[Guest Blogger Plok writes the first of a three part thing, all of which will be up this week.]
...She knew the words, but not the music!
Hello, Remarkablists; I've been watching TV. Normally I don't get a whole lot of the fancier channels, where the really interesting filler material is brought out, but while I've been away on a working holiday the last couple of weeks I've been enjoying a rather full plate of trash...which Geoff has kindly offered to let me empty on this here blog, and so here I am, and looking forward to it too. Actually, I think this is the best possible place for the diatribe I have in mind, because this is a blog that doesn't sneer at trash (I don't either), but instead examines it for clues to the way pop-culture conventions tend to slip and slide and change their skins...everywhere a narrative exploding or flipping inside-out, to revise itself -- and memory revealing itself to be, just as Bertrand Russell had it, much more a performance of the present than a record of the past...
...And this was going to be a real long ramble, but I think if I want to zoom off for fifteen pages at a stretch I better do it on my own blog, so I'm chopping this down, and chopping it into chunks. Hopefully by the time I'm done, you can still reassemble it like the final issue of Promethea if you feel like it! But there wouldn't be much point building all that structure into it, I suppose, if all I intended to do was show it you, and say: "look, here's the structure, aren't I clever!" Because there isn't really anything very clever about denying the reader interaction with the text, I think. Is there?
Hence: chunks. So here's the first one:
Writers don't know how to end their stories anymore.
And I mean something very specific by that (though I guess I mean it generally too, curmudgeon that I am!), because these days it seems like a whole lot of stories end the same way, in comics and movies as well as on TV -- in a montage, with a voiceover, and a mood. Well, I think you'd have to look pretty far these days, to find an hour-long TV drama that didn't end in this kind of arrangement! But here's the thing: those voiceovers, most of 'em, don't mean too much anymore.
I blame Scrubs.
Or, no: that's not fair. Scrubs didn't invent this incapacity to bookend action. Actually, as far as I can recall, it was invented by the Eighties reboots of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, that may have spent a lot of time on clever introductory visuals and a certain amount of sci-fi cred as far as the actual script went, but that flamed out miserably on crossing the finish line and supplying a moral with the intrusion of the All-Knowing Voice at the end. Ironic as hell, because The Twilight Zone at least pretty much set the model for how to do this sort of thing on TV; like a lot of his generation of TV writers, Rod Serling pulled sixty-hour days with only the help of a carton of cigarettes and a case of whiskey, just to make sure that by the end of each episode of his show people would damn well know where they'd been, and why they went. And, don't get me wrong, I'm not so much of a throwback as to say that's Just The Way You Do It -- I want to fruitfully explore, not pointlessly contend -- hey, I like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison! -- but if we can't recognize this irony then we won't recognize any, because those caption-voiceover-bookends for the Eighties anthology revivals were so lamely tacked-on that it practically does a disservice to Stuff That's Lamely Tacked-On to call them that...
Or at least, it did...
But now the modern media is catching up to those reboots pretty quick, it seems.
So I want to tell you a story, all about loss and gain and Painkiller Jane...and I guess it all starts with the Beatles. When I was a lad -- and yes, as it happens I will tell this story to anyone at the drop of a hat -- there were two sides to every record store: Pop, and Rock. Over on the Pop side, Bing Crosby crooned away about Moon and June and a Grand Old Tune...meanwhile on the Rock side, Mick Jagger was singing about Altamont. And I thought this was bullshit, because: Bing Crosby, popular music? I figured Rock was Pop, goddamnit, and if record stores had any honesty to their labelling Bing would be sitting on a high, high shelf somewhere, covered in dust. So, I became part of a generational movement, I guess, and in the end we did win the Great Pop War, for the People...!!! And then we went further and built that new weird arcology, Alternative Music...and okay, I didn't really have all that much to do with it. A lot of mascara may have been spilled along the way, but none of it was mine...but hell. I was there, anyhow.
