Film Fund-amentals: Mainstream Meditations

There is a general notion that part of the difference between major movies and indie films is that independent flicks operate outside of the cultural mainstream. The mainstream represents an overall cultural/institutional structure while the indie world operates in an oppositional state.

Maybe they do. But that forces the question: What is mainstream? Quite seriously, is there such a thing? I really don’t think so. In fact, I don’t think there has really been a strong definable cultural “mainstream” since the early 1960s. That was about the time when the gray twilight of the Eisenhower years faded into a psychedelic midnight.

Any modern attempt to define the mainstream seems doomed to either falling into an ideologically predetermined pit or wandering off into a lalaland of half-baked assumptions. Over the past several years, studies have been done trying to determine TV and movie viewing habits of registered Republicans and Democrats (though based on political bias, this reasonably covers the parameters of modern mainstream American cultural debate). Supposedly the top shows for Republicans are Modern Family and Big Bang Theory. Democrats allegedly stay glued to Dexter and Mad Men.

What does this tell us? Mostly it suggests that Democrats all have cable TV and Republicans don’t. Neither Modern Family nor Big Bang Theory is exactly a conservative show. Actually, a case could be made about latent right wing tendencies in a show like Dexter. Either way, it might just be possible that people watch these shows more for entertainment than social/cultural values. Sometimes, I fear that there are no remaining relationships between entertainment and values.

Similar studies have been done regarding movies. Probably the most interesting thing gleaned from these reports is that Republicans are more likely to skip going to the theater and will wait for the film to come out on DVD. Maybe they’re saving up their money to get cable, I don’t know. Oh, and 60 percent of the Republicans can’t stand Michael Moore. Based on what I’ve heard, this figure is probably low. Ironically, a lot of Democrats are not too crazy about Moore either. Strangely enough, viewers from both political parties all love Amadeus. It seems that Mozart (and not Beethoven) shall unite the world.

To be honest, these studies don’t really clarify anything. Sure, the more conservative a person may be the less thrilled they are with hearing F-bombs throughout a movie. On the other hand, I have the strong impression that a lot of young right-wing types find the movie Scarface oddly inspirational (sort of an Ayn Rand story on steroids). The current cultural scene is such a mixed bag that it often defies description let alone analysis.

The near ludicrous success of The Avengers is potentially a tribute to its own half-cockamamie presentation of “diversity.” Think about it. You’ve got one super-rich, arrogant rep from the 1 percent camp. Add in a 99 percenter from the Depression who has been turned into a superhero role model for the Boy Scouts. Tag them both with a badass black dude with a commanding voice and a really great looking leather coat. Mix in a female Russian super assassin with a swift kick and deep feelings and round it all off with a good-looking immigrant with family problems. Combine it all with the Hulk’s anger management issues and the whole thing starts to sound like Modern Family in costumes (minus the gay characters).

In many respects, the impending success or failure of the movie Dark Shadows will be a stunning mix of these contradictions. After all, it is a major mainstream movie by that major mainstream director, Tim Burton. Yes, Burton is a mainstream director almost in spite of himself. He really hasn’t changed much since his early days (back when he was booted out of Disney), but everything else has changed and he is basically mainstream. It stars Johnny Depp, just about the only truly bankable movie star out there even though his success is partly due to playing the swishiest gay-blade of a pirate in movie history.

The problem the movie will face is its inability to comprehend the emotional force of its own source material. Sure, the old TV series was a half-campy over-the-top production infamous for its whacked-out plot lines and numerous live-and-on-the-air boo-boos. But it also had an emotional intensity that was once best explained to me by a recovering heroin addict (and addicts made up a large chunk of the show’s viewership). As he put it, it was the only show on TV about people fighting against destructive urges that they could barely control. Most likely the movie’s display of warped humor and surreal visuals will not be able to compete against the TV series’ strange power to hook (no pun intended) the attention span of the average addict.

Which suggests several things to me. The term “mainstream” is basically meaningless (except in terms of ownership — for example, mainstream media is something owned by a major corporation). Likewise, there is no mainstream culture in any coherent, traditional sense. Instead, we are now dealing with a system of sub-cultural groupings with points of overlap that can allow for successful combinations. A major production has to find a way of combining many of these groupings in order to achieve a broad audience. In turn, an indie movie is more capable of playing to a smaller niche market and primarily has to find that niche market.

Political content, social statements and hip attitudes in a movie will almost always take a back seat to emotional engagement with the audience. Finding this point of engagement is the tricky point. The upside with the old-school mainstream model was that filmmakers didn’t have to work much at it. They just followed the cultural formula. The sentimental tricks were clichéd, but the nice thing about clichés is that the responses are predictable. Some of these tricks still work, but lots of them don’t, and modern media are having to stumble their way toward the new clichés. By the way, clichés are not always a bad thing except when you do them badly.

Finally, recovering heroin addicts make for a very interesting form of test audience. Once they are past the denial stage, they can be pretty upfront with what they think.