2018-01-12 00:00 essay culture science-fiction

Franchises Are For Donuts, Not Culture

I’m bored. Maybe you’re bored too. I tried watching a well known movie last night and got less than a half hour in and had to turn it off. The soundtrack was the same style of music I’ve heard a thousand times now, with the sweeping, dramatic and emotionally manipulative score that tells you what’s about to happen, trying to make the viewer anxious, and, I guess, trying to keep everybody watching. The writing was a pastiche of old predictable concepts, and stupid quips, glued together by either a committee or even a computer program — it was impossible to tell. Visually it was a series of faces over-reacting to frenetic irrelevant mayhem. The movie was not necessarily terrible. But the movie was certainly not good. The sheer lack of anything substantive made me shut it off. I enter bored, I left bored.

From what I can tell, and I mean, from the noise in social media, everybody loves these kinds of movies. They repeat them, they recite dialogue, they reference. They idolize the actors to the point of creating religious pilgrimages or reliquaries, they seek any word from either within the movie or uttered by the actor outside the movie as something sacrosanct. They dress as the characters and go to conventions to meet other people who dress as the same kind of characters. They spend money on toys and collectibles related to the movie. They get teary-eyed when they have children so they can introduce them to their movie, assuming their children will love it as much as they do.

Which is all fine, loving a thing is fine — but the thing at the center, the thing so adored, is a product engineered by a corporation to sell more of itself. It would be naive to assume that a movie which will — or should — make a billion dollars, doesn’t have incredible marketing and process savvy.

Your response to it has also been engineered. But what have you been sold?

Like you, sometimes I have a craving for fast food. I know the food isn’t good, or even food really. And I always have the same regretful experience afterwards. Stomach feels bad, an ill feeling where I tell myself that I will never be doing that again. The more I try to eat well, and put effort into getting quality ingredients, and the more I cook for myself, and allow myself to have the time to do that, the better I feel. And the longer I go like that, keeping that habit, the less I want to eat crap. In fact, it’s only because of that juxtaposition that I come to think it’s crap. I went in hungry, in reality I left hungry.

But what if the world had only fast food? What if I couldn’t find good things to cook and eat? I suppose I wouldn’t notice. Since there wouldn’t really be any alternative, I would be excited to drive through TacoDome and get the triple cheese tostada bowl. Over and over. Any change in the execution of my tostada bowl would seem like a personal slight, an aberration that would need to be immediately avoided in the future. And so, TacoDome makes the same thing the same way over and over and over. TacoDome is smart, they keep me happy by not surprising me.

I don’t think the problem is merely habit and moderation. There are mechanisms reinforcing behavior. There are complexes devoted to consumption. The obvious end result of a civilization devoted to consumption is obesity in every aspect. Our cultural diabetes is related, and it’s more than just the normal impulse to occasionally binge, it’s rewarded behavior. It’s a result of concerted effort by the choke points in media, those running “franchises” particularly, to keep us coming back to the narrative drive-through window. Like TacoDome, they use every tool and incredible financial resources available to get you hooked. The larger they become, and the more that becomes the only option, the less likely it is a person will ever see an alternative as anything other than unsatisfactory. Why would you willingly subject yourself to something unsatisfying? Just repeat the last thing you loved, exactly. The first one is free.

Repetition is a funny thing. You can repeat a lie a hundred times, prove it is factually incorrect, call it for what it is, and yet it’s probably too late. People have heard it, and are now repeating it, truth doesn’t matter. The power of rebroadcasting is the power of repetition. The things now deemed important, influential by our culture seem like pale, cheap manipulative cons compared to the art and expression of humans even merely fifty years ago because they’ve been amplified by mechanisms that encourage consumption.

Maybe. The possibility here is that all cultural expression in the future will go through a corporation, and be approved by financial apparatuses, and that’s the way it should be and you should just shut up and buy an action figure and make sure to wear the appropriate Halloween costume or risk being shunned online. If you want to make a movie, or write a book, or draw a picture, you should attend the correct education programs and stick to the recipe. Do not deviate, citizen, unless the deviation can be capitalized.

If you want to make donuts, make donuts. I’m not here to add bitter sauce. I’ve enjoyed some of the same things you have. But ask yourself, every time you watch, read, or consume something from a corporation, what are you being sold? What is it you’re buying?