And so in the end, I got to see a marvellous new age ushered in: the age of the Music Video. And I never knew anything to come to pass that had been quite so long-awaited, you know? I must admit, it was a bit of a perfect storm in those days: all kinds of cultural and technological stuff came together to take certain things that had always existed solely on the inside of my head, and transpose 'em into the real world. Not that there's any generation (hell, I don't even believe in generational identification, myself) that can't claim that, but again this isn't a contention it's an exploration: and I just want to say what certain things were transposed, and why they made such a difference at the time, and how they got complexified over time, yea even unto the present day that my memory magically produces for me each morning. Basically it was all about things that had previously been impossible to film, suddenly becoming possible. We start with Star Wars and move through the somewhat left-handed participatory experience of the music video, the comparison of images created by the heard song in solitude, to the public images of the song as seen -- an exciting novelty in those days, a stimulating new kind of cultural guessing-game! -- but forgive me if I don't draw the lines out in anything more permanent than pencil, here, or it will be fifteen pages -- and it lands in that great watershed of Image, the Nike ad whose soundtrack was "Revolution", by the Beatles.
And as pompous as the old hippies got about it at the time, this really did change a whole bunch of stuff. But it was stuff for them, and not for us. This is what it means to realize one is living in the present, by the way, and not even recalling the past so much as making it up: to be listening to the radio and hear Bill Hicks raving about the evil of Debbie Gibson (so banal, how could she be anything but?), or to plug an old tape into the tape deck on a whim and hear Mojo Nixon declaring that "Michael J. Fox has no Elvis in him". That last one just sounds flippin' weird now, of course: the application of obsolete aesthetic differentials, an "old reference, lost on younger viewers", as Phil Hartman said while playing Ed McMahon to Dana Carvey's Johnny Carson, on an SNL parody that is itself now an old r., lost on younger v...
My God, but it all seems a million miles away now, doesn't it?
One wonders what Hicks would've made of the current pop scene, what savage routines he might have concocted to trade on the fact that Debbie Gibson, whose favourite performer was Billy Joel (jeez, it all really is a million miles away!), is something one could even yearn for now, since even though it was a somewhat sterile sincerity she had it was at least still sincerity...and not that there's no sincerity anywhere these days (there's more than ever if you know where to look, and I think Hicks would've appreciated that), but there are a hell of a lot of things now that Debbie Gibson doesn't suffer by comparison with, and a Bill Hicks routine based on that fact is one that would probably make eyeballs bleed.
Oh, Bill. I miss you, man...
But you were an old hippie too, you venerated Janis and Jimi in a way I never could, or could've wanted to, or did...and you were probably mad at that Nike ad, because how could you anticipate what it would one day come to signal?
The birth of a more scalable kind of art, the final victory of both the spirit of collage, and the division of labour...distributed entertainment, that exists as a millenial web of allusion as much as a deep handmade prehistoric feeling in the gut. And you don't even need to get all parts of the entertainment from the same place, it's all just different files on different servers in different basements, and it doesn't arrive on a dedicated line but in shippable packets spiralling in towards you at different speeds -- so you don't pay for the spaces between the seconds any longer, you just pay for what you get, once it's all put back together. You just pay for the peaks, not the troughs; you just get the beats, and not the silences.
Silences not included!
Because you can stir those in yourself.
Oh, I kind of want that to sound a bit poetic, but at the same time I don't want to exaggerate. So don't think I'm not trying to avoid exaggeration when I say that once upon a time the world of "biz" (now with exciting new Comics flavour!), while it frequently engaged in cheerfully unapologetic rip-off-ery, was not as necessarily attentive to recipes and formulae, and the implicit associations of the ingredients you can simply buy at the supermarket, than it pretty much has to be at the present time. Sure, B.J. And The Bear played Jackson Browne and James Taylor tunes as the helicopter flew between the buttes...but nowadays there isn't any cop show that doesn't find it more convenient to rent "Gimme Shelter", than to wait on Mike Post and Pete Carpenter to finish up in the studio. Oh, you've still got your Danny Elfmans...hey, you've still got your Peter Jacksons and your Guillermo del Toros, too! There are still people who do model-making and puppetry and old-school set design...
All I'm saying is, CGI's easier. Renting music's easier, too.
