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Layers and Layers of Pop

February 8, 2010

Despite its humble origins, The Onion A.V. Club is a very serious and sharp periodical for thoughtful criticism.  Unlike most media surveying pop culture, the A.V. Club is drive by ideas and not only the monolithic advertorial corporate tie-ins to the latest movie that’s being released this week (though it has some of that too). For example, its article on the philosophy of Bill Murray (movies) isn’t apropos of anything in particular; someone just realized that Bill Murray’s movies contains strands of Buddhism (Caddyshack), Nietzsche’s “amor fati” (Groundhog Day), asceticism (Scrooged/Rushmore), and so on.

In Rushmore, Murray’s Herman Blume is a self-made tycoon with his own multimillion-dollar business and the lifestyle to match, yet he’s crippled by ennui, and despairing over the alienation he feels toward his family. Pursuit of a truer definition of love eventually tears his world apart—and wrecks him both financially and physically—but by movie’s end, Blume has undergone a total spiritual reawakening, and seems to have found happiness at last in his total unburdening.

Though it’s a bit reductive, the simplicity of the analysis is exactly what makes the A.V. Club a fantastic intersection of pop and philosophy, a goal that I strive for on this blog (at times).  All too often, elitists like myself look down on pop philosophy, often characterized by books like that appear too cutesy and simplistic to have any substance like The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh of Homer.  However, making philosophy accessible by giving the reader a reference point and drawing the connections that the audience might have otherwise missed is a form of art in and of itself: the art of literary criticism.  Of course, not only do amateurs overlook treasures, but experts tend to overlook the treasure that is latent in much of the best pop culture.  For the latter category, those very critics can help reveal hidden meaning that might have been presumed absent by an elitist.  Take Craig Schuftan’s morning radio series The Culture Club, for example (or the condensed and excellent talk Hey! Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone): Emo music doesn’t really seem like a worthwhile target for deconstruction and analysis, but Schuftan points out the deep interconnections between Romanticism and Emo in a way that would make any audience–refined or not–appreciate those works all the more.

Sadly, most audiences seem to overlook expert curation these days, what with wise crowds and rotten vegetables giving a quick, simple, and context-less plebiscite on whether the movie is “good” rather than a description of why one ought to see a work or what to look for.  Add the fact that the most audience members expect to “experience” a movie and no longer attempt to read its subtext, and it becomes increasingly likely that neither Inglourious Basterds nor A Serious Man will win the Oscar.  Or at least the audience won’t understand why.

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