On pop-culture and our appetite for complexity

(A slightly edited version of a series of posts on Twitter)

There’s something to this take by Dan O’Sullivan, but I actually think part of the appeal of Marvel movies etc. is that they’re complex. In fact, I think one of the defining characteristics of popular 21st century film/TV is complexity.

A tweet from Dan O’Sullivan (@osullyville)

Lost, Game of Thrones, the MCU, Star Wars, they’re all complicated world-building exercises, and that’s what people love about them. They revel in the web of plot and characters.

It reminds me of an observation that Chomsky made once about sports talk radio:

When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.

Noam Chomsky: Why Americans Know So Much About Sports But So Little About World Affairs

The people who call in to these shows are not necessarily highly educated, but they’re able to give very sophisticated and well-thought-out analysis of baseball or hockey, or whatever, but ask the average person, even a well-educated person about world affairs, and you’ll get some very shallow platitudes. People are smart. They like understanding complex things. And, more importantly, they like debating and engaging with complexity.

The governing principle of most “democracies,” though is that the political and business bosses do the thinking, and the rest of us should butt out.

Any attempt on our part to engage with, debate, or affect anything that matters is met with ridicule at best and tear-gas, truncheons, or bullets at worst.

So, the MCU didn’t make us dumb. It merely absorbed our natural impulse to engage with complexity, and, in doing so, distracted us from the complexity that really matters.

Coming back to O’Sullivan’s point: With complex works of fiction created by massive corporations, the choice of which aspects are simple and which are complex is up to their creators. So naturally, they’ll make those choices according to their own interests.

Conflict is between individual heroes and villains, and we can identify with or revile them, but certainly not the mass of people threatened by the villains or defended by the heroes.

Video essayist Evan Puschak, AKA The Nerdwriter, gives a similar analysis:

Of course, there’s another question lurking: Don’t the more artsy films serve the same function? Doesn’t SILENCE or THE LIGHTHOUSE just distract us from the real problems too? Maybe, but, if it’s done well, I think not.

I think the key ingredient of fiction that subverts that function is ambiguity. World-building fiction presents a complete closed system. nothing in or out. Ambiguity forces us to actively interpret, and to do so under uncertainty.

To resolve such ambiguity, we have to bring our experience (of the real world) into the fiction, and that necessarily means examining our own experience, to some extent.

It doesn’t give us the tools to understand geopolitics, it gives us the tools to be okay with the ambiguity.

Originally tweeted by Dan Milway (@thrilway) on March 1, 2022.

My Top Culture Things of 2019

It’s the end of the year, which means it’s Best Of the Year season. I don’t think I saw enough movies, discovered enough new music, read enough books, or watched enough TV shows this year to make a Top 5 list for any of those mediums. What’s more, some of culture that I most enjoyed this year wasn’t from this year. But I’m not a professional critic, so who needs those restrictions…

Fontaines D.C.

I first heard of this Dublin post-punk(?) band on an episode of Sound Opinions. They were described as a 21st century The Fall, a band I never quite got into. I listened to some of their singles anyway and was very quickly drawn to them. The music is great, but where they really shine is their lyrics, which have a wonderful rhythmic poetry to them but also speak to and of everyday life in a modern city, especially the everyday life of the working class. The frontman, Grian Chatten, is like a class conscious Shaun Ryder. I strongly recommend listening to their debut album Dogrel and seeing them live when they come to your town.

Lodge 49

It seems like the TV shows worth watching are either brutal tragedies centered on deeply-flawed anti-heroes (see Breaking Bad), or cartoonish comedies with heroes who either learn a lesson or are proved right every episode (see Parks & Recreation). A few shows, however, have cropped up that, although they have some of the trappings of these two genres, are something different altogether. Lodge 49 was* one of those shows**. It many ways it seems like a contradictory show: It’s wholesome and warm without being corny or trite; it’s mystical yet it quite accurately captures how it feels to be alive right now; it’s goofy and fun but surprisingly touching; it’s warm and friendly but pervaded with themes of loss, loneliness, and alienation. Others have written better about this show so I’ll just leave two of my observations:

  • As far as I can tell, it’s the only TV show whose driving force is its characters’ search for meaning
  • I’ve never encountered a show that so vividly depicts characters who are completely lost.

Plus, there’s a scene in which Paul Giamatti’s character engages in an impromptu dumpling-eating contest.

* Moments before I started writing this I learned that the cancelled Lodge 49 would not be resurrected. The show’s creator, Jim Gavin, announced the loss in a heartfelt twitter thread.
** Also in this non-genre genre for me is Deadwood and the oeuvre of David Simon for different reasons.

Push

As most renters in any city know, the global housing market is not working. Rents are rising, even as high-rise condos are constantly being built. More frustrating, at least for me, is that when we point out this incongruity, we’re met with either a shrug or prescriptions that are worse than the problem. The documentary Push probes the sources of the housing crisis* following the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, Leilani Farha, as she investigates the crisis and advocates for a rights-based approach to housing. If you’re already pissed at your obscene rent, you’ll leave this documentary enraged, but with ideas for constructive ways to channel that rage.

* SPOILER: It’s a mix of investment bankers, tech bros, and traditional organized crime

Jerrold Katz

Non-linguists, you can skip this one.
I’d heard about Jerrold Katz before, but never delved into his work. When I did finally open up his book Semantic Theory, which I had quite low expectations for, I was pleasantly surprised to find a fresh-to-me approach to one of the most puzzling aspects of language: meaning. Beyond this book of his, I also read Cogitations—a philosophical study which argues that Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” has been consistently misanalyzed and underappreciated by modern philosophers—Sense Reference and Philosophy—a posthumously published book which sums up Katz’s theory of language and its relation to broader philosophical questions—and many of his papers. If you’re someone who’s interested in semantics but nonplussed by formal semantics, I recommend reading Katz.

Calvary & First Reformed

I was inspired to watch both of these movies after coming across a piece by Alissa Wilkinson in The Atlantic from 2015. The piece argues that if you want films that properly portray faith, then you should skip the bible movies and the overtly christian movies and go see an indie film. Specifically, she recommends John Michael McDonagh’s black comedy Calvary. I took her advice, and extrapolated from it to also check out the more recent First Reformed*. Both are not only brilliantly crafted films—Calvary is legitimately funny in that sad Irish way, while First Reformed has a quiet, intimate urgency to it, mixed with some alienation and magical realism—but they both depict men of the cloth struggling with and questioning their faith in God and humanity.

* I also watched First Reformed on the strength of it being on Priscilla Page’s best of 2018 list. Do yourself a favour, follow Page on Twitter, and listened to her movie recommendation. She’s never steered me wrong.

The Lighthouse

There may be some recency bias here, but I’ll just leave my single tweet review here: