Monday, February 21, 2011

What Happened to Place in Pop Culture?

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While listening to old music or watching antique cartoons I have noticed that certain locations, once visited with great enthusiasm and spoken about wistfully, are no longer talked about and are never the subject of wanderlust romances.

Is that the Chattanooga choo-choo? Normal

When Glenn Miller and the Modernaires performed this song they broke down the journey like the happy antithesis of Dante. The narrator is telling the listener what to expect on their journey from Penn station to Tennessee and one has the image of some freshly scrubbed yokel, bending his ear to take it all in, eager for every small, banal detail.

What about that gal in Kalamazoo?

Does anybody, guy or gal, live in Kalamazoo, Michigan anymore? Perhaps it was the “swing city” in the way Kiss made Detroit “rock city.” Perhaps the song writers (Mack Gordon and Harry Warren) just thought Kalamazoo was just too absurd a name not to write a song about.

Then there is New England. When was the last time anyone dreamily cooed to their loved one about the moonlight in Vermont or falling in love with old Cape Cod? It is hard to get the image - big maple trees and a moon, perhaps a lake. Evidently the later must have meant more than chowder and a drink made with cranberry juice and vodka (a personal favorite) to those who lived in the era when the songs were popular.

I want to speak with someone who danced to the tunes when the tunes were fresh. When I listen to the songs I imagine there must have been a longing in those bobby-sock hearts for some hidden Halcyon or a great American Shangri-La. Those young urbanites and mid-westerners would fork out their cash for those thick, hard 10" records played at 78 rpm, or at least spend hours waiting to hear those songs on the various live ballroom radio shows.

Bugs Bunny was always going on about the wrong left turn he made on his numerous excursions to the mythic land of Pismo Beach. (Always the mal-diversion was at the decidedly uneuphonious Albuquerque.) The lure was strong enough that his mortal enemy Daffy Duck went along for the ride on at least one occasion ("Brother…what a way for a duck to travel…underground!"). Was it the promise of clams? Did the rabbit golf?

Bugs would have been better off taking Route 66. This now moribund highway is not only a 20th century legend it spawned an even more legendary song that, like Chattanooga Choo-choo, takes the listener on an aural adventure into fabled lands with mid-century American enthusiasm. Plan to motor west? And who doesn't motor? I love the verb of it…it puts action back into the now tedious activity of driving. Which would you rather do, drive or motor? No one “gets kicks” anymore, not since Joe Friday arrested those glue sniffers.

No one kicks anything anymore. Not even bad habits.

And that mother road, where does it go? They were the ports-of-call of the new interstate voyagers: St. Louie, Oklahoma City, Gallup, Flagstaff, Winona, Kingman (no idea. Is it near Gorman?), Barstow, San Bernardino (I suppose Bobby Troupe could have used San Berdo, as we locals sometimes call that no mans land east of LA but the proper name sings so great!). These places must have seemed like new frontier, terra incognito, to young, impressionable minds. But this was a time when travel and leisure were first being made available to the average Joe and Jane. Your car could take you places and so could that big, beautiful train (ah, there's an American romance. If you listen to baseball players playing jazz on a cross country train trip then you have witness the real melting pot).

The lands were settled and the cowboys and Indians had all settled down and opened hospitality lodges, motor hotels, and road side cafes. The consumer takes his pleasure on the road the siren that calls him sings travel my way.

What happened to those destinations? They exist as proper nouns, not fantasies. Bugs Bunny doesn’t dig those burgs any longer. Curiosity was killed by Kerouac and Hunter Thompson pricking the sunny, Howard Johnson placemat of suburban fantasy with hypodermic needles. The best the post-moderns could do? A teeny-bopper Brit named Kim Wilde waxing paranoid about “East California” in the false tension of her New Wave hit “Kids in America.” A place just became someplace. Close enough. Good enough.

Someone got thrown under the choo-choo. The starving hobos dined on rabbit and duck.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Team Rachel 2011: Why does Jennifer Aniston thrive?

Spoiler alert... they don't want to at the start of the film, but by the end, I suspect they will be adopting Haitian orphans and getting their MS certifications.

Just drove passed a massive billboard advertising a new film starring Jennifer Aniston. I am not sure of the title. It’s one of those vaguely idiomatic, half-clich├ęd fragments of things people say every day like “While you were sleeping” or “She’s Got it goin’ on!” I am gob-smacked that Aniston continues to get such high profile work as none of her films – with the exception of Marley and Me, where her screen presence disappeared behind a small dog - has ever turned a much more than a marginal profit (when they didn’t outright flop). Her oeuvre is an obnoxious mush of what mainstream Hollywood feels is the leading edge of the modern romance: dumb guys, hopeless women, each with an entourage of ill-advised and ill-advising friends who all seem to know “The Secret.”

