Friend of the blog Denis McGrath over at Dead Things on Sticks recently posted a couple of links to articles that both use 9/11 as a dividing line in the entertainment world, two articles that, like matter and anti-matter, cannot coexist in the same space without causing complete annihilation — at least, of the grey matter in my brain.
If you believe journalist Kate Taylor, who writes about discovering Seinfeld recently, post-9/11 we’ve been awakened and aren’t as able to process anything that focuses on trivial minutia ("You can also observe that these are people who can afford to worry about pizza cooks who don't wash their hands because they aren't worrying about terrorist attacks"). So I guess that’s why now, important movies such as I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and The Simpsons Movie are blockbusters, and the top TV programs are American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.
If you believe filmmaker Tom DiCillo, who talks about how his movies are too important for the unwashed masses, yadda yadda yadda, post-9/11 we’ve been numbed and aren’t able to process anything meaningful or emotional ("Look at the movies people are watching. They’re about nothing. You invest nothing. People can’t invest real emotion because it’s too terrifying”). So I guess that’s why post-9/11, we watch silly movies like The Passion of the Christ and A Beautiful Mind, while pre-9/11, important movies such as Titanic and Home Alone were king. Not to mention that World War II must have been a walk in the park, which is why Americans could emotionally engage with the war-related themes of The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, enough to propel it onto the top 100 all-time American movie box office earners.
I have two words for both: Hog and wash.
This kind of thinking is part of a trend: grasping for trends where there are none, or, more accurately, where there are multiple, mutually exclusive possibilities that each could make a plausible trend. Trend stories are popular because they seem to make sense. They’re interesting. They make us feel smarter for reading them. But they’re all too often pseudo-analysis, making connections between events seem likely because they present an unsubstantiated opinion and exclude all contrary arguments.
9/11 has changed the audience’s appetite? Show me the information that would suggest that’s true, data that would not hold up if you made the same argument for any random year being the year everything changed.
Immediately post-9/11, things did change, as Americans and Hollywood tried to regain their footing. Movie images of the twin towers were digitally removed from skylines. There were suggestions the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Collateral Damage would never be released because the public couldn’t stomach the terrorism theme. When it was, mere months later, it seemed more likely we couldn’t stomach another lousy movie.
Today, that same public laps up 24’s terrorist themes every week. We watch dumb movies and TV. We watch clever movies and TV. Just as we did on Sept. 10, 2001, except now, very occasionally, those stories try to make sense of the aftermath of the day after that.
What does it mean, to say a movie or a show isn’t about anything, anyway? Even The Simpsons Movie has at its core a message not just about Spiderpigs, but about family and community. Does a movie have to have pretensions to greatness or obscurity to be meaningful?
Seinfeld famously called itself a show about nothing, but it was really a show about everything that makes us the neurotic human beings we are. In our daily lives, even post-9/11, most of us don’t walk around talking about the impact of world events on our psyches and politicoeconomic systems. We don’t face situations like being stranded on a tropical island. We talk about bad customer service and make snotty comments about other people. We search endlessly for a good parking space.
I never imagined I’d compare Jane Austen to Seinfeld, but it reminds me of the usual criticism of Austen: that her works are Harlequin romances in the literature section. Those critics miss her ironic commentary on society because she’s writing about the small scale of a particular social class’s domestic life rather than large scale of political or social unrest. She wrote about the only places where the women in that society existed. That’s hardly trivial. Seinfeld wrote about the small scale of people’s inner lives, in all their messy, selfish, trivial glory. That’s no small achievement, either.
Can you really say that Seinfeld wouldn’t work post-9/11 because it focuses on pizza makers not washing their hands, when we have more important things to worry about now? How about when you introduce the fact that the fart- and sex-joke filled Two and a Half Men is the top sitcom today?
Can you really say that movies used to be more meaningful pre-9/11, when we’re talking about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Jurassic Park versus Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest?
If you really think you can, excuse me while the remainder of my brain explodes on you.