Irony, Culture and ETEWAF

In the various recent obituaries of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! star Tura Satana, there was an intriguing detail about how Russ Meyer's films and their stars languished in obscurity for years before being discovered by proponents of "trash culture" or whatever you'd like to call it. For someone my age, who more or less grew up in an irony-saturated era where cult movies had become an accepted canon themselves, thanks to Danny Peary and others, it's a novel sensation to think about a time when films like Faster, Pussycat! were genuinely underground items.

I've been critical before of the culture of ironic appreciation which is everywhere these days, but frankly I loved seeing Faster, Pussycat! at the IFC Centre in Manhattan, and having access to these wonderfully odd, off-kilter pieces of art all the time thanks to the magic of the Internet and what Patton Oswalt called "ETEWAF:  Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever" (he sees it as a negative – I think it's a positive thing). Plus, ironic enjoyment only becomes an impediment to genuine enjoyment if you take the whole experiencing-and-discussing-culture  thing way too seriously – which I definitely do at times. But having grown up in a cultural climate where Quentin Tarantino – that avid consumer of trash culture – is the de facto inspiration for a huge amount of young wannabe filmmakers, John Waters is a cuddly establishment figure and the midnight movie grindhouse experience of community has been turned into something similar yet different by the internet (where people miles apart can watch and livetweet Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus or something else), it's very odd to consider a time when cult/trash movies were a genuinely underground proposition.

And it's also interesting to consider the generation of filmmakers who came of age or broke into the mainstream in the late 90s/early 00s when the Age Of Irony was fully underway, some of whom are dangerously close to becoming elder statesmen themselves, and the relation of our culture-wide sense of irony to their work. As mentioned above, is in Tarantino's lifeblood. He couldn't jettison it from his films even he wanted to. The Coens have an excellent grasp of genre and pastiche, and a quizzical detached style which makes for surreal and addictively intriguing films. That said, they've gained the most mainstream praise when they play it (relatively) straight, as with No Country For Old Men and True Grit. David O Russell has been on a similar trajectory with more disappointing – after I Heart Huckabees' poor box office reception (justified, I think – it's a film that's a little too pleased with its own cleverness) he cycled through a variety of uncemploeted projects before losing the surreality and quirkiness of his early work like Three Kings and making a fairly conventional boxing drama – which, sure enough, found itself Oscar nominated. Wes Anderson ploughs his own furrow, to slightly diminished returns with each new film – I remember when he made films where you actually cared about the characters (Rushmore? Tenenbaums? Anyone?). Steven Soderbergh has alternated between conventional Hollywood films and more off-kilter projects. At the very least, he should be praised for being one of the most entertaining directors of populist entertainment working today, as well as getting some genuinely original stuff made in Hollywood's unforgiving cultural climate. Paul Thomas Anderson has an excellent grasp of irony, but rarely deploys it upfront. It's used to very subtle effect, as with the surreal moments of black comedy in Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. Darren Aronofsky is the only major new-ish talent who completely eschews ironic distance in his films (aside from The Wrestler, which comments cleverly on 80s nostalgia while still being a straightforward, heartfelt indie drama).

At its best, irony is another tool for understanding, representing and commenting on the modern world and our relationship with it. At its worst, it insulates us from sincerity and real understanding. David Foster Wallace took an umbiguously pessemistic view of the subject in his essay "E Unibus Pluram". I think that just like any artistic device, it can be used in good and bad ways. In the end, our culture has a vastly expanded canon compared to only a few decades ago. And that's something to be sincerely excited about.


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