gulf in the political directions of the two countries. England speaks of political disenchantment, and young people not getting involved. Scotland has record turn-outs, and last night Paisley elected a 20-year-old to parliament. England speaks of a political class, white middle and upper class men, who have no relation to ‘real’ people, Scotland last night elected 20 new women to parliament, and the countries leading political figure grew up in a council house. England’s version of a protest vote was to hand around 4 million votes to UKIP, whereas Scotland’s version was to elect a party who were running on an anti-austerity platform, stand in opposition to nuclear weapons, and have a track record of protecting free university tuition and the NHS.

The uncomfortable fact is that England has looked at the last five years, at the cuts, at people dying after having benefits being removed, at the privatisation of the NHS, at the sky-rocketing of tuition fees, at the demonization of poor people and immigrants…..took a look at all of that, and ticked the box that says, “five more years of that, please, but more extreme.” Scotland has looked at all of that and ticked the box that says, “fuck no.”

Where next for Scotland? Well, the SNP surge may not make any difference in Westminster policy. It depends on how things pan out. There’s every chance the Tories could ignore them, and do whatever they want. To accept that, though, also means to accept that would have been the same even if Labour had won all 60 Scottish seats. They would still have ended up on the same side of the house that the SNP find themselves in, and Labour have no real track record of sticking up for Scotland against Tories. All this result does is highlight the problem.

Where next for the union? Well, the dark irony here is that those of us on the left couldn’t deliver independence, but the right might get it done. We could get the needle as far as 45%. In order to get it any further, it took the Tories. They’ve used a lot of anti-SNP, anti-Scottish language during the election to amp up the English vote, and that, combined with the UKIP surge, has pushed the needle far closer than we could. And the real challenge for David Cameron is what to do about all those SNP politicians sitting across from him. If the Tories do decide to ignore them, and to push through their own agenda, they deliver independence to Scotland by default. They will have proven the SNP right on the dangers of staying in the union and being ignored. If they listen to the SNP, and deliver any measure of support or protection to Scotland, they will draw the ire of the right-wing little England vote that they’ve whipped up during the election. In order to hang on to power, the Tories have driven their tour bus through the cracks in the union. And all the while, as they’ve been doing this, Labour have been alienating themselves further from their core Scottish base by talking of over 50% of the electorate as “nationalists.”

(A brief digression on ‘Nationalist’. What an utterly pointless word in modern politics. It means different things to different people, and really all it does is betray bias in the people using it. In a recent debate with someone who hates the SNP, I defended their (slightly) left of centre positions and made the case that people were voting for them out of policy, not nationalism. “Ah,” he said. “But they ARE nationalists. The clue is in their name.” Okay, I said, I presume you hold the National Health Service in similar disdain, since the clue would also be in it’s name. No, of course he didn’t. The truth is, in all of these debates, all sides have nationalist elements. If you’re arguing against Scottish independence, say, you’re arguing for a different form of nationalism, it’s simply one you take for granted.)

Anyway. To complete the roll I was on before that digression, where next for England? That’s the one that’s tugging at my heart and noodling my noggin. I still don’t believe England is naturally more right-wing. I still don’t -I can’t- believe that England really endorses the kind of cuts and misery that austerity brings. But there is a different problem in England, and one we need to solve.

Politics can be three things. Something you observe, something you ignore, or, something you do. The lesson from Scotland is that it works best when it’s something you do. Radical Independence, Generation Yes, Women For Independence; even outside of the recognised political parties, these groups have been out there, organising, canvassing, debating. They’ve played a part in the SNP surge, sure, but that’s not all. There is involvement. Engagement. Now, the problem with being an English Lefty (and I speak as someone who is still, technically, one of those) there is the inbuilt belief that being left-wing means voting for Labour in the hope they will one day come back to you. If you want it, you’ve got to get it. Maybe it means you all join the Labour party and reclaim it. Maybe it means you form a new party, get the union support, and supplant Labour. Maybe it means you all throw your support behind the Greens.

Whatever it means, please, for the sake of both the union and/or our own separate countries working together independently, and for the sake of all the poor people in those countries, do something.