The nice thing is, you only need to ever watch one of these types of films in your life. Each generation has about 20. The two standouts of my generation were When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. Beyond seeing those, one can live off the gist of trailer previews and endless commercial loops. Nowadays, the billboard is more than enough.

But the question at hand is… how Aniston? At 41 she has racked up 12 films in the past 10 years, all to marginal returns at best, and bona fide bombs at worst. And yet she persists as a “star.” How does this work? Why is she still a going concern? Rachel and “Must see TV” are a long time ago, after all, and that glassly, blank stare and gormless smile is looking less and less fresh-faced as she moves into her forties.

Aniston is an example not so much of Hollywood, but of Celebrityville, that place in our culture where celebrities exist for the sake for discussion, to fill air-time between commercials, and to generate fodder for plausible scandals (often so much more interesting than the celebrity’s cultural products). Ansiston is a perfect celebrity in this regard. Her work, were it too good, might get in the way of the public narrative. Her sexiness, were it too profound, would create its own enigma and become less controllable (Angelina Jolie). As she is, Aniston is a kind of pretty, animated, somewhat sentient mannequin. During scandals she is like a deer in the headlights. During interviews she seems totally interested and engaged (“Oh, Adam Sandler is SOOOOO much fun to work with…”) She has a “just happy to be here” attitude, and enough will-to-power to keep herself viable for these dreadful film projects that no one wants to see.

This quiet amiability and easy photogenicism allows the various agents of Celebrityville to use her in a number of ways. After the love triangle between her, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie, Aniston was cast as the “victim” or “nice girl” who had her man stolen away by a dark harlot. Jolie’s “oh please!” ersatz-European continence and her formidable insistence on being “important” quickly dismissed herself from the scandal, but Aniston would not, or would not be permitted, such an out. The narrative of “Jennifer Reborn!” quickly followed: “new man… new movie… new life!” makes Aniston the happy maid of redemption. The tone of triumphalism permits her public narrative to take on the aegis of the “model woman.” She’s plain enough to be passable and pretty enough to be dolled up via “make over” for whatever red carpet event she needs to show up at. And because the agents of Celebrityville (a company town for advertisers) think that the female public think of Aniston as a kind of lifestyle model, they keep her on the front pages which in turn allows casting agents to keep her busy.

I wonder if the producers of films like “The Bounty Hunter” or “Rumor Has it” ever stepped back after the film had its three week on the market before drifting into obscurity and ask themselves why… I would think they want to make lots and lots of money … make back the budget and some change. It could be that they know they will make only that amount. Maybe it won’t flop. Maybe it will do enough business overseas. I suppose this is the puzzling thing to me. Why greenlight stuff like this at all? Even if art isn’t a consideration (Aniston’s films seem to have contempt for the notion), who is really being served by these films that are just “there”?

All that energy, for what? It the one aspect of the Celebrityville/Jennifer Aniston situation that is difficult to come to terms with. But perhaps the producers are caught up in the same manufactured program that Celebrityville generates. The film industry is just a part of the cycle. Why hire Aniston? Because she’s “hot,” she’s in People, she’s on Oprah and the Today show. She’s hosting Saturday Night Live. And plus, she’s been in similar films before. ( She’s only ever been in similar films! Begging the question… why was she in those films? The snake, no matter how long it is, or how hungry, will eventually realize it’s eating its own tail.)

Aniston is unique among celebrity actresses in that, unlike Elizabeth Taylor, who for the last 45 years, really is known more for her celebrity than her cultural product, or Lindsey Lohan, who is famous for her scandals, Aniston is known as an actress. She is “Rachel” from Friends. And so endearing was that roll (for some reason) she is mentally “cast” as that sentient coif ever since. Which is why she is permitted to be “bitchy” but will never play a true villain. And it’s also why her films will never become blockbusters. Friends is what people want to see her in. And given syndication endlessly running “the one about this-and-that relationship frustration,” her films haven’t a chance.

But she is also unique because the public is not ready to reject her out of hand. They will keep “visiting” Rachel in these movies, but they won’t really get what they come for. But they also won’t feel they are watching a stranger, either. There will be something, some mannerism, a folding of the arms across the chest, a look of tooth-gritting frustration (both over how dumb dudes can be), a way of curling up on the couch with a glass of wine, or an upturned chin just after a passionate kiss that will remind the watcher of the “old” friend they used to know.

It’s an improbable way of conducting a career. But Jennifer Aniston seems to be making it happen. She is the most compliant popular celebrity in Celebrityville. She has never shown a moment of resistance in all her years in town. She cultivates her place, tends it like a garden. Tasteful dresses, non-partisan philanthropy (she is against the slaughter of dolphins), and beds schmucky, non-threatening, non-interesting dudes (Vince Vaughan, John Meyer). At this rate, she will be taking starring roles in Hallmark Movie of the Week well into her dotage.

Jennifer Aniston is glitter added to gray. Gold-leaf on a phone book. Tap water in a crystal flute.