And so, in the same manner, is plotting: hitting the beats. This is my generation, the third generation past WWII of TV, movie, and comics makers...the ones who saw Star Wars in the theatre, you see? The ones who were shaped by the Pop Wars, and the growing mental maps of the new media landscape that got born in the perfect storm of the Eighties. Hmm, there is a little wiggle room in that definition, of course...
But this is the effect I want to talk about, even so...even though I don't like generational identifications. And I know, I know...I'm taking a hell of a long time to get to it. And, hold on, I'm about to take a bit longer still:
You know, everyone talks about Watchmen as a work whose point got missed by the people it influenced...but no one ever talks about how they missed it, in what manner they missed it. Well, I've got a theory about that, actually: I think the exact point that got missed was a lot like the point Tocqueville said was missed by most Americans about their political system -- drunk on the everyday miracles of equality, Americans (he said) were prone to forget about the slightly more difficult miracle of political freedom, that was equality's counterbalance all along. But (he also said) who could blame them? In the same way (I think), we can't really blame the followers of Alan Moore's example for seizing on just the most gratifying and useful aspect of the musical construction of Watchmen -- the way the dialogue drags itself over the space between panels and pages to culminate in a scene-changing effect that practically punches the reader in the face...! I mean Mark Millar uses this all the time; everybody uses this all the time -- and forgetting in their excitement to reflect on how the punch-in-the-face scenechanging is a misdirection that covers the seeding of later revelations...of, in fact, novel revelations. Because, anyone can do the punch-in-the-face juxtaposition scene-changing stuff once they've seen how it's pulled off...so, are we to tell them they shouldn't try it on, just because they haven't noticed what they need to notice, if they want to make a fugue lasting longer than three minutes? For many of them, just bending a comic-book plot thrillingly into a circle is all they ever wanted to do. So should we tell them that's not good enough somehow? Do they absolutely need to make the circle bigger, instead of just making it faster?
We're getting close to Painkiller Jane now, O Friends Of Geoff: I promise. And as you may have surmised, it's all about the music...and oh, what the hell, why don't I just give the game away right now, and then those of you who've been waiting for me to come to the point can say I gave it to you, because reading things off a screen is (we all know) much more taxing than reading them off ink and paper...
Here it is. Alan Moore talks a lot about the benefit in comics of having many "tracks" to combine playfully: there's the dialogue track, there's the picture track, there's the layout track, there's the sound-effect track...there's the caption track. It's better (he says) than movies, and it's better than TV.
I think he's right. But, not that TV and movies lack the ability to playfully assemble tracks! They've got the track of the visuals, they've got the tracks of the actor's voices as they're synched to physical performance (the "talkie" factor), they've got the sound-effect track and they've got the track of the embedded music that accompanies action or montage...and that's quite a lot, you know! Oh, and they've also got the track of the actor's voices that isn't synched to performance, that's all juxtapose-y instead...
But here is my point, right here: they've lost that last track. Because they've given it up to music.
In other words, the reason why all the sense has gone out of our voiceovers (Heroes is a good example of this...do they still make that show? Oh come on, pull the other one...next you'll be telling me they still make The Outer Limits), is that our modern Third-Gen Guys are using the voiceover track to supplement the music track...they are using the words as music, and not as words. I mean, it isn't even that they're practising any rhetorical tricks per se, they're just letting the tranquilizing lilt of the actor's voice, maybe with a couple of meaninglessly symmetrical reversals of phonemes added in for spice ("if you do not master your fear, then fear will be your master!") drift over you, drift under you, and drift...drift...
...Until it drifts you across the finish line.
Just like music; but unfortunately not like the kind of music that dwells in the meaningful arrangement of words, and neither yet quite like the music that dwells in the artful arrangements of instruments and their notes...but something that beggars both, by being something more expoitative than either words or music should be. Something essentially assaultive, antisocial, fraudulent; something that has about it a little bit of the odour of the anti-intellectual...perhaps even the cannibal. Moon, June, Grand Old Tune. Beats, of course: it's all about beats. This is the part of the show where it ends, and you the viewer realize something. But we can't be bothered to tell you what it is. Um, because we're not sure what it is!
Silence not included.
Okay, so there you go: there's my point.
That just leaves my argument to be made, then.
END CHUNK THE FIRST.