jonathan.joe | Chicago Reader

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Re: “Good or Famous?

Dear jakeausten:

One of my all-time favorite t.v. shows is called Chic-A-Go-Go, a public access program produced by a Jake Austen, which is an exemplary antidote to today's nauseating celebrity culture. What a coincidence! You have the same name!

I find the aforementioned plot details from "High School Musical" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks" to be jive-ass pieties which at best send very mixed messages and at worst serve as a castrated liberalist trojan horse whose payload, when revealed, is a golden scroll upon which is emblazoned, in calf's blood, "the oligarchy is alive and well!" The execrable HSM is essentially Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" (1997) without the overt militarism. I invite you to compare and contrast the shades of triumphalism in both - you may enjoy it! Beyond that, let's take a closer look at villains and kids in their own right:

Sharpay Evans, the fashion-slave Machiavellian villain, is a composite of the incredibly popular adult characters Carrie Bradshaw and Samantha Jones, from the incredibly popular series "Sex and the City". She is a character girls want to emulate. In High School Musical 2, they've thrown the very popular Paris Hilton into Sharpay's character as well, and the entire story revolves around her machinations. Again, the filmmakers are telling kids to be true to themselves and that Sharpay is bad, but she looks like a model for Disney girls' apparel, and again, they know girls will love her.

The literal textual message of HSM is: you don't have to allow others to pigeonhole your identity - you can be whoever you want to be! The manifest choices (for the main characters) are: star of winning team, star and winner of talent competition. At the end of the film, literally everyone is portrayed as a winner, and the final number, "We're All in This Together," which is a celebration of diversity and fellowship, is incongruent with the zero-sum nature of the story's preceding competitions. It's disingenuous, self-serving, and incoherent. This finale would only have made sense to me had they extended the message to its logical conclusion, vis-a-vis: "We invaded your country/and everybody won/we bombed your neighborhoods/and brought you capitalism/now everybody is free/to enjoy reasonably priced goods and services/at no one's expense!!"

"Alvin and the Chipmunks" also operates uncritically within the framework of retail celebrity. The message in this movie isn't that showbiz success and overexposure are bad, it's that greed, exploitation and dishonesty are bad. Dave and the gang are happy with their fame and fortune until the bad guy shows himself to be greedy, exploitative and dishonest. It's when they lose control that they rebel. There's nothing in the movie that denigrates the pursuit of celebrity: Dave's girlfriend is a cog in the celebrity machine; Dave gives shelter to the Chipmunks when it becomes apparent they can further his career as a songwriter; the Chipmunks dig the VIP life until it becomes physically tiring. Incidentally, Google produces 64,000 hits for "alvin and the chipmunks merchandise." Again, mixed messages. Exploitation: bad. Merchandising: good. Greed: bad. Lots of new stuff, mansion, excessive consumption: good.

Bypassing any contemplation of the nature and/or value of fame, both movies invite us to consider the ethics employed in pursuing it. Their bullshit pieties function as palliatives, like green initiatives in Las Vegas, like carbon credits, like cap and trade, like hybrid SUVs in the Whole Foods parking lot.

When I was sitting through Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which should be subtitled "American Psycho: the Prequel"), what struck me was 1) how oppressively mediocre these movies are, and 2) how much more interesting and funny actual people are than these (again) oppressively mediocre creations. My son tends to sit and glaze over when dutifully consuming this filler, though he laughs himself to tears watching the Marx Brothers and Abbot and Costello. Still, he wants to see the heavily marketed crap as much - if not more - than the stuff he actually enjoys. He's vulnerable, and available, to the assholes who create and peddle these Oligarchical Sugar Pills. And because they actively strive to colonize his defenseless mind, I hate them and wish that a shadow squad of culture heros would put canvas bags over their heads and spirit them off in the night, to a camp of unknown location (never to be seen or heard from again) where they would be subject to indescribable horrors. Maybe that's a little much. I'm not sure.

2 likes, 0 dislikes
Posted by jonathan.joe on 04/19/2010 at 7:57 PM

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